KEN mode are an ugly, thundering behemoth of a band. Born a grind-and-gurn mix of noise-rock and chaotic, metallic hardcore, the band have since pushed at those parameters to incorporate a broader array of no less challenging influences.
Both albums were informed by the mental and physical realities of the pandemic. While these circumstances impacted pretty much all art created since 2020 it seems to me that they’re exploring different internal and external facets of a situation that has done us all a whole heap of damage.
So this interview touches on that, but also what multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr has brought to the table and how the band’s outlook and approach have changed as the years have worn on.
All answers courtesy of guitarist/vocalist Jesse Matthewson.
So VOID, if I’ve got things right, was written and recorded at around the same time as last year’s NULL. Can you tell us how you went about parsing the material, and figuring out what went where? Were they written/recorded with two separate records in mind, and were you at all tempted to go all Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and release them as a double-album of pure misery?
Jesse: Written and recorded at the exact same time. Honestly – we wrote it all as though it was one chunk of material for one album, while also acknowledging that we could never humour making a mega double album like you mentioned. It’s a commercial and artistic suicide for a band like us. People don’t want 75 minutes of us at the same time. I know the stats. Most people only ever listen to side A of an LP. If they’re streaming? You’re lucky if you get 25% of an album. We didn’t want to throw 56 minutes of music directly in the trash, so we split them up into two distinct works, that flow together as one.
How do you feel now, looking back on this material? While the worst of the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us and bands are touring again, it has certainly left some psychic dents. So how do you think it has changed you, and the world within which you operate?
Jesse: I think people are more detached from one another than they were before that whole mess. I know I’m angrier than I was. I’ve lamented in the press that the pandemic undid 10 years’ worth of self betterment and growth, leaving me just as angry as I was in my 20s, only with a body that can no longer take that kind of stress.
Looking back at the material, thankfully I don’t often focus much on the lyrical content while we’re playing it. Musically, I’d much rather focus on this material than any of our older songs, as I feel we’ve shifted over the last five years, and feel like a different band – especially now that we have Kathryn as a regular member.
I feel like the pandemic has left us in an odd place: in the UK at least, people seem to be forgetting that the whole ordeal ever happened (e.g. one moment people were on their doorsteps ‘clapping’ for healthcare staff, now the newspapers are painting nurses and doctors as villains for wanting better pay…) but it has fundamentally rewired us. This is something I think you’re referencing with These Wires. What’s the situation like there in Canada, and has that been different to places you’ve been to while out on the road?
Jesse: I’ve even talked about the fact that artistically, it seemed like so many artists didn’t even want to mention the elephant in the room in their art, coming out of that period of lockdowns and general turmoil. It’s so weird… I get it, we’re all sick of this shit. But it happened, and it fucked people up in a pretty serious way. I know I’m seeing the social ramifications a lot this year… relationships breaking, business arrangements crumbling, everyone on edge constantly. 2020/21 broke something in a lot of people that is simply not being addressed.
I’m actually lucky we’ve been able to tour the way we have since last fall, as that feels like a totally different vibe from everything else going on in society. Everyone is a lot more positive. It’s been such a breath of fresh air getting to reconnect to the music community that was completely sewn shut during the pandemic. It reinstilled my faith in humanity to a degree.
With NULL and VOID you have Kathryn on board as a fully paid-up member of the band. How did that come about, and what do you think she’s brought to KEN mode?
Jesse: Ultimately, she had an interest in hitting the road with us, and the ability to play keys as well, so she has allowed us to see out a lot of our additional instrumentation in the live forum. She had played saxophone on our LOVED record, but it really didn’t make sense to bring a whole extra body on tour with us for only two songs in the set. When the pandemic hit, I had already begun experimenting with synths, and I leaned in throughout 2020. As we continued to write, we added more and more piano. I might have had to buy a few extra pieces of gear, but now we can pull all of this off live – and nothing is more punctuating than live saxophone.
I know Jesse and Shane both studied music, and KEN mode has never shied away from complexity and musicality. Does having someone in the band who takes you out of the ‘traditional’ rock set up offer the chance to flex those chops any more than on previous albums?
Jesse: Oh, it absolutely will. Kathryn is more studied than we are as well – she has a degree in music from the University of Brandon, on saxophone. The true spectacle will happen with the next album, when we actually sit down and try writing as a proper four-piece. We really didn’t know that we’d be a four-piece live band when we set out to write during the pandemic – it just kind of played out that way. The impetus for even incorporating saxophone in the first place was my appreciation for how it’s used in jazz, so maybe we’ll lean even harder on those influences in the future.
I’m always interested to know, when you have a long-established band with its own chemistry/politics etc, what’s it like to bring someone new into the fold (and what’s it like for that person)?
Jesse: I think part of why we even extended the offer to Kathryn was because we got along with her so well. We had a feeling we’d get along in a touring context, but obviously you never know.
To me the music feels even more dense, layered and intricate – I love the almost film noir edge she brings to Not Today, Old Friend so it would be cool to hear a bit about that track.
Jesse: That one was actually one of the last songs we threw together before the recording session. The main bassline was being used in a completely different track prior, and I just wasn’t into the way that song had turned out…so, we tried something different with it. Skot [Hamilton, bass / backing vocals] and I whipped up the second ‘chorus’ style riff, and set out to fill in gaps with other instruments. In the end, this is how it turned out. This sort of feel has always been a part of our sound, we just leaned in a little further on this track. Made a point of keeping way cleaner tones so all of the instruments could layer together well and be heard clearly.
Elsewhere, the ending to A Reluctance Of Being is… intense. What was the vibe like in the room when you were putting that one together?
