Interviews

How Trump’s New Border Policies Will Hurt the American Metal Scene

KEN Mode's Jesse Matthewson discusses how to cross international borders, metal masculinity, and being a "blue state" band.

by Kim Kelly
22 March 2017, 9:19am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US. 

Jesse Matthewson knows a lot about border crossings. He and his brother, Shane Matthewson, run MKM Management Services, a business management company aimed at providing artists, musicians, and small businesses with accounting, tax, marketing, supply chain management, and grant writing—what he calls "basic business management shit" for bands like Gorguts, Cancer Bats, and Despised Icon. As a founding member of JUNO Award-winning Canadian noise rock-slash-metallic-hardcore trio KEN Mode, he and his bandmates have made multiple trips from their native Winnipeg to a variety of countries—including, on many occasions, to the United States, whose border Matthewson readily characterises as the worst they've ever encountered.

"Out of all the places we've visited, [the US border] treats you like a criminal just because of the fact you want to come there. Generally speaking, no other country does that, where they assume you are a criminal. [US border agents] assume you're a scumbag even before they talk to you," he told me over the phone last week, a few days after Donald Trump's second attempt at a travel ban was blocked by a Hawaiian federal judge. The U.S.-Canada border is notoriously difficult for touring bands to transverse, a bureaucratic nightmare often compounded by murky laws, the strict rules refusing admission to those with DUIs into the country, and uninformed border agents, as well as a the ever-present spectres of racism and xenophobia—which appear to have gotten worse post-Trump, according to Matthewson's observations.

"As it was announced in November that Trump won, I heard of brown people from bands in Toronto being turned away [from the border]. Which is like, fuck, what is going on here?" Matthewson sputtered. "Maybe that's just more telling about the type of people that work as border guards, which isn't ultimately surprising."

I'd originally reached out to Matthewson a few weeks ago after reading about how the members of the European parliament had voted to repeal visa-free travel for Americans; given his background in the business of touring, I wanted to pick his brain and see how he thought this new development may potentially impact international touring bands. Before I had a chance to call him up, though, Trump managed to unleash a new round of Islamophobic legislation, and reports of international bands running into trouble (and in some cases, being deported outright) as they traveled to SXSW began catching fire. At least one Canadian band, Massive Scar Era (whose members are dually based in Vancouver and in Cairo, Egypt) were turned away on their way down to SXSW, telling NPR that one of their members had been asked to "prove" his ethnic identity by a border agent. As their and others' stories unfolded, Singaporean grindcore band Wormrot announced the cancellation of their much-anticipated North American tour, citing concerns over "the current political climate, and bands getting turned away at the border."

All of a sudden, it seemed like a really good time to make that phone call.

Noisey: I saw just the other day that Wormrot cancelled their tour because they're afraid of border issues and the general political climate, which unfortunately seems to make a lot of sense right now.
Jesse Matthewson: With them, it makes sense. Every other time they came through, they tried to fly under the radar. I totally agree with that position. They should have cancelled it. They would have got deported for sure. We've been so paranoid that we've been doing it by the book basically since 2010. It's just not worth it to get banned. It's entertaining to me that those guys have got away with it for as long as they have, though. I'm not sure the last time Wormrot was even in the States, but I do remember in 2011 when we were touring at the beginning of our Venerable record's cycle, they were doing a tour of the States. The fact they were doing it then, that's crazy to me.

What does it take for a Canadian band to come play in the States? It's a surprisingly complicated process, right?
Generally speaking, Canada and the States have a cultural exportation agreement between the two nations. It's managed by the American Federation of Musicians, which exists in Canada. Basically, the union covers both nations and it facilitates being able to get work visas in either country. The frustrating part is that the whole world works freely with the States, but the States goes 'Fuck you!' to everyone else. The whole reason we're talking is that Europe is now thinking of going 'Fuck you!' back to the States. Everyone can tour without a work visa in Europe, other than the UK—you have to get basically an agreement with some cultural organization there, where they manage your time in there and you barely have to pay anything in the UK—but still, it's significantly easier than it is in the States because the States requires proper work visas to do it. Even as Canadians, part of the American Federation of Musicians, we have to get proper work visas—which is mildly insulting, as Americans don't have to do anything coming into Canada. The only thing Americans gripe about is the fact that we're harsh on our DUI laws. And if you have a DUI, you ain't fucking getting into Canada [laughs].

