Winnipeg noise rock band records new album with life-changing producer
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/01/2015 (2989 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Few bands can pull off calling a record Success.
That’s the title of the forthcoming sixth studio album from Winnipeg noise rock juggernaut KEN mode, and it is meant to be a joke. (Original working title: Blessed.) Success, after all, is kind of a funny thing.
But, regardless of how you define success — Oxford’s is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”) — KEN mode has already found some with the new record, even though it won’t be out until summer. For this album, the band finally got to work with Steve Albini, the recording engineer behind some of the most important rock albums ever recorded, including Nirvana’s In Utero.
“Albini’s been a bucket list, always has been,” says frontman Jesse Matthewson, 32, over coffee on an unforgivably cold January afternoon. It’s a rare bit of downtime for the usually hard-touring band; the record is pretty much in the can, so all that’s left to do this month is rehearse for a rare Winnipeg show at the Sherbrook Inn on Jan. 30 as one of the Big Fun Festival’s headlining acts.
“In Utero was the album that changed my life, as Nirvana did for a lot of people — but I still remember the moment it happened. My dad got me In Utero on cassette for Christmas in 1993, and I was drawing on Boxing Day being a broody pre-teen and listening to (the song) Scentless Apprentice — where he’s screaming at the top of his lungs with that big open-room sound. Something in my brain clicked. And I, literally, was never the same. Albini has done numerous records on my top-10 of all-time; he’s ingrained in the culture I was raised in.”
To that end, Success was the perfect album for Albini to work on. According to Jesse — who founded KEN mode in 1999 with his brother, drummer Shane Matthewson, the new record skews less hardcore or metal, but no less heavy, than its predecessors.
“More or less, this is the most stripped-down and true to form we’ve ever been. It’s a return to our roots. I approached from a perspective of pre-me ever getting into hardcore or metal. It’s different. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to it.”
While Albini owns and operates his own studio, Electrical Audio, in Chicago, he made the trip to Winnipeg in late November to record with KEN mode at Empire Studios in Winnipeg. Meeting one’s heroes can be a disillusioning experience, but Matthewson says the famously prickly man who made some of his all-time favourite records matched his expectations.
“I kinda had a hunch we’d get along with Steve. Through his art you can tell he has a certain sense of humour — and that can be perceived, by a lot of people, as being a bit of an asshole. That seems to be the public perception of him, that he’s this grumpy old curmudgeon. Our impression was that he’s a funny, sarcastic dude — and that’s what he was like. It was the most fun we’ve ever had tracking a record.” (Albini’s a foodie, so they also ate very well; Jesse estimates he gained five pounds during the 13 days they spent making the record, what with the daily deliveries from Oh Doughnuts, Winnipeg’s première gourmet doughnut purveyor. Much poutine was also consumed.)
Almost two full weeks is a long time for both Albini — he works quickly and records live off the floor to tape — and KEN mode to spend on a record, but Jesse is thankful for the chance to stretch out. “That amount of time was a luxury that Manitoba Film & Music provided us. It was a gift. We took advantage of it.”
KEN mode has trusted its vision with a few different producers over the span of its career, including Converge’s Kurt Ballou, who helmed 2011’s Juno-winning Venerable, and Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Botch, Minus the Bear), who manned the board for 2013’s Juno-nominated Entrench. (The band, in what has kind of become a long-running joke, has recruited yet another new bassist; Scott Hamilton from Saskatoon, who helped write and plays on Success, replaces Andrew LaCour.)
“People ask us why we change it up, and it’s because we want to do stuff,” he says. “I like making records because it’s fun hearing what we sound like through someone else’s filter.”
But working with Albini was particularly significant.
“That’s the dude we’ve always needed to work with. So, I don’t know where we go from here. We might as well quit.”
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.
Updated on Thursday, January 15, 2015 6:29 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo