My Life In 10 Songs: The Burning Hell’s Mathias Kom on the songs that have shaped his musical journey

There are plenty of bands whose appearance with a new release in the Joyzine inbox causes a buzz of excitement, but few provoke quite as much of a clamour as Canadian garage folk favourites The Burning Hell. That familiar frisson was invoked once more with the news of the imminent release of their ninth studio album, Garbage Island, via BB Island and You’ve Changed Records on 24th June, so we caught up with frontman Mathias Kom to find out about the music that has helped to form his musical identity.

1) What is your earliest music-related memory? What do you remember being played at home when you were a child?

When I was little we lived in the ground-floor flat of a house in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which had been lovingly redecorated sometime in the early 70s with electric blue shag carpeting and textured gold floral-print wallpaper. Some of my earliest musical memories involve learning karate from books, my bare feet sliding through the blue shag forest, with The Beach Boys compilation Endless Summer double LP (which my parents likely played a dozen times per week) on endless rotation in the background.

2) What was the first record that you ever bought? Where did you get it and do you have any recollection of the experience?

The first album I ever bought was “Pop Goes the World” by the great Montreal band Men Without Hats, on cassette, in 1988. I’d become obsessed with the song after seeing the music video for the single on MuchMusic (the Canadian equivalent of MTV), and saved up my allowance to buy the album at a small record store in a mall called Portage Place in downtown Winnipeg. I remember waiting in line at the shop, staring at the fluorescent green cover of the Sugarcubes first album Life’s Too Good on the new releases rack, and that eventually became the second album I ever bought. Both records have a very special place in my heart, and I think they both hold up very well, 35 years later. Though there had been lots of music in my life in my childhood, mostly thanks to my parents’ small but totally decent record collection, there’s nothing like the thrill of falling in love with a band by yourself for the first time – in fact, the experience meant so much to me I even wrote a whole song about it (called ‘Men Without Hats‘, of course) which appeared on our album Public Library and on a 7″ backed with our cover of ‘Pop Goes the World’. Life is circles!

3) When did you really start to develop a passion for listening to music? How did that come about and what were you into at the time?

As much as I loved weirdo pop bands like Men Without Hats and Sugarcubes and B-52s when I was a kid, it wasn’t until a couple years later that I really became passionate about listening to music, and that was all thanks to my friend Tim’s older brother, who was into punk and metal and was a little intimidating, in a way that only older teenagers can be to younger teenagers. He would share records with Tim, who would then tell me about them, and I would try to order them for free from Columbia House, which was a weird mail-order thing run by Columbia Records that would offer you free CDs and tapes in exchange for signing up. Once you signed up all you had to do was return all the albums they sent you that you didn’t order (usually one every month) and they wouldn’t charge you for anything, and then you could cancel your account and just start a new one and get the free albums all over again. What a glorious time to be young and broke! I can still remember the beginnings of my CD collection: Attack of the Killer Bs (Anthrax), Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (Dead Kennedys), Paranoid (Black Sabbath), How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today (Suicidal Tendencies), and Desire (Bob Dylan). That last one seems like a bit of an outlier and I really don’t remember how I ended up with it, but looking back on this period now I remember honing in on the Dylan and Dead Kennedys records especially, both of which gave me a lifelong interest in and appreciation for well-written lyrics.

4) What was the first gig that you went to? Where was it and what was it like?

Technically my first gig was probably a Canadian kids’ entertainer like Sharon, Lois, and Bram, Raffi, or Fred Penner. But I can’t recall, and it probably wasn’t entirely my idea anyway, so I’ll fast-forward to one of the first gigs I remember going to of my own volition. This was around 1992 or so, and was in the basement of a friend-of-a-friend’s house in the small city of Kingston, Ontario. On the bill were the bands Girl Soup and The Caspers, who were all a few years above me in school and impossibly cool and hard to talk to. Kingston was the home of the famous-in-Canada band The Tragically Hip, and because of this fact alone, Kingston still considers itself to be the capital of Canadian music. I like the Tragically Hip well enough (the late Gord Downie was an incredible lyricist) but Kingston – then and now – has never had many good small venues for local bands to get started in, so growing up we all went to shows in basements and backyards. At the time, the resident crown princes of the local indie scene were a bass-and-drums duo called The Inbreds, and all the younger bands ended up sounding a bit like them, which is a good thing. To this day I really doubt that Mike and Dave have any idea just how influential they were for young nerds like me.

5) What are your memories of starting out making music? What was the first song that you learned to play?

The first song I learned on the guitar was ‘Drunken Sailor,’ as patiently taught by my dad, and I still remember both of those chords. I eventually decided I wanted formal guitar lessons, and when the teacher asked me what kind of music I wanted to learn to play, I said ‘the blues.’ Why did I say that? I didn’t listen to the blues. I didn’t know anything about the blues. My teacher must have realized this after struggling to get me interested in Stevie Ray Vaughan or something, because the next thing I knew I was learning ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine.

6) What was your first band/musical project? What music was influencing you at that time? What are your memories of playing your first gig and are there any recordings out there?