But basically, we have to go through the process of making sure that our our AFM dues are paid up to the end of the period that we're intending to apply for a work visa for, so in most cases, bands in Canada don't want to waste their time and just get it for a short tour. They want to try and book it out for a year to make it worth while. You end up paying a year and a half worth of AFM dues, which is generally $150 per person per year. Whenever we have to get a visa, we're usually paying for two years at once. That's $300 per person per year. For a three-piece, you're looking at $900 bucks. I think it just went up 650 percent, like $425 dollars, for a petition to the Homeland Security to get them to put a stamp of approval that we're worthwhile to allow a work visa to. Generally speaking, for us it has always been $1,200, but now it's close to $1,500 or $1,600 to get a year's worth of a visa, and that's for a three-piece band.

I'm amazed anyone even bothers to tour down here. Do you think it is still worth it for Canadian bands to come to the States at this point?
It's becoming less and less worth it. If you're making money, it's worth it. I know clients of ours that have healthy guarantees at this point, so it's still a no-brainer—if you're making your work visa fees in one show, you'll eat that cost. Bands of our size, when you're not touring full time, it becomes less and less worth it. I know friends of ours from Vancouver, Bison, they outright stated that until things change, they'll probably never tour in the States again. They can't pound the pavement the way they used to. For them, it will cost $1,800 to get a work visa. It's just not worth it. For a band like us, we'll probably still bite the bullet for our next record, even if it's not the fiscally the most intelligent thing. If you don't tour the States, you might as well give up the notion of being considered an international band. That's why America is able to get away with what they get away with—you have to tour the States. It's tough for a band to have no following in the States, because the rest of the world has a tendency to not pay attention then, too.

This all sounds like quite a complex process. How does a band go about accessing this information and doing it right?
I think you definitely need help. The way to do that is to talk to bands in your scene who know how to do it. Honestly, that's the only way. Even with doing it by the book, there are ways to make by the book less by the book that make more sense for bands in our scene. Everyone knows the tricks—there is an element of lying involved, but we're still playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. That's something I tell everyone, even now that we're doing business management. The key to any kind of success is you have to know your fucking scene. You have to know your music, or otherwise you're never going to get anywhere.

Do you think it's going to be tougher for these tricks to work now that the borders are tightening and we have this crazy xenophobic orange man trying to keep everybody out?
It definitely will. Even in the past couple years, the difference in processing time even for Canadian to U.S. work visa is fucking crazy. There was a period when they improved things; in 2014, they kind of announced they were streamlining things and things will be quicker from now on. Our work visas got processed in two weeks. We were so stoked! It was still the same price, but it was at least fast. And then fast-forward a year later, they hiked up the price, and all of the sudden it took like three months to process our visa. It's slower and more expensive, and since then, it's gotten even slower and even more expensive. It's just fucking crazy. In this case, where bands have to book their tours six months in advance, that's fucked.

What do you make of what happened at SXSW this year, where artists keep getting turned away or deported? It seemed like a lot of bands didn't know how to fill out the paperwork properly, or didn't have a booking agent to help them out. There's plenty of awfulness to blame on the government right now, but I feel like the South By kerfuffle was just an easy excuse for fucking up.
Yeah, the South By kerfuffle kind of annoys me. I know there is an international exception for showcases, but a lot of bands go into these things not fully understanding the process of trying to enter the States to play shows. That was the whole issue of the Soviet Soviet band getting turned away. I was annoyed when it started going viral, because the band and their label fucked up. If you're coming into the States to play South By, just play South By. You can't be playing shows where there's a fucking cover and claiming you're getting not paid. Any idiot border guard is gonna go, 'This is a show, you're getting paid.' We used to have that with Canada. [Former bassist] Andrew LaCour got deported twice the first tour we did with him because we didn't know what the fuck we were doing.

It's funny with border agents—[even] handling Canadian citizens, none of those people know what the rules are, and even with the rules, they are open to the specific border guard's interpretation. With [Trump's] travel ban, none of them were actually instructed on what the new protocol would be. It's just absolutely fucking chaos.

What longterm effects do you think would this kind of "closed borders" mentality will have on the music and arts scene in the States, especially on an underground level?
On an underground level, it'll become more closed off. Even before all this was happening, America was one of the worst in the entire world at adopting anything cultural from outside. In terms of music, they buy the least [amount of music] from international artists of any nation. That will just make it worse. It'll definitely make for some more fucked up American music, particularly with the completely divided political climate. The more angry people get, the more interesting the art gets. It's funny the way people are screaming about that-'at least with Trump there will be good art!' It will be interesting to see how that affects things. Americans need the international exposure. It keeps it real.

