Jesse, who's been complaining about the arduous, if glorious, recording process for their latest album, Entrench, groans audibly. "I've been building character for 13-and-a-half years," he laments. "We have plenty of character."
Jesse and Shane Matthewson, alongside bassist Andrew LaCour (who is also guitarist and principle songwriter for Florida hardcore project Khann) have more than just character. The Winnipeg-based noise-mongers have done something that no other band in Canada have yet accomplished: they won a Juno Award for Metal/Hard Album of the Year. The Junos typically represent the highest form of mainstream acclaim that a Canadian musician can achieve, and a win is usually considered a feather in the cap for artists.
For a heavy metal band, however, winning a Juno has meant something considerably different. Their award was not broadcast on television, and their story was reported in mainstream music media more as a curiosity than a significant piece of news. They were up against an incredibly diverse set of competing bands: peers and tour-mates in Ottawa's grindcore act Fuck The Facts; neo-trash revivalists Cauldron; the peerless voice and conceptual mind of Devin Townsend; and legendary Scarborough-based classic metal band Anvil (whose obscurity and rebirth was the subject of the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil). In winning, they beat out several competitors with higher public profiles and more straightforward aesthetics, a victory for difficult Canadian music itself.
While the day to day lives of KEN Mode remain unchanged, what the win has done is present opportunities that have enabled the band to take significant steps toward the next level, and, more importantly, make the best record of their career. Entrench is positioned to be the record that brings KEN Mode a level of success never before possible.
There is an undercurrent of anxiety in all their voices when they talk about their hopes for Entrench, though it's hidden behind good humour and measured statements of cautious optimism. Shane says that their approach was to "try everything. These opportunities come, and we follow them where they go." They have signed to Season on Mist in Europe and the U.S., and New Damage, the new aggressive imprint of Dine Alone Records, in Canada. The record was recorded and mixed during a positively luxurious four weeks in the studio with legendary produced Matt Bayles. KEN Mode might not be able to predict where lightning will strike, but they have build a hell of a lightning rod around Entrench.
All three members have poured their personal resources into the band, especially Jesse and Shane, both of whom quit their jobs two years ago. Jesse is deliberately vague about his hopes for the record, stating that, "we're operating on the same principle we always are which is: we'll see how it goes." Shane is slightly more blunt, noting that is Entrench does not lead them to a sustainable model for KEN Mode, "then it's not a 'we're never going to do music again' thing, but you can't just keep dumping all your resources into one place. You have to put some eggs into some other baskets."
Whether it was the pressure to succeed or merely a band at their peak, Entrench is KEN Mode's masterpiece. While still abrasive and challenging, the song structures have an internal harmony to them, an undeniable solidity and urgency that surpasses anything they've written before. While the lyrics are still marked by anguish and delivered with blast-furnace intensity, they are also much more sophisticated, even reflective. Riff structures draw upon a wider range of influences, from the filthy punk of "Secret Vasectomy" to the seething post-rock of "Monomyth." It is a more weighty and witheringly intelligent album, yet also possesses more hooks and choruses than ever.
Working with a big name metal producer in Matt Bayles, the former keyboardist in Minus The Bear who's recorded seminal aggressive records like Mastodon's Blood Mountain, Oceanic by Isis and Botch's We Are the Romans, helped KEN Mode achieve Entrench's heights. But it wasn't just an experienced producer — after all, they recorded 2011's Venerable with Converge's Kurt Ballou, who possesses one of the finest pedigrees in aggressive music. The difference this round was simply time.
Jesse calculates that, between recording and mixing, "in total we spent almost four weeks recording this record, which is crazy." LaCour adds "there was never a time where I felt uncomfortable or that I was in any kind of a rush. If anything, there was a time when it was like 'Goddamn, what the hell else are we going to do with this time?'"
For most of their history, KEN Mode have been a band in flux. The band's name comes from a quote from the book Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag by Henry Rollins, who described the way it felt to be on tour and hitting the stage as the urge "to kill everyone. The shows were great. Kill Everyone Now was the agenda. KEN mode all the time. It was good to be out on the road again with an album out and an excuse to live." Rollins' words accurately capture the drive that has kept the band KEN Mode going through line-up changes, fallow periods, and the uphill climb for recognition.
