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20 Years of Noise // A KEN mode Retrospective

Jesse of KEN mode joins us for an extensive retrospective on the band's storied career!

8 months ago

The Matrix sequels were in cinemas, Apple launched something called the iTunes Store and everyone was reading the bloody DaVinci Code. Do you remember what you were doing in 2003? I was finding my way in the television industry and getting paid below minimum wage at a well-known music channel. I was also going out a lot, partying too much and waking up in places I wasn’t overly familiar with. Oh, the joys of being a twentysomething in London.

Canada’s KEN mode, however, had their shit locked down in 2003. They had just released their debut album, Mongrel, on Escape Artist Records and were touring with the likes of Burnt By The Sun, The End, Pelican and Mastodon. Brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson have always taken things a bit more seriously than others. Maybe it comes from their classical training at The Royal Conservatory of Music, or their savvy financial and business knowledge (they now run their own management company). This focussed approach is certainly the reason why they are still going strong twenty years later and have just released their latest album Void on Artoffact Records.

We’ll get to Void a little bit later, but first we’re going to turn back the clock and run through the bands extensive and varied back catalogue. That’s nine LPs released over a twenty-year stretch. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I was lucky enough to get some thoughts and opinions from Jesse (Vocals & Guitar) on their own releases. So, let’s start at the beginning…

MONGREL – Escape Artist Records - 2003  

I remember when Mongrel was released, mainly due to its striking Aaron Turner artwork and a band name that I didn’t fully understand (yes, I know about the Black Flag reference now). I checked it out and was pretty taken with the erratic noisecore within. OK, it was rough around the edges, but there was also a lot going on in these songs, with abrupt time changes and claustrophobic guitar work. There was obvious potential on show, but it felt a little haphazard, like a lot of debut albums often do.

I asked Jesse how he felt about their debut album now. Has it stood the test of time?

Jesse: This album has always been a little frustrating for us. We were very much still children when we made this album…had never been in a studio before. We got hooked up with a producer in town who got the stamp of approval from friends of ours, and he pawned us off on underlings working at his studio, who had no idea how to record heavy music like ours, and then they further fumbled our mix off to their metal guy, who although his heart was in the right place, he didn’t understand what we did either. We left the whole experience not feeling good but had spent all the money we had in the world. I don’t like the recording of this album, but I do feel some of the riffs stand up. I just wish our city had a legit producer who understood our community of music at the time. I don’t know. Maybe the immaturity of it all is part of the charm.

With the benefit of hindsight and 20 years of experience in the music industry, what advice would he give his younger self?

Jesse: I would have saved up for longer, and either travelled to Minneapolis to work with Tim Mac or tried to actively fund raise and work with Matt Bayles before making this record. We got to work with Matt on our Entrench record, and I couldn’t imagine what kind of path we would have ended up on if he would have worked with us back in 2001/02.

REPRISAL – Escape Artist Records – 2006

KEN mode nailed down and honed their sound with their second release. Reprisal was more focused and had a crisper, sharper production that let the bands complexity shine through. But was this a concerted effort on their part or was it just a natural progression?

Jesse: Natural progression, and we lined up with an engineer who knew how to record heavier sounds this time. Craig Boychuk is a Steve Albini disciple, and he knows how to get tones, and capture what you’re all about. At this stage, we’d started to tour both Canada and the US, so I think we were understanding what we needed to become a little better.

Did the extensive touring and being on the road effect the writing process for this record?

Jesse: It likely did. I know it made us a tighter band, as happens when you play your songs over and over. Shane and I also started to get more of a vision for what we wanted out of this band, at least from a performance perspective. Unfortunately, we tracked Reprisal under relative haste, as we parted ways with our original bassist, Darryl Laxdal. We only booked two days to do all of the bass and drum tracks, which I think could have used a little more time.

MENNONITE – Arctodus Records – 2008

This album saw Jaheem Russell coming in on bass duties. Just one of the many changes of bass player over the course of KEN mode’s career. With Shane and Jesse ever-present, I wondered if the revolving door of bass players has helped or hindered the band?

Jesse: Definitely hindered the band. Jahmeel filled in for us in the wake of Darryl being gone, and the band really didn’t have any direction. This recording session was super condensed - Jahmeel came to Winnipeg for 2 weeks, we took a bunch of ideas I had, wrote extra parts for them, put songs together, and recorded all of the output. Quick and dirty, but honestly, it feels like the first “professional” sounding album we had made. But to further comment on the bass player cycle, we didn’t tour from 2007 into 2008, nor hardly played any local shows, simply because we didn’t really have a bassist at the time.

This album features a track called "The Goat", one of the first slow and epic songs KEN mode released. Clocking in at just over nine minutes long it stands out on an album of relatively short and frantic songs and is a monstrous way to end the album. I asked Jesse where the influence for the song came from and if it gave them a hunger to write longer tracks on future records?

