Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Burning Hell

You don't name your band The Burning Hell unless you're a misanthrope with a sense of humour. Mathias Kom is the ukulele-wielding singer/songwriter behind this loose Peterborough band (note: definitely not a collective, as he explains below), whose joie de vivre and life-affirming live shows offset Kom's comedic curmudgeon persona—a character he pokes plenty of fun at in his self-deprecating and wry lyrics.

Kom started out as a sideman in a late incarnation of the Peterborough band the Silver Hearts, and he shares that band's love of accordions, trumpets, banjos and cabaret songs. Whereas the Silver Hearts revelled in the boozier side of Tom Waits's catalogue (especially Rain Dogs, which they covered in its entirety), Kom garnered plenty of Magnetic Fields comparisons early on—due to his baritone voice, his ukulele, and his love of Cole Porter-ish couplets. But as The Burning Hell have grown, they've not only found their own voice (despite a revolving door line-up, depending on who's available) but they've become the most fun you're likely to have at a live show any time this year.

Their 2008 release Happy Birthday was more of a sad sack affair, but the brand new Baby is raucous and rollicking and covers all their bases: calypso, new wave, punk rock, cinematic instrumentals, and cabaret folk songs.

I first heard of The Burning Hell via my friend (and ex-bandmate) Jenny Mitchell, whose Barmitzvah Brothers project were a favourite of Kom's around the time he was getting The Burning Hell off the ground. The two have plenty in common: a thrift store aesthetic, a love of large bands, the ability to write duets, and a hilarious deadpan observational wit. On top of that, Mitchell's home of Guelph and Kom's adopted home of Peterborough have always existed on parallel axis, with thriving, supportive arts communities and a strong DIY spirit. Mitchell was drafted into the band to play banjo and Omnichord; she and Kom also duet on two of my favourite Burning Hell songs.

Mitchell just finished hosting a week's worth of events at her father's now-defunct (as of today) Family Thrift Store in Guelph, which is being razed for a new downtown library and condos. Artists who performed included Tony Dekker (Great Lake Swimmers), the D'Urbervilles, The Magic, the Sunparlour Players, the (reunited) Barmitzvah Brothers, the (reunited) Neutron Stars (my band with Jenny), and it closed with a rousing performance last night by The Burning Hell. It's no wonder they got the closing slot: they bring a circus with them wherever they go, and they're exactly the kind of band you'd want to dance "the apocalypso" with as the world goes up in flames. Cue what should be the theme song for 2009: "When the World Ends."

I'm telling you right now to go to Hell, starting tonight, April 1, at their hometown release show at the Gordon Best Theatre in Peterborough, followed by the Horsehoe in Toronto on Thursday, April 2, and dates eastward from there, all the way to Newfoundland for three dates mid-month.

The interview below, where Kom and I discuss academia, alcoholism and the apocalypse—and Men Without Hats—was conducted for this article in Exclaim. Exclaim also posted an exclusive non-album MP3 here.

Music and tour dates here.

Most hilarious infomercial explains it all to you here:

Mathias Kom, Burning Hell
March 4, 2009
Locale: phone interview from Vancouver studio, recording new material

How was your Whitehorse winter?
It was amazing. It was good as a hideaway retreat and I got a lot done. It’s an awesome place. I fulfilled a childhood fantasy of dog-mushing, so that alone made it worth it.

What’s the winter population of Whitehorse?
Around 25,000. Which is 80 per cent of the population of the Yukon.

Are you a native of Peterborough?
I moved there to go to school about 12 years ago. I grew up in Winnipeg and Kingston.

I’ve always had a fondness for Peterborough for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that it’s very much like Guelph—only more drunk.
That’s absolutely accurate, although more bad things are happening behind the scenes in Peterborough. I always have this impression of Guelph that people don’t get into trouble there. But people get into trouble in Peterborough.

There is a darkness there, and a lot of bad drunks. I don’t know what the drugs are like there, but there certainly seems to be a lot of alcohol.
Oh, it’s huge.

