“Go big or go home” is the maxim that the Western Canadian band KEN mode apply. Their fifth album Entrench (out this week on Season Of Mist) continues the evolution of their unique fusion of ferocious noise rock, tense hardcore punk, and boisterous sludge metal. In support of that release, the trio is currently on intensive tour across the US and Canada delivering one formidable show after another. Luckily, amid all the fuss around the band the guitarist and singer Jesse Matthewson found a moment to answer my questions.
1 – KEN mode is a rather controversial name. What inspired you to name your band like that? Why do you think it fits your style so well?
KEN mode is a tag line that Henry Rollins used to name the psychological state of mind that Black Flag was in while touring for the My War album. They’d been tied up by legal battles with a major for several years and were unable to release the album, and thus to properly tour (being that touring gets stale with no new music to sell). They were finally free again, had a new record, and were taking the stage with a ferocity HOUR dubbed “Kill Everyone Now mode” as that was their agenda. They were in KEN mode all the time.
We tend to approach the band in a similar way, and I’ve even taken it that step further to have the phrase relate to a way that one approaches their life. Do something with meaning; with passion…we’re only here once, make it matter.
I can’t help but laugh when people get unreasonably bent out of shape over our name. Some think it has to do with Barbie, Street Fighter, or some dude named Ken, then immediately start hating on us. Maybe these people need better diets or need to get laid more, I’m not sure.
2 – Since Venerable has won Canada’s JUNO Award for Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year, the expectations for your new release have been really high. Did that award actually change anything in the long run? How did you handle the potential pressure?
The award undoubtedly gave people some new marketing material when talking about the band, and allowed us to access funding that we may not have been able to had we not won – thus allowing us to record the record the way we did. Pressure wise, I just really wanted to take advantage of whatever benefits we could for both ourselves and the people who believe in us. It’d be a wasted opportunity if we sat back and didn’t follow through. Go big or go home. We’ll see where this record takes us.
3 – On SputnikMusic, we’ve had the discussion about KEN mode’s genre which is not easy to pin down because of many influences you guys embrace. I think we settled on the fairly niche term ‘noisecore’. How would you actually define KEN mode’s style?
Haha, I’ve actually seen you guys arguing about it. KEN mode has never really ascribed to any one genre. We’re influenced by noise rock bands of the 80’s and 90’s, but also by hardcore, metal, indie rock, post rock, and all of their various sub-genres. To get annoying, I keep saying we’re metallic noise rock influenced hardcore.
When I think ‘noisecore’ I think the crazy spazzy riffed hardcore/metal of the early 00’s, ala the Dillinger Escape Plan and the multitude of bands that they influenced…we have elements of that, but I think there’s so much more going on in our music, and I think that’s what some people both like and hate about us.
4 – Your live concerts are reported to be extremely energetic and in-your-face. Is it hard for you to transfer this intensity into a focused presentation on an album?
I think we do an okay job on record, but obviously there’s no way for you guys to get hit with the sweat and spit that is frequently flying through the air at our live shows. I think a lot of people are enjoying the live feel that Entrench gives off, as it’s definitely higher-fi than any of our previous works, but still very much feels noisy and raw.
5 – Venerable was produced by Kurt Ballou of Converge, while Entrench is helmed by Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis, Botch). Does the approach of these two renowned producers differ in any way?
Kurt focuses a lot on the tones of each instrument right off the hop when you enter his studio. We spent an entire day of our 7 days of tracking just getting guitar tones. With Matt, we started tracking drums the very first day we entered. He puts mics up, gets settled, and we go. Matt beats things up a lot heavier in the performance area, pushing bands for the best possible performance, which was part of why we wanted to work with him on this record. This isn’t to say that Kurt isn’t picky too, and I’m sure he would work similarly given a longer recording schedule, but this was my specific experience having worked with the two. Both guys have their own sound and feel on recordings, and I think each shine through on their respective records while still being very definitive KEN mode records.
6a- Entrench is marked by its sheer intensity and threatening vibe. How do you strike this perfect balance between ferocity and tension?
Probably mild psychological problems balanced by a certain level of maturity to keep it in check.
6b- What does your songwriting process look like?
Songwriting wise, we always work on the music first and foremost. Someone brings a series of riffs to the table, then we seek out the most appropriate parts on the other two instruments to pull it all together and then jam out a few other ideas to tie the song together. Once the music is complete, I’ll write lyrics, fit it to the music, then tie in a mean inside joke as the song title.
7 – The lyrics on Entrench are bleak and often sarcastic. What inspires you to come up with such ghastly visions?
My lyrics are likely insight to my ability/inability to cope with day to day life, and concepts of growing older/growing up. More and more I see life as a black comedy, where you can either cry about it, or laugh it off.
8 – You’re certainly not afraid of integrating new influences and instrumentation into your music on Entrench, but what are the limits? Are you planning to go into a more experimental direction on your forthcoming records?
Who knows! I definitely would like to experiment with more instrumentation, but where it will go we shall have to see! I really enjoyed putting piano all over this record for texture, so maybe there’ll be an indie rock record next. Or black metal. Time will tell…we have yet to get together to consciously write for our follow up, though I have some ideas on bass and korg that I’d like to explore further.
9 – You’ve decided to make Entrench available on bandcamp, which makes it really easy to stream and purchase. What’s your opinion on such services? How do you prefer to listen to music yourself?
I love bandcamp, especially since it’s growing in popularity. I hope outlets like this can help cut down on piracy, as really, so few artists are making ANY money off of their records. I listen on my ipod mostly these days. Plug it into a big stereo and let it rock…but I still do buy some physical media, just not as much as I used to as I’m on tour a lot.
10- I’m sure that being on tour is an integral part of KEN mode’s existence. What do you like and dislike about it?
I like getting to play for and connect with awesome people all around the world. It’s really cool getting to share something you created with likeminded individuals that you’d otherwise likely never have a reason to meet. Getting no sleep can get pretty tedious though. And no time to yourself. And stinky sock smell. Fuck that.
The entire album is streaming over at bandcamp: