KEN mode's Jesse Matthewson knows the exact moment his life changed. It was Boxing Day 1993, in suburban Winnipeg, Manitoba, when his father handed him a cassette tape of Nirvana's In Utero.
"From the opening kick drum of 'Scentless Apprentice' and then the climbing guitar line when Kurt Cobain started screaming, all the hair on my arms stood up," recalls Matthewson. "It quite literally changed my life."
The future guitarist-singer was just 12 years old at the time, but his life — along with his 10-year-old brother Shane's — was abruptly set on a new path. Throughout the following year the Matthewson brothers embarked on a deep exploration of Nineties underground music. They scoured Michael Azerrad's Nirvana biography Come As You Are for references to Cobain's influences, then sought out music by those artists, which resulted in the Matthewsons' abiding, lifelong love affair with bands including the Melvins, the Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Dazzling Killmen, Cop Shoot Cop and Today Is the Day.
The brothers' transition from music fans to creators came two years later, when Jesse and drummer Shane linked up with bassist Darryl Laxdal, and started knocking around on instruments. By 1999 the trio had officially christened their effort KEN mode, short for "kill everyone now" — a catchphrase for the ethic of going all-out to deliver an amazing show that Jesse borrowed from Get in the Van, Henry Rollins' tour diary from his days in Black Flag.
Though KEN mode started out, predictably enough, as a crude vehicle for teenage angst, it didn't take long for the music to develop into a highly cerebral blend of noise, metal, hardcore and sludge, with the band shifting the balance of those elements on each album in a constant search for fresh ways to present its sound.
It speaks to the breadth of KEN mode's creative range that the band has been able to tour with a variety of cutting-edge acts including Russian Circles, Full of Hell, Revocation, Fuck the Facts and Child Bite. On the other hand, the band has also won a Juno award, arguably Canada's most visible form of musical recognition, coming away with the "Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year" trophy for their album Venerable in 2012, the first year the category was introduced by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Still, KEN mode's career has, by necessity, been an exercise in thrift. Shane deadpans that "you can make more money being a meter maid" than what he and his brother have netted playing music. Here, it's helped that the two of them share a background in what just may be one of the least rock & roll of professions: accounting. KEN mode aren't the only musicians finding themselves contending with the new millennium's drastically altered commercial landscape, but Jesse and Shane have found a way that works for them, and are willing to pass along that info.
"The biggest thing that we've kept tight reins on — and that we're constantly encouraging other bands in a similar boat — is to do as much of the stuff that's required to put out and promote an album yourself," says Shane. "We've been pretty DIY from the start ... The only job that we've ever really outsourced on tour is sound, because you can't do sound for yourself. But if we could, we would! [Laughs]"
"I often see bands that take these little steps up and they're very quick to start giving their money away to other people," he continues. "All of a sudden there are three techs on tour, there has to be a merch person, and there has to be a tour manager. I don't get how it's not apparent to everyone, but admittedly, when you're the fuckin' accountant-slash-heavy-metal-musician, you're going to have a unique perspective on it. I'm cheap as fuck. I'm the cheapest person in the history of the world." He laughs.
Revolver spoke to the Matthewson brothers on a phone call from their office in Winnipeg shortly before the release of their new album Loved (out August 31st via Season of Mist). In the conversation below, the brothers dive into a wide range of topics, from their earliest noise-rock obsessions to how their day jobs are crucial to KEN mode's survival to why "there's not a lot to do but play hockey or play music" in their hometown.
WHAT KIND OF DYNAMIC DOES BEING SIBLINGS CREATE FOR ANOTHER PERSON, PARTICULARLY SINCE LOVED IS THE THIRD ALBUM WHERE YOUR BASSIST IS MORE INVOLVED IN THE WRITING PROCESS?
JESSE I feel bad for everyone who's been in this band. [Laughs]
SHANE Even yourself?
JESSE Yes, especially myself.
