Chuck Schuldiner Project

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Interview with Jesse and Shane Matthewson of KEN Mode

Band Photo by Brenda Faris, courtesy of Seasons of Mist
With a hefty touring schedule ahead of them and a new album right around the corner, KEN Mode made a stop through Paris last month to headline the first day of this year’s OTB Fest alongside Celeste and to promote their upcoming full length effort Success, with this current date marking the albums’ (pre)release party. I sat down with the Matthewson brothers Jesse (Guitar/Vocals) and Shane (Drums) to discuss their upcoming album (amongst other things).

So this is the 2nd installment of your European tour, right? Last month you were also in Europe.
Jesse: Yes, we seem to be coming over a ridiculous amount lately (giggle). We'll be here in the fall too.

You've also played a set at Roadburn this year. How did that go?
Jesse: It was cool, it went over pretty well. We were definitely a little bit of an oddball thrown in there, since what they like to focus on is more "doomy" stuff I guess? But it was fun, I'm glad we did it.

So this current date marks the pre-release party for your newest album Success.
First off, how would you describe the sound of this upcoming album?
Jesse: For the most part I'd say that a lot of the metal and hardcore influences of our previous records have kind of been stripped away and what you're left with is a much more Rock n' Roll/Noise Rock kind of approach to the way we write music. The songwriting is a lot more stripped-down and it just focuses a lot more on the roots of the types of bands that made us want to start playing music in the first place when we were teenagers.

Was the shift towards a more Noise Rock-oriented sound a conscious move?
Jesse: I think it came naturally, maybe to a certain extent through a bit of an exhaustion of dealing with trying to fit into the metal and hardcore scenes. We've never really fit in anywhere. We did a lot of touring for Entrenched; we were out on the road for 10 out of 12 months from the time that album came out, from march to march. It was very exhausting being the square peg trying to fit into the round hole.

With this album you've also had a chance to work with the legendary producer Steve Albini.
Jesse: Yeah, he engineered it. He sat in on the mastering and helped Bob Weston master it, who's actually a bandmate of his in Shellac too. So yeah, we did it with Steve Albini in Winnipeg, Manitoba, our home town.
Steve Albini

Were there any changes with the recording process this time around? I understand Steve likes to record some stuff live.
Jesse: Yeah, for the most part he prefers all of the instruments to be done live and that's how we did it. It was the first time we've ever really done it that way. Usually, with a lot of engineers, they'll have you do the drums first and the guitars will play along but typically you won't actually track those. You usually do the guitars properly after you have the bed tracks of the drums. With Steve he just sets everyone up so that it's as isolated as it can be and you all play at once... like a live band, go figure.

Was it the noise-rock driven songs you had written that led you to work with Steve Albini or was it the idea of working with him that reinforced the noise-rock aspect of your sound?
Shane: Well we had already written a bunch of the songs before we decided to record with him, so it was already going in that direction. We could've done it with other engineers and it would've still sounded good but I think it was the perfect combination of the songs and the engineer that made it sound the way it did.
 Jesse: If Steve would've done the previous record, who knows if it would've sounded quite as good. It was a little bit more metal and hardcore, some of the songs were faster.. I'm just not sure the feeling of it would've translated as well, but for this record it translated very well.

I know you like to keep your lyrics open to a certain degree of interpretation, but could you maybe touch upon what the album is about?
Jesse: I consider it our first actual concept album. It revolves around the various concepts of success, especially the modern western, "traditional" concept of it and how insanely relative that term is. There's a lot of poking fun at it and what people think it should be and where we, as individuals, fit in to the universe as a grand scheme and how ridiculous THAT all is too. That's kind of where this album jumps all over.
Shane: We also did joke about how funny it would be if we had an album called "Success" that was just a miserable failure (laugh), like if it didn't do well at all but it was called "Success". We thought that that was really funny. That wasn't the only reason why we picked the name, but we did think that it would be a funny joke if the album did really poorly (laugh)