Founded in 1999 by the Matthewson brothers and bassist Darryl Laxdal, KEN Mode recorded three demos prior to their full-length debut, Mongrel, which was released on Escape Artist in 2003. Laxdal left KEN Mode in late 2004, though he would return for most of 2005 to record their second record, Reprisal before departing again the following year.
Throughout 2006, Drew Johnston (guitarist for Electro Quarterstaff) filled in on bass, though he never appeared on a record or toured extensively. For a late 2006 tour, Jahmeel Russel (Kittens, Projektor) joined, and subsequently wrote and recorded their third full-length, Mennonite, with the band in 2007.
Aside from a European tour in 2008 (with yet another bassist, Chad Trembley) KEN Mode were considerably quieter after Mennonite. Both Matthewson brothers returned to school full-time. Jesse admits that there were consequences from this time away, noting that "if you're gone too long, you lose connections." They rekindled the fire in 2010, when they began work on the Juno-winning Venerable, which was written and recorded with Trembley and represented "a conscious effort to really ramp it up and become relevant again." Shane and Jesse both quit their jobs in February of 2011 to support the record full-time.
Trembley left the band almost immediately after Venerable was completed, and nearly every leg of touring for Venerable featured a different fill-in bassist, including Russell (again) and Thérèse Lanz, front-woman for Calgarian doom-sludge act Mares of Thrace. Despite these challenges, Shane and Jesse had no choice but to press forward: "We'd quit our jobs so we had to patch it together," Jesse explains. "Our backs were to the wall." All of the fill-ins were incredibly capable, Jesse notes, but there were always growing pains, and "I ended up giving up quite a few promotional opportunities I was presented for that record just because I was training bassists every friggin' tour."
In August of 2011, Andrew LaCour joined as a touring bassist, and soon became a permanent member. Jesse notes that "ever since our second record, every bassist to tour the record being released was not the bassist who recorded it. Andrew will be the first since Darryl toured for Mongrel to do so." Before LaCour, Jesse notes, KEN Mode "always felt just a little bit unstable."
LaCour also made KEN Mode a writing trio for the first time since their second album. "We have three fairly stubborn personalities that butt heads while putting this record together," Jesse says, "but I think because of that [Entrench] is the best we've ever done." Band members are quick to note that creative conflicts were entirely amicable. "It wasn't [a painful process], it's just that we all have very strong opinions about everything. The end result is always better than if one of us didn't say 'Well, I don't know about that part,' because then we jam stuff out and try it and it's better in the long run."
One aspect of KEN Mode has always been, and remains, a solitary pursuit: Jesse Matthewson has always been the band's lyricist. He acknowledges that Entrench shares similar themes with any KEN Mode record: "I can be a miserable bastard sometimes." His delivery and approach, however, has evolved considerably. When Jesse recorded some demos for Entrench with Craig Boychuk, audio engineer at CB Studios in Winnipeg, he noted, "When I was doing the vocals with him and mixing it he said, just based off the song titles and the things that I was screaming, 'It sounds like this album was going to be a black comedy.'"
Dark humour allows KEN Mode to interpret their intensity with a new, world-weary maturity. Add the extraordinary production values by virtue of a next-level recording process, and the rich and sophisticated songwriting made possible by full band collaboration and Entrench's potential has all three members bewildered. Andrew chooses his words carefully, saying that he feels Entrench "is a true group collaboration. I feel like I've only ever written records myself, and to come into that with two other songwriters is pretty intense, to try and delegate where everybody should be as far as the process is concerned, but we did an incredible job with it." He also notes that "For the songs that I was writing and came up with the bass lines for, I just wanted to be more badass than ever. I wanted it to be the coolest, craziest record to come out period."
Jesse is audibly excited, and leaps in with "and that was the coolest part. When we started writing the album I'd had some ideas on my own and we had no idea what kind of parts Andrew would come up with. It's so cool when you can have the chemistry work that way." The resulting chimera is a three-headed monster that is still capable of moving with speed and grace. Andrew is almost hushed when he says, "I don't think any of us was ever close to expecting what it would end up being."
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