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The Secret of KEN Mode's 'Success'

The noisy hardcore band quit their jobs to focus on their new album, 'Success.'
June 12, 2015, 3:23pm

Success is a loaded word. When it comes to music in the Western world, it’s generally used to refer to album sales or reaching a certain level of fiscal autonomy (because everyone knows creative satisfaction is for chumps). More broadly speaking, what it means to be a high-achieving adult often centers around accomplishing commonly accepted milestones—going to college, settling into a career, getting married, buying the house and minivan in the suburbs—without ever grasping the irony of hating every damn minute of it.

However, these are narrow definitions of a broad term that carries significant societal weight, and they get suitably challenged and eviscerated across the course of KEN Mode’s latest LP, Success. If you don’t want to get too philosophical about it, you could just say the real meaning of the word is “an awesomely abrasive AmRep-inspired noise rock record released by three dudes from Winnipeg,” and that would probably the most inarguably factual definition you could pin down. If you want to dig deeper into the secrets of total life satisfaction though, we promise (maybe) you’ll find it in our discussion with guitarist and vocalist Jesse Matthewson.

Noisey: From what I understand, a running theme throughout the new record, Success, is the notion that what it means to succeed is completely relative, it's an arbitrary standards. For example, the album cover is actually a man who appears to have what some might consider a successful white collar career, but he's just holding his head in his head on what appears to just be like a mattress lying on the floor. Could you tell me in more specific terms where the sentiment for the title came from?
Jesse Matthewson: To be fair, I think the gentleman's bed is actually on a box-spring, but I digress. [Laughs] You're quite correct on the concept behind the actual title and the lyrical content as a whole kind of revolves around these themes of western success. It has a concept in general, and, as you said, the vast relativity of the whole thing. Also, having kind of come from that white collar-ish background, it's interesting to have kind of lived in both worlds; both living behind a desk and not really understanding what the point of life is and having that social security, versus living in a van and sleeping on people's floors.

There's kind of always a grass is always greener scenario going on in your life regardless. I don't know, there's been a lot of very existential thoughts going on, especially in the making of this record and you really start to wonder what does any of this mean, and yet all of it means something, because conscious existence is… just, like the duality of conscious existence.

How nothing matters any of us could ever do; even blowing up and killing all of the world's population. None of it means anything in the grand scheme of the universe, yet at the same time it is of the utmost importance that each individual you effect on your time on this planet and you could argue that that means the world.

As you were referring to before, you've kind of lived in both worlds, like the typical white collar career world and also the world of being in a touring metal band. What initially led you to want to abandon the white collar model for success as an accountant and just say "fuck it" and do music full-time?
Really, the trigger was never wanting to look back and wonder what if we tried. The pivotal moment for me specifically, like, I hated my job and life as an accountant. I wanted to change scenes. I wanted to either go back to school, try maybe being a lawyer or get a MBA and shift out of accounting. That wasn't for me and I had no interest in seeking to get a higher designation. My brother [Shane] actually is a chartered accountant in Canada, the drummer for KEN Mode.

I do not have a designation, I'm simply a bachelor of commerce graduate that somehow found his way into accounting out of necessity through lack of jobs in my actual fields of study of small business management and marketing, which as an early twenties graduate I couldn't really find meaningful work in Winnipeg and I wasn't willing to move at the time, so accounting ended up filling a gap.

Anyway, I wanted to shift goals, or at least focuses. Funny enough, I actually was looking at Young Widows' tour photos from Europe at the time and was crippled by jealousy and really I wanted to be able to do that and up until that point, I think, we'd been to Europe once, but it was basically like a tour-cation and we really didn't do a whole lot of touring and I knew that the reason our band had never really been taken seriously was because we hadn't toured enough and we'd never been willing to put the time in to tour full-time and that was, specifically, I felt like the only way a band like us would be taken seriously by anyone is if we were out there pounding the pavement relentlessly.

That was really the motive behind it. Shane was at a point where he'd just got his designation and the natural next step was to move into private practice with accounting, becoming like a controller or something of any random company, which is way more career oriented and at the time he was twenty-five and didn't really want to dive into that world. That's always kind of been our problem; we're not firmly in the musician scene and not firmly the white collar accounting type scene either. We don't really fit in with either and it's an interesting place to exist in for sure.

How would you say that having some of the professional background though actually helps in being a touring metal band?
I feel like all touring bands could benefit from this because realistically, so many bands we know, even the ones that are way better off than us, they outsource so many of the duties that there's really no reason that if they have the proper knowledge that they couldn't take care of themselves. They end up just bleeding money because they don't have these tools to handle certain arbitrary tasks within the group.

The stereotype of the partying touring musician, there's a reason that it exists and I think a lot of people do like to just treat it as one big traveling party; we're there to entertain, have fun, but there's very little responsibility besides that, shy of actually the creative process. For us, we've got all of it together and it's truly like managing a small business in that respect, where we're both the R&D all the way through product launch and marketing and execution, through to the end user. We're handling all of it, and all the admin side to boot.

At this point now, I'm handling all the booking too. It definitely equips us with a lot more tools than most musicians would ever have to managing this kind of process. It's funny because we're almost taking it back to that DIY ethic of the 80s, we're like no one is going to do this for us, so we're going to do it for ourselves and we're going to do it better than anyone could do it for us.

