A brilliant and "moderately agoraphobic" songwriter, an eccentric ukuleleist, an (ex) History teacher, a child-at-heart. Mathias Kom, leader of the Canadian folk band The Burning Hell, is all of this and more.
Currently engaged in the promotional tour for his latest album "Happy Birthday", Mathias has kindly granted OndaRock this interview.
The first question (a sort of warm-up) is almost a customary one, since it regards the choice of "The Burning Hell" as a name for your band. On "The Burning Hell" official website one can read that the band's name was taken from a Bible verse. Could you please quote it by heart? Jokes aside, what are the reasons for this choice?
The name "The Burning Hell" actually comes from a Biblical tract – a pamphlet – that I was given by a man on the street in Toronto, which declared that anyone who hoped to be saved by good work alone would end up in hell. I then found the evangelical film of the same name by Estus Pirkle… the whole thing made me laugh, and I thought "The Burning Hell" would be a perfect name for a folk band, both because it doesn't sound anything like a folk band, and because I like to mock the religious perversity of evangelical Christianity, with its obsessive focus on torment and motivation through fear. I have a complicated relationship with spirituality: I am deeply religious in the sense that I believe in the existence of God, while at the same time I feel that organized religion of any kind, with all its attendant dogma, has been at least partially responsible for a vast amount of human suffering over the centuries. So I suppose choosing the name "The Burning Hell" was a tongue-in-cheek way of slapping religious zealots in the face.
The Burning Hell is a sort of musical ensemble, where there are some relatively stable members and many others who come and go, making the band line-up a sort of constantly evolving wide sea. Actually, you are the only steady band member. How do you feel about this continuous coming and going of musicians around you?
This is the greatest strength of the band – we are always challenged by new instrumentation and odd combinations of people. No two Burning Hell shows are alike, and while some combinations work better than others, I think most people respond positively to never seeing the same band twice. If you want consistency, eat at McDonald's!
Surfing on the web one can find weird associations, like the one existing between Mathias Kom and Mathieu Comme: Mathias Kom is the frontman of the melodramatic-folk-rock band The Burning Hell; Mathieu Comme is the frontman of the French-folk-pop band Mouquirous. Paying more attention, one finds out that they both are Canadian, they both have a "theatrical" approach to music, and when looking better… they also have a certain physical resemblance! How do you live this "artistic splitting"?
Wow, nobody has ever actually discovered my secret identity before! Mathieu Comme is actually the lead guitarist, not the vocalist, for Mouquirous, so my roles are really very different. In "The Burning Hell", I have to take centre stage, while in Mouquirous I stand back and let the spotlight shine on Mr. Guilhem Loustalot-Forest, the enigmatic and mysterious frontman.
After graduating at Trent University, you had the opportunity to teach history at Trent, but recently you bailed out of University to completely devote yourself to music. Are there any aspects or elements in your University experience (as a student and/or as a teacher) that turned out to be somehow useful for your approach to music?
I taught history for two years, and I did indeed "bail out" to devote myself to music. I still occasionally teach – but now I teach ukulele!
Teaching history and playing music are essentially the same thing: you have to "perform" to be a decent teacher, and to be a good songwriter you need to be a merciless self-critic and a great editor. Also, studying history gives one a certain sense of doom at the end of the day, and I have definitely tried to channel that doom into my songwriting – at least it gets it out of my system so that I can be a relatively functional personal in my daily life!
In an interview published some time ago you said you are a fan of music genres, and shortly after that you described the music of your latest album "Happy Birthday" as "folk-flash dark gospel". Could you please exactly explain this definition?
I think that "flash" must be a mis-spelling in the original interview. I define the music first as folk, because most music is essentially folk music – Louis Armstrong once said something to that effect; given that he had never seen a horse play a trombone, all music was "folk" music. The "dark" part of it is in the worldview that the lyrics encompass – a sort of laughing hopelessness. "Gospel" originally means "good news": Christianity uses the term to refer to the "good news" of Christ; I use it because the music we make tries to be celebratory – even when the lyrics are about death (as most of them are), we try to be celebratory in our playing. So I guess we're a folk band playing happy songs about death.
"When I die don't be too sad, but a little bit sad would be nice." This quote, taken from a song included in "Tick Tock" (album preceding "Happy Birthday") is a quite good example of the "funny-dark" atmosphere in your lyrics, where the theme of death occurs almost frequently. What is your idea of death and immortality, when relating to art?
Some people accuse me of being "obsessed" with death. I would argue that our modern Euro-American society itself is obsessed with death – maybe even more so than the folks in ancient Egypt. We worry about death, we devote countless hours and piles of money to postponing death, we shop ourselves to death, we're consuming the planet to death… and on top of all this, we tell ourselves that what we're really doing is focusing on improving the quality of life!
Art will always reflect the society it is produced in, whether explicitly or implicitly, so all I'm doing is acting as an echo chamber for all the rest of the death-obsessed consumers out there – I'm just one of the gang. And ultimately, the perversity of the lies we create to keep ourselves from accepting the reality of aging and death makes me laugh. And I've heard that laughter prolongs life!
In the same song, which is a kind of spiritual testament, you say: "When I die bury me naked with my ukulele / I played it daily when I was alive, so bury me with it when I die." When and how was your love for the ukulele born?
I bought a $30 ukulele in a shop – I will buy anything for $30 – and I was instantly hooked. Anyone that has ever played a ukulele will tell you the same thing: it is perhaps the only instrument that makes you smile when you play it.
