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Interview: Jesse Matthewson (KEN mode)

KENmode
Photo by Caroline Harrison

 

There’s a kind of kinship between music fans (of any sort) who grow up in the middle of nowhere. I wager that the majority of metal obsessives (though a minority of metal writers) had the same experience.

With nothing to occupy a young person’s time, that person begins to dig, to explore more sound as quickly and voraciously as possible, sometimes at the excess of a social life. That’s why I’m a little envious of Jesse Matthewson of Winnepeg, Canada’s Noise/rock/metal/grind outfit KEN mode; at least he had his brother Shane to get spooky with. Together, the two of them have built a band like a hobbyist’s motor car, a red-hot and unmuffled chimera that hearkens not only back to the pair’s past obsessions (mid-’90s noise on their new record, Success), but also hints at possible new futures.

Matthewson and I chatted for a while about his personal definition of success, the band’s parade of ex-bassists, and of course good beer. First, though, it was time to badmouth people—another great pastime from the middle of suburban anonymity. (Yeah, I’m dropping you into the middle of the conversation. It’s a middle-of-nowhere kid thing. You can’t sit with us. We can’t even sit with one another.)

—Joseph Schafer

You want me to start shit-talking immediately?

No, I’m not looking for any shit-talking at all. My thing is this word, “should.” It implies this sort of moralistic standpoint.

Well, [I have] no real problems. I am a white male, 33. There’s really not a lot I should be complaining about. I mean, wah. People might not like my band.

Does that even enter your mind ever at all?

No, not particularly.

I didn’t think so.

I mean, I am super hard done by. I’m sitting in Toronto right now on a beautiful, early summer-ish day; I had a few tasty IPAs upon my arrival. There’s really not much wrong with my life right now.

I could go without the IPAs. I’m not a hops guy.

Oh, man. Well, we can’t be friends then.

Well, fine. I didn’t want to be your friend anyway, so screw you. [Both laugh.]

What is your beer of choice? Maybe there’s hope.

I’m a Belgian guy.

Alright. I can get behind that.

Some of this is for nostalgia purposes, but La Fin du Mond — I cannot get enough of that beer.

Well, that’s a solid one.

I’m a malt forward guy.

Honestly, I think American craft beer kind of ruined my life. I never used to drink nearly as much as I do now and it’s largely because of American craft brew.

You really think the Americans have it down that bad?

Yeah, within the past bunch of years [they’ve gotten it down]. Everyone used to shit-talk American beer but the movement there really fucked everything up. For me, with all the traveling we do, the best beer I have in the world is in America.

So, I live in Seattle. I guess Denver more so, but Seattle is also sort-of ground zero for this hop-everything-to-the-umpteenth-degree movement. I’m not behind that. To me, I’m suspicious of American craft beer. I like it, but especially where I live, we have a love and hate relationship.

I could definitely see that if you’re not down with the hops. I guess it depends on your feelings on stuff like stouts and porters. Although, being a fan of Belgians: they are starting like wildfire, too. There’s companies like New Belgian that have a lot of really great Belgian stout beers within America, and they’re quite cheap.

I am an advocate for that company. For me, to say that I advocate for any company at all is a big thing. I guess at some point in time we should actually talk about music.

Possibly, although beer is pretty excellent. It’s definitely on my mind right now. But, we should probably talk about some music.

We don’t have to if you don’t want to.

That’s usually the only reason anyone wants to talk to me lately, so I’m okay with that.

Well, now I’m feeling really predictable.

Let’s just get down and dirty with this.

Alright. So: new record.

New record.

Before we go any further, I’ve got to address [something]. Your press agent already said that this rumor is bullshit. But, I heard it through the grapevine that this is going to be the last KEN mode album.

The last one? Who said that?

He asked me not to say his name.

I actually find it funny. I’ve had maybe two other people bring that up just based off some of the imagery and some of the things said on it. It’s not actually true, but we also won’t confirm or deny anything. I kind of have fun with [that].

Do you do it just to have fun, though? Is that why you’re neither confirming nor denying anything?

Yeah, exactly. We basically do everything, at this point, for fun. God knows we’re not making any money off of this.

That’s saying something because you’ve been around for a while and I’ve seen KEN mode a couple times in some decently packed rooms. I think the last time I saw you was in Ann Arbor. You need to be doing kind of okay for a venue in Ann Arbor to book [you as] a heavy band. They’re not about that music there.

We’ve definitely done some really cool tours and a lot of things we never really thought we probably could. But, yeah: there’s still not a lot of money in this.

Am I barking up the wrong tree if I think that some dissatisfaction in that area is factoring into at least the lyrics in the new record?

