Music/Interviews

Arkells are on a mission to right rock’s historic wrongs

Over a decade into their career, the aspirational Hamilton band are setting new expectations for the genre they've cut their teeth on.

Matt Barnes
October 30, 2018

On the release date of the Arkells’ most recent album, Rally Cry, hundreds of fans snaked their way through the west wing of Toronto’s Union Station for a pop-up marketplace where the band sold new merch and held an album listening party. The excited group that had gathered could munch on Arkells-branded cookies or have an old T-shirt made new again with an album-themed shirt press as they waited in line to grab a copy of the album. Given that the event happened during rush hour, the pop-up also attracted its fair share of interest from onlookers passing through the station, with some hanging on a moment longer to hear a song or watch as a seemingly endless stream of fans met their favourite artists in front of a marquee that read: ARKELLS TOURING BAND.

During the album launch, the band hosted a winter clothing drive in partnership with New Circles’ GLOW (Gently Loved Outfits to Wear), a Toronto clothing bank that provides social programs and skill building opportunities for low-income individuals. Barely an hour into the event, fans had nearly filled the two clothing racks provided for the donations, and by the end over 150 jackets were collected.

It was a particularly fitting opportunity for the band to blend philanthropy with a clever bit of marketing given that the lead track off of Rally Cry is a song called “Hand Me Downs,” a Springsteen-esque anthem and reminder that “ain’t no shame in some hand me downs.” But the event was more than just a savvy, feel good media tie-in—it’s one of many examples of the Arkells remodelling a simple event into a platform for social action.

Union Station Pop-Up Event//Jess Baumung

Through a partnership with the Arcade Fire led initiative Plus 1, which turns ticket sales into a fundraising strategy for a charity of an artist’s choice, the Arkells have a long history of raising money for organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton, the Canadian Council For Refugees, and Partners In Health Canada. This past June the band donated $1 of every ticket purchased for their sold-out hometown show at the 24,000 capacity Tim Hortons Field to Refuge: Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health.

More than a decade into their career, the band is confident that their fans know what to expect at an Arkells show. “Whenever I see Beck or Kanye or Radiohead, [they’re] bands with audiences who expect to be surprised,” says vocalist and guitarist Max Kerman over lunch in Toronto’s Chinatown. “We’re trying to build some currency with our fans to do whatever we want and know they’ll be along for the ride.”

Though the band have a history of weaving charitable initiatives into their live events, the actual politics behind those convictions—and its influence on their music—haven’t been as visible and intentional until now. So it’s fitting that the launch event and listening party for their fifth album takes place in a transit hub: Rally Cry is fundamentally an album that finds the Arkells in transition, making the most politically direct statements of their career with a new sonic direction to match.

As nationalistic movements and fervor grow to a fever pitch all around the world, and right wing candidates like President Donald Trump in the U.S. or Premier Doug Ford in Ontario work to actively undermine the rights of the working class, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ communities, Rally Cry actively resists that destructive rhetoric in favour of people-centred songs and politics.

For us it’s about trying to find the nuance in the conversation—we’re not interested in the black and white nature of ‘this is good, this is bad,’ left vs right.

Max Kerman

Released in April 2017, the single “Knocking At The Door” (which was inspired by the 2017 Women’s March in Washington) proved to be a watershed moment for the band and foreshadowed the explicitly political themes that would appear on Rally Cry. The song’s Motown-inspired horn blasts and flares of gospel-tinged melodies are reminiscent of Rock’s early flirtations with soul and rings of a period when revolution was imminent.

“That one came together quite quickly,” remembers guitarist Mike DeAngelis about the writing and recording of the song. “We went from making a demo to being in a studio much more quickly than we would have in the past, where we would have spent more time trying to refine the demo before recording the final takes in the studio.” Being less concerned with completely fleshing out songs brought a sense of urgency to the sessions that matched the political gravity of the song’s muse. “You get more of your instincts recorded and they’re not overcooked,” DeAngelis adds, crediting producer Eric Ratz with the relaxed attitude.