SHANE Well that's the important thing. [Both laugh]
JESSE Scott [Hamilton, current KEN mode bassist] is the seventh different person we've worked with over the past 19 years. Granted, he joined four years ago at this point, so he's hardly "the new guy," but still — he's the guy who's been around for four years when we've been around for 15 more than that. I'm sure it's different for him now, but even still, he lives in a different city while Shane and I work out of the same office. Sometimes the communication can be lacking when we have to get that third person's buy-in to do things, but at the same time our history has made it so the third person is always a little bit more apprehensive as to whether or not they were even taken into consideration.
SHANE It's not just our band. I think it takes a special combination of characteristics for anyone to join a band that's been around for a long time. The dynamics are pretty set and you're walking in there and it's admittedly a tough spot to be in. If you try steamrolling and making it too much your own thing, it could create friction. And if you don't present any ideas, you'll feel like just the hired gun. Scott has the right personality and musical ideas, though, so it meshes really well.
WHAT HAS SCOTT BROUGHT TO THE TABLE MUSICALLY?
JESSE Scott has a much heavier noise-rock background, while [former bassist] Andrew [LaCour] was much more on the metal side. Scott has a much deeper understanding of that whole world — basically a generation of music listeners that we were on the very tail end of. A lot of the stuff that we grew up on was stuff that people 10 years older than us were listening to. So even in that realm, we're a little strange. A lot of people our age came to heavy music through different avenues — punk, hardcore and metal — and we got into it from fucked up noise rock at way too young of an age for what would be healthy for anyone. Needless to say, we weren't popular in junior high and high school.
HOW WERE YOU FINDING THAT MUSIC?
JESSE The real starting block was our father buying me a Nirvana In Utero tape for Christmas — essentially because he wanted to hear it. I read the [Michael Azerrad biography] Come As You Are. In that book, Kurt Cobain talks about all the bands they grew up listening to — Black Flag, Scratch Acid, Big Black, the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins — and I'd go and listen to those bands. This is me in seventh grade. At that point, the internet was just kind of starting to become a thing. Weirdos would create fan pages for like three bands. I can't remember if it was our original bassist Darryl or if it was me who found this one fan page dedicated to Cows, Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop. Like, who the fuck would make a page dedicated to that?
SHANE Losers! Nerds! [Laughs]
JESSE But then just based off of the writing, we went and checked all this stuff out at record stores. And back when I was in like eighth or ninth grade, there was this magazine in one of the record stores up here, and they talked about this heavy band that kinda sounded like the Melvins called Kittens. And we found out they were from Winnipeg. That was the first show we ever went to. That was the sort of stuff that made us want to start playing rock instruments — just seeing that people in our city were making that kind of noise.
HOW OFTEN DID BANDS YOU WERE GETTING INTO MAKE IT UP TO WINNIPEG?
JESSE There was a decent number of the bands that would come through once in a while, but they were playing bars so the chances of me ever getting to see them back then were slim to none. The Jesus Lizard came through on the Shot record [in 1996], and I was annoyed that I couldn't go. I know Drive Like Jehu came through in the early Nineties, but I wouldn't have known who they were yet.
ON THE OTHER HAND, YOU MUST'VE GOTTEN EXPOSED TO LOCAL BANDS AND UNDERGROUND CANADIAN BANDS THAT MAYBE THE REST OF THE WORLD OR EVEN THE REST OF CANADA WOULDN'T HAVE KNOWN ABOUT.
JESSE There was definitely a noise-rock scene in Winnipeg in the early and mid-Nineties. The fact that we're an eight-hour drive from Minneapolis — arguably one of the noise-rock hubs of the States — rubbed off on our city. Bands like Kittens, Stagmummer, Meatrack — there were a bunch of strange bands that didn't sound like anything else. Unfortunately, most of the stuff going on that was really cool never toured, so nobody else in the world knows about it. And back then, there were hardly any recording engineers that could do a worthwhile job on music like that, so there's not even really any good recordings of these bands.
SHANE But there's still a lot of bands per capita. There's not a lot to do but play hockey or play music.
AS TWO PEOPLE WITH BACKGROUNDS IN ACCOUNTING, HOW HAVE YOU HAD TO ADAPT YOUR APPROACH TO THE BUSINESS SIDE OF MUSIC?
