KEN Mode Interview

Artoffact Records

Canadian noise rockers KEN Mode are back with their eighth album NULL. Frontman Jesse Matthewson fills us in on the album, their reduced tour schedule, videos, their new record label and other topics.

Chad Bowar: What led you to welcome Kathryn Kerr as a full band member for this album?
Jesse Matthewson: It really stems, ultimately, from wanting to have saxophone as part of the live show, and to warrant doing so, we figured we could throw a whole bunch of other instruments into the mix that we’ve always wanted to play around with, as she was well versed in them already too. Kathryn played saxophone on our Loved album, and bringing a whole other person on tour for two songs seemed a bit out there for a band of our size. So when I started playing around with synthesizers on this album, we jumped at the opportunity to make this new role of hers way harder than she signed on for. (laughs)

What led you to work with Andrew Schneider again on this record?
We really liked his style of working, and feel like we only really scratched the surface of what we could do with him on the last record. I think after completing Loved we all wanted to do the thing with him again, so I started talking to him early about this next batch – even starting to send him demos in 2020, while we were all stuck at home.

What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
Blowing out my voice before the session and needing to track the majority of the vocals after the session was finished, at home, on my own. I copied down a bunch of the settings that Andrew used and just went to town on my own, desperately trying to keep ahead of our mixing schedule. It was both stressful and incredibly rewarding, and I don’t think I’ll ever do vocal in the studio again. I was able to dedicate way more time than ever before, and nitpick at the minutia of every vocalization. I believe this is my finest vocal performance on a record of ours.

How did the pandemic affect the creation of NULL, from both a practical and creative standpoint?
Practically speaking, we had to throw our conventional approach out the window, given we couldn’t get together for a good six months, and then went back into another lockdown lasting most of the winter again. It was a great year. I felt amazing the whole time. I clearly didn’t need that outlet to keep my proverbial shit together. So, I wrote on my own; teaching myself how to write music on my laptop. Those fleeting bursts of creativity would prove to be some of the most potent writing I’ve had in arguably a decade, and they helped keep my head above water for periods when depression dragged me to some of my lowest points. As 2021 opened up a little, we did much more collaborative writing, and as a result, were able to craft two album worth of material.

Did you struggle with track order at all?
We always do, to a degree. We waited to figure out how we’d separate the two albums and their respective order until we had finished mixing the entire batch of songs. I pitched a song order off the hop, that most of the band agreed upon pretty immediately, so surprisingly this wasn’t that belabored.

How has the band’s sound evolved from Loved?
I think due to the nature of how much of the material was prepared, there were a lot more chances being taken. Songs weren’t being put together in the jam room at all, so other instruments were able to shine through much more clearly, and as a result, I think a lot of industrial and jazz elements were able to slip into the sonic palate; at least more so than ever before.

What lyrical topics do you cover this time around?
Most of this batch of material is primarily about coping with mental illness when your mechanisms for managing your symptoms have been stripped away, coupled with mourning the loss of community, and inability to help anyone, even yourself. Throw in some healthy social commentary and crushing existential dread, and you’ve got the party hit of the year on your hands here.

What’s the timeline for the release of the second part of this two-album arc?
I’m thinking next fall seems appropriate. Give NULL some space for people to digest, then start hammering them over the head with more sadness and noise.

How was the video shoot for “But They Respect My Tactics”?
This one was shot by Tyler Funk all in one shot. He wanted to create the feeling you’d get being up front at one of our shows, so we booked a room, and just let loose with some lighting cues in place. This album cycle is the first time we’ve worked with Tyler as a director of photography, and I’d love to work with him again. We ended up having him collaborate with our longtime video producer, Christopher Mills, and the work that has come out of this cycle is my favorite videos of our entire career.

Do you enjoy making videos, or are they a necessary evil of the promotion process?
They are kind of a necessary evil. I always find them physically taxing, and managing the process after the fact can be exhausting. The filming is like, needing to let loose like the hardest part of your set, but over and over and over for 7 hours straight. I really messed up my body this time, because we did 3 days of solid shooting, for four videos.

