The clarinet is an underrated, underused instrument. One song into The Burning Hell’s set at The Old Hairdressers, the Canadian band’s first ever Glasgow show after eight years making music, and the melding of the clarinet and acoustic guitar is impressing everyone. It’s an intimate show in a small, packed space with only two out of five band members, and it works.
Front man and songwriting mastermind of the band Mathias Kom blends the stories within his lyrics into stories and jokes to tell the audience, pausing songs to explain that when he says pants he means trousers, so the next verse isn’t as creepy as it might sound. Ariel Sharratt’s harmonies blend beautifully alongside the clarinet she plays, and she too makes jokes on command (“Why did the plane crash? Because the pilot was a loaf of bread!”) It’s clear that The Burning Hell love music and performing and it translates to the audience.
The Burning Hell definitely showed Glasgow a good time from songs of pet euthanasia, dreading high school reunions and rappers . Let’s hope we showed them the same and they’ll be back soon, full band in tow.
Luckily, qmunicate’s Emma Ainley-Walker managed to have a chat with the tremendous-twosome to round up a fantastic tour.Cue talk of songwriting, small town tourism and French mental asylums.
You describe the band as your alter ego, Mathias, for all your songwriting needs. Where does that inspiration for the songs come from?
Mathias: It comes from lots of places, I guess. I think that I’m a fairly optimistic person…I try to get a lot of pessimism out in the songs. I think that songwriting can be cathartic that way. Inspiration comes from a lot of places. People I know, experiences on tour, places we visit.
You have really amazing designs on your website and the album artwork. Is that something you particularly want to work with the music and reflect the songs?
M: They’re two different artists. Jud Haynes did the website and then Gabe Foreman has done all of our album art, for all the full length albums anyway. And I think for the album art, Gabe’s sense of the absurd matches mine. And the playfulness of his illustrations go along with the playfulness of some of the songs and definitely the playfulness of the band. What do you think?
A: Yeah, there’s been five or six albums now that Gabe has done the artwork for so there’s certainly a cohesive theme with the album art. We’re sticking with Gabe.
You’ve just been touring around Europe and the UK and this is your last date. How has the tour been?
M: Amazing. The tour’s been broken up into four stages really. We came over in April just the two of us, and then we came back to the UK in June-
A: July. Made up some of the dates we’d had to cancel in April. And then we came back with the full band which had already been booked in April, and now we’re coming back as a duo and making up more of the cancelled dates. It’s been a kind of staggered and weird tour, but its meant that we’ve got to spend almost two months in the UK which has been really great.We went from not having toured in the UK at all to having played places like Egglescliffe and Ford, as well as many major cities.
M: And it’s been nice to do two London shows in a year, two Manchester shows. It’s been great.
I wanted to ask about some of the smaller towns because you don’t get very many bands coming from Canada to places like Egglescliffe and Stockton-on-Tees and it’s great to see someone visiting the smaller towns as well as the big cities.
M: Stockton was the only day on the tour where we had a full day of solid tourism, I would say. We went to the beach.
A: Saw the nuclear power plant.
M: Ate a lemon top.
A: It was delicious.
You mentioned you’ve toured with the full band, you’ve toured with just yourselves, and in the past you’ve toured with extra musicians as well. How does that change the feeling from tour to tour?
M: Well, for the last three years the band has been the same five people. Occasionally Ariel and I will do shows like this where it’s just the two of us. Where it makes more sense – The Old Hairdressers, it would be quite difficult to do a show with the whole band there, it can be a little loud.
A: And we’ve never been to Glasgow before, so it’s also just to test the waters.
M: We’re like a scouting party. If it goes well and everyone’s happy then we’ll get to come back with the whole band. So these days it only really varies between the five of us or the two of us. The shows can be pretty different, the full band show is much more dancey, high energy. It’s much more intimate when it’s just the two of us, and we do a different set list as well. We focus on different songs.
If you’ve never been to Glasgow before, have you heard about its reputation for live music? Is that something you’re looking forward to?
M: I am.