Jesse: We’d flirted with the concept before with ‘Likeliness is Against You’ on Mongrel and ‘Capricorn’ on Reprisal’, but I do feel like ‘The Goat’ has a certain quality that attracts people to it a little more than those songs. Probably the blues riff? Or maybe the Godflesh-esque bridge? If anything, this song was our first taste at playing around with different instrumentation, utilising keyboards, acoustic guitar, cello (which I played on this song - and I don’t know how to play cello).

Originally Mennonite was self-released on Arctodus Records. Why did the band decide to release this record on their own label?

Jesse: I had delusions that I wanted to run a label at one point, and at the time we had chatted with both Escape Artist Records (who had done the first two) and Good Fellow Records (Cursed, Every Time I Die, etc), and both labels kind of folded right around this time. I decided to just go for it, and boy was that a mistake, haha. A lot of people thought we broke up around this time, or just disappeared. I didn’t know what went into doing a label properly at all!

VENERABLE – Profound Lore Records – 2011

Ken mode’s fourth album, Venerable, catapulted the band to new heights, winning a Juno award for 2012 Best Heavy Metal/Hard Music album, beating a certain Devin Townsend to the prize. Did this win surprise the band and what is their opinion about awards in the music industry?

Jesse: Huge surprise. We were definitely the underdogs for this award, and it is STILL wild thinking about the fact that we won. Ultimately, awards like this are nice, and legitimise what you’re doing for people in your family that don’t really understand underground music and what it’s all about. The only reason I’d like to win another one is so Skot (bass and backing vocals) and Kathryn (saxophone, piano, synth, backing vocals) can get similar kudos with their respective families.

KEN mode worked with Kurt Ballou (Production) and Alan Douches (Mastering) for the album. What some would consider the holy grail of hardcore music production. Did the band learn a lot from these two masters in their field?

Jesse: Kurt was the first “producer” we ever worked with, and the experience was invaluable. Hell, I learned I had been playing guitar in the studio, like, a hint ahead of the beat. We experimented more with tone on this album than we ever had before, and overall, just wanted to make this album a culmination of the first ten years of KEN mode wrapped up into the perfect package. 

ENTRENCH – Season of Mist – 2013

Entrench is such an intense album with only a few moments of respite. I wanted to understand where the aggression came from and was renowned Producer Matt Bayles (Botch, Burnt By The Sun) responsible for this relentless intensity?

Jesse: We had written all the songs beforehand, it’s more just the combo of Shane, Andrew (LaCour, bass) and I working together. There’s definitely a tension about it, which was reflected in the music. Matt (Bayles) is just a meticulous engineer/producer, and Shane and I actually loved his process. It was exactly what we wanted and needed at the time.

Was there a pressure to repeat the achievements of Venerable?

Jesse: Nah, we just wanted to make a record that was undeniable and wanted to be able to tour full time off of it. We obviously felt like we had to take things to the next level with this album, and I definitely feel like we were able to achieve that, in part due to our relentless tour schedule. I think we did like 225 shows in 365 days that year. We were on the road most of that year.

What made you decide to use extra instrumentation on Entrench, and do you feel this was part of the band maturing? 

Jesse: It was something I’d wanted to do before, but the big thing that we were afforded with this recording session was time. We just won the Juno, so I took my shot at trying to apply for some Canadian recording grants - which ended up being successful. As a result, we were able to pay for an album that we never would have been able to make on our own. I think we spent 3 weeks tracking, and one week mixing. Having that extra time, we got to play around with piano, strings, etc in the studio to see if it would work. 

SUCCESS – Season of Mist - 2015

Success saw KEN Mode move in a different direction in terms of their sound, embracing noise rock and employing Steve Albini on production duties. It received mixed reviews, with some negative press for the first time in their career. Eight years on, I wanted to know how the band feel looking back on this album.

Jesse: It was the record we wanted to make at the time, and definitely shot ourselves in the foot in the process, haha…but then again, we started to notice the cool/hip publications falling off near the end of the Entrench cycle anyway. Music like ours isn’t cool. We as people, aren’t cool. It wasn’t meant to be.

“Blessed”, the first track from Success, is still a part of the bands live set and requires Jesse to swap his guitar for a bass to reproduce its thunderous distortion. The track also features a guest vocal performance from the one and only Eugene S. Robinson of Oxbow. How did this collaboration come about?

Jesse: I don’t even remember how it came about. I think I just messaged him, and he was into it. We sent him demos of the song and gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted. He sent back 4-5 vocal tracks that all tied together and told me to sort out how we wanted to arrange it - so I did. It’s still so cool that we have this performance. We play it as a sample when we play live, and Shane always tests our sample pad with Eugene’s voice. It’s beautifully unnerving.

LOVED – Artoffact Records - 2018

I’m not sure if you can call Loved a comeback record, but it restored KEN mode to where they are most effective in terms of aggression and intensity. It’s an incredibly dark album, including the disturbing Randy Ortiz artwork titled ‘Happy Person Making Pleasant Conversation in Public’, which Jesse notes had a huge influence on the record itself. Loved is also the first album to feature Kathryn Kerr (saxophone, synth, piano, backing vocals), who is now a bona fide signed up member of KEN mode. When was the decision made to bring Kathryn into the band full-time?

