The Burning Hell might be Newfoundland’s answer to Cake, but better. Loquacious lyricist and front man Mathias Kom has a gift for saturating songs with as much story as they can possibly hold, and delivers them in a flat, matter of fact, manner like he’s casually unravelling his tale to you at the side of a bar. The songs from their latest album, Public Library, are as rich as you can get inside of six minutes, but he comes by it honestly. Here’s his story about touring through the UK, and what eventually became the basis for their song, ‘The Road’.
In the summer of 2015 we were touring around the UK in an old blue Volkswagen Transporter van. This van had been a mighty road warrior in its day, no doubt, but by the time we crossed the English Channel it was wheezing towards its twilight years with an ensemble of clicks, clacks, stutters and false starts that had us worried for our immediate future. After replacing the entire exhaust system outside of Southampton, we hoped our troubles were over. The van sounded much better.
Alas, the week that followed featured daily breakdowns (sometimes twice daily). Eventually the van just gave up and died altogether in the middle of a construction zone along the motorway north towards Scotland. I managed to pull over and we put on our little fluorescent vests that you’re supposed to carry with you on that side of the pond for just such emergencies. We trudged through the rain to a gas station we had passed, where they gave us a phone number and told us that we just had to go back and sit in the van and wait, as breaking down in a construction zone entitled one to “free recovery.” Recovery of any kind sounded good to all of us at that point.
Back in the van, I called the hotline and told the operator where we were. “I know where you are,” he said, in a cold and bloodless voice, “we’ve been watching you on the cameras. We’d like to know why you got out of your vehicle in a construction zone on the motorway. It’s quite illegal to get out of your vehicle in a construction zone, you know.” Despite his threatening tone and the creepy Big Brotherness of the whole interaction, I was relieved to know that someone was aware of our plight. And before you could say “gaol” or even “appear before the magistrate,” a not-so-jolly chap in a jolly yellow tow-truck appeared and hoisted our poor van up and away. A few minutes later, we were dropped along with our broken chariot in the parking lot of the service station at Scotch Corner.
At this point, a compact man with a moustache and oil-stained mechanic’s overalls appeared as if from nowhere. In the thickest Yorkshire accent any of us had heard, he introduced himself as Stevie and began to rummage around under the hood of the van. After half an hour of rummaging, he told us the good news that he could fix the problem with a simple and cheap part, but the bad news that he would have to wait until the next morning because this was a Sunday and all the parts shops were shut.
As happy as we all were to hear that the van wasn’t doomed after all, we were concerned nonetheless given that we were still a three hour drive away from our gig that night in Edinburgh. We explained the predicament to Stevie and asked if there was a train. From his furrowed brow and string of cursing we deduced that the train was expensive. Stevie paused, then told us to sit tight and he’d be right back. Without any further explanation he drove off in his little red van.
Around an hour later, just when we were starting to wonder both if Stevie was coming back and why he had left in the first place, he appeared again, this time with a woman. This was his wife Sarah, we learned, and Stevie told us that we were welcome to drive Sarah’s car to Edinburgh. Flabbergasted, we all looked at Sarah for confirmation and she nodded and smiled.
Sarah’s car was a Fiat Panda, which for those who have never seen one is around the size of a large dog. Not wanting to downplay the kindness of the offer, we explained that while the Panda might just barely hold the five of us, the chances of getting our guitars and other equipment in there were nil. Stevie and Sarah had already thought of this, however. They explained that they would put our gear in Stevie’s little red van—which only had two seats but plenty of room for guitars—and drive to Scotland with us.
And so it was that in the front row of our gig in Edinburgh that evening were our new friends from Scotch Corner, sipping on cokes and looking slightly bewildered to be watching a nerdy Canadian indie rock band in a city they had only visited once before in their lives. I told the story of our escapade to the audience, who showered Stevie and Sarah with appreciative applause.
As soon as we were finished, Stevie and Sarah took our guitars and things and loaded them back into their van. “Where are you going?” we asked, explaining that we were going to get them a hotel room for the night. Nonsense, said the dynamic mechanic, he and Sarah preferred to drive back straight away so he could get working on our van first thing in the morning. We looked at Sarah and she smiled and nodded again, telling us to enjoy our evening and not to worry about rushing back with her Panda. Just as they were about to pull away, someone who had also been at the gig came up to their van and pushed a giant box of Scottish shortbread through the window, thanking them for getting us to Edinburgh. Sarah blushed, smiled and nodded, and off they went.
Sure enough, Stevie had the van fixed in no time. From then on it didn’t break down once, and even started on the first try most of the time. Throughout the rest of our tour Stevie would call us now and then to check up on how the van was doing, telling us that all we had to do was call, no matter where we were in the country, and he’d be there.
A week or two later we were at Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, recording what ended up being ‘Public Library’. I was strumming away to myself late one night and the bones of the song “The Road” came out, a paean to Stevie and Sarah and the unlikely, unexpected kindnesses that can sometimes save a tour.
Fast forward a year to our next tour in the UK, in a mercifully mechanically sound van. Al Harle, our touring sound tech and the gent who recorded Public Library, shot the bulk of the video for “The Road” on a lonely moor not far from Glossop, in the Peak District National Park. We shot the opening sequence back at the Scotch Corner service station, where we hoped we might find Stevie and Sarah again.
They were nowhere to be found, sadly, and Stevie’s old phone number was out of service. I like to imagine that they were busy helping another band in some other part of the country get back on the road.