The Burning Hell: Mathias Kom Q&A

Feature by Tallah Brash | 01 Dec 2016

Ahead of their UK winter tour, we interrupt The Burning Hell's Mathias Kom in the midst of renovating a farmhouse on the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island to chat about latest release Public Library, the Wu-Tang Clan, Brexit and Donald Trump

The Skinny: Your band name conjures up heavy metal imagery; how would you describe The Burning Hell to someone who's never heard of you or listened to you before?

Mathias Kom: "I’ll usually default to just saying it’s folk music, but that’s kind of a cop out answer because it’s probably not the most accurate thing I could say. It is about the lyrics mostly, and to me that’s what a lot of folk music is as well, so usually I start with that and then if people want more I’ll usually add some other descriptors as well. 

"But y’know, the metal band thing is funny because I’ve just been talking with a couple of folks here about the idea of, not too long from now, actually doing a metal album, because it’s been so long – making music with acoustic instruments – it’s high time really that we made a death metal album, so maybe that’s in the works for the future.

"But, in general the music is lyric-driven, so whatever that means on a given day. The sound also changes from year to year which makes it extra confusing, so the last couple of records we’ve done have been more like rock albums, and then the one before that might have been more like a klezmer-soul album. I don’t know what the future’s gonna bring – it’s always changing from year to year, but the lyrics remain a sort of central feature."

How did The Burning Hell come about?

"Nearly ten years ago I was working as a teacher. I hated my job and thought, ‘well I’ve got to quit or I’m gonna go crazy, and I’ll devote a year full-time to music and see what happens,’ and I really didn’t have particularly high expectations, but that’s what I did. I took a year off, made a record and went on tour, and it’s been that ever since. I haven’t really looked back."

Sometimes when you record, or play live, there can be different combinations of people involved – would you describe The Burning Hell as a sort of collective?

"It’s not a collective, and I only say that because it’s not an equal partnership – it’s a bit more like a benevolent dictatorship. So, (laughing) it’s me plus other people and that has changed over the years, and continues to change. So it really depends on the record and the tour, but normally it’s between three and five people on stage, but in the distant past we were (often) much more than that on stage."

A few years back, it was just yourself and Ariel Sharratt on tour together. Do you have a preference between touring a bigger or smaller line-up? 

"Well in general, the fewer members there are, the focus on the lyrics becomes much more intense and it becomes much more about story telling. I actually love performing with all the different incarnations of the band that have been over the years, but as things go on I’m enjoying more and more the smaller incarnations.

"Ariel and I have done a lot of shows just as a duo, and those have been some of my favourites, because it’s really a much easier way to deliver something more intimate for the audience. And it’s often more rewarding to me – I feel more connected to the people in the room. But having said that, I love playing rock shows too!"

You came to our attention with Amateur Rappers, from your People album back in 2013. In that song you say: 'I write all my songs while listening to the Wu-Tang Clan, I learned some tricks from ODB and Method Man' – is there any truth in this?

"(laughing) I don’t actually listen to the Wu-Tang Clan whenever I write songs, but I’ve been a huge Wu-Tang fan ever since I was a teenager basically. I think the world now recognises Wu-Tang as in the upper echelons of the greatest hip hop ever made, but for me (they’re an) absolutely huge influence. Some of the greatest lyricists ever."

Who else would you cite as an influence on you and your music?

"In terms of other songwriters that have been a pretty big influence; Leonard Cohen’s one for sure, he was a huge influence on me – I’ve been listening to him all my life as far back as I can remember. Silver Jews as well, (and) Jonathan Richman. I think with those three it’s easy to see the influence, and then there’s others that are less easy, like the B-52s are one of my favourite bands ever. Creedence Clearwater Revival comes (as) a surprise to a lot of people, but I would always list CCR as my all time favourite band.

"I do listen to a lot of hip hop, and have for a long time, so a lot of MCs that I love and that have been a huge influence on me – Aesop Rock is a huge one. To me hip hop is really exciting right now; there’s a lot of great stuff happening and I’m continually affected by it. Those are some of my favourites and those are some of the people that have had the biggest influence on me."

As a lyricist you're quite often humorous – what's your favourite joke ever?

