KEN Mode and Chat Pile (Try to) Explain Noise Rock to an Alien

“You know the Nirvana tracks that you don't like?”

Jesse Matthewson and Skot Hamilton are the guitarist and bassist, respectively, of the Manitoban noise rock band KEN Mode; Luther Manhole and Stin are also the guitarist and bassist, respectively, of the Oklahoma City-based noise rock band Chat Pile. Since Chat Pile released their debut full-length, God’s Country, this summer on The Flenser, and KEN Mode just put out their latest record, NULL, (via Artoffact) last week, the four hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it all. Both bands will also be playing at the No Coast Festival in Denton, Texas next month. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Jesse Matthewson: How many miles apart are we right here?

Skot Hamilton: I don’t know what it is in miles, actually. I just know what it is in drive time — I know if I start the Anthrax catalog from the beginning, where I am by the time I get to Winnipeg.

Luther Manhole: The Anthrax challenge.

Stin: A funny story about Anthrax for me is that Among the Living is the first metal album I ever heard in my entire life, and it kind of changed everything for me. But the weird aspect of that is, it’s the only album of theirs I like.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s the only one I really can dig into for some reason too. 

Stin: Dude, from wall to wall, every song that album kicks ass. But then, yeah, the rest of the discography… Thrash has a kind of problem with that, anyway, in my opinion. Like, thrash bands will have one incredible album, and then a lot of…

Luther: Unless you’re Voivod. 

Jesse: Yeah. But even then, Voivod only did, what, maybe two proper thrash albums?

Luther: And then they just totally get progressive metal, kind of. But they’re my favorite of the thrash bands, I would say. But, Stin knows, I’m a pretty big thrash hater in general. So I’m not a big Anthrax fan. I guess Slayer, of the Big Four, would be the one I like the most.

Jesse: Yeah. Oddly enough, I got into Metallica through Ride the Lightning in my early thirties after hating them for most of my life up to that.

Stin: I’m pretty similar, man. I was a freshman in college before I openly decided I liked Metallica. Because I’d only heard the ‘90s stuff growing up, so that’s what I thought they were. And then when I got to Master of Puppets — I mean, that’s maybe top five albums of all time for me, but I came to it way later than most people would.

Jesse: Yeah, for me, oddly enough I don’t like Master of Puppets that much. With a lot of the thrash bands, it’s so much of a time and a place and a production value, and Ride the Lightning is just that right balance of old school yet it still sounds good. And I know Skot fucking hates Metallica still, so.

Skot: Oh, I wasn’t going to say anything at all. [Laughs.] When I was a kid, a friend’s older brother recorded me a cassette tape and one side of it was Metallica — I don’t remember which record, I think it was the Black album probably. And the other side was some Megadeth record. I gave him the tape back and told him to tape over the Metallica side and put more Megadeth on it. I made my decision on the camp I was in.

Jesse: I guess now we’re already in the nuts and bolts of what they want us to talk about, our influences. I know you guys have been getting a lot of talk on Twitter and all that stuff, on the the influence button. And I know there’s an elephant in the room that was somewhat of a gateway drug — I particularly enjoyed your thread shitting on Gen Xers for that.

Stin: You know, the funny thing about that thread is, I like all that bullshit, dude. I like the Twin/Tone Soul Asylum records. I actually fucking love the Afghan Whigs. 

Skot: Greg Dulli is like my favorite living songwriter. I’m a huge Afghan Whigs fan.

Stin: Yeah, I mean, that shit is undeniably awesome. But I think the flip side of it is, does it not seem to be kind of not necessarily relevant to Gen Z people in any way? If you read the history of the ‘90s major label boom and all the stuff that happened with indie rock, people literally thought that Soul Asylum was going to be like the next Nirvana or Urge Overkill and all these bands. And of course, they under-delivered. And so you have a generation of people who put all this stock into these like kind of underperforming artists and get mad about Korn. [Laughs.]

Jesse: And a lot of them weren’t really that great. I mean, it’s funny how it was such a strange time in music — and I know you guys and us are all kind of in the same age bracket. I might be on the little bit older side for my band. I’m the old man by, like, two years.

