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In Conversation with KEN MODE: The Collision of Money and Art

Juno Award-winning band KEN Mode will release Loved on August 31st via Season Of Mist and New Damage Records. We delve deeper into the album, the story behind the music, and their unlikely road from the financial industry to the wide world of rock n’ roll.



For years, the hubbub surrounding the fact that two-thirds of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s KEN Mode is comprised of financial professionals has been deafening. As the duo propelling the outfit, vocalist/guitarist Jesse Matthewson and his drummer brother Shane initially appeared to have fallen far from the family tree when they first formed the band in 1999, but came around to making their accountant parents proud by juggling their artistic endeavours with the coursework required to allow them to become pro bean counters.

Back in the early ‘10s, around the time of the band’s then-fourth album, Venerable, the brothers Matthewson, with the blessing of their parents, took a stab at playing music full-time. Shane took a leave of absence from his CPA job – that’s Chartered Professional Accountant – while Jesse outright quit his and the band took to the road and studio, juggling a revolving door of bass players and making wise use of artist grants available from different levels of our Canadian government in order to avoid working “real jobs” for a few years. They won a JUNO award in 2012 and bestowed upon the world three albums as full-time professional musicians. But the punishing touring schedule – at one point between 2011 and 2012, they spent ten of twelve months on the road – took its toll.

“It definitely takes a lot of the pressure off,” says Shane about scaling back from participation in, but not completely removing KEN Mode from, the music industry. “We’re no longer the working poor; we’re taxpayers now! It fundamentally doesn’t change anything as far as writing the music, which is nice. You still get to write it the way you would have written it before, except now we’re not on a set timeline for delivering an album every two years, getting it out there so we can go out and endlessly play the same clubs in America over and over.”

This song is soft like words on “Feathers & Lips”. Right? Right?

“Part of it, too, is trying to get the band back into a position where we’re doing it for fun,” adds Jesse. “There’s a certain amount of pressure on everyone who ends up transitioning into having their art being something they depend on for money and after a while it stops being fun. That’s kind of where we landed at the end of 2015 after touring for two months straight for the “Success” record; we just weren’t having fun anymore.”

After the lengthy North American tour to promote their then-new sixth album, the brothers decided to drastically curtail road work and put their schooling to use. They started MKM Management Services which, according to the internet, “provides high-quality business management, finance, accounting and income tax, business plan, and grant writing services focusing on full-time artist/entertainment/music companies.” This not only allowed them to earn a living while being their own bosses but, because their business is primarily geared towards fellow musicians, it has enabled them to stay connected to the scene by doing the books and handling the behind-the-scenes affairs for some of their friends’ bands.

“The grass is always greener on the other side,” quips Shane, “and that’s the human condition. So, when I’m in the office thinking how if I have to look at another spreadsheet I’m going to kill myself and that I wish I could go on tour, and when you’re on tour, you’re thinking, ‘I’m so tired, I want to die, where’s my coffee, I wish I was sitting in a comfortable chair,’ that’s the stupid part of everybody’s brain that will never let you feel content. We knew that the ‘grass is always greener’ feeling was going to fuck with us, so we’re trying to enjoy it and stay present if we can.”

Dudes and dudettes, the Loved album drops on August 31st!

Workaday life hasn’t slowed KEN Mode, however. Their first full-length in almost three years is entitled Loved (order now via New Damage Records (CA), Season of Mist (USA), or the the band on Bandcamp). It’s their seventh and only the second time in band history to feature the same bassist on consecutive albums. And despite the fact bassist Skot Hamilton lives some 800 kilometres away in Saskatoon and is busy with his own film curating/rep theatre managing job, married life and fronting his own band (Adolyne), the trio was able to skate around all those pylons to create a scathingly vicious record.

“You’d be surprised, given that we live in different provinces and didn’t really have reasons to hang out all the time, but Skot was more involved in this one than the last one,” says Jesse. “We got together in punctuated moments throughout last year for him and me to generate material, just riffing out and recording, then sorting stuff out. Our friend Drew [Johnston] from Electro Quarterstaff started playing with us for something to do and so we could hang out. He helped us structure proper songs with the stuff we wrote with Skot. He wrote one of the songs on the record and we’re writing other material with him. As I said, we’re having fun writing music again.”

“Since Skot joined we’ve definitely got back to more noise rock,” Jesse continues. “This one is a blend of noisy, grittier, dirtier style of noise rock and ‘80s style industrial mixed in with the black and death metal stuff I’ve been listening to that came out in the picking and riffing, although it’s mixed with such a noisy and caustic guitar tone that I don’t know if a lot of people who are into those styles will pick up on it, or care.”

If you don’t like this song, then we’re “Not Soulmates”.

Loved’s cover has once again come from the mind of longtime creative collaborator and Winnipeg artist, Randy Ortiz. The piece, entitled Happy Person Having Pleasant Conversation In Public, features a sinister, black-cloaked figure sporting an uneasy, dagger gaze and serial killer grin and had been kicking around in various forms and locations for a couple years. By sarcastic default, it became a motivating factor for the album’s caustic creep.

“He made the piece near the end of 2016 and he actually created a bunch of stickers of it,” explains Jesse. “I’ve had a sticker of that thing sitting on my dresser since 2016. I literally look at this thing every morning and we kind of came to the conclusion that everything we did for this album was done to ‘please the smile’ which I think is a visceral reaction to the state of the world right now.”

“Randy said that he was totally thinking of sleep paralysis when he made it,” Shane adds. “Seeing the smile and those eyes makes me think of freezing in your tracks and not being able to move after seeing this creepy fucking guy coming for you.”

Whoever wrote this song “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should”.

How much KEN Mode are able to dedicate to future road dogging remains to be seen. Upon Loved’s released, the trio is set to embark upon a tour with France’s Birds In Row and they’re still unclear about how difficult juggling band self-management with career self-employment while careening from city-to-city on a nightly basis is going to be.

“That’s the trick,” says Shane. “When we were just doing music, we had nothing to do but band stuff on tour. But being self-employed, nothing stops when you leave the city.”

“I think our goal is to do short, punctuated runs that mean something and still balance our client work,” concludes Jesse. “We work with a lot of touring bands and they’re not going to stop to work around our schedule. At the same time, if we’re going to work in an industry where we can pull it off, this is the one. It’s just a matter to what extent can we pull it off.”

Loved is out August 31 on Season Of Mist and New Damage Records.