So either way, you're the happy whether the album does well or not? (laugh)
Shane: Yeah. If it does really well, we look like geniuses and if it doesn't we just look like we're jerks again...
Jesse: ... which is nothing new (laughs)

I also understand that this album has a different lyrical approach compared to the previous albums.
Jesse: Yeah, that’s' actually one of the bigger changes. Historically, the lyrics have been very personal to me; things that make me feel strongly about something. With this album, a lot of the songs were written in a format where I take notes all the time. A lot of the time it’s ridiculous phrases or word combinations that I think are funny, a lot of it is mean things HE says (points at Shane, laughing) or that our new bassist Scott says. I'll be writing these things down and I have this journal of ridiculous phrases, and a lot of the songs on this record were pieced together from those ridiculous phrases. I managed to string all of those things together with a general concept, so that it actually has a cohesive idea behind each song. But it's very much like this litany of inside jokes and black comedy, pushing the envelope further from the meaner, more sarcastic tones we've had in the past. This is way out of left field for us, but it was a lot of fun to write. I also do a lot more rhyming on this album. I was kind of making a conscious approach of making these songs a little catchier. Rhyming schemes tend to make everything catchier but I didn't want to do it in a dumb, cliché, "pop" way, because a lot of that is 4th grade rhyming. So I like to think that this is a little bit higher than that. Well...
Shane: 5th grade.
Jesse: Yeah, 5th grade ! (laughs)

Could you give us some insight as to where the amazing song titles from your new album come from?

  1. Blessed
    "Blessed" is kind of hitting the nail on the head. The whole song itself is kind of about how we don't really feel like we fit in or belong anywhere in the music industry. It's kind of sarcastic in that... we're "Blessed"! (giggle). We also sometimes feel like the fact that anyone pays attention to us at all is funny in itself. We've been through so many years of nobody giving a crap, so that' kind of what that song is all about.
  2. These Tight Jeans
    (Laugh) Oh god. That was just another one of those phrases that I wrote down that I thought was funny. I don't even know where I even came up with that (laugh). When I told my bandmates "this is what I'm calling the song!", everyone just let out a big sigh and were like "why???" (laugh). Basically THAT is why! (laugh).
  3.  The Owl...
     The Owl was part of a title of a play where the term "Cuckold" came from (The Owl and the Nightingale, which is actually a poem).
    Jeeesus Christ.
    Yeah, and the whole song is a lot about the gray areas in life.
    …A cuckold play??
    (laugh) Yeah it's where the term originated. I didn’t want to hit the nail right on the head with that one so I made it just "The Owl..." with the ellipses.
  4. I just liked Fire
    I just liked fire actually came from a friend of ours in Winnipeg named Alex who was talking about how he used to like to light fires when he was a child, because he just liked fire (choking with laughter). I thought that was really funny, and I ended up spitting it into a song about something else. (Catching his breath).
    So it's not a song about your friend who just liked fire.

    No, it's more of a really perverse passion-filled song. I just took the spin of "I just liked fire" and applied it to that, and I thought it was funny. But yeah, the actual origin of it was more litteral (bursting out laughing).
    A LITTERAL child who LITTERALY was a pyromaniac. (laughs)
  5. Management control
    I think it stemmed from a Matthewson family dinner, where we were talking about something to do with management controls...
    Oh you mean like a financial system control?
    Yeah, the term "management control" came up and I was like "that's a really cool name for a song!"
    Huh, I don't remember that being said.
    I ended up applying it to a song that’s' just about life in general.
    Shane (Laughing):
    That's going to be the answer to every one of these: "eeh, I took this, and it's basically about life."
    (Everyone bursts out laughing)

  6. A Passive disaster
    The title originally was kind of the concept of what we felt our lives were at when we were touring for 10 months out of the 12 month year. That's kind of what our lives felt like. Not like an active disaster, but a passive one (laugh), even though we were in control. But things just move very quickly. The song itself deals with experiencing the beautiful scenery in life, taking a second to stop and experience it... while also having a sociopath breakdown (laugh).
  7. Failing at fun since 1981
    That's autobiographical, in that everytime I try to have fun I end up screwing it up somehow (laugh).
    So I'm assuming it's referring to your year of birth?