Luther: Yeah, I’m definitely the youngest probably, because I’ll be 32 in October. The other two guys, the vocalist and the drummer, are six years older than me, and then Stin is the oldest in our band. So for me, nu metal was a huge gateway. I mean, literally the first thing I ever heard with double bass in it was Iowa by Slipknot. That’s just hit for me. Deftones was always a big one for me. Then I was like, “nu metal’s not cool anymore,” because I had a friend take me to a grindcore show when I was 14, and now it’s not cool to be into anything anyone has ever heard of. [Laughs.] That then became my identity as a very annoying teenager. It’s like, “I have to only listen to the most obscure stuff I can find. 

Jesse: All legible text goes out the window. 

Luther: Yeah. So it was like, “I hate thrash, nu metal sucks.” I hated Nirvana at the time even, because it’s just like I heard some regional grindcore band touring and it blew my mind, because I didn’t know stuff could be like that. And so then I got super into punk and hardcore and, and grind that way, and that was more my gateway into this type of stuff.

Jesse: The biggest gateways in the last, I don’t know, 30 years have a tendency to be Metallica — that kind of brings in the mainstream to metal and then filters out from there. Nirvana was a huge one, and then clearly nu metal for everyone under 40. And that’s how you guys kind of got swallowed into that whole Korn discussion, with the nostalgic viewing of nu metal again. Where, a lot of millennials, after years of being told to be ashamed of it, now it’s kind of coming into this new light. Which I’m finding entertaining, because obviously being an “elder,” quote, millennial, nu metal was like the enemy when it came out. I remember when all that shit started and I hated it from day one, so I’ve always been kind of a cunt about it. I never liked it. I was through and through a Gen X piece of shit — even though I totally wasn’t, because I couldn’t get a job out of university.

Skot: The funny thing for me was, my journey that eventually led to me getting into much noisier music was also by way of a rejection of what was going on in contemporary metal. And I’m from Saskatoon, which is a very, very small city, and I didn’t really have much internet access or anything like that. So all I knew that was going on in guitar music was whatever the hell was going on in, like, Hit parade or whatever. And so while the tide was turning towards nu metal stuff, I just went like, Oh shit, I guess I don’t like metal anymore. I was just entering high school and I was meeting all of these people who were making straight noise music, they were making experimental electronic music and that type of thing. I still really liked aggressive music, but I spent a big time just kind of rejecting guitar music in general. 

I ended up finding my way back by getting into noisy rock bands, and finding out about an underground that I didn’t really have any direct access to, being where I was, but just through poking around on the internet. It’s funny because it seems like it was an enormous evolution that took years, but it was probably a matter of two years where I was only listening to people scraping metal or whatever. But nu metal was a really important change for me, insofar as I just went like, I really am not having this.

Stin: So my thing is, I think nu metal is trash, but Korn is not nu metal. They are a cut above.

Luther: See, I’m not as fully Korn-pilled as Stin is — I love Issues and I like the self-titled, but I think pretty much all their other albums are bad. But I was always, like I said, a Deftones guy. I mean, I literally have a Deftones tattoo on my leg. They were always way more the thing for me. I liked Korn, but they weren’t necessarily “heavy” enough for me — which Slipknot always kind of leaned more into the death metal-y aspects of it. And then Deftones was like, “Oh, they’re like the thinking man’s nu metal.” Or even stuff like Hum. But I know that both of us were also, at different points of our lives, very into harsh noise music and stuff.

Stin: Yeah, I was going to say, my story is pretty similar to yours in that I grew up in a town called Asher, Oklahoma — my class had 10 people in it, we didn’t have cable or anything. So literally my only access to culture in any way was top 40 radio. So I would cling on to Nirvana, Alice in Chains, just the sort of mid to late ‘90s hard alt rock stuff that was going on. And then one day — this is a real story — my parents found an unlabeled VHS tape lying in the street somewhere, and they brought it home, probably thinking it was porn or something. But to their dismay, some Hesher had recorded all of these alt rock, alt metal music videos onto this tape. The video for “Clown” by Korn was on it, and it blew my fucking wig back. I just had never heard anything like that in my life. And so around the same time too, I was reading Michael Azzerad’s Nirvana biography [Come As You Are], and in it they just talk about tons of underground stuff from the ‘90s. So part of me had all these tendrils into this grunge and noise rock stuff, that by the time I was getting into it was getting out of fashion. So I was sort of a generation late. But that was to my benefit because then I could go to the stores and get cut out bin versions of Jesus Lizard CDs and Sonic Youth and all this kind of stuff.

