KEN mode Reclaim Their Crown: "We Became Like Poison — Pariahs"
"We're more popular than our type of music dictates. And that's awesome."
Published Sep 21, 2023What do you do when you're a highly respected heavy act who have worked with some of the most sought-after producers in metal and punk, won the inaugural Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year at the JUNOS, and played to devoted fans around the world? Naturally, the next step is to blow it all up.
That's what KEN Mode (a Black Flag reference that stands for "Kill Everything Now") did with the release of their 2015 album, Success. Produced by the ever-prickly Steve Albini, the album baffled fans and divided critics. As lead vocalist/guitarist Jesse Matthewson recalls, "Us doing shows with Baroness [in 2023] is the first time anyone's wanted to take us out [on the road] since 2014, because I think we became like poison. Pariahs."
Since then, KEN Mode have released three crushing, uncompromising albums that have returned the band to the self-described "extreme noise rock" of their earlier work, with their latest record, VOID, arriving on September 22, almost exactly one year after the band's last full-length, 2022's NULL.
The Winnipeg band once again returned to the studio with Andrew Schneider (Unsane, Pelican, Cave In), who has worked with the band since 2018's Loved. As Matthewson notes, "With Andrew, he felt, from a sonic standpoint, like a mixture of the three people [the band worked with] before him, Kurt Ballou, Steve Albini and Matt Bayles. He had a versatility that I've always enjoyed, and I always knew would sound good with us."
VOID is the darker, more self-destructive foil to the bleak and violent NULL, and this dichotomy was essential for the band while recording this latest cycle. Compared to NULL's more solitary composition, VOID was written as a group: while Matthewson composed six of NULL's eight songs on his own, VOID was the reverse, with the band writing six of the eight tracks together. Unsurprisingly, as Matthewson notes, "[VOID] turned into something just completely different. And that was part of it, that was the entire focus of what VOID was all about anyway, because we wrote all this material together."
While the two albums aren't necessarily about the pandemic, they were nonetheless written as a response to the emotions, feelings and experiences that Matthewson was going through during bouts of isolation. Looking at other post-pandemic albums, Matthewson observes, "It was almost like everyone was ignoring the elephant in the room. Like it's clichéd to acknowledge this collective experience we all went through. Meanwhile, with ours, how could you not focus all your attention on what was going on and how you felt and how people were treating one another?"
The songs on VOID reflect this frustration, with Matthewson constantly returning to two words that encapsulated 2021 for him: melancholy and disappointment. He knows first-hand the devastating effect that the pandemic had on performers and artists; his company, MKM Management Services Ltd., which he runs with his brother Shane (KEN Mode's drummer), provides business management, finance, accounting and income tax services to artists, entertainers and small businesses.
During the pandemic, the company had to pivot its approach, helping people to seek out whatever subsidies and funding opportunities were available for artists who couldn't work. Although MKM struggled and took a hit financially, Matthewson views it as very necessary work, making it all the more understandable when he voices his displeasure with how some opportunistic companies have approached the post-lockdown financial landscape. "That's one of the things that I find the most offensive about what's going on now," he says. "It's like everyone's trying to catch up for lost earnings. Like they aren't supposed to eat the shit sandwich that everyone else was eating, and fuck everyone else. Can't we all just acknowledge that we ate a shit sandwich? This concept of nonstop, unending growth is a fucking fallacy."
The two albums take varied approaches to dealing with these feelings of anger, betrayal and frustration — but, most importantly, they are the band's response to an altered world. "This was our reaction to everything that we were experiencing," Matthewson says. "It's not like any of the songs are directly talking about stupid-ass conspiracy theories or anything like that. It's all very much an emotional reaction to how we're feeling and dealing with the crippling depression that came from it, and stripping away all your coping mechanisms."
He continues, "I think all the most honest art that came out over that period was from artists who didn't shy away from what they were going for. I can acknowledge that I had a very privileged approach to the whole thing, sitting up here in Canada. I got off pretty well, out of all this. I just had to deal with my own sadness."
