Like a deadly, grizzled beast that lurks in the shadows, KEN Mode emerges every few years with a new record, tearing off limbs as it goes, before skulking back into its pit. With September 23rd seeing the release of Null, on Artoffact Records — the band’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Loved — founder and singer/guitarist Jesse Matthewson talks about the new record and what keeps the KEN Mode fires burning.
Jesse Matthewson makes a charming, affable interviewee. Who would guess the kind of turmoil bubbling under the surface? Fortunately, Matthewson has KEN Mode, providing him — and his bandmates — with an outlet “to purge the poison within us while we navigate being a functional member of society,” as he puts it. “The older I get, it’s also just an excuse to do something exciting with my friends,” he continues.
Matthewson has a couple of other methods to keep his powder dry too. “I also practice Muay Thai as much as possible and am prone to yelling in the car,” he laughs.
As with the rest of the band, Matthewson works a day job. Could be a pretty normal routine until you factor in travelling the globe to play shows when they have time off. “I mostly view touring as a way to pay for me to hang out with friends of mine all over the world, while getting to eat fun things I can’t eat when at home,” he says. “The music part is just a bonus.”
Events of the last couple of years put a spanner in many people’s plans and routines, for Matthewson it was no different — with the soon to be released Null very much a product of the global Covid pandemic.
After a break from writing, following the release of Loved, the band started work on material for a follow up. Once Covid turned the world upside down however Matthewson found himself unsatisfied with the results. “It didn’t feel urgent or relevant enough for my headspace by month 3 of lockdown,” he explains.
So it was back to the drawing board. All the upheaval did have one silver lining for Matthewson though. “It afforded me the time to learn how to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) and begin constructing pre-production demos for songs that I could write entirely on my own using midi drums and amp simulators,” he says.
With this new approach, Matthewson started putting together tracks for the record himself before bringing in the rest of the band. “We were able to get together in-between additional lockdown periods,” he says.
“Love Letter” opens the new album — something of a callback to their last record. As Matthewson puts it, “Love is a fascinating human made construct. A wild motivator and drive of self-worth for the individual, which we enjoy playing around with.”
Don’t expect kittens and rainbows — this is KEN Mode after all and theirs is a musical world that can leave the listener with abrasions.
The album is also an opportunity for the band to evolve and advance. Listeners will notice the use of saxophone becoming more of an integral part of their sound.
Matthewson explains that back in 2016/17 he found himself increasingly inspired by jazz.
“I go through phases where certain genres/styles feel more dangerous and thrilling to me than others, which is really dictated by whatever is coming out any given year. It just so happens, that year I did more of a dive into listening to jazz, and it came out in our song-writing,” he says.
Reflecting this new focus, saxophonist/ multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr was made a permanent member for this phase in the band’s career. “Now that we’ve got the taste for saxophone, it’s hard to stop…it’s just such a violent sounding instrument when used the way we’re using it,” Matthewson continues.
Over their twenty-three years together as a band, KEN Mode have often actively looked for ways to broaden their sound.
“Varied sonic elements certainly help us keep things interesting for ourselves,” Matthewson says. Before the latest record the band had a consistent way of incorporating additional instrumentation. “Historically, we’ve written songs as a three piece, then tried to fit additional elements into the songs after the fact,” he says.
In the end Matthewson decided this approach was too limiting.
“By approaching it that way, we usually filled most of the sonic space already, and didn’t really know how to approach fitting much more,” he says.
For Null the band set out from the start to integrate the varied sonic elements.
“I had the additional instrumentation in mind from the very beginning, and was able to workshop it as I constructed the riffs piece by piece, which I feel made them fit so much better in the end…we made room, and were able to expand on those sentiments further than we ever have before,” Matthewson says.
Several tracks on the latest album feature striking sounds and tones, not least of which “The Tie” — the track featuring an unsettling, wheezing drone. “That was a synth line that I did on my Moog Matriarch,” explains Matthewson. “We replicated, pitch shifted, EQ’d, then blended it with the original sound. Given everything that was happening with the world, those repetitive, robotic droning type parts really felt at home in the new material.”
Given the careful thought the band gives to the sound of their records it should be no surprise that they also care deeply about the physical medium of music and how their records look.
“I’ve always loved albums that are the total package, and are able to take you on a journey, as a work of art should,” Matthewson says.
While he acknowledges the popularity of streaming music, Matthewson’s not about to give in to the latest trend. “For us, the visual and physical side to making an album is still of the utmost importance,” he says.
“We sequence our albums with LP flips in mind, the artwork is made with the intention of people purchasing a physical product, because that’s the kind of music fans we are.”
Just like any other music fan, Matthewson has a list of bands “forever in the DNA,” as he puts it, and a damn fine list it is too.
“Kittens, Melvins, Today is the Day, Unsane, Drive Like Jehu, Neurosis, the VSS, Black Flag, Dazzling Killmen, Zeni Geva, Big Black, the Jesus Lizard, Swans,” he reels off.
On top of these ever-presents, Matthewson goes on to name a few bands that have
“caused the odd shift,” over the years. “Gorguts, Deathspell Omega, Nine Inch Nails, Pi Recordings, Einstürzende Neubauten,” he continues.
And what if KEN Mode were to team up with one of these great bands? Maybe Steve Austin of Today Is the Day? “I bet I could get Steve to contribute something sometime. It’d be sick to do a song with him and mix down like 10 tracks of his vocals and just build something totally berserk,” Matthewson says. Here’s hoping.
For now though the band has their new record to promote, with a North American tour kicking off on September 23rd in the band’s hometown, Winnipeg, Caneda, coinciding with the album’s release. Matthewson gives a self-deprecating take on what fans can look forward to from the shows. “Oh, you can expect a four-piece band playing a bunch of songs that were written by a three-piece band!”
Given the constant evolution of the band, it should be no surprise that Matthewson readily took to the challenge of updating the band’s older material to fit the new lineup.
“It was pretty entertaining trying to come up with tasteful parts for Kathryn to play on a bunch of our old material, so it didn’t seem completely ridiculous,” he says.
With the release of Null just around the corner, Matthewson has every reason to be enthusiastic.
“I just hope people check out the new record, and if you like it, check out a CD or LP! Every little bit helps,” he says. “I know I’m basically going to treat our upcoming dates like a shopping spree for a bunch of the bands we’re playing with. It’s going to be great!”
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INTERVIEW BY TOM OSMAN