Published Mar 26, 2009It was only a matter of time before a band called the Burning Hell wrote a song called "When The World Ends." Singer-songwriter Mathias Kom is a cheerful fatalist who can always be counted on to make the best of a morbid situation, putting his pen to work on songs about birth and death and everything else that composes life's rich pageant.
"There are three themes that I've always written songs about," he explains: "Fear of life, prolonging life, and the end of the world, or at least the way we have built a society and a culture obsessed with the end of the world. All cultures have a beginning of the world myth, and every one talks about the end of the world. Every year there are a thousand new descriptions of what we should be afraid of today or what we will be afraid of tomorrow. The campiness of the end of the world is what interests me."
The Burning Hell's third album, Baby, opens with a track about a toddler who longs to be back in the womb, when he was busy "drafting plans for my own benevolent state." After the triumphant anthem "When the World Ends," the album ends with a tonic promising that "Everything Will Probably Be Okay." That finale is a duet with the Hell's omnichord player Jenny Mitchell, who plays Pangloss to Kom's Candide in both the song and in real life. She's the eternal optimist; he's the ball of anxiety. That dichotomy manifests itself in many ways, but never more so than when Mitchell and the band's engineer, Andy Magoffin, discovered she was pregnant while on tour with the Burning Hell.
"I'm firmly committed to not having kids," says Kom, unequivocally. "The process of watching Jenny go through pregnancy was fantastic. I just don't personally understand what's so great about bringing a child into the world." To say that Kom is a fatalist is an understatement. He admits to being an incredibly anxious person, convinced that disaster lurks around every corner - a tone he manages to convey easily with his occasionally morbid baritone voice, which is offset by his buoyant band of ukuleles, accordions, trumpets and banjos playing carnivalesque cabaret with a Modern Lovers approach to innocent, primitive punk. If you were going to hire a band to play "the apocalypso" at your doomsday party, the Burning Hell would be at the top of your list.
Kom comes to his cheerful fatalism through the world of academia, after getting a master's degree in ethnic and migration studies at Trent University earlier this decade. That's where he gained an odd interest in world conferences that changed the course of history. The Burning Hell's 2006 debut album Tick Tock featured a song called "Bretton Woods," about the founding of the World Bank, and Baby features "The Berlin Conference," about the late 19th century meeting of European leaders that carved up their African colonies.
"The challenge I've found so far," he says, "is that historians have not paid enough attention to how the people at these conferences interacted. No one was at these things as a social anthropologist, and that's what interests me. Not so much what came out of the conference, but imagining the real people and what their personal politics were like."
Oddly enough, he hasn't read Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919, which is exactly the kind of book he seems to be looking for. But he has literary ambitions of his own. "My secret ultimate ambition is to produce a coffee table book about important conferences throughout the ages, with an accompanying soundtrack."