As a result of wildfires in 2021, Matthewson also had to deal with a damaged voice, rendering it almost unusable during some of the band's recording sessions with Schneider. To save time in the studio and give his voice the opportunity to heal, Matthewson purchased a mic preamp identical to the one used at Private Ear Studio in Winnipeg and got to work, recording all of the vocal tracks on NULL and VOID on his own at home. "I got to really micromanage how my voice sounded on all this and do many backing tracks and get more experimental with that," Matthewson says with excitement. "I was left with an experience that I don't ever want to track vocals in the studio again. I think it's the best my voice has ever sounded on a record because I had time. I got to be critical. And I never want to turn back because I'd be foolish to turn back."
VOID's eight tracks see KEN Mode fully embracing genres that they've experimented with in the past but that few listeners would associate with the band, including post-punk, goth and post-rock. As Matthewson puts it, "As we kept progressing through the writing session, we knew VOID had to feel different, and I think we achieved what we were trying to do, where the two albums don't sound the same. Which is good, because that would be just an absolute nightmare for us."
The members of KEN Mode are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their sound, and of themselves, refusing to compromise or adhere to what fans or critics expect of them. Matthewson cites ever-evolving sludge gods Melvins as a primary influence on his approach to music making, and notes how their appeal comes from the fact that they are "consistently inconsistent." He adds, "We don't do this full-time because this type of music doesn't pay the bills. So we're doing this to scratch that artistic itch. And we're trying to do it to the best of our abilities, and if people enjoy it, that is quite literally the icing on the cake."
That desire for artistic diversity and experimentalism is found throughout VOID. Notably, the album once again features the saxophone stylings of Kathryn Kerr, the resident multi-instrumentalist who is the fourth and newest member of the band. While saxophones have been featured in metal and punk for decades (see: Napalm Death, the Birthday Party and John Zorn's band Naked City), Matthewson points out, "In some of the more mainstream examples, when heavier bands use saxophone, it's so fucking campy." For KEN Mode, the instrument isn't something "soothing and calming and corny" — instead, it's used as "a weapon of violence"; less Kenny G and more Coltrane.
Post-lockdown, Matthewson has seen a noticeable shift in the participation of younger individuals in the heavy music scene. Before the pandemic, he noticed that "newer generations weren't really coming out to shows, and I wasn't noticing very many new bands playing artful extreme music." But now, with everyone tired of sitting at home and sinking into apathy and their couches, people have started showing up in a big way. As Matthewson notes, there's been a "whole influx of new bands coming out with exciting new ideas, and a whole new generation of people going to shows who hadn't gone to shows before. I hope they're addicted as all hell to this lifestyle."
For KEN Mode, this aggressive, violent and dark music has always been a way of connecting with other people and building a community of weird, artistic and like-minded individuals. "There's a reason us loser lifers are still doing this shit," he says. "It's addictive, it's fun. It's connecting with real people, which you don't get when you're sitting at home streaming something."
He continues, "I feel like that's what it's always been about: just a bunch of nerds trying to connect over things that they like. And that's why, whenever I see bands pull that rock star bullshit, especially in small scenes — like, who are you fucking kidding? You were a loser in high school, you're a loser now, stop pretending you're the shit. Suck it up, have a little humility. Meet some of the folks that are quite literally paying your way to travel around."
Matthewson remains optimistic about the band's future, including an upcoming European tour and the subsequent North American leg with Baroness. Full of charming self-deprecation, Matthewson is aware that KEN Mode are both hard-working and lucky: "Anytime anything good happens to us, we expect the other shoe to drop. We're very grateful that things are going better than they ever had been this late in the game for us, because we have no real legitimate expectations of anything playing this type of music. Being the age we are and being where we're from, I do know there's a great deal of luck involved. And I won't pretend like we haven't worked hard. We've worked harder than we probably should have. We've been luckier than we probably deserve. And when it's all said and done, I think we're more popular than our type of music dictates. And that's awesome."