My first band was called The Laundry Dogs, later renamed The Billingsleys, after Barbara Billingsley from ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ Though we started out by learning Misfits and Damned songs, we played a few originals as well. I’ve blocked most of these out completely, which is for the best. But thinking back on it now, these first songwriting efforts, while certainly bad, couldn’t have been anywhere near as terrible as our attempts to play the Dead Kennedys’ opus ‘Holiday in Cambodia.’ We made our debut at the gymnasium of my high school, and yes, there is a recording of this, but it lies buried under a granite monolith on a secret island, guarded by ancient spells.

7) What are your memories of forming The Burning Hell? What was your first release and what do you think now when you listen back to it?

The Burning Hell was the name I gave to a series of home recording projects I did in the early 2000s. It didn’t turn into a band – and I didn’t play any live shows – until around 2007 or so, though even then the lineup was so amorphous for the next several years that it arguably wasn’t a band even then. Technically, the first Burning Hell release was a burned CD called Here Comes Evil, in the year 2000. It mostly contained songs I had written in high school, and I never seem to feel the urge to look back at how awful they were, so I haven’t listened to it in over a decade. The next one was called Tortured Lost Souls Burning Forever and it contained a whopping 33 songs, some of which have actually transformed over the years from scrappy demo-quality things to songs that I’ve folded into other albums (‘Pirates’ is a good example – it was first recorded in 2001 and then ended up on Flux Capacitor in 2011). The first ‘proper’ Burning Hell release – meaning the first album I did more than make a handful of burned copies of – was called Tick Tock and it came out in 2007. It was recorded mostly in my friend Jill’s apartment. I rarely listen to any of my own albums, and this one is no exception. While I’m still happy enough with some of the songs (‘It Happens in Florida’ and ‘The Things The People Make’ remain staples of our live sets), I hate the way my voice sounded back then and I wish I’d tried a little harder. But back then I hadn’t played more than a handful of shows, I’d never been on tour, and I really hadn’t the faintest idea that any of this music stuff would ever go anywhere. And arguably, it hasn’t, depending on which of my family members you talk to.

8) Which band/artist do you think has had the biggest influence on your music over the years? What is it about them that inspires you?

I have been and continue to be influenced by so many artists – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richman, the B52s, Dead Milkmen, Smog, Yo La Tengo, Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads – that it’s very, very difficult to pin down just one as ‘the biggest’ influence, someone who looms over everything I do. I know this is cheating, but here are three: Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys, who first showed me that lyrics can be funny and meaningful at the same time; Kim Deal of The Breeders & Pixies for teaching me about tone, and how to come at songs from unexpected angles; and Willie Nelson for continuing to write and play amazing music and whispering in my ear to never, ever stop.

9) Who are some of your favourite current artists? What do you like about them?

Again, there are too many! For the sake of brevity and since Joyzine is based in the UK, I’ll stick to artists currently living on your island… I especially love Richard Dawson’s fearlessness, the way Aldous Harding’s records sound, Nev Clay’s magical lyrics and guitar, Quiet Marauder’s limitless vision, the skewed pop sensibilities of Adam Ross (Randolph’s Leap), the hardcore DIY ethic of The Lovely Eggs, My Name is Ian’s commitment to the party, and the incomparable catalogue of The Wave Pictures.

10) You have a new album out soon, how has your approach to making music changed since you started out, and how has your sound developed over that time? Is there a particular song on the record that epitomises what you’re aiming to achieve or that is particularly special to you for any reason?

Garbage Island is the product of the most fragmented, start-and-stop recording sessions I’ve ever known, all thanks to the pandemic. It was recorded partly at a studio in Newfoundland, partly in a sheep pen and a camper van in Ontario, and partly at home on our farm here on Prince Edward Island, with bits being added and subtracted through the broken-telephone chaos of mismanaged Dropbox accounts, low bandwidth, and truncated FaceTime calls. I’m used to the pressure of only having a few days in a studio to make an album, and I wasn’t at all prepared for the freedom of endless time and home recording, not to mention the sense that we might not ever play shows again, which did away with the ever-present anxiety about people actually hearing the songs one day. Despite or because of the limitations, I think it might be the most interesting record I’ve ever been involved with. The sounds are all over the place, with a wine glass harmonica, various synthesizers, and a homemade hammered dulcimer popping up alongside the usual guitars and drums and things, and there’s a sense of gradual decay or falling-apartness as the album progresses lyrically from the collapse of this world to the birth of the new one. I suppose ‘Bird Queen of Garbage Island’ is a good example of that, with its trash-orchestra ASMR breakdown. As we get closer to the release date and the possible, eventual tour that will accompany it, I’m getting more and more excited to share these songs live on stage.

The Burning Hell’s new album Garbage Island is out on 24th June via BB Island Music and You’ve Changed Records. Pre-order on vinyl, CD or digital download here.

Find out more on The Burning Hell’s official website

Article by Paul Maps
Photograph by Graeme Patterson

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