KEN Mode Are Back: Heavier, Noisier and Funnier Than Ever

Three years on since the release of Success, Canada’s premiere noise rock experimentalists have returned with their seventh full-length, Loved, and in the space between the albums, a lot has changed in the KEN Mode camp. The trio had, for some time, acted a full-time band, existing on album/touring revenue as well as artist grants available to them. In that time, the band contributed a lot to the music scene, now they want to help others do the same. Founding member siblings Jesse and Shane Matthewson decided to take a step back from touring in order to put their education to good use, setting up MKM Management Services to provide artists with “business management, finance, accounting & income tax, business plan, and grant writing services.”

But whilst the surrounding circumstances may have changed, the trio behind the noise has remained intact. Jesse and Shane have long been the driving force behind the band, but Loved marks bassist Skot Hamilton’s second full-length with KEN Mode, and his input to the writing has suitably been stepped up this time around. Perhaps more than ever, Loved was a collaborative endeavour, but that doesn’t mean the music itself is any friendlier.

KEN Mode’s music is only consistent in that it is seldom predictable, and the music that comprises Loved is once again a slight left-field turn; an unsettling mix of intricacy and raw vitriol, blending lunging riffs with scraping feedback and turbulent rhythms that refuse to get comfortable for too long. Inspired by the unsettling artwork (taken from a piece by Randy Ortiz), the LP is suitably deranged, driven by snotty punk and unhinged noise rock but always underpinned by touches of erratic jazz and disquieting industrial flourishes.

In spite of the overwhelmingly disconcerting aura that surrounds it though, frontman Jesse assures us the album is actually full of inside jokes: “Heavier, noisier, and funnier than ever,” he claims of Loved. Give it a listen below, then read on to find out more about the album, as Jesse discusses MKM, the sinister smile on the cover of Loved, and the deeper themes that run through the album.

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The album itself is largely inspired by the image featured on the cover, what inspiration did you find yourself taking from it? Did you try to stay true to Randy Ortiz’s vision or did you allow your own interpretations to have a role?

I’d say the image maybe fit the mood of the last two years, which was ultimately the main inspiration for the album – but there was a degree of an artistic arms race we were having with the cover image when it came to capturing this mood. The piece demanded the songs be as ugly and terrifying as was possible from us at the time, and due to the fact that I looked into that piece’s eyes every day for a year, I was constantly reminded what my duty was. To Randy, the piece was much more personal – but to us it took on a representation of being a thinking person in 2016/2017/2018.

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In several interviews and press materials, you’ve noted a discontent with the music industry in general. Is this what encouraged you to take a step back and no longer act as a full-time band after the touring that followed Success?

Part of that was burnout, part of it was market exhaustion, another part was we just weren’t having fun being a full-time band anymore. Maybe if we were more popular our attitudes might have been different – but for a band of our size, you can only do the same routes so many times before people start saying “eh, I’ll catch them next time” (note, I added my own Canadian spin on that). The industry itself is maddening, but that undoubtedly spawned our next step anyway.

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You and Shane set up MKM Management Services after touring Success. What sparked the desire to launch your own firm?

The desire to not only use our post-secondary education in the only industry we’ve ever really cared about, but also to be an asset for bands that works from a band’s perspective, coupled with getting to be our own bosses. We’ve slept on floors; we’ve lived off of the working income tax benefit (tax rebates for the working poor in Canada) – we know what this life is like, and we want to help bands so they can have the best shot that they can.

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In a way, MKM combines your musical career with the jobs you had before becoming full-time musicians, which is interesting because you once noted that you don’t firmly fit in with either. Does this mix of both feel more comfortable?

It definitely does. We get to make a difference pretty directly to bands and people within our own musical community, which is a really nice feeling. We’re also in control of our own destinies right now. Once you live that entrepreneur lifestyle (à la running a full-time band), there’s no going back to being someone else’s office stooge. For me, this is ultimately the long game I’ve been playing since I first switched over to the Asper School of Business, almost 20 years ago. I only ever got a business degree because I thought it would be the only way I’d actually be able to make a living being involved in the only industry I actually care about, music.