SHANE The biggest thing that we've kept tight reins on — and that we're constantly encouraging other bands in a similar boat — is to do as much of the stuff that's required to put out and promote an album yourself. We've been pretty DIY from the start, so we have a pretty realistic outlook on the money side of it and we adjust accordingly. The only job that we've ever really outsourced on tour is sound, because you can't do sound for yourself. But if we could, we would! [Laughs]
I often see bands that take these little steps up and they're very quick to start giving their money away to other people just to kind of play the role. You take one step up to playing bigger venues and all of a sudden there are three techs on tour, there has to be a merch person, and there has to be a tour manager. I don't get how it's not apparent to everyone [that that isn't practical], but admittedly, when you're the fuckin' accountant-slash-heavy-metal-musician, you're going to have a unique perspective on it. I'm cheap as fuck. I'm the cheapest person in the history of the world. [Laughs]
IF YOU HADN'T FOUND YOUR ACCOUNTANT/MUSICIAN NICHE, WHAT WOULD THE OTHER JOB PROSPECTS HAVE BEEN FOR YOU GUYS IN WINNIPEG?
JESSE In this city, the major industries are things like farming, hydroelectric power, and insurance.
SHANE Yeah, it's a prototypical prairie city. When I was doing my formal accounting training, I had to work for a firm, and most of the clients that I was booked on were big grain companies. So even if I hadn't become an accountant, chances are I would've ended up working for some type of agriculture company — it might have been IT but it would have been related somehow. There are plenty of options if you dig a little deeper, but that's the default. And I vowed early on in my accounting career that I would never work for a grain company.
WHY? WHAT WAS IT THAT YOU WERE SO AVERSE TO?
SHANE Obviously, it's a necessary commodity, but I was 22 and straight out of university doing big audit after big audit at these places. That's all I was being exposed to, so I found it very boring. Had I been thrown on an audit of a place that manufactured busses, maybe I'd have a more sunny outlook on the grain industry … but I wasn't! It was all inventory counts and silos! Realistically, though, when you're dealing with the nuts and bolts of accounting, it may as well be widgets. It's really not that different if you're looking at an inventory obsolescence provision on grain or on Adele's new CD. So admittedly, it's my own baggage from being a young student being bored at work.
YOU'D THINK THAT THAT IMPERSONAL "WIDGET" MENTALITY WOULD HELP YOU BE MORE CLEAR-HEADED WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR OWN CAREER, NO?
SHANE At least with the business decisions, we try to look at it as objectively as possible. You try not to think about it as your art. I keep thinking of our decision to re-press our second album on CD. [Laughs] Just the fact that we have 600 copies of our second album sitting here in the closet — if we'd looked at the numbers a little deeper and didn't think of it as our baby, we would have made a smarter decision. We try to look at the numbers in as objective a way as we can, while kind of still acknowledging that this is a labor of love. Because if you just looked at the numbers, you'd probably quit. You have to strike a balance: What are we trying to accomplish, and how can we at least keep the mistakes to a minimum?
IN OTHER WORDS, YOU'VE LEARNED NOT TO BE TOO PRECIOUS ABOUT YOUR ART, BUT ALSO TO BALANCE BEING REALISTIC WITHOUT BEING DEFEATIST.
SHANE We're not going to pretend that we're just making business decisions here. This is a true business/hobby combo. It's our passion project, but because we've got this background, we can actually make it make sense. So, if this record makes us international superstars, then everybody gets a tech!
JESSE [Laughs] But we're still not quitting our day jobs because we make better money.
SHANE It sounds like we're bragging — you can make better money being a meter maid.
FOR A WHILE, THOUGH, YOUR GIG WAS THE BAND. WHAT'S HAPPENED SINCE THEN?
JESSE We did like five or six years where we were just touring full-time. That was what we did for a living. But that was possible largely because we saved a bunch of money beforehand, and also because of the government subsidies we received. Otherwise, we probably would've had to quit a lot sooner. After the cycle for our last record Success, we threw in the towel on that because we were burnt-out, and it didn't really seem to be going anywhere at that point. If we would've kept trying to beat that dead horse, we probably would have just broken up the band.