"Oh my gosh, this is the most embarrassing thing because I actually have a terrible memory for jokes, so the joke that I put into Amateur Rappers – the interrupting cow joke – is honestly one of only two or three jokes that I can remember. I love jokes, I love it when people tell me jokes, but they just don’t stay in my mind. I don’t know why that is. I like really corny ones.

"Another one I always remember is: 'what’s red and orange, and looks good on hippies?'

"The answer of course is 'fire' – but that’s a little cruel. I have a crap memory for jokes – I gotta get better at that. I need some training."

Fuck the Government, I Love You is a stand out track on latest album Public Library – what was the inspiration behind the song, and with recent events has it become even more poignant now for you?

"It’s a big question – that song is a version of a true story about Ariel and I meeting for the first time, and absolutely I didn’t know when I wrote it how meaningful the chorus of that song would actually be in the immediate future, and I definitely feel it more than ever when I sing it these days. The last time we were touring, it was in summer and our second or third last show was the night that the Brexit results came in – since then and since Trump I’m having a hard time imagining singing that song now without wanting to cry, because it really is just so disastrous and so horrible.

"There’s a lot of stuff going around my social media feed these days – a bunch of people saying ‘oh y’know, let’s see what happens, maybe it’s not going to be so bad, the sun will rise every day’ – and it’s actually just bullshit, because it will be that bad. We know it will be that bad. It’s demonstrable, objectively provable that it will be that bad and it’s terrifying. I know you in the UK have your own set of terrors to worry about, but they’re the same ones. It’s connected 100% to what is happening in the States."

On the morning of the election results being announced in favour of Trump, Canadian emigration websites crashed – the same thing happened with Ireland post-Brexit. What do you think the effects will be on Canada?

"I think a lot of Canadians want to believe that we are somehow going to be unaffected by it, but no, it will absolutely dominate our lives. Hopefully only for the next 4 years, but the repercussions for that for the future are huge. Yeah, it’s devastating. I kind of feel like I’m living in the beginning of a dystopian young adult novel, with this horrible premise that someone like Donald Trump is actually going to be president of the United States and hate crime is on the rise on both sides of the ocean, and I don’t even know where to start with how bad it is, and how bad it will be.

"I really don’t blame people in Scotland, or people in the States, for looking for a way out. On the other hand, I think that Scotland is one of the only things right now standing between the UK and catastrophe. I think that if every American that felt like abandoning ship actually did, and if they could all move to Canada, and they actually did, it would be a disaster for the rest of the people in that country.

"Unfortunately what’s needed now is for all the people that didn’t vote for Trump to stay in the States and fight. Really actually fight; not just post crap on social media, but get out, be active and protest and just be part of the political dialogue in whatever sort of meaningful way they can. And probably the same is true in the UK. It’s awful."

Sorry for making things depressing. Let's talk about your upcoming tour – what can Burning Hell fans, old and new, expect?

"Well actually, this tour is an interesting one. We put out Public Library in April and this is sort of a bonus follow-up tour to the release tour we did back in spring and summer. So we’re playing a few extra shows that we didn’t get a chance to do last time; so Newcastle for the first time for example, and then we’re doing shows in places we really, really wanted to come back to, like Glasgow.

"We’ll be playing some songs from Public Library because it is our newest record, but we’re working on a bunch of older songs that we’ve never played live before, and that’s really fun for me. This will also actually be the last tour for quite a while where The Burning Hell will be the five-piece band that it has been for the last few years. In 2017 we’re mixing it up, and it remains to be seen exactly what that’s gonna look like, but the band will be definitely changing next year, so this is our last rock and roll tour for a little while.

"We’re super excited to come back. I know that it’s a shit time for everyone right now, but playing music, and listening to music, and being at gigs is one of the only things we have left to make us happy – speaking for myself – and to make me feel like I have something relevant to offer the world."

The Burning Hell's UK winter tour kicks off on 2 Dec in Ramsgate, with shows in Manchester (5 Dec), Glasgow (6 Dec) and Leeds (8 Dec). Public Library is out now via BB*Island / Headless Owl.
Full tour dates can be found on their website.