Any theories?
I have no idea. I’ve lived there for a long time, but I can’t say exactly what it is. The good side of all that is that the parties are fantastic! It’s not an entirely bad thing. And the music scene is incredible.

Yet not many break out of Peterborough. There are a lot of rounders.
That’s true, over the years not a lot of people have done much outside of Peterborough, with the notable exception of the Silver Hearts and some theatre companies. It is such a nice community to make music or do theatre in, and it’s so supportive with so many opportunities. There is a level of comfort there. You can play shows in 10 different bands, five nights a week.

Were you in a later version of the Silver Hearts? I know you ended up poaching most of that band.
I was very briefly. I was the fourth-string guitarist toward the end of their life.

There was a hiatus, so was that the final end?
Yes. And they continually do reunion shows maybe twice a year. For about six months I played acoustic guitar with them.

What did you take from that experience, other than some of the players?
(chuckles). They’re one of my favourite bands of all time. I was very honoured to be sharing a stage with those people, and all the songwriters in that band have written some of my favourite songs ever. On the other hand, in terms of organization, the lesson I learned was that I never, ever want to be in a collective. There are ways to manage a large band and ways not to. There were too many cooks in that band.

So your Hell is a dictatorship.
A benign dictatorship. We all have input, but I want to be in charge. I like that power, and I exercise it kindly.

So you’re not a hippie.
God, no.

One thing that strikes me right off the bat with this new record is that it opens with a birth, the penultimate song is about the end of the world, and the final song is a tonic where we dance our worries away.
There was no concise vision for this album at the beginning, but it turned out nicely.

You are a birth and death kind of writer, however. I know your band had an intimate relationship with pregnancy and birth in the past year. [Jenny Omnichord found out she was on pregnant while on tour in Kingston; her baby Otis can be heard on Baby’s opening and closing tracks.] Are there other babies in the band?
Not yet. I shouldn’t say much more. I myself am committed to not having any kids. But the process of watching Jenny go through pregnancy was fantastic, and it’s been great to watch other friends of mine have the same experience. I don’t personally understand what’s so great about bringing a child into the world.

Because of the world, or because of children?
Both, really. But Otis is great. And it all turns out in the end. But I’m a very anxious person.

On “When the World Ends,” you use the term “apocalypso,” which I feel I’ve heard before. Is that yours or did you crib it from something?
I didn’t consciously steal it. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. I was thinking about that band Apocalyptica, that Metallica cello thing.

What are some of your favourite apocalypse songs?
Hmm. That’s tough. I think more about songs I would like to hear as a soundtrack to the apocalypse.

Like Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again”?
I was thinking of an old Birthday Party song called “Deep in the Woods,” which has nothing to do with the apocalypse, but every time I hear it, I know that’s what I want to hear when the shit hits the fan.

Have you always had an apocalyptic streak, or have events in recent years accelerated this sentiment?
It’s always been there. There are three themes that I’ve always written songs about. One of them is the end of the world, or at least the way we have built a society and a culture obsessed with the end of the world. The other two are fear of life and prolonging life.

Are you a Book of Revelations kind of guy, or a New York Times kind of guy?
Somewhere right in the middle. I get a lot of kicks out of looking at history and the way that all cultures have a beginning-of-the-world myth and everyone talks about the end of the world. Every year there are a thousand new descriptions of what we should be afraid of today or what we will be afraid of tomorrow. The last 10 years have taken it to an extreme in terms of film and video games, and it’s getting to a cartoonish point. The campiness of the end of the world is what interests me now.

What year were you born?

So you’re not that much of a Cold War child.
Not really, no.

I’m 1971, so when I started reading newspapers there was still a very distinct sense that the whole world could end at any second because of nuclear war. But I feel like by the ’90s people were chilled out a bit—perhaps na├»vely so.
The ’90s was more about global ethnic conflicts and endangered species. We lost that fascination that I think has come back now—though not in the visceral sense that people had in the ’50s and ’60s. My mom is American and she would tell me stories about doing drills in school and hiding under their desks to prepare for nuclear bombs. That always stuck with me. Collectively, I think we’ve all made this cartoon of global disaster. There is also reality in there, especially with nuclear war—that hasn’t gone way. Politicians have stopped shoving it down our throats, but the threat is still there.

