One-on-One with Mathias Kom of the Burning Hell

the burning hell
The Burning Hell (Photo: Jonathan Briggins, Mixtape Magazine)

by Michael Thomas

Mathias Kom is about to embark on a tour of Europe to promote Public Library that begins at the end of April and goes until June 11—with not a single day off in between (there will also be Canadian tour dates up to June 26). He loves playing shows, but even he is incredulous with himself at having booked such a daunting block of appearances.

“That’s stupid. You should have days off. It should be part of every tour,” he says over the phone. He is convinced he is hard to work with.

“I do have a difficulty saying no, I’ve always struggled with that,” he says. In the early days of the Burning Hell, the project was anchored by Mathias Kom with a rotating cast of guest musicians. But eventually he realized the problems this model presented.

“I remember the year 2009 being where I was like ‘Holy shit, this is not practical whatsoever. There’s 11 of us,” Kom says. Sometimes he would find himself teaching the same song to different people multiple times a year, sometimes he would have to figure out how to translate a song written for certain instruments into other ones. “As fun as that period was, and I’ll always be fond of that time, I think the songs suffered a little bit. I think that the band suffered a little bit too.”

Also at that time, a lot of Kom’s co-conspirators were moving into new phases of their lives (“having babies, opening art galleries, and moving away,” as he puts it) and when Kom moved to Newfoundland with Ariel Sharratt, eventually the lineup solidified to include Darren Browne, Jake Nicoll and Nick Ferrio. In 2010, Kom and Sharratt co-founded Newfoundland’s Lawnya Vawnya festival.

With a permanent band, Kom’s songwriting has gotten no less quirky. “In terms of writing the songs, I’m way too much of a control freak to change that process too radically,” he says. That being said, he now has a better idea of how to play to the strengths of his band members when imagining the instrumental parts.

Many Burning Hell songs are fantastical in nature; from the cult leader/comedian in “Amateur Rappers” to the religious murder mystery of “The Stranger,” even Kom isn’t sure where some of the ideas come from. But between them there are songs that are clearly from Kom’s personal experience—for example, the tender “Your Military” or “Fuck the Government, I Love You,” both from his duet album with Sharratt, Don’t Believe the Hyperreal (a full-band version of the latter appears on Public Library). There’s certainly a reason a lot of Kom’s more personal songs never see the light of day.

“Even if I think the song is all right, or half-decent, there is something so self-indulgent singing about a personal experience in your life, even if you think it’s making a good song,” Kom says. Not to mention the emotional toll such confessional songs can take on their writers. “When you’re writing about something super raw and super emotional, the people that can do that, it takes a toll. You can’t have a traumatic experience in your life, write an album about it, and then expect that that’s not going to affect you playing them night after night—of course it is.”

Aside from the aforementioned and personal “Fuck the Government, I Love You” on Public Library, the new album features plenty of fantastic tales. The fast-paced “Men Without Hats” is an ode to the music that makes you get into music, featuring little instrumental tributes to Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and the titular band’s “Pop Goes the World.” The slow-burning “Two Kings” speculates on Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley’s activities in a secret compound in northern Ontario. “The Road” mines rock and roll to recount a story of the Burning Hell experiencing car trouble in the UK. “Give Up” is an energetic, poppier song that tells of an artist trying to find inspiration in a library, only to find more cautionary tales than he bargained for.

Public Library came together last summer in the UK town of Ramsgate while the band had a break from, you guessed it, touring. They recorded it in just four days in a studio inside a converted church in what Kom called “an easy and immersive experience.” The band members would record all day, hash out ideas at night, and then record them the next day. The album is mostly live off the floor, with only Kom’s vocals overdubbed.

“I wouldn’t say that it felt rushed, but it definitely felt fast,” he says. “I think there’s something so thrilling about recording that way. To some extent, it’s the only way I’ll ever really want to record. I totally appreciate listening to albums that have taken months and months and months to put together, but I love the thrill of spontaneity so much that I’ve always wanted to do it this way.”

The song “Give Up” starts in a public library, but there’s more to the album title than just that song. In fact, Public Library owes its title and songs to the less kind reviews the Burning Hell got for their previous album, People.

“‘Too many words’ was the sum total of the few criticisms that really sort of stung me,” Kom says. “I don’t really know how to do much other than this. I love lyrics. It’s my favourite thing about any music that I like.” Rather than change his approach to the songs, he essentially doubled down on the concept in People; or, as Kom put it, “take the formula of People, these story songs, and go even further, really push it to a ridiculous extent.” The first song on Public Library he wrote was “Give Up,” and as more of the songs came together, he imagined them all like different genres of books within a single library.

Literary references are certainly no problem for Kom, who is very much into sci-fi and has read every word ever written by Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Conrad. In particular, books like J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities changed the way he approached writing.

Europe, as mentioned earlier, will get the first taste of the new album when the Burning Hell head there at the end of April. The band has certainly found an audience there, but it was a result of continuing to go back there and build connections, something other artists might take for granted. For many, Europe is just assumed to be “better,” with more attentive audiences and more satisfying shows.

“It’s understandable how that [myth] developed,” Kom says. “You’re in Europe, you’re in Paris, hey, you had the worst show in your life, but you’re in Paris and you’ve got the photos to prove it. But the fact is, it’s just as hard as touring anywhere else. You still have to put in the time, you still put in those shitty shows, meet the people and develop the relationship with the bands. And make mistakes over and over and over again. Eventually, when it does start paying off, that’s when you can be like ‘Yeah, Europe is better.'”

The long, Cormac McCarthy-esque road approaches in a few weeks, but Kom is happy with where he is.

“I think the band as it is now, they’ve stuck around with the last five years and haven’t sent me any notices of resignation, so, so far so good.”

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