Jesse: We only made that decision when we asked her if she was down for the Null/Void sessions. She only did 3 tracks with us on Loved, so it didn’t really make sense to bring her as a touring member of the band at the time. We weren’t making the kind of money as a band that we could afford to bring another person out for so little work, haha.

Album closer “No Gentle Art” is now the bands go to song for a live finale, with it’s undulating saxophone hooks and tortured chorus of “STOP GIVING ME HOPE!” Did they think this would be the case when it was written?

Jesse: Oh, absolutely. We knew when we finished this song that we had a set closer to retire ‘Never Was’ from our Venerable record. 

NULL / VOID – Artoffact Records - 2022 & 2023

We’re nearly up to date and I’m putting the latest two releases together, because they were pretty much written at the same time. The Covid lockdowns meant that the band had even more time to flex their writing muscles. At what point did they decide “We’ve got enough material for two albums here!”?

Jesse: Quite literally it was just before we tracked it. We initially intended to record in the summer of 2021, but Canada still hadn’t opened its borders to non-essential workers by May of 2021 - so we needed to make the call to delay the session, as we weren’t certain we could get Andrew Schneider into the country to record it. We pushed it back to October, and as a result, had another 6 months to keep writing. By the time Andrew made it up here, we had 75 minutes of music to work with.

Null and Void is not a double album release, but did the band ever consider this approach or was it just too risky? 

Jesse: I thought doing a double album was riskier, from a financial perspective. I don’t think there’s that many people who want to hear 75 minutes of what we do straight, and just knowing the stats of streaming culture - you’re lucky if your average fan actually listens to an entire A side of an LP (4 songs?). I didn’t want to throw away 75% of a double LP, as the material felt too strong…and really, the material was variable enough that I felt we could get away with making two albums that had their own feeling and flavour. It kind of seems like it worked, though I do know the sales of VOID maybe haven’t been as good as NULL yet. I think we need to do more touring in North America to drive that home. 

Null is an extremely emotive record. It seems like a very personal journey for you (Jesse) in particular. Do you find it cathartic to air your inner thoughts and feelings in this way? 

 Jesse: Absolutely. The writing for Null/Void was also divided in terms of how the material came together. Much of Null was written alone during lockdowns. Then as restrictions were lifting more and more, we were able to get together as a band again. As a result, the material that would become Void was much more collaborative. From a lyrical perspective, they simply needed to be this way. Anything less personal felt like it was cheating the period we were living in, cheating the art we were creating. I needed every word to ring out as honest and raw and real. 

Void is one of the most melancholy KEN mode albums to date. Is this moodier vibe something we could hear more from the band in the future?

 Jesse: Who knows! The material was more melancholy and melodic as a direct response to the Null material, as we were literally writing this all as though it was one work, one movement. We didn’t want to repeat any of the sentiments. Void’s vibe shift was necessary to not make the same album twice. This vibe has always been in our sound, we just so happened to lean a little harder on this material to not be bored with the process and try to create something that felt unique. I’m glad people are picking up on it, and appreciating the subtle evolution we have from album to album.

With the records coming out almost exactly 12 months apart, how have the band found dealing with releases so close to each other? I imagine press commitments (like this one), merch design and touring arrangements have been intense.

 Jesse: Oh, definitely. It feels like we never stopped the album cycle. Press from one ran into the other…but with it, we’re starting to get more opportunities that hadn’t been there for the past few albums. We got to do Roadburn this year, Decibel Metal and Beer fest is coming up, we’re already booking a bunch of rad fests for 2024. We’re just stoked to be invited to the table on this front. Hopefully giving a strong one/two punch allows us to maintain this level of cool opportunities for a few years, so we can get some space to write a proper, well thought out follow up.

All that’s left is one last question…the big one! After nine albums and twenty years of releases does Jesse have a favourite KEN mode album?

 Jesse: If my answer wasn’t Null/Void, I should quit. Null/Void are the best executions we’ve made to date, and it was my first taste of doing full extensive/exhaustive pre-production demos. I am beyond stoked to see what’s next and how I’ll use my newfound skills and tools. I’m also excited to get Kathryn more involved in the writing process, as many of the parts she played on Null/Void were written by Skot and I, shy of her sax parts - which she composed entirely. I want to see what kind of chemistry we can conjure up.

The future looks pretty exciting for KEN mode, but it’s also clear to see that the band are in a great place right here, right now. The two excellent new releases appear to have energised the group and made them a tighter unit. I strongly suggest you catch them on the road if you get a chance, the Null/Void material really stands out and the live saxophone is a stunning addition.

Twenty years may have passed, but man, do they have a lot to show for it. The band have grown in confidence, maturity and expression in that time. They have tasted success as well as overcoming the occasional obstacle and misstep. All these experiences have helped make KEN mode who they are today, and I don’t think they would have it any other way.                

Phil Knock

Published 8 months ago