I dream in oily fluorescent swirls, I speak in plastic
My wardrobe is nylon and PVC; my band is elastic-“Bird Queen of Garbage Island”
You can’t neatly place The Burning Hell into any one genre of music.
The lyrics in their new album, Garbage Island touch on a slew of subjects, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, the collapse of capitalism, Ninja Turtles, and the failure of peaceful resistance. The music itself? Garbage Island is an end-time album that makes you want to move. Bleak and funky, this offers a cognitive dissonance that’ll get you dancing.
Mathias Kom founded the Burning Hell in 2006. In the early years, band membership tended to fluctuate; it was based more or less on who was available to join the tour. “I once went on tour with a ukulele player, an accordionist, and a harmonica soloist,” laughs Kom. “I love not being precious about our performances. DIY music, to me, that’s exciting. Creating music should feel like something anyone can do.”
Nowadays, the band includes Kom (lead vocals), Jake Nicoll (drums), and Ariel Sharratt (a slew of instruments, but mainly clarinet, saxophone, vocals, bass, and drums). Collaborators often join the Burning Hell, and Garbage Island is no exception. Jud Haynes, Kelly McMichael, Krista Power, and Mara Pellerin all appeared or helped create the new album.
Major festivals and pop stars lost stadium shows and big bucks in the wake of the novel coronavirus in early 2020, but the crisis spilled over into the INDY/DIY scene. Start-up record labels, small venues, and self-represented rock bands all had to deal with the wave of cancellations and stay-home orders. “Right before the pandemic, we were on a long tour in America; then we did an Australian leg. We got stuck in the UK in the early pandemic days and had to fly home. It felt hard,” says Kom. Ariel Sharratt agrees. “ It was tough because our identities were wrapped up in being touring musicians, but the forced time off gave us this chance to think of ourselves more expansively. We started growing food and painting. Mathias got really into stained glass. We started to find the joy in making music again, too.”
Garbage Island was made over several pandemic years. Collaborator and drummer Jake Nicolls found himself stuck in Ontario on his father’s farm when the pandemic was declared in March 2020. He dragged recording gear into an old sheep pen in the barn and started working away. “I think the novelty of this process and not feeling too rushed or pressured to create helped us have fun with it.” Kom continues, “Jake spent the winter of 2021 converting a 70s camper trailer into a solar-powered recording studio, so he finished Garbage Island in that space.”
The End-Time-Dance-Feels of Garbage Island
The climate disaster weighs heavily on both Sharrat and Kom. Sharrat explains. “Climate change is on our minds constantly. Aside from the warm weather, we see more of the sandstone cliff down at the shore near our house disappear every year. This year, the makeshift mowed road along the coast that the neighbors have been using for years had to be moved back, as part of it had fallen into the ocean. We have new insects. We are little frogs in a boiling pot with no outside.”
The lyrics in Garbage Island refer to dystopias, resistance, and a plastic-coated future, but things never get too weighty. Kom explains, “I didn’t want this to be a bummer. The thread connecting the songs is the knowledge that humans can creatively solve problems.”
One of the album’s joys is the musical chair abilities of the members. The Burning Hell hop around, they switch positions and play each other’s instruments–adding to the playful feeling. This instrument hopping is a relatively newish thing for Sharrat. “I was scared to play new instruments in front of people for a long time. I can do it now, thanks to the long process of confidence building. It’s awesome to play an instrument imperfectly.” Sharrat also animated the first music video for the new album–a gorgeous, acid-trip bright, spectacular video for Nigel the Gannet. “It was a lot of trial and error,” laughs Sharrat, “12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and painting tons and tons of birds on acetate.”
What’s Next for the Burning Hell? And What Advice Do They Have for New Musicians?
The Burning Hell will be back in St. John’s on September 17th for an album release party at The Rockhouse. “We’re touring in Canada this summer and early fall, and then we’ll head to Europe,” says Kom. For Sharrat, the next few weeks will involve another animation project for the band’s second music video. “I’m working on the video for the track ‘The End of the End of the World’ right now, and I’ve been taking automated photos of plants through the summer. Using these time lapses as a reference, I want to make a video that captures the movements of the plants, the land, and the surrounding seas in a timescale we can better understand. Animation– like environmental change in some ways–is this slow process where a thousand small changes add up to entirely new worlds. But I’ve just gotten back from a jam-packed summer and am just starting to work on the video now; things may call me in a different direction.”
Advice-wise, the Burning Hell has tips and lessons they learned during the pandemic to share with other DIY bands. “I always want to tell new musicians that there is no industry,” Kom continues, “With climate change and pandemics, we cannot rely on album sales or touring income. If we go into creating things with that trajectory, then we’re collectively swallowing BS. Just hold on to the joy of making things.” Sharrat adds, “the idea that your self-worth connects to the success of your project is dangerous. The market is not reflective of your value.”
That’s pretty good advice for the start of the end times.
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