Their witty, satirical and astute songs already set St. John’s-based indie-folk ensemble The Burning Hell apart from most others. But now they might also be the most ambitious band in the world.
Songwriter and ukulele-wielding front man Mathias Kom founded the band in 2006 in Peterborough, Ont. Since then, with a rotating cast of musicians, he has recorded five studio albums and toured North America and Europe multiple times. In 2010 he and girlfriend Ariel Sharratt (who plays clarinet in the band) re-located to St. John’s after falling in love with the city while on tour, gathered local musicians to form a new incarnation of the band and, in 2011, organized the inaugural Lawnya Vawnya music and arts festival.
Last year the group recorded ‘Flux Capacitor’ in St. John’s, Chance Cove, Bellevue Beach and Toronto and followed up with an extensive European summer tour. In December the album was shortlisted for Newfoundland’s Atlantis Music Prize.
This year they’re doing it all over again: recording an album (in Germany) and undertaking an extensive European tour. But this time, while they’re at it – heck, why not try and play 10 shows in 10 different countries in 24 hours?
If successful, Kom, Sharratt and band mates Nick Ferrio, Darren Browne and Jake Nicoll would become the first musicians ever to accomplish the feat.
The Guinness World Record for the ‘most concerts performed in different countries in 24 hours’ is currently held by German guitarist Vicente Patiz, with eight. The Guinness rules, however, require artists to travel with commercial airlines and play in 300-person or greater capacity venues. Without those restrictions, American solo instrumental guitarist Jeff Aug holds the “unofficial” world record with nine shows in nine countries.
Beginning in Germany on the evening of July 6, The Burning Hell will attempt to break Aug’s record as they move (and play) through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy and end with a performance 23 hours and 30 minutes later in Slovenia.
The Indy tracked down Kom in Germany (via Facebook), where he and the band are taking a break from their tour to record their next studio album, to ask a few questions.
The Burning Hell has toured Europe several times before – what’s unique about this tour and how’s it going so far? Can you talk a bit about recording the new album in Germany?
We’ve just finished the first phase of this year’s tour – 40 shows around Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The nice thing about touring here at this point is that there are a lot of places we’re now going back to for the fourth or fifth time, so certain cities and venues have started feeling like home. We’re definitely playing more in Europe than in Canada these days (for example, we’ve played three times in the last three years in Toronto, and TEN times in Hamburg), and getting to know our audiences over here has been a lot of fun. As for recording, we’re working with a producer named Norman Nietszche, and I’m a big fan of the work he’s done with artists like Masha Qrella, Susie Asado and Chuckamuck.
Since you (Ariel and Mathias) moved to St. John’s a couple years ago, how has the band evolved, in terms of the new band members, the music, how the last album sounded and how this one will sound, and any other ways?
Well, the move to St. John’s has had a huge impact in some ways – getting to play with some of my favourite musicians in Canada, for example – but in other ways, the band has always been in a constant state of flux. Members come and go, babies arrive, and people even occasionally get actual jobs. I love everyone I’ve ever played with and I also like the feeling that the band is a sort of loose international family. As for the sound, we’re only a five-piece on this tour, which is on the small side for the Burning Hell, and I think it’s making us focus a lot more on tightening up the new songs. They’re sounding great, and more aggressive than ever before. Are we making a rock record? Maybe.
It seems like the BH is on a sort of annual cycle like the seasons these past few years: Tour throughout the summer, everybody goes back to their regular lives in the fall and winter, Mathias writes some new songs, and in the spring the band is given new life and maybe procreates in the studio. What’s the significance of this trend?
We definitely seem to be on a seasonal cycle. Part of it is that I’m in school now, so the summer is touring time. But partly it’s also just that I’m making a concerted effort to slow down and be a bit more focused. I used to tour and play shows all the time, and as fun as it was, it was taking years off my life and leaving me exhausted. I don’t think we’re intentionally trying to get in tune with a seasonal or natural cycle, but it’s definitely a more pleasant way to do things.
You’re a Canadian band but have a lot of fans in Europe. What’s the experience been like, touring Canada then hopping the pond and playing in so many different places in Western and Eastern Europe, where you’re warmly received – even in places where people can’t understand what you’re singing?
