In conversation: The Burning Hell

On 1 April the much loved The Burning Hell released their seventh studio album, Public Library, awarded nine stars by TMF. This collection is the dry witted and lyrically driven Ontario indie/folk rock band’s first album in three years and concerns stories, in their creative driving force Mathias Kom’s words, “Drawn from different sections of the bookshelf of the brain.” We’re very grateful to Mathias for taking considerable time from his busy schedule allowing us to draw from the different section of his, hyper-literate, brain for our interview below.

Public Library is available from all good record shops including from the BB*ISLAND label, as is Mathias’s love duets album with Ariel Sharratt Don't Believe The Hyperreal, also discussed in this interview. You can catch the band on their European tour with extensive Irish and British coverage.

Getting the most obvious statement out the way: your lyrics are famously literate. Are there any specific writers, including poets, who have a direct influence on your work. On your new album Public Library, but also in general.

Mathias Kom: I know he was apparently an asshole, but Philip Larkin's poetry has always been an influence on me, as have the novels of his asshole friend Kingsley Amis. I loved both of them unconditionally until the Internet entered my life and I discovered that they were casual anti-Semites and part-time racists. This taught me the hard but valuable lesson that I shouldn't ever love an author or a poet too deeply, because inevitably this love will end with me Googling their name plus 'anti-Semitic' or 'racist' and sighing while scrolling down through the sad truth that my literary influences were mostly terrible people.

Although he's not usually noted for being funny, Herman Melville is someone I admire very much for his humour, and researching Melville's life was the inspiration for the song "Give Up" on Public Library. And Melville, according to the Internet, was not an especially terrible person (though he was very upset a lot of the time and probably unpleasant to be around).

Has anyone found any dirt on Kurt Vonnegut yet? I hope not.

Despite your lyrical reputation, your fans appreciate the loving musical care your band take – we can’t imagine one without the other. But, and appreciating there are differences between forms, have you thought about spoken word performance? Being able to remember the lyrics on stage to ‘Barbarians’ from a previous album alone shows you have what it takes!

MK: I honestly had never thought of this until you asked. I'm not really sure what 'spoken word performance' means. I know I could never do stand up comedy, since just watching stand up makes my skin crawl, with the exception of (sometimes) Dylan Moran and (always) Kristen Schaal. I get so anxious when I see someone alone with a microphone, trying to be funny. I often close my eyes. If by 'spoken word performance' you mean participating in what certain elements of the counterculture call a 'poetry slam,' no, never. I don't think poetry should be slammed, at least not by me. I don't know why people can't just leave poetry in peace.

A two-bit self-psychoanalysis is easy here: what poetry slams and stand up comedy share is the element of public judgement, and I am deeply averse to being judged. Of course, this is what happens every time I get on stage, but because I have my wonderful, kind, loving, and loud band with me, I can always hide in smashing drums and squeals of clarinet feedback when I see the beady eye of the critic twitching coldly in my direction.

One day when my band decides that I am too old or too 2010 for them, they will leave me, and maybe then I will reconsider your question. Maybe I could try the thing Henry Rollins or Jello Biafra do where they get paid thousands of dollars to shout at audiences and drink water. I like water!

Linked to my previous question, many of your albums’ tracks are thematically linked. Are these thematic links an essential framework for your albums’ creation process, or can you imagine a future album being less formalised.

MK: Albums are dead. It's all about the single now, again. I keep reading this over and over in various corners of the music media, and it makes me think that maybe I should forget making albums and just concentrate on cranking out hit singles. But then I remember that I haven't the inkliest inkling how to make a single, hit or miss. Songs tend to arrive in batches for me anyway, and I think I'm also part of the last generation that really thinks of individual songs as part of a greater whole. So I suppose this thematic linking will continue in the future. Besides, I still haven't made my concept album about famous conferences, with an accompanying coffee table book, which I've been planning for years.

I apologise for this question being from the vaults: do you have a regimented procedure for your work: e.g., lyrics then music, or is there a continual feedback loop?

MK: I believe that songwriting is not work unless songwriting is your job. Since I'm unemployed, I don't need to have a regimented procedure for work. So I let songs arrive indolently and at their own pace. Sometimes they show up eager and ready for action, and sometimes we just hang around drinking light beer together and leeching off the State until we can come to an agreement about what they're going to say and how.

Each time I see you live, you attend the entirety of the support acts’ sets from the crowd. May I say this shows an endearing level of professional respect. I’m not sure if either this or your dry sense of humour is related to Canadians’ world famous politeness, but regarding your lyrics’ often dry sense of humour, do you worry some may not get the joke? Perhaps ‘Amateur Rappers’ is a useful example, because of content and style, and its wide radio play outside of its album’s context.

MK: Wow, there's a lot going on in your question there. I will take it piece by piece:

Each time I see you live, you attend the entirety of the support acts’ sets from the crowd. May I say this shows an endearing level of professional respect.

