By Jen Zoratti
Back in 1999, Winnipeg brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson decided to start a nosie-rock band. They called it KEN mode, after a quote in Henry Rollins’ tour diary, Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag: “The shows were great. Kill Everyone Now was the agenda. KEN mode all the time.” But they got more than just a name from that deﬁning passage; they got their whole band ethos.
Fast forward to 2011, and it really is KEN mode all the time for the Matthewsons.
Two years ago, when they were a decade and three full-length albums — Mongrel (2003), Reprisal (2006), and Mennonite (2008) — into their career, the Matthewsons decided to quit their day jobs to focus solely on the recording and touring of Venerable, KEN mode’s blistering fourth full-length album.
“This was all very premeditated,” Jesse says via email en route to Portland.
“Shane and I were both in a place in our lives that we wanted to do something different ‘career’ wise, and it was sort of a now or never scenario for the band, given that neither of us are married, have kids, or own property. Giving up a steady income to live as an artist would make anyone anxious, so we prepared ourselves for pretty skinny living and prepared to make the album that would hopefully re-kickstart our band’s ‘career.’”
Indeed, Venerable has proven be just that album. Since its release in March, the record has received a resounding thumbs up from blogs and music mags all over Canada and the U.S.; major tastemakers such as Stereogum and NPR have even streamed songs from the record. And if any band deserves to have its praises sung, it’s KEN mode; this is a hard-touring, hard-working band that’s finally getting paid its dues.
It helps, of course, that Venerable absolutely slays.
“Over the past few years I deﬁnitely got back into metal a lot more than I had the previous few years and I think that shows in the material on this album,” Jesse says. “Venerable is a lot heavier than its predecessor Mennonite and we crafted the songs a bit more intricately than the last album, adding a layer of complexity to the song structures. It really felt like a combination of our last two records while still taking a few steps forward.”
Jesse credits Ballou, who recorded Venerable at his Godcity Recording Studio in Salem, Mass. in the summer of 2010, with helping the band achieve those sonic goals.
“Working with Kurt was cool; he knows tones, he knows his gear, and he’s worked with a lot of bands in the same ‘scene’ as us, so the entire process was quite efficient, which we enjoy,” Jesse says. “I got in touch with Kurt a number of years ago about potentially working with us, but the timing just didn’t really work out for us, nor did it make sense for us to drive out to Salem to do it. With Venerable we really wanted to make a statement, so we felt having a name like his in the liner notes couldn’t hurt us — plus obviously I’d been a fan of his work for a number of years.”
While staunchly DIY in the past when it came to releasing and promoting records, KEN mode opted to team up with a record label for Venerable, ﬁnding a ﬁt with Canadian metal imprint Profound Lore Records.
“Our primary goal for this record was to tour as much as possible for the entire album cycle, forgoing our regular jobs that had kept us tied down since graduating from university (and in Shane’s case, subsequent masters program),”
Jesse explains. “To attain such a goal, I knew we’d need to seek the services of an established label, as I knew it’d be simply too much to manage if we went the DIY route — which I had done for our last album Mennonite, after our previous label, Escape Artist, essentially ceased functioning. We reached out to old friends of ours and Profound Lore was actually a suggestion from Gordon Conrad, who ran Escape Artist Records.
“Through that introduction, I would learn that Chris (Bruni), the owner/operator of Profound Lore, had always wanted to experiment with our kind of sound on his label, but just hadn’t taken that plunge yet. We discussed mutual goals and aspirations, and I guess the proof is in the pudding now.”
Things are deﬁnitely going well for KEN mode these days — but the past year hasn’t been without its frustrations, especially within the band’s rhythm section. Bassist Chad Tremblay left the group shortly after recording Venerable, and a rotating cast of bassists — including Jahmeel Russell (Kittens, Projektor, Malefaction, Black Halos, etc.), who also recorded Mennonite with KEN mode, and Calgary-based bassist Therese Lanz (Mares of Thrace) — has ﬁlled in since. Bass duties for the next tour will be handled by Florida’s Andrew LaCour (Khann).
“It deﬁnitely has been wearing on Shane and I, having to train a new bassist for every tour, never really getting used to any one person’s playing style and having a limited catalogue of material we can draw from since every player is learning a set in time for a tour,” Jesse says. “It’d be nice to have someone full time, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt — so we’re dealing with it.”
Still, the lack of a permanent bass player hasn’t kept KEN mode from the road.
June saw the band play 13 dates in the U.S. before heading overseas for Hellfest, a massive hardcore/punk/metal festival in France featuring the likes of Iggy & The Stooges, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society, The Melvins, and Kyuss.
Seems KEN mode’s hard work is ﬁnally paying off.
“At this point we’re near the 12 year mark. When we started this band, we really didn’t even have aspirations to be where we are now; we just wanted to be able to play shows with bands like Kittens and Stagummer,” Jesse says. “I suppose I never would have imagined we’d be playing fests in France with the Melvins, Kyuss, and Ozzy Osbourne. It’s not like we’ve ‘made it’ or anything, but it’s still pretty cool.
“This band has never been about keeping our eye on the prize; we’re doing this for artistic fulﬁllment, and always have been,” he adds. “We had stable day jobs, but still did the band and toured. People who use jobs, marriages, school, or kids as an excuse to not play music don’t really want to play music that much, anyway. Manage your time better.”
Originally published in Manitoba Music’s newsletter vol. 20.2