KEN Mode: "The new showgowers have an enthusiasm the prior generation lacks"
After "NULL"'s explosion and "VOID"'s anticipation, Jesse Matthewson from KEN mode speaks to Rocking.gr for their past and future steps
KEN mode are a band that after many years of a steady uprising career have started to make their voices heard. From the distant and cold Canada, they bring with them an angry and ferocious noise metal, that can touch the soul of even the non regular listener with its exceptional emotional aquity. Their last year's album, "NULL", has brought them to the forefront of extreme music and was accompanied by their amazing performance at the big stage of Roadburn Festival 2023. The mastermind behind KEN mode, Jesse Matthewson, speaks to Rocking.gr about their upcoming album "VOID" a little time before its official release, their latest experiences, the process of keeping up a band with his brother Shane, how the concert world has been formed post pandemic and many more themes.
Hello and welcome to Rocking.gr! In fitting fashion where everyone these days speaks about Barbies and Kens, what does this KEN do? Your KEN mode for sure has a much more sinister meaning, please introduce yourselves to our audience!
This movie is the manifestation of a branding pain in our ass that has followed us for our entire career. We've had hardcore and metal fans thinking our name is associated with Barbie since 1999, and now we get to deal with this with laser focus, haha. We're a band from Winnipeg, Canada, who has been spreading noise since 1999.
A lot has happened during the past few years. The pandemic lead you to composing an album that has left many speechless in the face of "NULL". What does this album mean for you now that you can distance yourselves a little bit from its release and you have experienced its reception?
Honestly, it doesn't really feel like we've been able to distance ourselves at all, as we've been touring the album since last fall, and now we are putting out the 2nd half of this writing/recording session in VOID, so I get to talk about the exact same time frame all over again haha. NULL was the beginning of dealing with what we all faced in the pandemic, VOID was the 2nd half - 2021, entering the fallout…the re-emergence.
Nobody needs a 75-minute album from us…so we divided the material into two separate works
And now, almost a full year later, you are ready for another release with your upcoming album "VOID". "VOID" is meant to be a companion album to "NULL" and they were written at the same time. What led you to this decision and what inspired releasing two companion albums?
Government restrictions and shifting timelines dictated the circumstance that two albums were made instead of one. Initially, we had intended to record in July of 2021 with Andrew Schneider in Winnipeg, but by May we were still unable to bring him up to Canada from New York, as Canada's borders were still closed to non-essential workers. We had to make the call to pivot, pushing the session to later in the year, giving us another 6 months of writing time. So, we continued to write…landing on 75 minutes of new material that we wanted to record. Nobody needs a 75-minute album from us…so we divided the material into two separate works that can be combined to make one statement.
How did you end up releasing the two companion records on different labels?
Both are coming out on Artoffact Records, though our "LOVED" album is a natural predecessor to both, being the first time we worked with Kathryn and Andrew Schneider.
Diving into "VOID", we first see you release a triad of singles, namely "Painless", "I Cannot" which is very descriptive of the aggressiveness of your sound so far and "The Shrike". I can see these songs are musically much closer to "NULL" from the rest of the album, but why did you choose them to greet the album with the audience?
They felt like the most gripping songs to use as singles, and also it helps acclimate listeners to the gradual shift. Since this whole batch of songs is from the same writing session, we wanted to create a sense of flow, even with the singles we chose.
The only thing worse than 75 minutes of music from us, is 75 minutes of music that all sounds the same
There is a darker side to "VOID" though, especially in songs like "These Wires" and the Godflesh - reminding "A Reluctance Of Being" and "He Was A Good Man, He Was A Taxpayer" get much slower than you used to be with your characteristic riffs on the forefront. Almost feels like anger from your previous work sunk into the emptiness of despair beautifully into "VOID". Why did you choose to make this musical shift towards sludgier paths this time?
There is definitely an element of melancholy and deep disappointment on the VOID tracks that builds from anything we've done before – and it's a direct result of the timeline in which it was written. It began in our 3rd lockdown in MB, which lasted almost 6 months, through the darkest and coldest part of winter 2020/21 – leading into the rollout of vaccines and general distasteful division that surrounded all of that.
The shift in songs for the VOID side of this body of work was simply out of necessity to not repeat ourselves throughout the session. The additional melodic injection was so the songs didn't all sound the same…the only thing worse than 75 minutes of music from us, is 75 minutes of music that all sounds the same. As artists we had no interest in that, and from a commercial standpoint, you might as well whittle it down to one album if that's what you're doing.
The recent addition of Kathryn Kerr on the main lineup shines, especially on the last song of "VOID", "Not Today, Old Friend" where her keys and saxophone almost haunt the whole record. How is it for the band now to work along with a female musician? In which way does her artistic point of view broaden your horizons?