A: Absolutely. Expectations are high!
M: Expectations are very high.
This tour is in support of your album People. Do you know what’s coming next after that?
M: That’s a good question. What is coming next?
A: We’ve been talking about that a lot, and we’re very excited about what’s going to come next but we don’t know what it is yet. We’re hoping in the spring to hole up somewhere with the band and work on new material. I don’t know how that’s going to go or what process we’re going to take to record that. Hopefully there’ll be something new in a year’s time.
M: Yeah, I’d say so. The pattern since 2007 has been more or less one album a year.
A: We’re slowing down.
M: In our old age. One every two years is productive also.
With touring do you find a kind of restlessness to keep going and keep taking shows out?
M: It depends on the day. If you ask me right now I would say yeah, I would love to keep going. If we could play more nice shows indefinitely I would. And then on another day when I’m particularly exhausted I would say no, I never want to play another show again.
A: I think as long as you’re well fed and well slept then you can keep going. It’s just when those resources run low that touring becomes really hard work.
M: And at the end of the day it’s been so nice over here. Almost every show in the UK has been incredible so we can’t ask for much more than that.
Your lyrics are all incredibly smart and funny and quite storytelling. Is that something that’s particularly important for you to get across when writing the songs?
M: Thank you. It’s important to me to tell stories with songs, it’s really the only way I know how to write a song. I’m kind of jealous of other songwriters who can make songs up out of nonsense and still have it sound engaging, but I don’t have that talent. It’s always important to me, especially in a live show, to be able to communicate those stories with the audience. I don’t try on purpose to be smart. Maybe I try to be funny, yeah I try to be funny, but I’m glad it comes out that way.
You once played a mental asylum in rural France. I have to ask about that experience.
M: Yes, it was crazy. Sorry. It was part of the Nancy jazz festival in Eastern France, and it was in 2008, ages ago now. As part of the festival they do shows called ‘jazz from the heart’ where they do outreach in local hospitals and that kind of thing. So we got to the festival and they gave us directions way outside of the city. We still didn’t know where we were going exactly or what we were getting ourselves into. We showed up at the address in the this tiny little village and there’s this giant hospital, and I walk in with my very poor French and explain that we were probably lost, because we’re this band from Canada and the security guard said ‘no, you’re in the right place,’ and took me to this common room in the hospital where they’d set up this huge, elaborate stage with lights and everything else. It was only then that they explained to me that this was actually a mental asylum. All of the audience were wheeled in, some totally unconscious and some totally conscious and into it. It was one of the strangest shows we’ve ever played but I personally took a lot out of it and had a really good time. It was nice to play for an audience that we would never normally get to play for and I think very nice for the people there because this is one of the only times they get entertainment coming from the outside, so it was actually pretty wonderful.
Finally, is there anything you always want to be asked in interviews that no one ever thinks to ask you?
M: I kind of always want to talk about the state of music these days. What it’s like for musicians and music lovers and how we negotiate what we do and how bands who aren’t megastars, which is 99% of bands, survive. And how audiences choose what they buy or don’t buy, or download and what shows they choose to go to. It’s really changed for us because it’s been 7 years of touring and recording and, it’s not necessarily getting easier, but it’s changing in really interesting ways. I always want to talk about that; the dynamics of shows and of survival.
Is there something specific about that you want to tell our readers?
M: Yeah, you should come to the show tonight. No, this is going to be afterwards. Supporting live music, to me as a music fan, is very, very important in a time when a lot of people aren’t buying records anymore. It’s more important than ever to go and see bands live, and I’m sure that your readers have no problem doing that at all, but it is so critical if we’re going to keep making music and appreciating music and having a vibrant music culture. In the days of Spotify where musicians make almost nothing, it’s really our only outlet for survival. So go to shows. That’s what I want to tell your readers. Go to as many shows as you possibly can, and go see new bands. Go see bands you’ve never heard of all the time because that’s the most fun thing ever and it keeps people like us happy and making music. That’s it I guess.
[Emma Ainley-Walker – @emaw23]