Recorded between last September and this past May, Rally Cry is a lean ten tracks that embrace social issues with a new kind of immediacy. Similar to “Knocking At The Door,” album cuts like “American Screams” draw lyrical inspiration from the reality of life in Trump’s America. “For us it’s about trying to find the nuance in the conversation—we’re not interested in the black and white nature of ‘this is good, this is bad,’ ‘left vs right,’” Kerman explains.

The band left the question of just how political the lyrics should get up to Kerman, though they did have input. DeAngelis sees his role in that regard as a kind of editor. “I like to not try to stifle anything that’s a really strong expression. It’s more like a search for clarity,” he says. “If it resonates with me then hopefully it’ll also resonate with everyone else too.”

“For a song like “American Screams,” it touches on the problems with gun control in America and the hysterical nature of the conversation, but the chorus is: ‘You’ve got your good book all wrong/ If you want to do god’s work, it’s going to be hard work.’” The song emphasizes how easily a religion can be used to justify or prop up a point of view, when Kerman says the more vital lessons are “those you have to dig deeper for.”

Before anyone can accuse the band of maintaining an all too familiar brand of Canadian exceptionalism in their music, Kerman says the criticism of “tribalism” in a song like “Company Man,” which was inspired by Sean Spicer, is broad enough that it’s as much directed at himself as it is anyone else. The song’s criticism of someone who puts their party before the people is one that Kerman believes can be applied beyond just the former U.S. Press Secretary.

“A lot of the songs are pointed statements about something out in the world, and something for me to think about. There’s a message that I’m trying to tell the person I don’t agree with, but there’s also a message I’m telling myself,” he says.

While Rally Cry is certainly their most outwardly political record to date, the Arkells have always embodied a brand of politics in their music that’s difficult to overlook. There’s a throughline across each of their five albums that focus on working class struggles and the people at the centre of them. At the core of their music there has always been an interest in making the political personal, centreing songs on characters who have to deal with life’s conflicts in the face of looming shift work (“Abigail,” “Bloodlines”) or who struggle to make rent (“No Champagne Socialist,” “Dirty Blonde”).  

Union Station Pop-Up Event//Jess Baumung

It’s a perspective Kerman and DeAngelis say comes from the band’s origins in Hamilton, Ontario, where they all met as undergrads at McMaster University in 2006. Thanks to more than a century of steel production and industry in the Southern Ontario town, Hamilton became the steel capital of the country and developed a longstanding reputation as a proudly working class city. But caring about social issues goes well beyond the band’s love for the Hammer. “My dad’s a social worker by trade and my mom teaches special ed at a public high school in Toronto,” Kerman shares. “A lot of the conversations around the house have always been just about the community we’re a part of.”

DeAngelis, whose father emigrated from Italy and was a bricklayer for 40 years, also recognizes the influence his parents had on the social issues he cares about. “Their stories of struggle made my life that much easier. [The band] met in university, so there’s a certain amount of privilege to even be there in the first place, but I think coming from parents who went through that kind of struggle in a way that I never will, is still really inspirational.”

Just as there’s been a refocusing of their politics, Rally Cry represents a shift in the band’s sonics. When they emerged in the mid-2000s, they were the products of a thriving indie rock scene in Southern Ontario where bands like Constantines reigned supreme. That influence can be heard on the band’s 2008 debut, Jackson Square. Later albums went for a more polished approach, as their tastes expanded to include Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and even Hall and Oates.

Their most recent work highlights the influence of Motown on the band’s sound, with impassioned backup vocalists (care of the Arkettes: Ammoye Evans, Shezelle Weekes, and Natasha Henry) and blaring brass arrangements from Northern Soul Brass, who play on a majority of the album’s songs. Less time spent writing also meant they could spend more time on the production and arrangements of the record, which is where they say the Motown influence really comes in.