The lyrics in the new record are very sarcastic. There’s a lot of poking fun at basically everything to do with human existence on it. There is a certain degree of us trying and not feeling like we really came to what we wanted to. But, at the same time, we’re the type of people that will never really be satisfied with anything. We’re also poking fun at that on this record.

I’ve got to admit: in a different way from your other records — and this is not entirely [about] the sonic decisions you’ve made — it’s an uncomfortable record for me to listen to. It’s not a bad album, but I don’t enjoy listening to it.

[Laughs.] Well, I’m glad we could make you feel something. That’s really our goal, no matter what. Whether people like it or hate it, we just want to be memorable. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s memorable.

You’re exactly right. I don’t hate it. This is a different sort of thing. I actively feel, as I’m listening to it, a voice in my head that says, “You should change this music. You’re going to get into a bad mood. You’re going to fight with your parents, girlfriend or someone. You’re going to drink too much tonight if you keep listening to this album and you should change it.”

I really like that feedback. We’re essentially trying to be antagonistic with this record, and if you’re feeling that, I think we’ve done something very right.

Well, yeah. I’m sure people come to KEN mode from a lot of different angles. There’s a lot of avenues into KEN mode. But, I’m a metal guy. So, the more noise rock direction was a little bit of a loop. I like noise rock, too.

As a metal guy, I could see it being particularly jarring. This was specifically a rather anti-metal decision to move in this direction.

I’m sure you’ve answered this question before, but maybe I can word it differently so it [results in] a more interesting answer. What about that decision seemed attractive to you?

It was just the place we were at in our lives at the time of starting to write it. We’ve been doing a lot of more metal-oriented tours where we’ve always been the band that just didn’t fit in. A lot of metal fans straight up don’t like us. The antagonistic [stuff] is because of that. We like being antagonistic back to them. This record was very much a return to our roots: the type of music that we listened to when we were teenagers and the type of music that made us want to play music in the first place. This was kind of a tribute to that and just a snotty punk rock ethos of what got us driven into music in the first place.

I guess it’s not that surprising. But, it is a little off-putting to me that you say that metal fans have been antagonistic toward you. I think all of your records usually come out to glowing reviews, as I recall.

Depends where you look.

Saying “I like KEN mode” has never been a controversial statement to me.

It depends where in metal you’re looking because there are a lot of different avenues. When people try to fit us into more of a classic metal framework, that’s when people start getting nasty. There are definitely people who associate with being metal — as in metal fans — that listen to much, much more than just metal. That’s always been where we tend to actually have fans. It’s the people who relate to being metal fans but at the same time grew up with indie rock, grunge, punk rock, hardcore and all different kinds of music. That’s typically been the area that we thrive a little bit more in. It’s when you’re comparing us to playing alongside bands — on tours — like Revocation, A Life Once Lost or even Norma Jean.

Well…

I’m talking about hardcore and metal. I don’t know. It’s been very interesting trying to fit our square peg in that hole with that.

[It’s] that fan base in particular. I’m a casual fan of the half the bands just mentioned.

Me too. I come from a broader, generalist spectrum in terms of heavy music. That’s why strict metal tends to get a little weird with us.

Yeah, I could see that. You guys to an extent always reminded me of Converge and Botch, which I guess that isn’t exactly metal. That ethos worked for me.

A lot of people who like Converge and Botch, for some reason, hate us.

That’s good. You’re used to being hated. You’re dealing with it. You’re coping with it really well at this stage in your life. That’s good; a lot of people never get to that point.

Yeah. For us, it’s actually kind of funny because we’ve just been used to not being paid attention to. So, when we started actually touring full time and getting enough press that we’d get people both liking and hating us, the people hating us didn’t particularly surprise us. We’re used to not being liked.

In the course of being in KEN mode, what is the surprise, then? What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened to you?

The most surprising thing that has ever happened to this band, I’d say, was when we won the Juno in Canada. People actually started paying attention to us.

How do you feel about the Juno Award? I’m not trying to get you to talk shit; I’m legitimately curious.

It was really cool. It was very surprising being nominated, showing up and actually winning. It was very strange because it was basically a room full of — as much as people in America would laugh at this — the Canadian elite of the entire mainstream music industry. We’re these fucking weird hosers from the middle of Canada not knowing why we’re there and then winning the first, quote, metal-slash-hard music award. It just didn’t really make sense. But, it was a cool thing they did. It helped us to a certain extent, at least getting some Canadian government grants when we put Entrench out. It allowed us to do some things that we probably never would have been able to.