But at the same time, I was buying all the first wave nu metal, Ross Robinson albums, and those two things combined in my opinion. Then around high school, I was dating a girl and her brother was into harsh noise. He turned me on to Merzbow, and he bought me a copy of the Japanese American Noise Treaty, which is this Relapse comp of American noise and Japanese noise. That blew my mind. So I kind of went through a phase in late high school where I was getting into unlistenable, most extreme music I could find. And then just anything was game after that. 

Luther: Yeah, I also was very into ‘90s and early 2000s post-hardcore bands, like a lot of Dischord Records stuff was really important to me, Fugazi.

Jesse: How did that come about?

Luther: Most of that stuff for me stems from one person, my friend Corey, who I met in high school. He’s the one that took me to that grindcore show. He showed me pretty much all of that stuff early on. And then I ended up moving to Buffalo, New York — my dad’s family lives there, and so I’ve lived there on and off for years. I’ve been back [in Oklahoma] now for 10 years, but in my early 20 I met some guys up there that were really into esoteric stuff. I already liked grind and some of the noisier post-hardcore stuff, and then they were just listening to, like, harsh noise walls type of stuff — like straight up harsh power electronics. And it kind of blew my mind getting into the super non-traditional song oriented type noise stuff. And then I had friends that were showing me kind of scuzzier noise rock bands and stuff like that. And there’s a lot of overlap with post-hardcore, especially with noise rock bands. It feels, at least from some of the scenes in the ‘90s, like an easy marriage. If you’re into that noisy stuff, it’s some of the same aesthetic.

Jesse: I feel like pretty early on, the genre blending got a little weird with noise rock in general. I know I’ve historically labeled things of the noise rock ilk that I don’t think a lot of people AmRep had bands everywhere from the Melvins, Tad, to Today Is The Day — which has always for me been very much an extreme band existing in the noise rock realm, but I don’t think anyone ever really calls them a noise rock band.

Stin: If you had to explain to an alien what noise rock is, how would you describe it?

Jesse: I mean, definitely discordance. There’s a degree of having a solid beat behind it. I mean, describing to an alien — or a normal human — it’s always felt like the easiest thing is to explain like, “You know the Nirvana tracks that you don’t like?”

Luther: [Laughs.] “It’s like that.”

Jesse: Like the really cool shit on In Utero that they said was garbage, they shouldn’t release it on Geffen — that shit. I mean for me, “Scentless Apprentice” was the song that when I was 12 — just, like, instantly fucked up kid now.

Stin: I think “Radio Friendly Unit Shifters” is the most noise rock song on that album. Because to me, if I was explaining it to an alien, I think an important element is that rhythm section. That hard bass drum syncopation to me is a necessity. That’s why, to me, the Jesus Lizard is the quintessential band of the genre, because the rhythm section is so what it is.

Jesse: Yet they so infrequently get considered a proper noise rock band. I never saw them called that in the ‘90s. And I know they’re very much worshiped by the traditional noise rock type scene, but it’s strange because you never hear anyone call them a noise rock band. 

Stin: Well, I think from all the old stuff that I read, those bands were all called Pig Fuck at the time. But to me, that’s just an extension of that. Tad’s another example — to me, they sound different because they’re a little chunkier, but it’s still that locked in rhythm section kind of thing. And then honestly, if we’re talking about the classic stuff, I think the production element is very important as well. Like you have to have that that sort of Albini, quintessential sound. But obviously that doesn’t count as much in the modern age, because there’s a million noise rock bands who are obviously not recording with Steve Albini.

Jesse: But most of the people that they are recording with were all influenced by that. Even Steve Albini and his importance to that scene in general, a lot of the time people don’t necessarily consider Big Black noise rock band. But for me, they are the DNA of what it is.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall them being name dropped in Come As You Are

Stin: Oh, yeah.

Jesse: Most of the bands that I got into from that period was from that goddamn book, and it’s just because Kurt Cobain and those guys had such good taste.

Stin: They talk about it in that book, that bands wouldn’t [tour] as far as Seattle, but Big Black, for whatever reason, would. So Big Black had a big influence on that scene. And then My War era Black Flag was also a band that would actually come through.

Jesse: And obviously that helped be the reason the Melvins are what they are. And that’s another band that, again, never really gets called a noise rock band, but they very clearly have their claws in every modern band today that is.

