As fertile breeding grounds for metal bands go, welcoming parties for incoming sociology grad students usually aren't the first things that come to mind.
And yet, such a gathering at the University of Colorado Boulder is exactly what brought Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson, the guitarists and vocalists of Denver doom quartet Khemmis, together for the first time.
"Ben and I met at a sociology department function when he started the program," recalls Pendergast, who'd enrolled a year before Hutcherson. "We had our fill of free food and wine while talking about Weedeater and Saint Vitus, instead of discussing our research like everyone else does at these things."
It wasn't long before Pendergast joined forces with Hutcherson, who had already been jamming with bassist Dan Beiers and drummer Zach Coleman. Dubbing themselves Khemmis after an ancient city in Egypt, the quartet released a self-titled EP in 2013, and has since followed it with two highly acclaimed albums, 2015's Absolution and 2016's Hunted.
The band has drawn considerable praise — Hunted landed high on numerous "Best Metal Albums of the Year" lists — thanks to the foursome's knack for crafting sludgy, spacey epics highlighted by Pendergast and Hutcherson's Thin Lizzy-esque harmony leads, and the intriguing interplay between the former's clean and soulful vocals and the latter's more traditional death-metal growl. But both men take their academic pursuits as seriously as their music.
"Broadly speaking, I am a cultural sociologist," says Hutcherson — who, like Pendergast, is currently teaching at CU Boulder while working towards his PhD. "My dissertation is an extended ethnography of the underground metal scene in Denver, primarily as it exists in connection with the economic history of the city and its arts districts."
"I'm primarily a methodologist and am involved in a lot of diverse research topics," says Pendergast. "I've worked on projects focused on everything from obesity to racism, alcohol use to suicide, spatial reasoning to genetics, though my dissertation is about assessing reoffending risk among Washington state prisoners in a way that I see as less racially biased and more accurate than previous methods."
Hutcherson and Pendergast aren't the only members of Khemmis with intellectually rigorous, time-consuming day jobs. Beiers is a structural engineer who runs his own business — "I do mostly product management, drafting, or commercial construction projects," he explains — while Coleman is the head brewer at metal-themed microbrewery TRVE Brewing. "He cooks up all the different beers, produces them, obsesses over them and works way too hard and way too many hours per week," says Hutcherson.
Which is why, even though Khemmis have earned a formidable reputation as a live act, you probably won't see them laying waste to a stage near you anytime soon — unless, of course, you happen to live in the Denver area. Lengthy road trips are pretty much out of the question for the band.
"Right after Absolution came out," says Hutcherson, "we had to turn down a tour with Amon Amarth and Entombed, which would have been awesome. We look back at that a lot and go, 'Oh, man — that would have been cool!'"
"We try to tour in the summer, or make plans to record during breaks when Phil and Ben are not teaching," says Beier. "It works out — summer's a good time for metal bands to tour, anyway!"
Still, Hutcherson and Pendergast make it clear that Khemmis means far more to them than just something cool to do on the side. "Being an academic can be very self-limiting, demoralizing and aggravating," says Pendergrast, who had never played in a band before Khemmis. "While the work is occasionally fulfilling in its own way, frankly, Khemmis has become my salvation. Not only is it a great outlet for my frustrations and other issues, it is also such an important outlet for my personal growth and self-worth. I can pour myself into it and fully express who I am and what I struggle with in ways that are just not possible at my 'day job,' and I see it connect with people. It is integral at this point to who I am, and I was really suffering before I found these guys to play heavy metal with."
"Oh man, it's an essential part of who I am," says Hutcherson, who'd previously played in Memphis metal bands Burial Within and Galaxicon. "When I moved to Colorado, I thought I'd take a year to focus on grad school, get situated, and then maybe start a band. Less than six months passed before I had an ad on Craigslist trying to put together an outfit. I was miserable without the catharsis of creating and performing music. In that brief time, I had already put on a bunch of weight, was drinking way too much and felt incomplete …
"The nature of my research also provides me with a legitimate reason to attend shows," he continues, "and speak with people about music in their lives, things I already enjoy but might otherwise have a hard time justifying with a busy life. Creating and playing this music allows me to be the best version of myself, and in turn be a good teacher, researcher and husband."
Their students, however, are largely oblivious to the presence of metal titans in their midst. "I've never told any of my students about it, and Boulder kids don't listen to metal," says Pendergast. "Maybe if I was in a bluegrass band they'd be starstuck! I've had to tell my co-workers/supervisors so that I can get time off for touring, and most think it is cool or, at worst, interesting. One of my bosses is into older hard rock and metal and legitimately really likes us and owns both of our records. That's kind of neat."
"I try to keep all nonacademic things quiet when I'm in 'professor mode,'" seconds Hutcherson. "I don't tell most of my colleagues either. I haven't had any students come up to me at shows or mention Khemmis in class. I'm sure a few have Googled me, but if so they understand that the version of me in the classroom is a distinct person from the one onstage …
"That said, my adviser and the handful of faculty members who know about it seem pretty enthused by it. I have even half-jokingly mentioned to a few folks that a significant portion of my motivation in finishing my dissertation is just so people can call me Doctor Doom."