Jesse: That one I put together in relative isolation haha. Shane provided me with the drum beats as I wrote riffs, but the spiralling insanity was something I started to piece together on my own, and it took its own life in the studio as we got real performances out of Kathryn, Nat, and JP once we had laid down the drums, guitar, and bass. I had a guideline I provided with the demo, but we knew we wanted to add an element of performative build to the crescendo. We did have a lot of fun coaxing the chaos out of everyone while we were in the studio.
One thing that struck me is that for all the tension and for all the heaviness, VOID is actually kinda pretty in places. It’s a very bleak sort of prettiness, admittedly, but that’s nevertheless not a word I’d ordinarily expect to use with KEN mode. Was this a conscious thing, or just what the record demanded?
Jesse: It’s what the mass of material demanded. Because we wrote everything as one large piece for NULL and VOID, and only separated them after everything was mixed, as we continued writing into 2021, we needed the material to fill specific gaps. I didn’t want 75 minutes of material that all sounded the same, so we began leaning in a certain direction, which just so happened to also be driven by my own general feeling about the world. It’s not like we’ve ever shied away from melody, but we definitely allowed it to shine more on this material than we have on any one record before.
Occasionally I’ll get a bit of a slowcore vibe, or, on Not Today, Old Friend a bit of Quarterstick Records (Rodan and The Shipping News both sprang to mind). I was wondering whether any of that figured in your listening at all?
Jesse: Absolutely, that whole crew has always been an influence on us, whether people picked up on it or not. I think the overwhelming distortion and focus on flex sometimes glosses over some of those subtleties for some listeners, but I’m glad those who know, know.
Back in 2011 (yikes) I interviewed you for a metal mag, and you said that Venerable was your attempt at making a ‘truly enjoyable album’. That was a noble aim, but it feels like with NULL and now VOID that you’ve been deliberately going in the opposite direction – a “fuck the casual viewer” kind of thing. Does this track, and have your motivations changed?
Jesse: haha, that feels apt. Back in 2011, we wanted our band to try to reach as many people as would have us. We had a goal of propelling it to anyone who’d listen, and just wanted to be acknowledged. We got chewed up and spit out a bit by the industry, and are all back working office jobs. What we do now is 100% for artistic satiation. We don’t make a living at this, nor will we ever go back to trying. Our main goal now is to do meaningful things with this band if we can, try to have fun with it, and produce the best representation of where we are at as artists at the time as we can. I feel blessed at this point that both hard work and a degree of luck has afforded us to not have to pour our own money into it to keep it afloat anymore.
In the same interview, you mentioned a bid to ‘climb out of noise-rock obscurity’. I was wondering how you felt that had gone? You’ve won awards, been on magazine covers and every release seems to receive critical acclaim, but I was wondering how that translated into audiences and record sales? Is life as KEN mode getting easier at all?
Jesse: I believe we have. I think right now we’re probably more popular than our sound should dictate. We have very meager record sales, and audiences actually seem to be on the rise, so I have nothing to complain about. We don’t have delusions of grandeur, nor feel like we’re owed anything. I do feel like we have more work to do. We’ve never had great presence in the UK or parts of Europe, which I’d like to fix. I’d love to get record sales up. But along with that, comes expectation, so…I don’t know. It’s nice that the songs that pop the hardest live are all the newest stuff. As an artist, that is the way we’d all prefer it to be.
I think it’s a pretty rare thing that a rock band gets better as they get older, or even manages to retain the same sort of purpose and power that drove their earlier releases. KEN mode has somehow nailed it. What’s the secret? What keeps you moving forward?
I think we’re maybe late bloomers? Maybe it’s because I still care so goddamn much? Another major thing… with never having any real commercial success, you never get in that cool club, and start chasing being popular or cool. It always seems like the moment you get any traction, all the other “cool” folks want to be your friend, and everyone acts like the more records you sell, the better your art is – when most of the time, that’s just absolutely false. All of the bands I turn to for my own listening pleasure most of the time are bands with like 2,000-5,000 monthly listeners on streaming services. You need to keep current. You need to never lose that hunger for uncompromising art. I feel like that’s how you keep things fresh. Too many people get older, get other responsibilities, and lose touch with what younger, newer people on the scene are doing. That’s the only way you don’t become frozen in time.
One vibe I’ve always got from KEN mode is that there’s a sense of frustration at play. That and the general feeling that things could snap at any moment. Are the same things still riling you now, or is it a new set of concerns and aggravations with each step forward?
Jesse: Oh, it’s certainly not the same things riling us, but unfortunately, some people just have a level of intensity that they can’t lose. Maybe when we’re >65 and our testosterone takes a dip? I don’t know… my dad is still an intense personality. I’ve tried to squash it with muay thai, therapy, music… it’s still here. Maybe we’re getting even better at concentrating this energy and conveying it through our music, so it doesn’t poison other aspects of day-to-day life.
What’s next for KEN mode? What are your more immediate plans, and where do you see things heading in the longer-term?
Jesse: Immediate: touring to support NULL/VOID. We are in Europe for three weeks, then home for a couple, then out supporting Baroness for five shows, and doing a couple solo ones, then closing out the year at Decibel Metal and Beer Fest in Denver. After that, 2024 is wide open. We’re trying to work on more fests in Europe for next year, and I want to do a proper UK tour as well. Other than that, I just need to find my groove for writing again. I need to make new music, and it needs to be a further evolution from where we are now. We had a bit of a session in the summer and got some good ideas down, but I don’t know if we’re far enough removed from living in this NULL/VOID period yet. It probably doesn’t help that VOID isn’t out yet, and I’m in the middle of doing press for this same writing and recording period two years after we finished these works. But I’ll get where I need to. I always do.
Anything you’d like to add at all?
Thank YOU! All I end every interview with now is I ask people to buy physical media if you can afford it. These things go a long way to us making more records.