Apropos of ukulele…
"Ukuleles For Peace" is a pacifist Israeli association. The founder of this association, Paul Moore, personally goes into schools to teach Arab and Jewish children to play ukulele, kazoo and other "funny" instruments, in order to get the children together into the same orchestra and organize benefit performances.
You met Paul Moore on the web, thanks to your common passion for ukulele, and shortly after that you espoused his cause flying to Israel to teach children how to play the instrument you love the most. Could you tell me something about this experience?
Working with "Ukuleles For Peace" has been a profound and life-changing experience. I don't know what kind of news you hear about Israel in Italy, but here in Canada we only ever hear bad news: another suicide bombing, another rocket-strike, another stalled peace process. Working with "Ukuleles For Peace" made me realize that Israel is far more complex than that, that there are hundreds and thousands of Jews and Arabs in Israel who not only want but are working towards peace, and that the only way forward is to abandon politicians and focus on the power of average people to bring peace. "Ukuleles For Peace" embraces the idea of trying to create coexistence and hope no matter how impossible it seems, and it works – on a small scale, yes, but it works. The situation in Israel is often described as hopeless, but the kids of "Ukuleles For Peace" taught me that there are no hopeless situations, only hopeless people.
On your website you (ironically?) define yourself as agoraphobic. Is irony an effective antidote when you go on stage?
Actually I'm not being ironic there – I really am agoraphobic. However, it IS ironic that someone that spends most of their time in public places should be agoraphobic. Life is funny sometimes. I don't suffer as much from it as I used to, and I think performing has helped me get through it. I'm essentially a shy, socially awkward introvert who sometimes gets drunk and talkative.
You promise your audience a show that is always different: "sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes rock, sometimes roll. Always folk, never anti." What do you think of the anti-folk movement?
I love a lot of the music that falls under that term – Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson et cetera – but I think the term is ridiculous and I definitely don’t see it as a movement. If anti-folk is a movement then so is new-country music. I want to see a manifesto.
From what I could read, you love reinterpreting other people's songs, and on YouTube I came upon a couple of your personal covers – "China Girl" by Bowie and "Hey Ya!" by Outkast. Which aspects of a song impress you most?
The lyrics are the most important aspect of a song for me – they don't have to be smart, but they have to say something to me. I don't think I'm very good at writing melodies or "hooks", and while I appreciate that aspect of songwriting I tend to gravitate towards songs that tell a good story or manipulate language in a playful or interesting way.
The title of your latest album is better explained in what may be regarded as its titletrack, where the title’s wishing becomes "Happy Birthday To The End Of The World".
The lyrics disclose an "end of the world" that is born and has grown up together with man and that always accompanies him in character of plagues, wars, disasters. If the definitive end of the world would come tomorrow and if today you were given the opportunity of saving an album, a movie, a novel and a painting, to leave them all as a "fossil" testimony of the human ingenuity, which ones would you choose?
Well, the world has been ending ever since we conceived of the end of the world. There is no need to imagine Armageddon since we create mini-Armageddons every day. But if there WAS a time-specific End Of The World, and I had a few moments to send some things out to space to be preserved forever, I would save "Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys, "The Princess Bride" (the film, not the book), "The Phantom Tollbooth" (the 1950s kids' novel by Norton Juster) and "Der Schrei" (The Scream) by Edvard Munch. I think that, taken together, those four artifacts would sum us up nicely. Or at least it would make the aliens laugh and teach them a thing or two about pop harmonies.
The insightful irony in "Everything You Believe Is A Lie", another song included in "Happy Birthday", hides a truth that can be interpreted through a socio-scientific as well as through a philosophical point of view. In general, do you consider yourself as a sceptic? And how does this approach affect your music?
I am absolutely a sceptic. On the other hand, I think that there can be a lot of beauty in belief and faith. Scepticism is an essential survival tool, but so is belief, and both come to light a lot in my songwriting, although it can produce contradictory sentiments, such as in the song "I Love The Things That People Make" – I really do love all the things I list, but at the same time I am sceptical about their necessity and about a culture that relies on consumption for fulfilment.
The symbolism in "Happy Birthday"'s front cover makes me curious: apart from the birthday cake immediately drawing attention, there are a Halloween pumpkin, a skull, a flashlight, a bottle and several glasses of wine. The depicted faces show a mix-up of different feelings, and despite the festive atmosphere a gloomy mood seems to dominate the scene. Could you tell me something about this artwork's story?
Unfortunately I don't know much about its story – the artist, Gabe Foreman, often paints in the visual equivalent of literary stream-of-consciousness. He would probably say that he doesn't really know the story either. But I like to interpret it as a party that encompasses all parties, including wakes and funerals, birthdays and weddings. There is always joy and sadness whenever people get together and drink, after all.
On your MySpace page there is a funny historical timeline of The Burning Hell’s discography, where each album is represented by a fossil find belonging to a well-defined period. "Happy Birthday" is located in the Neogenic Period of the Cenozoic Era, when The Burning Hell "gets serious, discovers fire, senses the creeping inevitability of death". If a prediction concerning the next project by The Burning Hell is possible, what will the chronological location of this project be?
I think we'll be hitting the Pleistocene Epoch soon. We'll probably migrate quite a bit, and maybe discover disco.
The last question in an interview is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get. On The Burning Hell's website you say that your music is sure to make us smile and "want to give up". Well, to be honest… I do not want to give up. Therefore (smiling) I ask you: could you make me sure that those words are not like Cassandra's?
Well, actually, I'm happy to hear that you don't want to give up. I don't want you to give up. I don't want to give up either. There's too much to laugh at in the world. So I suppose you can call me Cassandra.