Bringing the noise After forced hiatus, Winnipeg’s KEN Mode is ready to explode with new album, tour
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KEN Mode has switched into go mode.
The Winnipeg noise-rock band has been a dormant volcano for almost three years, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has built up a pool of musical magma ever since its 20th-anniversary show at the Good Will Social Club on Oct. 10, 2019.
The volcano erupts Friday when the Juno Award-winning group returns to the Good Will to launch its new album, Null, and begin a short western Canadian tour with Calgary doom metal duo Mares of Thrace and Hamilton’s Vile Creature.
“It seems ridiculous that we’re finally doing the thing again three years later,” vocalist Jesse Matthewson says.
The group, which includes Jesse’s brother Shane on drums and Scott Hamilton on bass, added a fourth member, saxophonist Kathryn Kerr, during the hiatus, and she is front-and-centre in KEN Mode’s single A Love Letter. She adds a manic tone with a synthesizer-infused sax to a song already chock full of chaotic-sounding power chords and Matthewson’s urgent vocals.
She played on three songs on KEN Mode’s 2018 album Loved, and the band decided to welcome her on board permanently.
“We’re just lucky she’s such a talented musician and plays so many instruments — she plays piano, synths, saxophone, guitar, you name an instrument she can probably play it — and the fact that she’s willing to do the thing in our band is so cool,” Matthewson says. “We’re going exploit that and just crush people live with this fourth member.”
Kerr joining the band was a pleasant coincidence. She originally applied for an accounting job at the Matthewsons’ music business, MKM Management Services.
“It’s very strange that we’ve come across a person like her, because Shane and I aren’t normal in this scene of music,” Matthewson says. “To meet another person who wants to do something like that (accounting) and is willing to be part of this strange style of aggressive music is an anomaly.”
A Love Letter also highlights a different side to Matthewson’s vocals. He switches from his regular furious-sounding howl at the beginning of the song to a clearer style that is as close to rapping as a metal band gets.
“I wanted to convey a degree of desperation in the tone,” he says.
His voice often breaks during this new vocal approach, and he’s surprised he’s been able to continue singing his way after 20-plus years of recording and gigs.
“I never thought I’d be doing this at this age,” says Matthewson, 41. “I’ve come from the school of (hardcore singer) Henry Rollins, where he gave up by the time he was my age. He just destroyed his voice and I assumed I would have too… I’m basically going for broke and if I destroy my voice one day, that’ll be something I’ll have to deal with.
“My voice has a finite amount that it can do, because we do play pretty harsh music, and I’m no spring chicken here.”
The four shows in Western Canada will be a warmup for KEN Mode prior to a voice-shredding 22-shows-in-24-nights tour of the United States and Eastern Canada in October and November.
Matthewson says he’s up for the challenge.
“Granted, what I do is far from what people who are classically trained in opera are dealing with, but you’re still using the same raw materials and the same tool,” he says of his vocal cords. “It’s just like any muscle in the body. You can’t go from zero to 100 without having warmed up and without having practised for months beforehand.”
He received a scare before recording Null last fall at Private Ear studios in the Exchange District. The band was sounding great but Matthewson was not, forcing him to record the vocals at home afterward.
“My voice got kind of destroyed before we even went into the studio because of the wildfire situation we had last summer,” he says. “We just had constantly had smoke in the air outside. It did a number on my throat, so when we were rehearsing to prepare ourselves for the studio. I blew my voice out and it didn’t come back, which is always great when you’re entering the studio.”
Like countless others during the pandemic, Matthewson had to find a work-from-home studio remedy.
”It kind of turned into a blessing in disguise for me, because I’ve never been allotted the time frame to be able to work on songs with that kind of freedom. I really got to drill down and make sure everything was as perfect as can be for what I’m going for,” he says.
KEN Mode is ready to take advantage of all the hard work and heavy touring the group put in during its first two decades.
“The pandemic swallowed the last two years of my 30s. I’m hoping I can make (the 40s) better than my 30s, but that’s going to be hard to compete. That was a good decade,” Matthewson says.
“We built a foundation I’m hoping we can exploit going forward, but with the entertainment industry, you never know. I feel like we’ve built up enough of a fanbase all over the territories of the world that I think things should look up, as long as we keep producing music that does something for us.
“As long as we are artistically satiated I think we should continue to do OK because I think we’re our own harshest critics.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.