Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Backchat: Mathias Kom on The Burning Hell's Back Catalogue

I love discovering great new bands, but I love it even more when those great new bands turn out to have been making music for years, giving me a whole backlog of albums to dive into. Exploring an artist's back catalogue is a thrill that can last for months if not years, and it's even better when that artist is still recording new material that's up to the same high standard as their older stuff.

Backchat is a new feature for The Album Wall. Every so often, I'll be asking an artist to walk us through their discography to date, opening up a deep pocket of ace music that you may not have ever discovered otherwise. And even if you're already familiar with the albums being discussed, I'm hoping that you'll find the artist's insights interesting nevertheless!

Today, we're looking at the back catalogue of The Burning Hell, a Canadian outfit led by verbose, beard-toting songwriter Mathias Kom.

Photo by Jonathan Briggins. Mathias is the guy on the right.

Name for a religious pamphlet that Kom was handed on the streets of Toronto, The Burning Hell have released six albums (not including EPs, singles, side projects, live albums, etc.) over the last ten years. A seventh, Public Library, is due out next month, but before we get to that, here's Mathias to take us through the story so far:

Tick Tock (2007)

Mathias Kom: I made this record ten years ago in my friend Jill Staveley's bedroom, with a whole cast of wonderful Peterborough folks, long before I ever thought that I would end up playing my songs for living human beings. It's certainly a bit lo-fi and rough around the edges, but it also contains some songs that I still think are okay, and one or two that people actually seem to like. Overall the songs on Tick Tock are simple things, and I think they retain some of that special aura that only comes with writing and recording material without ever imagining it might one day have an audience.

Happy Birthday (2008)

MK: It was a hot and hellish summer when I recorded this album in London, Ontario with another version of the band. Jenny Mitchell of the Barmitzvah Brothers had just joined us, and so we re-recorded Municipal Monarchs from Tick Tock, which I had originally written for her to sing as part of a cabaret project I had done in Peterborough.

Happy Birthday is a strangely mellow album compared to some of the other records I've put out, and it was a weird sort of bridge between not taking music seriously at all and doing it full-time. It's also the one Burning Hell album where you can really hear the saloon-ish sounds of the Peterborough alt-country of the time leaking through to the tape. There are a few songs here (especially Remote Control) that I wish I had the nerve to play live, but they're just too sad or too weird.

Baby (2009)

MK: At a certain point around 2009, the band started getting a reputation as being a "collective" of drastically changeable size and instrumentation. This was the result of me just wanting to be on tour all the time at this point, but feeling that if touring was going to be mostly a money-losing venture, it might as well at least be inclusive. So I felt like a sort of open-door policy was the best way to do things, and anyone that wanted to come on a tour could jump in the van.

This made for some memorable and eclectic live show lineups (imagine the delight of sound engineers across Canada when faced with a band consisting of ukulele, cello, omnichord, trumpet and drums), and some preposterous touring dilemmas (when pulling up to the bar, what do we do with the baby, the dogs, and the grandfather?) It took me longer than it should have to learn that touring was likely to remain a money-losing venture as long as I kept this open-door policy going. Yet in the midst of the chaos, we made Baby, an album mostly recorded while we were actually on the road, stopping in at studios along the way.

Like our live show at the time, Baby is frenetic, loud, and fun. Yes, there are some unnecessary and self-indulgent moments, and we probably could have worked harder on polishing these songs before we started the tape rolling. But it's also a great document of a very special era of the band (including a cameo from the same baby mentioned above).

This Charmed Life (2010)

MK: This is an outlier sort of record. I wrote these songs in a cabin in the woods outside of Whitehorse, Yukon, and I went to Vancouver to record them with just two collaborators, Walter Bloodway and Darcy McCord. I think I was still reeling from a couple of years of relentless touring with a large and constantly shifting lineup, and so I wanted to make a short, sparse, cello-heavy electronic album. This Charmed Life is the result, even including a few instrumental pieces that I wrote on the 24-hour bus ride south, inspired by the tiny, scary mountain villages along the way.

I didn't know how to feel about this album when it was all done, and I guessed that it probably wouldn't be very well-received, so in the end it came out on vinyl only with close to zero promotion. Which is too bad, in a way, because even though I know it's not a lot of folks' favourite Burning Hell record, I would actually rank it as one of the better ones.

Flux Capacitor (2011)

MK: Ariel and I had moved to Newfoundland in the fall of 2010, and we were immediately and wonderfully engulfed by the incredible music scene in St. John's. I was so excited by the new musical experiences I was having (including playing with Ariel, who had joined the band not long before we moved east) and I wanted to make a Newfoundland-centric sort of a record. We all trooped out around the bay to Chance Cove and it was one of the warmest, sweetest recording experiences I've had.

The songs that make up Flux Capacitor are mostly about myself and my family, so it's a nostalgic kind of a record made with a bunch of new friends. Ariel, Jake, and Darren, who recorded with me for the first time on Flux, would go on to be such a central part of my life, meaning that Flux Capacitor is now a nostalgic document for me for a whole different reason.

People (2013)

MK: This album emerged out of something called the RPM Challenge, where you're supposed to write and record a whole album in the month of February. I did that in 2012, producing a lo-fi thing called Mathias Kom Sings Songs For The People. It was just for fun, but a few of those songs lingered in my brain. Later that year we were in Berlin taking a break from touring while the Euro Cup was on (since you can't play music while people are playing football), and we went to a studio in an old factory to make what eventually became People. This was the very first recording session I've been part of where I didn't feel rushed at all, and we had the time to get takes we were really happy with and arrange things in ways we probably wouldn't have with my usual "okay, we have seventeen and a half hours in the studio, let's make an album" approach.

Some of these songs have become favourites of ours to play live (Amateur Rappers and Barbarians, in particular), and even though I mostly hate listening to Burning Hell recordings because I'm still not comfortable hearing the sound of my own voice, I think People is actually pretty good.

Public Library (2016)

MK: At some point I read a negative review of People that criticized me for being too verbose. I'm pretty sure the writer used the word "clever" in an uncomplimentary way as well, the way you would use it when speaking about your friend's obnoxious six-year-old. And, just like an obnoxious six-year-old, my response was to start writing songs that exaggerated the verbiage of People into downright logorrhea. I also realized that, critics aside, some people actually liked my wordy story-songs, and I knew that I enjoyed writing them. So I drew on vague memories of kindly kindergarten teachers reminding me to "just be the best you that you can be" and I threw myself into the project of writing the most overtly story-based, text-dense music I could, imagining the songs filling the shelves of a library.

Most of the albums featured in today's blog can be found on The Burning Hell's Bandcamp page (as can all sorts of other goodies). Public Library will be released on the 1st of April, assuming it doesn't transpire to be an elaborate, drawn-out April Fool's joke.

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