As for people not understanding the words, I’m always surprised by this but way more people in Europe listen closely to the lyrics than in Canada. And in terms of a more general comparison, to be completely honest I think that most of the time musicians are treated very poorly by venues and promoters in Canada. The general attitude on the part of bars is that live music sells beer, and bookers and promoters know that if one band doesn’t like it, they’ll still have a lineup of dozens of bands willing to play for no money and no hospitality. Canada is overflowing with some of the most incredible, talented and original artists in the world, and frankly, they deserve to be treated like human beings. Of course, there are a handful of standout venues that are exceptions to this, and a few promoters too – like our very own Jud Haynes (of Mightypop). In Europe, generally speaking, things are mostly the other way around. It’s true that at this point we have a bigger following here than at home, but God knows we’re not treated like royalty or anything. But still, even the humblest venue or promoter over here will go out of their way to make sure the show is well promoted and the musicians get fed, get paid and have a comfortable place to stay. It’s so simple, and it makes such a huge difference to our mental health.
When and how did the idea to attempt a world record for most shows in the greatest number of countries in a 24-hour period come about?
Last summer we more or less accidentally played four shows in four countries in 24 hours (the last-minute addition of a set at a wedding in Liechtenstein made it possible), and we immediately started wondering if we could do more.
What did planning and scheduling that entail? And how are you possibly driving to 10 countries in one day AND playing shows?
Planning it was remarkably easy, thanks to the efforts of our incredibly talented booking agent. All the promoters are really excited to be part of it – even the Swiss team, which is especially cool considering we’re playing there at seven in the morning! As for the logistics, we have a driver so the band can power-nap in the van between shows. It’s going to be very tight nonetheless and success is definitely not a sure thing. But trying is the most important part!
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, can you give a bit more context to your dedication of the world record attempt to the worldwide DIY (do-it-yourself) scene and all the artists who do what they do regardless of the obstacles?
Thanks for this question – and it absolutely IS the most important one. We’ve all heard a million times about how the music industry is collapsing, the record industry is collapsing, nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, et cetera et cetera. Personally I’m very skeptical that this is true (remember when home-taping was a big scandal in the 80s? remember Metallica vs. Napster?). Music fans are getting smarter and more passionate, if anything, and bands have endless and accessible resources at their disposal to be creative with every aspect of their work, from recording to manufacturing to distributing to touring. There is a really serious revival of the DIY punk spirit of the 80s, and it’s happening across all genres and involves not just musicians but an increasingly well-connected international network of small record labels, promoters, collectives, independent venues and record stores. Of course, the ‘industry’ still exists, and probably will for a long while yet. But there’s certainly nothing exciting about it. Jay-Z zips around in a private jet playing as many shows as he can in a day, The White Stripes fly across Canada playing a stadium in every province and territory, and yes, it’s all very thrilling. But there are hundreds and thousands of small, poor, independent bands who make equally great music who work their asses off, traveling around the country and the world, making incredible records and doing every single thing themselves despite the fact that they don’t have a major label deal or a private jet or sometimes even their own equipment. That attitude is what I admire so much about my favourite bands, and whether or not we actually manage to pull this off, it’s that spirit of stubborn independence that will keep us going afterwards.
By way of tour van, The Burning Hell will play the following shows in their world record-breaking attempt:
July 6 – 19:00: Aachen, Germany – Hotel Europa
July 6 – 20:15: Maastricht, Netherlands – JVE
July 6 – 21:15: Liège, Belgium – L’An Vert (Festival Les Barbantes)
July 6 – 23:45: Luxembourg-Ville, Luxembourg – Le Rocas
July 7 – 1:15: Metz, France – L’Astrophone
July 7 – 7:00: Trogen, Switzerland – Viertel
July 7 – 8:30: Vaduz, Liechtenstein – Trou Noir
July 7 – 11:00: Innsbruck, Austria – Down Town Sound
July 7 – 15:00: Verona, Italy – Casetta Lou Fai
July 7 – 18:30: Šmartno (Goriška Brda), Slovenia
For more info, visit the band’s web site.