KEN Mode Stares into the Abyss on “NULL” (Interview)
KEN Mode has been a powerful force in the noise rock scene for a long time now. With recent albums like Success and Loved garnering the band more attention, they were poised to naturally evolve, but things came to a halt in 2020 like they did for most people, and they had to get creative. NULL is their latest creation, an album recorded in the isolation of the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic when the band was separated by the constraints of inter-provincial travels. Frontman Jesse Matthewson was forced to, as mentioned, get creative, learning new ways to record and play music leading to a different kind of vibe for the record than was the case last time.
I spoke to Jesse about their new album as well as its follow-up due next year, what it was like to grace the cover of one of his favorite magazines, changing record labels and adding a longtime live member to full-time status. We also chatted about what the future of the band holds including a large tour (their first in three years) to get out there and promote this new beast, as well as breaking down the album’s track themselves. So let’s see what it was like to record NULL with all of this stuff going on.
What was the period between Loved and Null like for the band?
Haha, what was 2018 – 2022 like? Oh, it was the best time of my life. Actually, 2018/2019 was pretty sweet, and seemed like everything was trending upward, both personally and professionally, then…some shit happened in 2020 that seemed to create an avalanche of shit that continued to snowball bringing us up to this day. Quite honestly some of the worst moments of my life. GO FIGURE.
The only thing that kept me from completely falling apart during the 2020-2021 period was writing and recording music, so I am clearly thankful that this continues to be a driving force in my life. It felt like Loved was building some momentum, and then the pandemic shit all over that, so we’re left starting over again.
Why the switch of the record label?
Our contract was fulfilled with Season of Mist, and Shane and I actually work with Artoffact Records with our other company, MKM Management Services. They wanted to throw their hat in the ring for this next record, and we like and get along with that crew, so we decided to try something new. Was as simple as that. We still get along with SoM and who knows, could do something down the line again?
What was it like to be selected for the cover of Decibel magazine?
Total trip…still kind of can’t believe it. Obviously stoked to run with it, and hope it helps give this new record a bit of an uptick in attention/sales/etc. We never thought we’d grace the cover of a magazine like that. I’ve been a subscriber, literally, since issue no. 1. I was featured as the “Reader of the Month” in the 200th issue because of that fact, so it’s certainly a trip that the next time we’d be featured, it was for a cover story. Eternally grateful to that crew.
What is having Kathryn Kerr as a full-fledged member of the band like?
The big difference, is she has a lot more optimism than the other three of us do. That, and we’re going to be able to see some of our vision executed like never before in the live realm. We wanted to be able to have live saxophone on the last album’s tour cycle, but it really didn’t make sense to drag a 4th person along to only play on two songs. Now we have her multi-tasking like a monster - playing synth, piano, and saxophone - it’ll give our new songs, and even our old songs, a degree of depth that was never possible before. We’re very stoked for people to hear this.
What is the theme around Null? Did the album art have anything to do with it or was the art a last-minute addition?
Thematically, NULL is a direct response to our psychology over the last two and a half years. The artwork is all tied up in it as well – and was developed in tandem with the music and lyrics, as we are good friends with Randy Ortiz, and got him on board with this before we even started writing. He had a hell of a time with motivation and inspiration over the pandemic, and we hope the freedom of this project at least helped a little, despite being an obvious stress – in that it was a looming deadline, to a degree. There definitely feels like we’re working on an arc here with the previous album, Loved, which he also did the artwork for, and the next one, Void, which we wrote and recorded at the same time as Null – it’ll be out next year. Our works along with Randy’s art have all been part of the same aesthetic package that encapsulates the last 8 years of the band.
“A Love Letter” comes out of the gate strong with plenty of The Jesus Lizard and Big Black vibes, what would you say helped to develop the sound on Null in a different way than on previous records?