MK: This is part of a technique for living I have developed called Not Being An Asshole. In all seriousness, you bring up a frequent sore point of mine, and I hope you don't mind if I use it as an opportunity for grinding this particular axe:

First of all, I wish it was true that I really did watch every bit of every other band's set from the crowd. I try to. If I don't, I usually have a good reason, like needing to eat or set up merch or being called away to the loo by my anxious pre-show stomach. Once in a mercifully very rare while, I will skip out on a set because whoever is on stage is doing or saying something so offensive that I can't bear to be in the same room.

But I have this lingering, unpleasant memory of the first time I ever played solo, a long time ago now. I was a huge fan of the band I was opening for, and my fragile little ego was crushed when I realized that a couple of the band members were sitting at a table in front of the stage with their backs to me, talking to each other throughout my short and shitty set. Ever since, I've done my best to not do the same. I hope I'm mostly successful.

In general, there's an awful lot of shit-talking that musicians do about other musicians, and it irritates me. Doesn't anyone remember the Thumperian Principle? Most of the joy of touring is discovering music, being inspired by other performers, and making new friends. I am continually proud and excited to be a part of an international DIY network of musicians, and we need to stand together and respect each other. Do I always love every band I share a stage with? Of course not. But does everyone deserve to be heard? Yeah. And if the other bands on the bill won't take the time or be open-minded enough to listen, why should they expect to be listened to themselves?

I’m not sure if either this or your dry sense of humour is related to Canadians’ world famous politeness...

MK: Look, we inherited our so-called politeness from you. The famous Canadian compulsion to say 'sorry' every five seconds, even when we're being stabbed by a mugger? That was a British thing first. And British people have been the ones to tell me that, underneath that surface sheen of politeness, British people are often horrible monsters. Same goes for Canadians. We are little trolls living under bridges made of sorries and thank yous, all the while longing to leap out and just eat children and be done with it.

...but regarding your lyrics’ often dry sense of humour, do you worry some may not get the joke?

MK: I don't even know if I always get the joke. There's a line in one of my songs about the experience of watching a squirrel get hit by a car, and people routinely laugh at that. I honestly never knew there were people in the world who found squirrel murder so funny.

Perhaps ‘Amateur Rappers’ is a useful example, because of content and style, and its wide radio play outside of its album’s context.

MK: There is an actual joke in 'Amateur Rappers,' about an interrupting cow, and it's still the funniest part of the song to me. It's also the only joke I can ever remember, other than the what's brown and sticky one, or the what's red and orange and looks good on hippies one. Besides the joke part of the song, 'Amateur Rappers' is actually a more or less serious self-interrogation about ambition, dreams, and recognizing common huma...MOO!

Ariel and your voices set each other off beautifully in Public Library’s ‘Fuck the Government, I Love You’. Are there plans to release further duet albums such as last year’s ‘Don't Believe The Hyperreal’ from which this track was borrowed? Despite being in a band, The Burning Hell’s lyrics are your responsibility, may I ask how you found the more collaborative processes with Ariel compared to your “day job” as it were.

MK: Thank you. But again, don't get the wrong idea: a job is a thing people do to get money, save up for retirement, collect health benefits, and the like. So by definition, in every way, I am unemployed. This is an endless source of anxiety, but it also gives me the freedom to do more or less whatever I want, musically, and I absolutely loved making that record and going on tour with Ariel. We have plans to do more of that, for sure, and I'm looking forward to endless unknown future collaborations with endless unknown others.

This song like many others from your catalogue is detailed in its biographical nature. Are there internal tensions writing and performing such songs on stage? For example ‘My Name is Mathias’’s title alone is quite a baring of your soul, do you find this redemptive, or do you worry people may not care (note: we really do care!) not being able to relate such songs to their own situations.

MK: I'm conflicted about this. There's nothing worse than the feeling of a song not going over well and then thinking about how since that song was directly about me and my life, the audience obviously hates me and hates my life. It's an easy spiral into self-doubt. Oh great, my life got a slow-clap from one drunk guy in the corner. Seems like nobody liked my life again tonight. I wonder if I'll ever sell any of those miniature autobiographies I put out on little plastic discs.

But my goodness, I definitely don't want to be the sort of songwriter that can't help but vomit their personal lives all over an unsuspecting public. On the other hand, I had a vile little teacher-in-training spend some time in my high school creative writing class, and despite his greasy goatee and leather vest, he managed to be helpful by drilling into my head the maxim of "write what you know." Unfortunately, in my case, that means writing about ‘Back to the Future’ and my love of late-period Beach Boys hits and recounting tales of avoiding amateur poets at parties. The trick is to strike enough of a balance between fiction and fact that if someone hates a particular song I don't need to feel like they hate my entire life.

‘Good Times’ is super witty despite its subject matter. I wonder how much your tongue was in your cheek while writing these lyrics? This is heavy stuff after all: detailed commentary on the vicious societal and personal cycle of institutionalisation underneath mob violence, and I – probably projected – a reference to ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ in your lyrics “You call it a riot, I call it a celebration / You call it violence, I call it an altercation”.

MK: It's very hard to sing with your tongue in your cheek, so I try to avoid that at all costs. That song, as you guessed, is indeed about the cycle of institutionalization and violence, but it's also about the compulsive need on the part of law enforcement to crush and punish any kind of public expression that they can't control.