And now it’s rogue missiles. You’re likely not going to be bombed by a government that you might be able to negotiate with.
No, it’s much more uncertain, which makes it harder for people to talk about.

Was the last song [“Everything Will Probably Be Okay”] a necessary tonic after “When the World Ends”?
I wrote the song initially to condense into a song all of the arguments I’ve ever had with Jenny Mitchell, which all stem from the fact that she’s always saying, ‘Don’t worry, relax, everything will work out’—even in the face of certain disaster on tour. I’m always the one that’s stressing out unnecessarily.

The line “tomorrow is just another word for today” sounded familiar to me, so I went to the highest authority and googled it. I came up with a quote from the 2001 World Social Forum in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, from a writer/philosopher named Eduardo Galiano.
I know Eduardo Galiano! Did he say that, really?

“There is no greater truth than search for truth. The system presents itself as eternal. The power system tells us that tomorrow is another word for today.”
That’s fantastic! Now I can say that I’ve quoted a prominent Latin American intellectual. I read a book by him when I was in school at Trent, and I remember liking it a lot. It was called Upside Down: A Primer For The Looking Glass World. Part of why I liked it so much was because many of the dreadlocked suburban kids in the class—this was 1997 at Trent, so that's about half of them—hated the book because it was too negative.

What do you like about his writing?
There was a lot of doom and gloom in the course, and I was struck by how he managed to make all that doom and gloom sound beautiful. He was less of an academic and more of a poet.

What beauty do you find in the gloom?
My group of friends in Peterborough—in addition to throwing great parties—we’re very good at being negative, in entertaining ways, I think. But we’re less sunshine-y than the people I know in Guelph. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve never taken anything particularly seriously. Jenny and her friends have a way of just relaxing, even in the face of bad times, like what’s happening with the Thrift Store right now. I’ve been so impressed by the whole community that’s risen up around this situation. The gloom is always there. There’s always something to be negative about, and I’m good at finding those. But I’m growing as a person now and seeing the silver lining a bit more.

You might even have kids!
I can’t even commit to a dog.

Have you read Voltaire’s Candide?
Many years ago.

Do you and Jenny have a Candide/Pangloss relationship?

What did you go to school for?
I got my B.A. in international studies, and I did my M.A. in migration and ethnic studies.

So this is the reason for songs about Bretton Woods and the Berlin Conference?
Yes. My secret ultimate ambition is to produce a coffee table book about important conferences throughout the ages, with an accompanying soundtrack. The challenge I’ve found so far is that there are all these conferences I want to write about, but historians have not paid enough attention to the mechanics of the conferences, the people who were there and how they interacted. No one was at these things as a social anthropologist, and that’s what interests me. Not so much what came out of the conference, but imagining these people as real people and what their personal politics were like. The challenge is finding that material, because I don’t want to make it up.

Have you read the Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919?

It’s all about how the leaders at the peace conference related to each other, what baggage they all brought with them, how they battled with perceptions at home while they carved up a new Europe after the First World War.
That sounds great. I’ll have to pick that up. My friend Brian has been trying to get me to write about a little-known conference on Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia. He heard my song “Bretton Woods,” and said that’s all well and good because that conference got a lot of press. But Bretton Woods was preceded by this island conference which was a totally secret meeting of all the top heads of finance in the U.S., where they set the gold standard and paved the way for decisions at Bretton Woods. But it’s impossible to find information about the conference itself, other than biographies of who was there. I also want to imagine conferences that maybe never happened, about things that are very real. I imagine a conference about Hammurabi’s Code in Mesopotamia, where they wrote the first example of a written law.

I noticed a couple of snide references to academia on this album. You ask, “Will college kids still be as dumb?” in “When the World Ends,” and in “Animal Hides” there’s a line about how “for once what the students say is true.” How do you feel about the Trent University populace?
I had a great time at Trent and learned a lot from people I was TA’ing. The line in “When the World Ends” is more about Mardi Gras and the way that particularly American college students go to New Orleans and Daytona Beach, and just, uh…

Show us your tits.
Exactly. They turn a town or most of a state into a bad episode of a reality TV show. The students line in “Animal Hides,” I have mixed feelings about university in general. I don’t regret at all going through school, but it’s important to have a balanced perspective on that importance.