For us, in 2018, when it feels like there’s been so much music, especially in the 60s and 70s that was blatantly appropriative, it’s important to always orient ourselves toward appreciation.

Mike DeAngelis

But while this new sonic approach means that the Arkells are actively sharing their audience with artists of colour, it also means the band’s music is placed in the often fraught context of white artists being influenced by Black music and culture, especially since the influence doesn’t start and end with Motown. Rally Cry cut “Relentless” is built around a rhythm sampled from South African artist Sello “Chicco” Twala’s “Sixolele Baba,” and it’s the first time they’ve ever used a direct sample in a song. Kerman’s dad introduced them to the twenty-year-old song, and he says it wasn’t long before the rhythm inspired him to come up with lyrics. “I made a voice note and sent it to Mike, who chopped it up. And we were both at his house later working on the song,” Kerman recalls.

But how does the growing influence of music by Black artists affect the message they’re trying to convey, and potentially, challenge their ability to speak to oppression? Both Kerman and DeAngelis admit that it’s a dynamic that they’ve thought carefully about. “Whether it’s techno, anything that samples, any sort of hip hop, anything that’s funky or bluesy, really even the use of the electric guitar in pop music, is derived from Black culture,” DeAngelis notes. He and Kerman agree that while the territory they’re venturing into has a lengthy history of unequal power dynamics, from Elvis achieving more success than many of the Black blues musicians that came before him, to the way Madonna introduced voguing and Ballroom culture to the world thanks to her queer dancers of colour, they say their approach has been to learn from the mistakes of the past.

In the case of “Relentless,” the band admit that it was suggested to them in the studio to cut Chicco out of the process, re-record the sample so they wouldn’t have to pay for the publishing rights and no one would be the wiser. “Sonically we just liked what he did, it was better than anything we could recreate, even though if I played both for you, you couldn’t hear the difference. To us, his [version] sounded better,” Kerman admits. “And on a moral level, the proper thing is to reach out and cut him in on songwriting. And that’s what we did. Those are the kinds of conversations we have.”

As Arkells are part of a larger cultural trend of white indie rock acts finding inspiration in the work of Black musicians, it’s discussions like these—where artists think critically about the tangible, economic impact of pulling from those influences—that more bands need to be having. “For us, in 2018, when it feels like there’s been so much music, especially in the 60s and 70s that was blatantly appropriative, it’s important to always orient ourselves toward appreciation,” DeAngelis explains. “To make sure that the context of what we’re doing is always really respectful and transparent. But it’s obviously a very fine line.”

Kerman is open about the influence hip hop has over his music, saying “honestly, my favourite artist right now, by far, is Chance the Rapper. That guy stands for everything that I believe in, with a tone that totally speaks to my personal sensibilities. All the things I like about Springsteen are the exact same reasons why I like Chance the Rapper: Springsteen is collaborative, he sings about heartbreak in his community, he has a great sense of humour, is the best physical performer, and has this sense of joy and wonderment. Those are the exact same reasons I love Chance. That’s the way I frame my understanding.”

For the Arkells, their evolving worldview has allowed them to tap into new possibilities musically and thematically. Their careful incorporation of elements of hip hop and Motown into their sound are indicative of a band that’s figuring out how to adapt to a musical paradigm that’s been successful in making important political inroads. “In a sense, hip hop has replaced the rebellious spirit of rock n roll—this do whatever you want and have this confidence to change the world attitude,” DeAngelis adds.

It’s a method that has liberated their recording process and given them the opportunity to be responsive to the increasingly complex nature of how they fit themselves into our cultural climate. Ultimately, it enables them to make music that embodies the spirit of the very best that they see in society, like the youth-led gun control political action committee, Never Again MSD, run by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “It wasn’t like there was an adult who made that happen. That was inspiring because it showed how smart kids are in a way that I can’t imagine myself or my peers ever doing when I was in high school,” he says. So for Arkells, their Rally Cry is less about positioning the band as the primary leaders of change, but rather anchored by paying homage to those that have already kickstarted the charge.

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