That’s actually an interesting take, as my brain doesn’t go to those bands at all with that track. A huge driver in the development of the sounds on NULL was the fact that a large part of it was written alone, by myself, in my lil ‘production’ room at home, as we were restricted in our ability to even get together due to the pandemic. Skot lives in Saskatoon, which is an 8-hour drive away from us, and when inter-provincial travel was limited to essential workers only, our regular band activities were totally shut down. So, I taught myself how to use a digital audio workstation, learned how to program midi, and started piecing music together on my own, riff by riff, instrument by instrument. As a result, I was able to write a good number of these songs in isolation, including drums – which I’d then subsequently teach to Shane, and he’d “spice” them up a bit with his own style.
Tracks like “Throw Your Phone In The River” and “But They Respect My Tactics” are deeply more hardcore, metallic and in a way more straightforward than some of the tracks on the record, what should I be getting besides an Unsane vibe?
If we’re talking songs like ‘Throw Your Phone…’, to me, that one is Today Is The Day, Melvins, Cattle Press, and a lil Jesus Lizard, if I’m being honest. ‘Tactics’ has maybe a lil Voivod, a touch of Turmoil, not really a lot of Unsane in there at all, from a direct influence of those riffs…though obviously that band is a part of our general DNA. I’m always trying to modernize everything we do, to a degree…taking our classic influences, and putting it through a filter of what’s current, and pressing, which I hope gives it a sense of urgency, as opposed simply an homage to a bygone era of aggressive creativity.
What are some of the more experimental sounds you worked with on Null that either made a different impact on this record, or were completely new to the band?
Synth, synth, synth. I started messing around with a couple of different Moog synthesizers just before the pandemic hit, and I was listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails in 2020 for some reason – just seemed to resonate more than ever to me. I wanted to see how I could incorporate these elements into the band, and due to the shift in demoing/songwriting on a computer first and foremost, I was able to experiment with these instruments way more than we’d ever have been able to in the past while writing in the jam room. Usually, additional instrumentation was treated as an afterthought, something that I’d desperately try to fit once we’d enter the studio, and we’d already written the song as a three piece. This time around, I was able to construct songs riff by riff, part by part, to ensure that these elements had their own place, and worked.
I see that you will be touring in the fall with Frail Body among other bands, how did that tour come about?
I pitched the idea to the band, and our agent, and we just kind of ran with it. A lot of bands in our position seem to generally wait for opportunities these days, and we really just don’t do that – because nobody ever offers anyway! We have an album coming out, and we know the best way to promote that is to get out on the road, so we figured it was a better idea to start hitting up some younger bands than us – people that are hungry to do the thing, and absolutely rip. Frail Body seemed like a no-brainer to me, and they got back to me quickly and enthusiastically – which is absolutely the shit. There are so many people in this industry that react to everything with such a limp tone if you’re not either a brand new hot prospect or gigantic institution, that it’s hard to not feel beaten down from time to time. Frail Body make me stoked to get out on the road again.
What does throwing a massive 10 minute track like “Lost Grip” in the middle of an album do for the band and for the listener?
We always want to create a story with our albums. It’s probably a blessing and a curse for a band like us, as we don’t like beating you over the head with the same style song over and over again. It’s clearly something we took to heart a long time ago with influences like the Melvins, Black Flag, and the Dazzling Killmen, who created a narrative with the styles they utilized throughout their records. That diversity is inherently more interesting to us, and as a result, it’s something we’ve always tried to accomplish in our own writing. I’m sure it can be jarring to listeners who don’t want that from us – but at this point, we’re 8 albums deep, you should know better. I think it’s the perfect start to side B of the record!
Anything that you as a collective are looking forward to this year?
Absolutely – the release of this record, and getting back out on the road again. It’s been over 3 years since we’ve done so, and we’ve thankfully put in a lot of work to get to do the thing with a lot of really cool bands all over the US and Canada. I’m looking forward to getting to appreciate new music and reconnect with the community that we’ve been kept from for the last two years.
Anything that you would like to add?
Now is the time. If you like a band, go see them live. Buy a record. Buy a CD, a t-shirt. Consume art from young people. Put in the time, dig a little deeper. There’s so much good art out there right now.
NULL releases September 23rd via Artoffact Records.