I know Trent to be a rather political campus…
Used to be.

Apathy took over?
It’s not apathy. Apathy to me implies that people know something about what’s going on and choose not to do anything. Now, Trent is more a case of people being clueless. Whether or not they would care if they knew what was going on, I’m not sure. There is still a core of activists there trying to do good things, but it’s not the same university it was when I went there. Trent does have a reputation as an activist university and sometimes got national attention for challenging the administration, but I don’t see that now.

Trent, Guelph and York were always known as being shit-disturbers, and now I just think York disturbs enough shit for everybody.
Definitely. They’ve taken the mantle.

The last time two times I saw you play, you covered Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World.” What does that song mean to you?
That song, that band—Men Without Hats in a lot of ways introduced me to music. I have a really fond place in my heart for that band.

Your introduction to the song in Montreal was very heartfelt.
It’s true. Pop Goes the World was the first album I ever bought with my own money, at Portage Place in Winnipeg, when I was 9. I bought the cassette and wore it out and then bought another and wore that out. Then I was introduced to their earlier stuff, and I’m a huge fan.

What else are you covering?
I haven’t played it live yet, but I love “Like a Prayer” by Madonna; I love the choral beginning. And I love playing “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. Love that song.

I’m sorry to hear that.
One of my favourite songs to cover, in all seriousness, is “Love Hurts.”

I just saw Gentleman Reg and Jim Guthrie sing that song as a duet on Valentine’s Day. I’ve always loved that song, but I didn’t realize until then how bad some of the lyrics are.
Definitely, some of them are pretty ouch, but if delivered in the right way they can be fantastic. My favourite version of that song is by Kim Deal and Robert Pollard. And the Everly Brothers are fantastic.

No Nazareth for you?
They probably did the most popular one. They took it to the extreme that maybe it was destined to go to. But I like it when it’s more intimate.

I like Roy Orbison’s too.
Gram Parsons does a great one.

What makes Jenny Mitchell an ideal duet partner for you?
I’ve always been a huge fan of her songwriting. I’ve always thought we had a lot in common.

My favourite song on Happy Birthday was “Municipal Monarchs.”
That came out of a cabaret project I had with Charlie Glasspool. When I first got to know Jenny, long before the Burning Hell existed, I had written that song for Jenny to sing at this cabaret—not as a duet, just to write a song about Guelph and to get Jenny to sing it. She came all the way to Peterborough to sing this one song. I didn’t know her that well at the time. I loved the way the song went. That song is in some ways the story of our friendship.



Carl said...

Michael - re: "apocalypso", I believe you would be of a vintage to have seen this video show up here & there on MuchMusic back in that era when the video supply was such that they would show something like this. The Singing Fools were apparently an Ottawa band that actually had a major label deal until, according to the JAM music encyclopedia, Bryan Adams complained about their record covers making fun of his and they were dropped. (That sounds a bit Apocryphalypso to me). This video was also supposedly given an award as the best video of 1984!

Anonymous said...

Actually, several artists (musical and dramatic) have found the Apocalypso muse irresistible--10,000 Maniacs (who were Australian or Kiwi branch plant label-mates with Ottawa's Singing Fools on A&M in 1985), Jimmy Buffett, Lords of the New Church and Mew, to name a few. There is also a current Canadian musician/group who goes by that moniker. The Ottawa group's name was inspired by a girlfriend's sister's holiday pics of an Aussie carnival calliope/organ with huge pipes that had eyes and mouths painted around their apertures to resemble "Singing Fools"!. And, truthfully, Bryan Adams never complained about his co-stablers, he never knew they existed, thanks to Mike Godin, then A&R bozo at A&M Records....but Herb Alpert's brother, that's another story....

Glebe Walker
Class of '84
Singing Fools Academy