    Jesse (chuckling):
  8. A catalog of small disappointments
    That one is a fun one. It was on a small article about Kepler and his love life. There was a line in it that was referring to the process with which he was trying to pick a second wife, and it was "a catalog of small disappointments". The entire song is about that, and how he could've broken it down into a mathematicians' formula that ended up becoming the Secretary Problem (Note: ), only applied to his love life. I just thought that the whole thing was really funny and it tied in with the concept of peoples' perception of love, marriage... and how that fits into the way of how a successful life is supposed to be.
    Kepler was a physicist, right?
    So it's a physicist who's trying to mathematically break down how to choose a wife.
    So it was an article on that, and he was describing the process of choosing a partner as a "catalog of small disappointments" (everyone laughs). It was just this insane look at a mathematician trying to take objectivity out of something that is a very personal. It was just ridiculous.
    As soon as we'd read that article we were like : "this HAS to be a song!"
  9. Dead actors
    Again, it's one of those bleak yet optimistic outlooks on existing as a conscious being in the universe. It's about how we're both completely unimportant yet at the same time to those around us we're completely relevant and important in every way. I think I came up with the title around the time Robin Williams died.
    Everybody just lost their minds because they all grew up watching movies that he was in.
    Yeah, he was like THE actor in every freakin' family movie for that age group. It was an interesting spin on what that song was about so I felt that it tied in well.
    That was a weird thing to see though. So many people were basically saying things like : "huh, my childhood killed itself". Goddamn it!

Did you come up with the phrases and song titles roughly around the same time period or did you draw from some older stuff in your journal of phrases?
Jesse: Most of the song titles and lyrics are from the past year and a half. I actually constructed all of the lyrics into "song format" from April through august of last year, so it was a pretty condensed period that we put all of the songs together in.

Could you explain how the album art ties in with the seemingly contradictory album title?
Jesse: The album cover itself was really the only overtly miserable picture in the panels that made it up. Our good friend Randy Ortiz did all of the artwork ( ). He was very much a part of the actual building of the concept for the album from the ground up. He's actually done a lot of work for us since about 2007, so it's been a long time coming for him to do a proper commercial release for us.
Most of the panels draw from the concept behind the actual words for the album. It's taking western concepts of success and putting it through the viewers' filter. The pictures could either be something that you're striving towards or that makes your horribly depressed. A lot of the people who've been looking at the actual panels have been saying that this album is really depressing. Like one of the panels is a guy mowing his lawn, in shorts and sandals with socks. Another one is a woman looking into an empty crib, holding her stomach and you don't know whether she's lost a baby, if she's expecting a baby... it all depends on how you want to look at it. Most of the people that we know that have seen it immediately go to the BUMMER. The back panel is this couple at a table, the guy is looking at some bills and the woman is looking out the window. You can either say to yourself: "aaaw, that's a couple!" or you could go "Goddamn it, that makes me wanna kill myself. I never want to get married. What life is this?" (Shane laughs).

So I read that you quit your jobs a couple of years ago. What got you to make such a decision, considering that you've said yourself that album sales don't bring in that much money?
Jesse: (laugh) We just never wanted to look back and say "what if?"
Shane: If you want to make a go of it, doing anything, you need to focus all of your time on it. You can't just get up and leave any job for 3 months at a time. We both went to university; we had professional jobs, so we needed to "pick a street". If we had other types of jobs we might have been able to do both at the same time, but in the fields that we were in, it wasn't possible. So we figured we'll take the next couple of years and see how it goes ... if not, there's always office work! That never goes away!
So that was basically why. It wasn't so much like "we're going out into the music world, we're gonna be huge stars now!” It's just that if you're gonna try to do this as best as you can, you've gotta commit all of your time to it, or else you'll never know!