That's part of why we ended up where we are—people living in bubbles who don't have any friends who are trans, or Muslim, or black. There's that mentality of 'Why should I care about people who I don't even see? Why should I care about people in South America or Central America who are fleeing murderous drug lords? I don't see them. They probably aren't real people.'
Exactly. Even with us, which is about as fucking white bread as it gets. 'Do you live in igloos? Do you have moose everywhere? Eh? Eh? Eh? I've never seen a Canadian before!' Are you fucking kidding me? We're basically Americans. It's like America with a touch of Europe. That's all we are. We know all the same cultural references. It's just weird how we get treated as outsiders.

It sucks to think about how, if we weren't such a big market, nobody would want to come here.
Trump represents that so well. This brash, ignorant fucking asshole, but you need to interact with it because it's connected to everything in the world that has to do with business and elements of culture. You don't want to talk to him, but you have to.

So how do we can get all the metal and hardcore people who keep complaining about politics to start trying to make a change in our own community? Just watching how reactionary the metal community has been, especially since post-Trump, has been driving me nuts.
That's kind of a weird one. Obviously, because of this vibe of hate that's always driven metal, people have kind of always hidden behind the imagery of metal and generally don't show their politics unless it get blatantly racist—and even then, some people are accepted regardless, which is kind of strange. Honestly, it's a tricky one because metal has always been the safe haven for weirdos, and weirdos are a very mixed bag. You can get some progressive weirdos, which is great 'cause that's where we found our calling, and you also have the right-wing contingent that wants to drink beer and raise hell and hates anything that's not them, which, I mean, cool... but not cool.

Metal is such a microcosmic version of society. You take all these extreme personalities, distill it all down in this culture that idolizes aggression and masculinity, and the resulting musical output is either angry at the government, or angry at people who don't look like them.
The funniest part is the hyper-masculine part of metal. My brother Shane made a great comment on this when we were talking of the macho image of some metal bands—'Who are these guys really kidding? If they were actually tough, they'd be playing sports.' So let's stop pretending for a second. You weren't tough in high school. You were the weird kid that got bullied, so stop acting like a bully now, please.

Right? We could use fewer bullies in general. Metal is supposed to be the home for all the weird kids who maybe couldn't kick a soccer ball or weren't that good in school or weren't that good at talking to other people. You'd think we could at least try to make it less hostile to other weirdos.
That's inevitably how we all made friends in the first place. Fuck this culture of people thinking it's cool to be an asshole.

It's very much like the the Trump voter mentality—where you don't think that anybody who doesn't look like you is a real person, or a real fan.
I legitimately don't understand that about certain sub-sects of metal, too. That was literally the way I was when I was 12 or 13—'I know this band that you don't know so I'm so cool.' Go fuck yourself. When you're part of the actual industry, it's like, 'I found this band that nobody knows about, now I have to make everyone know about them. I want them to be able to make stuff. I want them to be able to eat while they're making stuff.' To a certain degree, some of these people just aren't involved enough.

It's like when a big tour announcement happens, the running joke [between bands] is obviously the comments like 'No Omaha, no care,' or 'Why aren't you playing New Mexico on this tour?' Fuck you, nobody likes us there! Our last tour, we felt like—not so much burning bridges, but more like, 'thank you Arizona, we will never be back. We'll probably never get a support tour that makes it make sense for us to go there again, so thanks, no thanks. We did our 10 times going through you. Never has to happen again.'

After touring the States so much as a weird, progressive band, do you find you have more of a following in the metropolitan cities typically thought of "blue," liberal areas?
We 100 percent while watching the U.S. election [realized], we are a blue state band. The only places in the States we do half well were all blue states. Legitimately, all the red states were ones that, after our last two month tour, unless we're forced to come back as part of a package, we'll never play shows there ever again.

Why do you think that is?
It must just be a mentality. I can understand. People who are like that aren't going to find us funny nor probably think the noisy shit we like is cool, anyways. It's ultimately not that surprisingly. Unless you generally think kind of similarly to us, you're not gonna give a fuck, 'cause we're definitely not like Slayer.

Kim Kelly got turned away from the Canadian border once before and is still mad about it on Twitter.
Cover image by Alex Cook