Sure. That kind of leads into my next question a bit here too. I recently read about an essay that Steve Albini had written years ago, there was an article about it on the AV Club where he predicted in the early 90s that the major label gold rush towards underground noise and grunge and indie rock was ultimately going to be their undoing. Even just a couple of years later after that article came out, a lot of his predictions ended up coming true, and it was proven that he had some foresight there. Even if only hypothetically speaking, what level of economic success would you be satisfied with, and if you were approached with the level of money that some of those bands were getting, would you have any reservations about taking it?
Economic success, being able to actually live off of my music and touring would be a nice benefit, which is something that I'm not really accomplishing, at least to the degree that a 33 year old adult probably should be—should be in quotes. Anyway, if approached [with the level of money] bands of the 90s had with the whole grunge boom, I know it can destroy a lot of bands, but the ones that handled it responsibly; bands like the Melvins and Jesus Lizard, a lot of their testimonials about that time, they don't regret taking the opportunity at all, in that they actually knew how to manage their money. They got these ungodly studio advances from the major and they went ahead and made the same record would have anyway and pocketed the money and saved it and invested it and whatnot.

Even though with the Jesus Lizard the band ended up breaking up, but a lot of that has to do with the way major labels send out bands, too. I think nowadays that even happens in the indie circles; you can't tour like, ten months of the year for five years in a row without burning out at some point. I think that's what happened to a lot of bands; some of which ended up in crippling financial debt or had crazy drug problems that ruined them. Bands like Melvins ended up pretty okay in the end. I guess you could view it as like a commercial failure, but let's be real; a band like that was never going to be selling a million records.

Right. And to touch on something that you've been mentioning quite a bit about on social media, on Facebook, is how important it is for bands to be able to hit certain quotas, like pre-order numbers and so forth just to remain financially viable. How difficult exactly is it for a heavy, abrasive band like KEN Mode to operate in 2015 without another source of income?
It's very difficult. The only way we've really been able to survive is the fact that there are certain government grant agencies in Canada; otherwise we would have run out of money years ago. We've basically been subsidizing ourselves with these things, and even then, a lot of our former resources are starting to try up. It's really not an easy racket playing the type of stuff we do and the push we've been trying to do with preorders and whatnot, we just need to be able to pay for the record we made, essentially.

Also just navigating through this industry; if you're not selling X-number of records, even at an indie level, no one wants to touch you; no one wants to have anything to do with you. No one will book you. You can't get tours with other bands, and that's kind of what makes this thing fun in the end, is getting to play on cool shows and whatnot. You can't really try doing this full-time if you're struggling that whole time to make the records, so that's why we're trying to stress it.

Like, we've seen in this band's growth our audience growing, but our actual sales shrinking, which is a tough pill to swallow. You've got to try and stimulate that growth so people will actually want to pick up the record and have them understand like we're not getting a whole bunch of money from a label that you should steal from. We're actually not getting any money from labels; we're self-financed a hundred percent.

You've been around since 1999, which is maybe kind of like that cusp between when making a decent income off of physical music sales was maybe a little bit more feasible, to where downloading and things like Napster started to really put a dent in the traditional recording industry. With the experience that you've had over that time, would you say it's harder or easier now to run your band in what you could the digital age verses when you first started out?
There's definitely a lot of tools available that make it a lot easier, particularly with the internet, like being able to book tours through email and networking has become significantly easier and more convenient. On the flip-side of all that, because of the whole internet revolution, cutting through the noise has become harder than ever and just the actual landscape of bands, there's so much more going on because it's easier and swifter than ever to start a bad, create a record and have it out there.

It's a lot harder to get people to actually notice something you're doing and especially with the aspect of stuff like social media, where you can put in so much work to something like getting Facebook followers and what not. Then Facebook will make some arbitrary change where they want you to pay, where their making any companies pay for their post to be seen. Then, all of sudden you might have, for instance, with us, 25,000 followers and only 700 of them are seeing a post you've made about your new record coming out, like what the fuck is going on?

So working with Steve Albini who’s produced all kinds of different bands, but he definitely has like some strong associations to that old school noise scene. When you were in the studio with him though, was he more like hands off and just kind of there to just capture the sound in the room or did he have a little bit more input or influence over the direction that record took?
He had no input real into which direction the record took. It's kind of well documented that he's a very hands off "producer," and actually hates being called a producer because he feels it's his job to simply capture a moment in time of what this band is and what songs they've created. If asked for his opinion he will give it, but as we've found, particularly from a like a performance aspect, more often than not if it's not something glaring he will simply state, I have no opinion on that.

That was largely the case with our session and we prepared accordingly. We demoed all the songs multiple times throughout the summer, busy on the four-track analog tape machine. We were prepared and knew exactly what we were getting into. He's an engineer, he's there to capture what you've done through the filter that he tends to capture, which is largely a very live sounding band, through the way he likes to put mics up.

I understand with the title of Success that it's kind of an exploration of concepts around the meaning of that term, but if you could or like what are your personal feelings towards what it really means to be successful, like whether as a musician or as a person?
Personally to me the epitome of success is to actually obtain some level of happiness as a human on this planet. I think that's all anyone really should strive for. For me personally, I don't know if I could ever really obtain that, which I've actually been asked this question a few times, because obviously that is like the subject matter of this album. It's not mean to be a sob story, but I don't feel like my psychological makeup will ever actually allow me to truly to be happy.

I think that's part of what keeps me driven and keeps me active. I need to constantly be learning, creating, finding new goals, otherwise I self-destruct and I think, in my own way, that maybe is the key to success in life is just that constant drive to maintain that, because once that ends, that's when the whole tour ends.

Like KEN Mode, BEN Sailer is on Twitter.