Mathias Kom is a man of his word. Ever since he first set foot in St. John’s 2 1/2 years ago, the 32-year-old musician, and founder of Ontario eclectic party folk ensemble The Burning Hell, has vowed to relocate to the city he says has “the most vibrant arts community in Canada.”
In May 2008 Kom and his band landed in St. John’s with “three vehicles, two dogs, (band mate Jenny Mitchell’s) baby, and the baby’s grandpa,” he explains.
It was love at first sight.
“I’m not going to name names, but there was more than one person crying in the van because no one wanted to go back (to Ontario), and that’s how it started,” he says.
Kom claims it was a fan’s comment at a performance in St. John’s last March that prompted him to make his “pipe dream” a reality.
“I remember very distinctly being on stage one night at the Ship and saying, ‘I always love coming to St. John’s and some day I’m going to move here.’ And someone from the crowd yelled out, ‘Yeah right, I’ve heard you say that a thousand times.’ And really, that kind of hurt,” he recalls with humorous candor. “But I realized afterwards it’s true. I’m all talk. So my girlfriend and I said we’ve just got to do this.”
Two days after he and girlfriend Ariel Sharratt (who plays clarinet and saxophone in the band) arrived in St. John’s this September, they were gone again.
With Burning Hell cellist Darcy McCord at their side, the pair headed off to Eastern Europe for a six-week tour to showcase a downsized version of the band to new audiences in the Baltics, among other countries.
Finally, by the end of November, Kom and Sharratt were able to start unpacking the boxes in their downtown apartment.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve moved all of my stuff (at once),” he says.
“I finally feel like I’m in a place that feels like home immediately and I don’t want to be just someone who’s here in a fly-by-night kind of way. I’d like to get involved in other ways in the community other than by playing my own music.”
With one member in British Columbia, a growing contingency in Newfoundland, and a dozen or so in between, The Burning Hell is at once a truly Canadian band, but a separated one.
“The band, since the beginning, has always changed,” Kom explains. “From tour to tour and album to album, it’s always a different lineup of people and that has been a necessity.”
Listeners and critics alike agree that Kom’s satirical, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and his baritone voice, coupled with the instrumental diversity of the songs, are the core of the band’s unique style.
But he doesn’t belittle the musicians who have made The Burning Hell what it is.
“They’ve been huge and I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says. “There is a core group of people living in Ontario that I love playing with and I hope I can continue playing with them one way or another.”
At the band’s most recent St. John’s performance in September, Kom and Sharratt were joined by local musicians Alison Corbett, Darren Browne, Mark Bragg, John Duff and Mark Wilson.
“No two Burning Hell shows have ever been the same,” Kom explains. “Sometimes it’s this quiet, intimate thing where we play slow songs in a living room, sometimes it’s a crazy party band at a bar, and sometimes it’s a five-piece rock band at a festival.”
The band’s name was taken from an evangelistic film of the same title, which Kom says he discovered in 2000 when a man on a Toronto street handed him a silkscreen leaflet that featured a “badly drawn devil” and which read: “The Burning Hell: Thousands of degrees hot and not a drop of water.”
“I immediately gravitated to it and my first thought was if I ever have a band that’s what it’s going to be called,” he recalls.
Kom says he initially hesitated over the name at the chance people might get the wrong impression but has since reneged on the fear.
“If people can get the joke then they’ll get the music,” he says, alluding to the satirical and often ironic nature of his songwriting. “And if they don’t, if they just see the name and get put off immediately, it’s not for them anyways.”
Whatever the band’s composition at any given time, Kom will be its nucleus.
“What I’m going for is an ability to write songs that will connect with people whether it’s just me, a 10-piece band or anything in between,” he says. “The songs themselves are still the most important thing. If people want consistency in their music or their lifestyle, there’s other ways to look for it. There’s always McDonald’s,” he jokes.
“At the end of the day I’ll be playing Burning Hell shows whether it’s me on my own or with 10 people in Belarus. I’ll keep doing it no matter what.”
The band’s website is at www.wearetheburninghell.com.