Of course, without wanting surnames and postal codes, did you have a person or experience in mind when writing this song?

MK: Not a person or experience, but the city of Montréal. Cars get set on fire there whether the Habs win or lose. And the police are infamously short-tempered and violent, whether it's a playoff game or a student protest.

‘Men Without Hats’ is wonderfully transportive, including because you name checked the often retrospectively unloved cassette single! Because of today’s music delivery technology, in twenty-five years time people will be writing their own odes to music (clearly from The Burning Hell) as a right of passage without the tangible or emotional experience of their first single. Appreciating it’s an old person thing to ask, do you feel sorrow over this, as the first time of many things is special, and tangible objects contain emotional purchase?

MK: I'm torn about this. There's a big part of me that can't let go of music as a tangible, touchable, interactive thing. But as much as I remember the experience of buying my first cassette with fond nostalgia, I don't feel that much sorrow over the passing of recorded music as a physical artifact. As long as people continue to have transformative experiences with music (and they can and do and will continue to) I think the world is safe for the nostalgic old farts of the future.

Related to my previous question, many of us feel envy rather than sorrow for the wide range of music easily available to today’s younger fans. May I ask how you think this has affected your career? Thankfully the BBC helped spread your word in Britain, and those of us who love your music really love your music, but it may be difficult to be heard amongst this wide range of music. Or in the previous generation perhaps there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for your music to be heard at all?

MK: Objection, your honour, speculation! Overruled? OK, here goes: I think it is generally excellent that so much music is so widely available now. However, this has definitely affected the depth of our listening practices, and that's a shame. When I was a kid I listened to Vanilla Ice, CCR, and Dead Kennedys all at the same time just because those were the artists that happened to make their way to me via family, friends, and Columbia House. I would have loved to have been able to discover all the music that These Kids Today have at their fingertips. But on the other hand if I had had the Internet back then I might not have listened so deeply, and discovered what continues to be a favourite band (CCR), learned that humour and politics can coexist (Dead Kennedys) or memorized all the words and the dance moves to ‘Ice Ice Baby’. All critical steps on my personal artistic path.

As to the more speculative part of your question: if my music isn't getting heard, it's not the Internet's fault, nor the mp3, nor any of the other bogeymen of the digital age. The problem now (as always) is the music industry, which continues to exist despite our best attempts to kill it, just like polio and fascism. For all the articles that tell us about how the major labels are running scared, they still have the power and advertising budgets to determine which songs get radio play, which albums get reviewed in music magazines, and which bands get which slots at which festivals. I am not competing with millions of equally unheard bands across Internetland: we are all competing—and mostly losing—against the same corporate powers that independent artists were back in the 1980s. There are exceptions, of course, and bright lights of hope here and there. Every now and then there's a band that pops out of the digital ether with a viral video or gets discovered via Myspace or LinkedIn or ICQ, and suddenly our newsfeeds are filled with recycled stories by lazy journalists about how the Internet is democratizing music. But people who are busy actually making and playing songs know that this is bullshit. Don't get me wrong, it's great that we can all record albums at home and share them on sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud and whatever. But Buzzcocks and hundreds of other bands started discovering in the 70s that they could just make their own records too, and try to share them with or sell them to the world without the rubber stamp of a suit at EMI. Some of them succeeded, but the vast majority eventually hit the giant but invisible wall of a music industry that was controlled in every way by big money and big power. Nothing has changed.

So I guess the short answer is: I think The Burning Hell would have been equally unsuccessful in any era. Except maybe the Middle Ages. I play a mean lute and enjoy traveling from village to village, exchanging tales and songs of the lands beyond for mead and bread.

‘Two Kings’ is a lot of fun! Did you have fun writing what appears to be a more figurative or even surrealistic song than usual? It also has a beautiful melody and warm vocals, emphasising the value many of us get from knowing the music from: Ariel, Darren, Jake, Nick and yourself is as lovely crafted as your lyrics.

MK: I didn't mean this song to be surreal: it is the (probably true) story of how Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley are alive, living as BFFs in a North Ontario cabin. Obviously if they are alive, they are the only people in the world who can really understand what the other has been through. Equally obviously, if the rumours that both Kings are still alive persist, someone will discover them one day. What happens then? The end of the song is vague, but MJ and Elvis couldn't possibly allow the secret of their survival to become a globally-known fact. So (of course) their only choice is to transform their cabin into a rocket ship and blast off into deep space, or else to destroy the planet in a ball of fire.

Returning to ‘Men Without Hats’, your lyrics close thanking bands for your past and your present, which I feel sums up The Burning Hell in so many ways. Your fans – some of us not even musicians! – would like to thank you too. Thanks Mathias.

MK: No, thank you! All of you. You invisible pixel-people. I like you.

I’d like to thank you for taking time to answer these questions Mathias. Thank you!

MK: Well, I really enjoy having the last word, and since Canadians are so famously polite: no, really, I insist, thank you. Sorry!

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