What's the coolest thing about Canada?
Shane: Hockey! (Jesse laughs) ... no, the mountains! The Rocky Mountains! Those are cool!
Jesse:  Nature too, just nature in general.
Shane: Yeah, but the Rocky Mountains are pretty intense, particularly the Canadian Rockies are really, really huge. A lot of people come to Europe and Switzerland to go skiing in the Alps but the Canadian Rockies could go toe-to-toe with any mountain range in the world.
Jesse (proud): The Alps are shrinking and the Rockies keep getting bigger also...
Shane: ... It happens very slowly though (laughs). It's shrinking like a centimeter a year. But yeah, if I had to pick one great thing about Canada I’d say the Rockies. Number 2 is Hockey!
Jesse: (Laugh) oh god...
Shane: ... but nobody gives a shit about hockey... other than Canadians!

It's even on your dollar bills, right?
Jesse: Yeah!
Shane: Yeah well there was a hockey scene on the 5 dollar bill for a while and I think they changed it now
Jesse: Yeah I think they might have changed it to a space satellite or something.
Shane: Yeah they did that thing where the Canadian money is now made of plastic, since the last couple of years. You can't tear it, and it apparently lasts longer BUT if you leave it in your pockets when you put your clothes in the dryer, it MELTS! So it's virtually indestructible, other than heat. Heat will destroy it. (laughs) It will melt your money in your pocket.
Also when you're counting bills they stick together.
Jesse: It's kinda...
Shane: ... dumb. But I'm sure they did it for a reason. It last significantly longer I guess. I don't know other countries that actually have plastic money.
Jesse ­: This is fascinating material!
Shane: Canadian blunders.

During a previous interview you finished off by saying "Don't do as Donny Don't Does"(a reference to the Simpsons)
Shane: Oh God, I think that was something I filled up.
Jesse: Yeah I think you said that (laugh)
Shane: I think that was a European interview.
Jesse: What was the context of that?
Shane: ... I don't know... I was being an asshole
Jesse: Don't do what Donny Don't Does (bursting out laughing)... It was probably in regards to what we were doing with our lives (laughing out loud).
(Laughing) Every goddamn thing you say relates to life itself!
Shane (With Jesse hysterically laughing in the back all throughout): I remember writing that. I think it was the final garbage question, like "Any advice for the kids?" "Fuuck... Don't do what Donny Don't does". I think because it was a European interview, I thought that in translation, it would get completely fucked! (laughs)
Jesse: That is a good advice!
Shane: Kids today won't get that though, it's too old, old-school Simpsons (note: Season 5 Episode 8, Boy-Scoutz N the Hood). That was 20 years ago!

Could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
Jesse: One of my favorite albums would have to be Nirvana, In Utero, because that's the one that just ruined my brain when I was 12. That's why we wanted to work with Albini. It sounded too good.
One of my favorite movies: The Elephant Man by David Lynch, because it's one of the only movies that has made me cry more than once and because it's just... fucked.
For my favorite book:  another life changer,  Get in the Van by Henry Rollins. That's where we got our band name from and a lot of the way we approach doing music. It's got a lot of pearls of wisdom for DIY bands and I think it's worth reading for anyone interested in underground music.
Shane: I'm just gonna back your choice. I think those are all excellent answers. (Laughs)

And to close things off: any final words?
Jesse: I hope people purchase Success to make it a great Success! (laughs)
Shane: And don't do what Donny Don't does!

Interview by Robin Ono
Band Photo by Brenna Faris, courtesy of Seasons of Mist.

Thank you to Gunnar, to Lauren, to the band and everyone who made both this amazing show and this interview possible!

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