How did you come to sign with Artoffact Records?
We had come to the end of our previous contract, while Shane and I had been working with the gents at Artoffact via our other business, MKM Management Services. They asked to throw their hat into the ring when we were thinking about what to do with our next record, and the rest is history!

Has what you expect from a record label changed over the years?
Very much so. We work within the industry now, and we’ve been around for a long time. We also enjoy a large degree of autonomy, and very much operate like a DIY band still, so crafting a deal that works well with how we like to do business is very important to us.

How much attention do you pay to reviews?
Way more than I should.

There’s a vinyl edition of the album available. Are you a vinyl collector?
I am, but honestly, I’ve moved back to CDs as my primary medium of choice. I never got rid of my collection from the ’90s/early aughts, so I’ve just been trying to catch up on releases I messed from 2011-2021 the last few years. I try to get CDs when I can, but still pick up LPs if that’s all that’s offered…they’re just so bloody expensive to ship to Canada.

You’ve been doing shorter tours recently. Is that because of job/family obligations?
100 percent. We can’t really manage doing anything longer than 3 weeks at a time now, and only once every 6 months or so. We all have full time jobs, and ¾ of us are our own bosses, so we can’t just disappear on our clients for 6-8 weeks at a time. This music doesn’t make us enough to completely throw our lives back into the trash again. (laughs) We did the full-time touring shtick already, and thankfully it raised our profile enough that when we go out these days, it’s a lot more worthwhile than it would have been if we never put in 6 years of 200+ shows a year.

Does doing short runs help keep you fresh, or is it harder to stay sharp when you’re not playing every night for a month straight?
It’s only hard to keep in shape if we stop rehearsing all the time, which we always manage to do after a tour now. So, I’m hoping we manage our time more wisely this time around, with this new post-pandemic-ish time. It’ll be tough…personally, I just want to be able to write music again. I don’t have time to do so right now as I’m working, training, managing a record cycle, and trying to put the logistics together for us to tour over the next two years.

What are some of you non-musical interests and hobbies?
Personally, I seem to only develop life altering obsessions instead of hobbies. I have music, and I have muay thai, which doesn’t leave me much time outside of that. Ideally, I want to train 6 days a week, and rehearse 2-3 times a week. That being said, I love reading up on pre-history and following different paleontological sources, follow mixed martial arts, love watching a lot of stand-up comedy, and generally trying to keep up on science news.

Seen any good movies or TV shows lately?
So much of my life is so intense all the time, I usually gravitate to comedy television a lot of the time if I’m going to watch anything. My partner and I just finished the last season of Barry, have been breezing through What We Do In The Shadows (the tv show) and trying to keep up with the Rehearsal with Nathan Fielder. Unfortunately, I have a bad tendency to fall asleep every time I watch a movie, and I hate disrupting the art form, so I tend to just not watch them a lot of the time.

What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
Alright, let me check what’s come out lately…(all new albums) Hissing – Hypervirulence Architecture, Black Magnet – Body Prophecy, Chat Pile – God’s Country, Wake – Thought Form Descent, Haunted Horses – The Worst Has Finally Happened, Mourir – Disgrace, Candy – Heaven Is Here, Blind Girls – The Weight of Everything, Soul Glo – Diaspora Problems, Aeviterne – The Ailing Façade, Ditz – The Great Regression, Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit. That’s probably a good enough list.

Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
We hope to see people out on the road, or just in general how people enjoy the new album. It’s been a hard couple of years, and we are certain some of the feelings expressed on these works will strike a chord with a lot of people. I hope it can be a cathartic experience for others, as it has been for us making them. Pick up an LP or a CD. Every physical sale helps, and it’s the way these are meant to be consumed.

(interview published September 22, 2022)

Watch KEN Mode – “A Love Letter” Video


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