I’ve got two rejoinders to that. One is: as an American, [the fact] that there’s an award that acknowledges heavy music that is in any way relevant at all to my life is groundbreaking. Like, that in and of itself is mind-blowing because the Grammys have been full of shit since long before I started watching.

Yeah. We were up for a Juno in 2014, too. We were up against Protest the Hero, Gorguts, Anciients and I think it was The Flatliners. The fact that a band like Gorguts is up for a major industry award: that’s weird.

It is but it also isn’t. Politically, there’s a whole lot of pegs to hang hats on with Gorguts — that album had the China and Tibet angle.

Quite frankly, in terms of actual critical acclaim, I thought they were a shoe-in to win that thing. I was actually extremely disappointed when they didn’t. The first couple years that they had an actual metal Juno, it seemed like the most critically acclaimed bands were winning. [I mean] legit critical acclaim — not, like, bullshit mainstream stuff. It seemed like that was the direction it was taking, so I thought Gorguts was literally a shoe-in. I thought there was no way they were not going to win. Then they didn’t and it went to Protest the Hero, who is not a terrible band. It’s not really my cup of tea, but they were, by far, the most popular band. To me, it was kind of disappointing. It took a little bit away from the award. I thought [given] the fact that we won the first year, if Gorguts would’ve won a Juno, that would’ve made that award all the more important, particularly in the context of the historical significance of that in Canadian metal. I think Gorguts is a supremely important band in that respect.

I can’t box with you at all on the importance of Gorguts. That band is monumental. Seeing them live is out of this world.

Mhm. I completely agree.

I know a lot of people who were really upset about the Protest the Hero win. I’m okay with it. As I thought about it…

I’m okay with it, too. I thought, specifically from a creative and critical standpoint, Gorguts would’ve made more [sense]. I wasn’t heartbroken that Protest won. They’re a legit band and a popular band. It’s not like they were giving it to Metallica or some bullshit.

Absolutely. I’m going to be dead honest — I don’t really know anything about the Flatliners.

It’s kind of like a ska punk thing. I think a lot more people were pissed off that they were up for it than anything else. It’s because of the difficulty in actually defining what that award’s genre is supposed to mean. It’s essentially encapsulating everything in, quote, aggressive music under one thing — from punk to hardcore to metal. A lot of people kind of went into it thinking, “This is the metal award! How dare there be anything but metal in there?” Like, even we got flak when we won. People say, “This is a metal award! They are not metal!”

Now we’re back to square one. Let me me muddy the waters some more. When we did our end-of-the-year lists for 2014 — and I’m sure this is because of the Juno Awards — a couple writers on my site and on other sites listed Tanya Tagaq.

That’s cool.

It sort of surprised me. Then, I listened to the album. It’s not metal instrumentation. But, in a certain sense, I thought that she kind of belonged next to Gorguts.

It’s a weird one. You don’t want to call it metal, but when you hear it you very much think, “This is extreme music.”

Yeah. It’s harsh vocalization.

Yeah. It’s very alienating stuff.

The subject matter is dark and atavistic. In a sense, even your music can be atavistic at times. You’re evoking the past, even on the new album.

Yeah. There’s definitely some unhappy, dark themes. As much as it’s not a metal record, I think it’s still somewhat part of the extreme music context.

Totally. Let me change gears here for a second. Here’s a thing that I’ve always wanted to know. You’re in a band with your brother.

That I am.

That makes a whole lot of sense. There’s a whole long history — the Van Halen brothers, to start — of brothers and siblings forming heavy bands. I can’t help but wonder if that’s alienating to the bassists in your group. You’ve cycled through a couple.

Oh, completely. Yeah. Granted, we have been around for 16 years, almost, at this point. So, the fact that we’ve been through seven isn’t that crazy. Really, the heat’s only come on as we started to tour a lot more. But, it’s definitely tough for anyone to try to spend that much time with two people who have shared that much and been through that much. I would not wish that anyone, to be frank, as much as I hope we can hold someone down — like Scott right now, who’s touring with us. When you’re touring with people in a band, you’re spending more time with them than you would in any human relationship. [Even with] any spouse you had, you’d never spent 24/7 for months on end with them. Most people would go crazy.

Very seldom in an interview do people talk about the human strain of touring — it’s always the nutrition strain, the sleep strain, the body aches. It’s never learning to live with someone.