SHANE Yeah — for a band of our size, it doesn't make sense being on the road as much as we were. And we were only on the road as much as we were because that's what we were doing full-time. So you're going, 'Even though it might not make sense to play in Market X again, it's either that or sitting at home doing nothing.' We wanted to keep active and stay out there. Now it's a balance between doing a regular job and doing the band.
JESSE But it did allow us to create that regular job for ourselves. Now we handle the business side for bands that make more money than we do.
IT'S VERY OBVIOUS THAT STEVE ALBINI'S PRODUCTION STYLE IS PART OF KEN MODE'S DNA …
JESSE Mm-hmm. I don't really recall connecting with music prior to listening to that In Utero tape on Boxing Day in 1993. I remember, from the opening kick drum of "Scentless Apprentice" and then the climbing guitar line when Kurt Cobain started screaming, all the hair on my arms stood up. It quite literally changed my life.
SO AFTER WORKING WITH HIM ON 2015'S SUCCESS, WHAT WERE YOU LOOKING TO DO DIFFERENTLY THIS TIME?
JESSE We've basically just been going down on a bucket list of people we've wanted to work with. I know we're starting to get a bit of a reputation because we work with a different person every record. Some people might construe that as us being dissatisfied, but that's completely contrary to how we feel. We're genuine fans of the production style of the people we've worked with. Part of making a new album is trying to see what someone's own spin would be on how they'd record it. We'd been talking to [Loved producer-engineer-mixer] Andrew Schneider for years. He was exactly what we needed at the right time. Even on the mixing, he put in way more hours than he probably should have, but he's an artist and he has a standard he wants to live up to.
FIVE SONGS ON 2013'S ENTRENCH HAVE PIANO ON THEM. YOU SPOKE AROUND THAT TIME OF WANTING TO TAKE MORE CHANCES. THE NEW ALBUM FEATURES SAXOPHONE BY KATHRYN KERR. WHAT WOULD YOU STILL LIKE TO EXPLORE?
JESSE It's tricky trying to fit more sounds into the space that we're working with because we tend to fill a lot of space with our tone and the style of our riffing. We did a pre-production session in May of last year where we had cello along with saxophone, but we just kinda felt like the cello parts didn't really add anything. If anything, it made some of the sections a little muddier.
We also had all these ideas to use additional percussion throughout the record, and we got to experiment a little bit but we ran out of time. Who knows where we could have landed if we'd had more, but I guess that's an area that we could explore with whatever we do next. The day that we stop messing with the standard format of guitar, rock-driven extreme music is the day we should probably call it quits. You should always be fucking with what you're trying to accomplish, right?
YOUR MUSIC HAS ALWAYS SEEMED TO HAVE MORE LAYERS THAN JUST "ANGER" OR "DARKNESS."
JESSE That's a hundred percent the truth. We've always been an aggressive band, but not necessarily angry. That's been something I've had to explain to people when we meet them outside of the context of the band. We're pretty mild, somewhat laid-back people. You wouldn't expect us to be the type of people who create the music that we do. I mean, we're fuckin' accountants! Shy of the tattoos I have, you wouldn't really expect that that's what we do for fun. When you explain what's driving the music, it's not angry music. It's aggressive, but there's not necessarily an anger that's driving that. Aggression is a very complicated feeling to have to navigate through, and music like this can help you get through that without doing something damaging.
HOW LIKELY WERE YOU TO HAVE DONE "SOMETHING DAMAGING" HAD YOU NOT HAD MUSIC?
JESSE I know I'm not the type to do something destructive to others. That's never really been my style, nor is that the way my body and psychology react. I've struggled with depressive episodes throughout my life, so it would be more so directed inward. I don't even know if I'd necessarily do harm to myself, but if that energy wasn't being expressed in some way, I know that [a heavy] toll would be taken on me. It would probably just be through far worse crippling depression in a very un-productive way. [Laughs] I'd rather get that out doing something like this. As I've aged, I've needed to supplement the music with physical exercise. I need it to function as a human. I've been doing Muay Thai for the past 11 years. Martial arts are very similar to music in that you're a student for life. With both, it's really cool to feel like you're constantly growing as a person.