"When the world ends, will we dance the apocalypso?" asks Mathias Kom towards the end of The Burning Hell's new album, Baby. If we did, it might sound a bit like The Burning Hell. Led by ukulele-wielding, lyrically endowed Kom, The Burning Hell expands and contracts from a one-man show to a sprawling 13-person folk-rock orchestra complete with accordion, omnichord, synths, strings and horns. Like The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, Kom has a knack for writing songs that are simultaneously sad and hilarious ("It Happens In Florida," off of his first album, Tick Tock, is a great example). On Baby they are also very danceable. The band (including Jenny Mitchell of The Barmitzvah Brothers with her baby, Otis) will perform at Gus' as a 10-piece on Saturday.
Baby begins by looking back to life in the womb and touches on babies, animals, death, dancing, romancing, dumb college kids, politics and history, before wrapping up with the end of the world. "This album in particular is pretty expressive of my worldview," Kom says. "The last album [Happy Birthday] was more depressing than I intended it to be. This one is upbeat melodically and rhythmically even if the words are depressing."
Speaking of depressing, death sneaks its way into many of the songs. In the lonely ballad "Everybody Needs A Body (To Be Somebody)" Kom sings about watching a squirrel get hit by a car. "Actually, that happened to me twice," Kom says. He suggests that we should embrace death somehow. "Culturally, we're obsessed with it anyway," he says. "We spend all of our time trying to prevent it or slow it down." Apologizing for veering off on a geeky tangent, Kom adds, "In grade school I learned that in ancient Egypt their whole culture was about preparing for death---maybe they were a little too obsessed with it, really."
A former history teacher with a BA in Global Studies and an MA in Migration and Ethnic Studies, it isn't surprising that in the song "The Berlin Conference," Kom imagines a meeting in which European powers are discussing the division of Africa. "I do love certain historical themes," Kom says. Now out of the classroom, and out on the road, he says, "That was fine, but this was just more fun."
With members of The Burning Hell scattered across the country (Jill Staveley, Adam DeMarch and Mike Duguay live in Peterborough, Steve McNabb lives in Toronto, Jenny Mitchell and Geordie Gordon live in Guelph and Alison Corbett lives in St John's) and with Kom living out of his van ("I don't live anywhere," he says), the band recorded Baby mostly live while on tour in Vancouver, Port Greville, Nova Scotia, and at Andrew Magoffin's House of Miracles in London, Ontario. "It's pretty messy in parts," Kom says. "In most situations, I taught the band the songs the day before."
Kom is a prolific songwriter. He just got back from spending four months in the Yukon where he got together (musically) with Kim Barlow, and recorded Spring Break Up with her ("It consists entirely of break up songs," he says). He also recently recorded a solo album in Vancouver that he describes as weird but cool, with cello, ukulele and electronic drums. On this tour The Burning Hell will return to The Quarantine in Port Greville to work on a split seven-inch with tour-mates Construction and Destruction.
Though in debt and experiencing the occasional hankering for a more settled life, Kom is enjoying the constant touring. "I'm very happy now," he says. "I've never been poorer in my entire life." With no phone or apartment, he gets to see a FemBots show every night, a Construction and Destruction show every night. "That's a lot of the reason why we have such a good time on the road," he says. "We know we won't have money, so we have good parties. It keeps the joy there."
Baby does not end with death or fear or the end of the world; it ends with Mitchell coaching Kom on optimism in a duet called "Everything Will Probably Be Ok." "I wrote that about Jenny and I," Kom says. "It sums up her personality and my personality. Not that there's a conflict in the band, just that there's a different worldview. We realized that it should be the last song."