Inside The Burning Hell

Crashing a wedding. Canadian figure skaters. Wartime Espionage. Amateur rapping. Climate change. Life as a Viking single parent. Upstairs amongst the hotchpotch, village-hall glamour of Brighton’s oldest gig venue, The Prince Albert, Canadian indie collective The Burning Hell spin their tall tales with wit, charm and a disarming insouciance. Over the last decade, this band of musical mischief-makers have quietly carved out a career making melodically oblique, lyrically ingenious guitar pop and here on the back of their 9th record, Revival Beach, Skewed Quiff catches up with chief songwriter Mathias Kom.

The new album is a treasure trove of musical miscellany encompassing electrofied agit-pop (Friend Army), soulful, gently-stirred country (Minor Changes), 90’s slacker college dropout indie (Supermoon), creeping ominous gothic alt-rock (The Troll) and Klezmer-soaked instrumental folk (Race To/Arrival At/Survival At Revival Beach). The diversity of songs reflects the vast swathe of influences on Mathias including Jonathan Richmond, The Silver Jews, The Wu-Tang Clan and The B-52s. Yet, there is an attempt to create something more cohesive than a collection of songs here:

Well, in a way the record is a concept album. It’s very loose but all the songs are in some way about the apocalypse or some problem that we have in this world. […] And then all the characters in different songs end up together in the last song – after the apocalypse. So, I hope that you can listen to it as a record.

But is this how people listen to music, now?

No. Like 10% of music listeners, maybe. […] Which is a shame in some ways but it’s also […] In the Fifties, people were only listening to singles. Albums, in a way that we know them now, didn’t really arrive until the Sixties. It’s not like people back then were idiots. They loved music and musicians loved making it. So, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.

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After a lively conversation about his literally idols – Joseph Conrad and Kasuo Ishiguro, to name a few – and predilection for venturesome storytelling Quiff wonders that Mathias hasn’t tried his hand at writing in a longer format. After all, this is a well-trodden path for lyrics-based songwriters such as Nick Cave, Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine) and, more recently, John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats). Surely, he’d enjoy the challenge?

I think it just never occurred to me. […] I kinda fell into music accidently. I never intended to do music as more than just a bedroom-hobby-recording project and, then, I’ve just been doing it for so long, now. But, yeah […] why not try writing short stories too because sometimes I get to the end of an 8-minute song and I’m like ‘This is probably too long for a song but it’d probably make a great short story.’, so I gotta try that next.

Given the scope of ambition it’s surprising to hear that Mathias has a fairly informal approach to song writing. Quiff had always imagined that a patient, diligent pedantry were the building blocks of combining intricate wordplay with melody.

Sometimes, it’s like that the lyrics arrive in your brain with a melody already. So instead of just thinking ‘Oh, this is a cool line.’, it just all happens at once. […] That’s the best. When that happens, then I know that it’s probably gonna work but when I have to fight, it’s probably not gonna work. […] You have to write the bad songs to write the good songs.

There’s something reassuring about knowing that everyone has slightly different creative processes. The world often tries to act as if constant back-breaking labour is the only way to make it, yet this self-conscious seriousness doesn’t come across:
Other musicians can just get up in the morning, start writing songs, go to the studio and record stuff, whatever… I could never do that. I just go through periods. […] like ‘Oh my god, I’m out of ideas and I’m fucked. What am I gonna do?!’ But it’s okay, it always comes back but you need to give it time.

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This easy-going nature is manifest in how Mathias speaks about getting by as musicians touring the world with part-time jobs back home. Quiff catches them in the middle of another 3 month stint of subsistence touring that takes in almost nightly dates across the UK and mainland Europe before finishing up in Canada. While others might be disappointed with the lack of glitz and glamour, this doesn’t seem to occur to them:

Yeah, it works. It pays the bills. Absolutely. I mean, we don’t tour in a Rolls Royce, it’s pretty DIY touring, so our expenses are pretty low. It works… […] Before I started making music, or before I did it seriously, I was teaching full time. Now, I usually teach one course a year over one semester. […] This year I’m teaching a course called ‘The Business of Music’ which I find really, really funny because I’d just go to class and say: ‘Hi kids, here are my tax forms. Whatever you do in life, do the opposite of this and you’ll be fine.’ But anyway, it’s gonna be great. I enjoy teaching a lot but I don’t wanna make it my life.

Mathias’ personality is clearly reflected in the Burning Hell’s music. They have a relaxed, humorous style but underneath the comfortable bushy-bearded exterior there’s a wicked intellect at play. When we start to press Mathias about how he finds the world of modern music and especially the use of social media as a platform for sharing and promoting yourself as an artist, a passionate and articulate response emerges:

No, I hate it. I fucking hate it completely. I hate it not because I don’t like connecting with people. I love getting messages from people who listen to our music but I hate that it all happens via this platform that I do really not respect. I have a lot of problems with Facebook, Twitter and all those companies. I don’t feel comfortable that I have to participate in this cooperation in order to make this good thing happen.

We play devil’s advocate a little. Not because we disagree with the point but because we’re just those kind of people. But doesn’t social media help to democratise music?

Yes in a way that it is technically true that anyone can make a record, put it online and in theory anyone can hear it and support it but of course, that democracy exists within the same capitalist framework that produced social media in the first place. So, no in that sense because you can be an amazing songwriter and have made an amazing record and if you don’t have a label or a big budget or a big publicist or a manager or all those things behind you, then getting your music heard beyond your Bandcamp followers it takes… a huge amount of luck.

But isn’t the current musical mainstream filled with examples of artists who’ve made it big by word of mouth? Take James Bay or the Weeknd who became worldwide stars after being spotted on Youtube, or Ed Sheeran who’s become almost impossibly huge after self-releasing his first 3 EPs.

There’s exceptions but the thing is that those exceptions are the example. It’s like the American dream. […] ‘Wow, it happened to them, you know, like Macklemore, so maybe it’ll happen to me.’ But they don’t realise that for 99% of the artists it’s gonna be a struggle no matter what until you have that big, structured funding behind you.

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So what would you do, then, if tomorrow you got a phone call over breakfast? A top record exec saw the show and loved it. They offer you half a million to record the next Burning Hell record? How do you handle the million Canadian dollar question?

I’d love to be able to just say: ‘No, fuck no. I’d never do that.’ But what I’d probably do is: take the half a million, keep as much of it as I could, make an intentionally terrible album, as cheesy and bad as I could possibly make it and be like ‘Here you go, do what you want with that.’

But what if people actually liked it? All of the sudden The Burning Hell are the shit?

But then with the other 400,000 or whatever is left over I could make a hundred great records.

And that’s where we leave it, laughter tickling down our sides, ideas dancing across our minds. Both in person and on stage The Burning Hell are not the sort of band to preach, they don’t have the answers, but they do have a way of life, an attitude that is reflected in their music, a modest, critical view on today’s music industry and a collegial approach towards other independent artists that we could do with a little more of.

You can purchase Revival Beach (and all of The Burning Hell’s back catalogue) from their Bandcamp page.

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