Stin: Well I would say that Ozma and Eggnog are full on noise rock albums. I mean, obviously the sludge elements are there too, but those are noise rock albums to me.

Jesse: The sludge thing is a funny one, because I remember when we started being a band, sludge wasn’t really something that people called anything. That kind of started to pick up steam I think more in the early aughts. That term has completely taken over as its own genre at this point, and there are so many weird sub things now too. Having been around as long as we all have at this point, it’s just like… I just don’t get kids. [Laughs.] 

Stin: Well, that’s my thing, again, why I have no shame throwing Korn in as an influence along with the other more acceptable bands, because it’s like, does anything fucking matter anymore? Who fucking cares! We live in a postmodern world, it doesn’t matter. You have an infinite amount of choices in terms of your music consumption. Why do you need to be locked into anything? It doesn’t fucking matter.

Skot: That’s exactly it — we went over that litany of bands that are supposed to be the foundational bands in the noise rock canon, and then proceeded to make mention about how all of them are not actually recognized as such. That’s the common thread, that they don’t really need to be called one thing or the other. They are just of themselves, which is infinitely more important to my mind. They are bigger than any one banner.

Stin: Exactly. Well, the only way that having the genre titles is helpful is just so that you have a shorthand for like, “Yeah, I like stuff that sort of sounds like this Venn diagram of sonic qualities,” or whatever. But as far as being super obsessed with categorizing one band as one way or another, it’s kind of pointless to me. 

Luther: I like to use the genre stuff just as a tool for finding stuff. Especially — it’s so hard to talk about what your own band’s genre is. We call ourselves a noise rock band. I don’t think we’ve ever — I mean, we didn’t start off calling ourselves a sludge metal band, really, that’s what people have called us. So it’s like, “OK, I guess that’s in our bio now. I guess we’re a sludge metal noise rock band.” But, I don’t know, we have a lot of little melodic moments shining through. There’s definitely some post-punk in us, definitely some nu metal, definitely alt rock and grunge. I feel like there’s a lot of different stuff going on. 

Stin: I think with bands like ours, it’s what happens when people with big record collections get together and make music. 

Jesse: Yeah.

Luther: We just listen to a lot of stuff, and we didn’t want to make super complicated music, at least structurally. We even said at the beginning, we wanted to make dumb guy music.

Jesse: To a degree, that is also a product of the time. We’re on the flip side, where we formed as a band 20 years before you guys. That was when Calculating Infinity came out, and everyone wanted to have 57 riffs in every song.

Luther: I mean, hey, Converge was a big band for me, B.O.S.C.H. I’ve been in a lot of bands that were definitely trying to lean more on that kind of mathcore, complicated, heavy stuff. And so when we started playing together, we both wanted to get away from making it so complicated. 

Jesse: It’s not as fun to play live, straight up. Having been there, done that, our first two records were hard to play and made shows not fun.

Stin: [Laughs.] Well, that kind of brings up an interesting question I’d like to ask you guys: Obviously noise rock is having a bit of a moment right now. When you guys first started, I feel like it would have been probably the least popular time for that type of genre.

Jesse: Oh yeah, it just died. 

Stin: So, firstly, how did you find the bravery to keep the torch burning? And then secondly, is there anything from that time period that you can think of that kind of kept it alive? What do you think about that sort of early 2000s period of noise rock, if it even existed?

Jesse: It was very much the bands from the ‘90s that probably reached the highest — the Melvins, Unsane, and Today Is the Day — and to a degree what Neurosis was doing — I feel like were what really propelled that subset of extreme music. I mean, they had their DNA in so many bands. Even a lot of the stuff that was going on in hardcore, with Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, Isis. I think it’s really just the monsters from the ‘90s made a bunch of nerds want to be in bands, and that’s what kind of kept this all alive, essentially. Whenever people talk to us about our general fandom of the scene, it’s really just that we’re a bunch of music nerds who like listening to cool music and finding new shit, and that will never go away. I literally had someone giving us grief on this record cycle about the shirts we were wearing and being tryhards. It’s like, we’re just wearing the shirts we wear everyday! I’m sorry for paying attention to new shit!

KEN Mode is a noise rock band from Winnipeg. Their latest release, NULL, is out now on Artoffact Records.