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Has it affected KEN Mode’s ability to record and tour at all?

We’ll find out this fall! Recording went fine – we were able to put together a more relaxed writing schedule while actually working, with no real deadlines or pressures. Now we’re about to go out and do the first dates in support of the record, so we’ll see just how successful we are at continuing to provide service to our clients while dealing with the rigours of being on the road. We will most likely only ever be able to do very short runs from now on, given it’s hard to run a business when you take off for six weeks at a time – but we’re fine with that. We’ve been available for massive touring stretches for 20 years, and we’re over it now.

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How would you describe the music on Loved? How has it progressed from your previous output?

Heavier, noisier, and funnier than ever. I’d say it’s a marriage between noise rock and extreme metal with certain jazz and industrial influences. I feel the songwriting is still fairly stripped down, raw, and savage – yet the detail and organisation may be more intricate on this album. Lyrically, it’s been a much more collaborative effort all across the board. In the past, all of our lyrical content was much more personal, and entirely written by me. For the last two albums, I’ve been incorporating more writing from my bandmates – but specifically on Loved, we opened it up and used phrases from a lot of people in our surrounding family circles (Shane and I’s father, Skot’s wife Cate, our comedian friend Garrett Jamieson, etc.), along with Skot’s own writings, which I then wove into cohesive narratives using my own writing. It made the whole process much more fun for me, and it turns the whole album into a series of inside jokes with total double meanings throughout.

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Given how particular heavy music fans can be, your musical shifts have probably alienated some fans in the past, and will do again with Loved. Is that something you consider when you start writing the album, or do you try to forget about how something might be received post-release?

We’ve said this a few times while promoting this record – but we’re not the kind of band that sells so many records that taking fan considerations in mind makes any sense. We’re not Slayer. We’re not even a band that makes enough money to really tour as a full-time job. We make these records for ourselves, and anyone enjoying them/caring about the content because it strikes a chord with them is entirely icing on the cake for us. We obviously want to present a professional package, and do the best job we can on projects like this – but this is for us.

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KEN Mode have had a fair few bassists over the years but Skot’s now on his second LP. Did that more established role allow him to contribute more to the songwriting this time around?

A combination of him having been around for four years now, plus just the changing, evolving relationship we have with being in this band. After we stopped touring full time, the concept of this band shifted. We wanted to make it fun again, to be doing music because it’s something that we need to get out of ourselves, and to be playing/spending time with our friends. Skot doesn’t live in the same city as Shane and I, but we decided to keep this structure because he was very much on the same page as we were artistically speaking, and he’s a dear friend of ours – this band is an excuse to get to spend time with him. I feel in terms of chemistry, doing a second LP with Skot definitely had a huge impact on the sound of this record. Riff for riff, this is likely the most collaborative effort we’ve ever put together – or at the very least, since the days of our original bassist, Darryl Laxdal.

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You’ve mentioned that part of the inspiration for this album is how fed up you felt with regards to what modern life has come to represent. Is that an extension of the themes of Success, or is it more informed by the current state of the world in general?

There are residual feelings/humour streams that have continued from Success, but this album has much more to do with the current state of technology, the world, and their effect on mental health. While we were writing Success, we were still living in our rock and roll fantasy camp – a lot more detached from “regular” day to day life as touring and writing was really the only thing we had to do. It was a simpler time. Since the beginning of 2016, we’ve been living much more of a 9-5 working life, and as a result, are a lot more tapped in to what’s going on – which can be horrifying. More and more I think of disconnecting, but I don’t know if that can ever really work with the industry I’ve chosen to make my living in.

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What’s next for yourselves and KEN Mode?

See if we can survive the fall tour schedules in US/Canada/UK/Europe. If we can and not lose our minds/clients, then it’s time to start booking some more small runs for 2019 and just keep this momentum up. We’ll keep plugging away at writing while doing so, and see how this new balance of band/work/life can all work together. We just want to continue making interesting/challenging music with people we care about and have fun doing so. That’s what’s best in life.

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Loved is out now on Season Of Mist. Purchase here.

Words: George Parr (@GeorgeJParr)


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