Interview: KEN Mode

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The insane vastness of the Great White North creates a unique handicap for Canadian bands: Having to drive eight hours between worthwhile “markets” destroys the spirits of most bands—and leaves those who persist a hardened bunch, to say the least. This is very true of Winnipeg-based KEN Mode, a trio whose two constants, brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson, have recently taken up touring full-time in support of their excellent slab of noise heaviness, Venerable, released in March of this year. I had interviewed frontman Jesse before the album’s release and was interested in following up with him to see how well the band had made the transition into a committed touring entity, with a gig list that has included a Hellfest appearance and a recent tour with Deafheaven. His responses are further evidence of his band’s high threshold for pain and ability to find footing within the topsy-turvy DIY world.

First- we talked about this briefly when I saw you last- which has been better for you in the last number of months of touring: Canada or the United States? Even if you’ve had better reception in Canada, do you not think the proximity factor (between towns, or “markets” if you like) makes the States a more attractive option?

It all depends on how it’s been booked. Our tour with Deafheaven in June had LONG drives and poorly organized shows, which makes for one hell of a cash bleed. I still think, consistently, we do better in Canada than in the U.S., but really . . . we’re a fish in a small lake here, rather than a minnow in an ocean as we are in the U.S. If you can make solid touring routes in the U.S., it’s still definitely the more attractive market, but it’s a matter of how you can do that. Over the past few years, I feel as though we’ve developed a decent network to get us to desirable Canadian and U.S. cities. To make our tours work, I feel hitting cities like Toronto and New York is necessary both from a financial aspect and an egotistical one.

Can you better identify what kind of fan you attract, having been out touring for the last number of months? If so, how would you describe them? Can you now say with some confidence what parts of the U.S./Canada are “good places” for you to play and which places you “don’t do so well” in?

I definitely feel as though we have “good” places and “not so good” places, but to pigeonhole our fan-base is a little hard. We seem to draw people from all walks of extreme music, young and old, which I suppose makes sense due to the nature of the styles we inherently blend. Some are young hipster metal kids, some are middle aged dads at this point.

How has the festival experience been, e.g., SXSW, Hellfest?

Stressful clusterfucks. I’m glad we experienced both, and we’ve definitely learned how we would approach each differently if done again. Hellfest was our first time using a backline (since we flew in for that one show and were on tour in the U.S. at the time), and pretty much everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. Always fun dealing with technical difficulties in front of the largest crowd you’ve ever played for!

What happened with your most recent troubles at the border? How has your experience with immigration been, generally?

The long and short of it was that we are playing with an American bassist right now; we thought we had the right paperwork to have him working with us, and evidently we did not. We now know the only surefire way to do this (there are other methods, but they are all open to the interpretations of specific immigration workers), so we are now only handling the Canadian/U.S. border with the help of the American Federation of Musicians. Prior to that tour, our immigration experiences have been relatively positive, as being a Canadian band entering the U.S. we applied for P2 visa status, and by keeping organized you minimize your risk of being chastised at the border.

Any bands you’ve shared the stage with/seen play that have been influential to you lately?

Musically speaking? Not really . . . at least not bands I hadn’t seen before I suppose. Seeing the Melvins kill it in Clisson was one of the highlights of my year, but they’ve been my favorite band for way too many years. From a work ethic perspective, sharing the road with bands like Fuck the Facts and Gaza definitely rubbed off on us.

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How do you avoid burnout from being on the road and in constant contact with your bandmates for so long? Do you manage to keep up any kind of time passing activities/interests aside from listening to music and driving the van?

We listen to podcasts now. RadioLab saved us last tour. I think we actually burnt out on music early on this year, like, by month number 2 of being out . . . now all we listen to is comedians, science podcasts, history lectures, etc.

Do you have a degree of stability/sustainability money-wise now that you’ve gotten in the rhythm of touring?

Oh, definitely not, haha. Things have actually gotten harder as the year has gone on. Not having a stable bassist doesn’t help our situation either. We’ve been doing everything we can to stay afloat, but I can’t lie, this shite is hard; I knew it would be, but sometimes you take a step back and go “goddamnit . . . .”

Have you found social media to be especially important in building up your fan base? Do you find it a necessity to keep yourself glued to Facebook/Twitter/email so that you keep your presence felt even while you’re not playing shows?

Definitely. People in this day and age have no attention spans. If you aren’t in people’s faces every day even when you’re on tour, they’ll forget that you’re even coming. The necessity can almost be a bit of a bummer. That being said, I’ve fully taken advantage of avenues like Facebook- be it ads, various spammage links, or what-have-you. It’s an easy way for people to remember you exist, especially if you are DIY enough to do your own mail order . . . nothing like a winter sale when you’re not on tour!

What’s the main thing that makes a successful show for you- something that gets you really stoked on what you’re doing and that encourages you to keep going?

Performance wise, it’s a vibe for me. We can be playing for 10 people, and if they’re into it, and I get into the right zone on stage, I’m stoked. At the end of the night, us not having lost money makes me feel that we’ve had a successful show, haha. The accountant comes out at the end of the night, always, which can be a bummer, but we’re just trying to eat. Sometimes I get the same feeling from practices that I do at good shows, so really, it’s all about the release for me. For some reason I’ve convinced myself that I need to connect with more of the world recently, so we’re doing this on the road instead of from my parents basement (where we’ve been practising for 15 years; for some reason they don’t want us to stop despite us not living there).

You played Hellfest the same night as Ghost. I know you have nothing in common with them really, but I’m curious—do you ever feel like a band with a bass-drums-guitar, no-frills kind of presentation like yours stands at a disadvantage in terms of getting noticed over bands that choose to have a very involved visual aspect and/or background story (e.g., “they dress up in satanic garb and promote the end times,” or “hey, check out that dude’s essay on ‘Apocalyptic Humanism in black metal’”)?

In terms of getting noticed, we are most certainly at a disadvantage, and sure, it will limit our opportunities when compared to bands like that – booking agents, managers, labels . . . none will them notice as quickly, if ever. In the end, you have to be doing this for yourselves . . . it’s not about that for us and never has been. Bands like that are made for big fests and howling drunk crowds, while we’re made for small rooms that suck out your life’s essence and spit it back at you.

— Mike Simpson

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KEN Mode – “Obeying the Iron Will”

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KEN Mode – “Batholith”

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