Yeah. A funny thing: I literally — just before this tour — was watching the show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Are you familiar with it? It’s a comedy show that Andy Samberg stars in. They had this episode where two of the cops were doing a stakeout and the two of them weren’t going to get relieved. They were going to do, like, six days straight on the stakeout — just the two of them in one room. They were all saying, “You’re crazy. No one’s gone over three days. You shouldn’t do this. People go crazy. They hate each other. They kill each other.” Seeing that and thinking about it, [I thought] tour is like that times five — on a shorter tour. For us, we’re used to doing six weeks. Just because of the nature of where we are geographically in North America, we usually have to take at least, like, a week to get out to a tour, a week to get back from a tour and then there’s four weeks worth of the tour. So, that’s six weeks of being with the same dudes everyday, every hour of the day.

Have you ever considered relocating just to alleviate that a little bit?

There’s been moments where we kind of contemplate it. But, at the same time, Winnipeg’s a really good place to have as a home base because our folks are from there and there are some of the better music programs in Canada available in Manitoba. It’s definitely kept us where we’re from.

I don’t know anything about Winnipeg. I live so close to the Canadian border but I haven’t been to Canada in a decade. I’m about to go for the first time in 10 years.

Whoa. Winnipeg’s a very weird little city, yet not a tiny city: we’re about 700,000, right smack dab in the middle of a continent. There’s really nothing close to us. The closest city with a million or more people is about an eight hour drive away and that’s Minneapolis, Minnesota. The closest Canadian city a million people is a 15 hour drive away, so there’s really not a lot around us. We kind of have to entertain ourselves if we want to be entertained. That’s why there are a lot of really bizarre, creative art taking place in that city.

What effect do you think isolationism has had on you in your life given the nature of where you live?

I think it’s had a pretty large impact. Particularly, the construct of this band has made us work harder than I think most bands are even capable of. We have to overcome a lot just to even get out of our city’s borders: you need the money and the drive to be able to undertake anything just because of how far everything is. Yeah: a lot of the bands we’ve toured with us have made us tougher. Whenever we tour Europe, I’m constantly having to put a lot of these European bands’ lives in perspective with how close they are to everything and how they should really take advantage of that. If you were where we’re from, you’d never reach a city if you weren’t willing to.

Hearing you talk about that — and this is sort of funny because you just did a record with Steve Albini — reminds me of the Big Black song, “Kerosene.” Right? “Probably come to die in this town / Lived here my whole life”: that lyric.

Mhm. A lot of people never leave Winnipeg. We certainly did.

I’m happy for you. Steve’s a difficult man to get along with, they say. Do you think it was easier to relate with him because you’ve had that experience of growing up in the center of this continent?

Maybe. I think also just our general genetic makeup. We’re sarcastic — and I’d like to think somewhat witty — people and that’s kind of the person he is. A lot of people have been asking me that question about how he was to get along with and whether he’s kind of like a crotchety, old man. He seems to come across as a very intense personality — very opinionated and not very nice in interviews. We actually thought he was the complete opposite of that: just a very enthusiastic, nerdy guy who genuinely loves what he does. He is a very sarcastic and quick-witted dude. I think our senses of humor gelled quite well. Just even based off the work he’s done and records over the past 30 years, I kind of thought we might get along. If we didn’t get along, it wouldn’t be the end of the world because essentially we hired him there for a reason. But, it was actually the most fun I’ve ever had making a record. He was a very enjoyable personality to have around.

So, what was the hardest record to make?

The hardest records were always the really time-constrained ones. Probably our Reprisal record was the hardest because we essentially tracked all the instruments in three days. We had Manitoba Hydro shut down the power to the building we were doing it in for, like, six hours at three in the morning. So, stuff like that. As we started getting longer sessions [it got easier]. Like Kurt Ballou, when we worked with him — that was the longest session we’d ever had. We spent nine days making that record and then Matt Bayles was even more time. The more time we had, we felt more relaxed. Even with Steve, working in all analog, we prepared for months. We did all the demoing on an old four-track recorder I’ve had since high school. So, coming into that, we were as prepared as we possibly could have been. I think it moved extremely smoothly because of that. We kind of got to lay down the tracks, relax when we could, eat a lot of good food and just generally have a good time with it all.

So, we probably only have time for one more question. Here’s the one that I’ve got: you’ve worked with so many different people in your past. Who do you think you’re going to be working with in the future?

Oh, god. I have no idea.

None?

We’ve checked off a lot of bucket-list ones, man. Right now, where I’m at, I’d love to do another record with Steve. [That’s] just because he was always kind of a high watermark for what I wanted to do and we had so much fun with the last one. If we can get the money together to work with him again, it’d be really cool. But, at the same time, who knows what we’re going to be feeling by the time we’re ready to make another record. We same to change our mind. All the guys we’ve worked with have been a lot of fun and they’re extremely good at what they do. So, I guess time will tell.

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