In terms of male/female dynamic, Kathryn isn't the first woman we've worked with in the band, so it's not really anything new for us – but having her as an additional member, and being the youngest does help inject a degree of innocent positivity into the mix. Kathryn hasn't toured nearly as extensively as the rest of us, so she's getting to do things she's never done with her musical career right now, which you can't help but have rub off on the rest of us…this upcoming tour in Europe might be no big deal to us, but it's her first – so there will simply be a different vibe about it. Otherwise, Kathryn fits in unnervingly well, which is why it's worked having her in such a long-standing band.
From an artistic point of view - we've only really scratched the surface with Kathryn, as the only parts she's really written in the band are her saxophone lines so far – all of the piano and synth were written by Skot and I. We'll start to expand on her contributions now that we're a proper four piece that can actually jam things out – as opposed to songs being written in a bubble during lockdowns.
The root of so many social relationships is having common activities to partake in
How does it feel, now that you have reached your ninth full release, to be composing music with your brother? How does the family bond translate to KEN mode's music?
I think the larger influence of the family bond is on the longevity of this band. We've been afforded a foundation for the band rooted in the exact same raw materials, so we're coming from the same place on virtually all decisions. In terms of how does it feel? It's wonderful that we've built this thing that allows us to travel all over the world, here, now entering our 40's, that doesn't completely bankrupt us. The root of so many social relationships is having common activities to partake in, and we've developed a really cool one that we've formed friendships with people all over the world as a result of.
How does a company of people go from "Success" and "LOVED" to "NULL" and "VOID"? What does this shift of your album titles suggest?
That we're not even laughing at the joke anymore.
Why do you always follow the theme of using, laconically, just one word for your album titles, when in contrast, your song titles can be extensive in words?
We've always enjoyed that aesthetic. The Jesus Lizard always did one-word albums that were 4 letters long, and we always liked that branding continuity. This is our version of that.
Roadburn was really something to behold, and I'm glad we stuck around for most of the weekend this year, as it's such a special festival
Before "VOID" came to life though, another big event happened during KEN mode's collective life - your appearance at Roadburn 2023. How did you feel up on this legendary stage, especially in a Roadburn that took place after three extremely long years, supporting the underground scene more than ever?
It was actually our 2nd time playing Roadburn, but the last appearance was 2015 – and we had no time to enjoy any of the festival that time, as we were on a tight tour schedule at the time. 2023, the stage we played was probably 10 times larger than the one we did in 2015, and undoubtedly the fest has grown a lot over the last 8 years. It was really something to behold, and I'm glad we stuck around for most of the weekend this year, as it's such a special festival, both for attendees and bands alike. With festivals like this, we don't take our involvement for granted - as it had been years since we've had the opportunity to play something like this. It's just nice to be asked to be a part of it again.
There is a whole new generation of showgoers that have come with an enthusiasm that the prior scene generation lacked, and it is likely a direct result of the 2 years we spent in social purgatory
How does a post-pandemic world look for artists supporting the underground extreme music today? How have things changed in your perspective?
We really didn't know what to expect – and honestly had a worry that it might bring about the ending of us touring. From where things were in 2018, if we took a 25% attendance cut, touring may have been completely unsustainable. Instead, the opposite seemed to occur. I get the sense that there is a whole new generation of showgoers that have come with an enthusiasm that the prior scene generation lacked, and it is likely a direct result of the 2 years we spent in social purgatory. For our band, the crowds are the best we've ever had, and again, it's not something we're taking for granted.
Speaking about the scene today, can you name some of the bands that have formed recently that you've listened to or performed together during the past few years that you really believe in their music and work ethic?
There's been a lot of bands doing really cool things that we've had the pleasure of playing with, or being associated with. The last bunch of US/Canadian dates we've had the pleasure of linking up with Frail Body, Chat Pile, Aeviterne, Vile Creature, Body Void, Sprain, Capra, Black Magnet, Djunah, Stress Positions, Thirdface, Glassing, Fange, and so many more that are escaping my mind on the spot.
How do you feel about touring? Recently you have been on the road a lot, which are some of your favorite places to perform your music live?
Since we're not a "big" band, usually it's the really large major centers that we do best in. It sounds cliché, but Brooklyn, LA, Seattle, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, Denver, etc. Many of these have been our best headlining shows ever, so I can't complain.
We're trying to take advantage of cool opportunities as they arise, and create lasting experiences for ourselves here
Approaching the end, what are your future plans after the official release of "VOID"? Do you have any plans of visiting Greece sooner or later? We are very eager to see you for some years now! What other places you haven't yet visited you would really love to go to?
There are many places in Europe that I'd love to be able to get to again…Greece is one. We haven't been up to Sweden, Norway, and Finland in many years. I want to do a proper UK tour again, as we haven't really done extensive dates there in almost a decade. It's really just about trying to take advantage of cool opportunities as they arise, and create lasting experiences for ourselves here.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions! Please conclude this interview any way you like!
I hope everyone checks out VOID, and if you can afford a physical copy, doing the thing helps more than ever these days! Thank you very much!
Photos: Brenna Fari