Arkells are a band that has steadily segued into the mainstream alt-rock domain, and whether you value songwriting, musicality, camaraderie, or just a live sweaty environment — they’ve delivered it with a sound that is both recognizable and anthemic.
What started during their formative years at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., has now spun well through the band’s twenties, nabbing four JUNOs and a gold record, High Noon, which made the 2015 Polaris Prize long list, along the way. 2015 also cemented Arkells as the most played band on Canadian alt-rock radio, furthering their reach from coast-to-coast.
From having a song featured in a NHL video game (NHL 13) to being part of a unique wedding proposal, to sharing a slot with The Tragically Hip, the Arkells have become one of Canada’s premiere rock bands. Most recently, the five-piece made their first appearance on large-scale festival bills, at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
“You just go up there and do you best regardless of where you’re playing, but after the fact you realize the reaction from others, whether it’s about the set or the crowd, you start to realize ‘wow that was actually a big goal we just achieved,’” explains Arkells guitarist Mike DeAngelis. “It was always a big goal of ours to play a big American festival, and we never though we’d get to that point.”
Playing large festivals adds to a band’s stock, sure, yet it’s not always the Hoy Grail of “making it.” But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a triumph in itself.
As lead singer and main songwriter Max Kerman notes: “When you pull back the curtain, you realize there’s a lot of politics that goes on with these major festivals, and we’re aware of that. But I’d be lying if I said that playing Bonnaroo or Lolapalooza wasn’t a big deal to us.”
Although for the band’s fourth full-length album, Morning Report, it wasn’t just about the stages they stomped, but also the company they kept.
For this album the group lassoed time with world-renowned producers, including Gus van Go (The Stills, Wintersleep), Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, My Morning Jacket), Brian West (SIA), and longtime Arkells producer, Tony Hoffer (who produced “My Heart’s Always Yours” off Morning Report). They also worked with legendary engineer and mixer Mark Needham (Fleetwood Mac, The Killers, Elton John), whose eclectic style of mixing in an old L.A. mansion with the windows wide open — not to mention his resemblance to Keith Richards — was a memorable addition to the experience.
This time around, the band wanted to dive in with a different mantra; or no mantra at all. And with that brought an honest collection of songs with noticeably different silhouettes.
“There’s a narrative in rock ‘n’ roll or indie rock ‘n’ roll where you have to go hold up in a cabin in the woods for two months with one producer and make a record, and I hate that kind of mythology, that conventional wisdom — we’ve done that before,” explains Kerman.
[pullquote]We did that with our second record and it was great, but I didn’t want to do that again. That’s the joy of being able to be in a band—to try new experiences and motivate yourselves in different ways.[/pullquote]
Instead of locking themselves away to fester, the band latched onto spontaneity, recording in different headspaces with recognized professionals, even highlighting Arkells’ member Anthony “Tony” Carone, who co-produced surefire album standout “Passenger Seat.”
The music making wasn’t about going into a studio laying down 15 tracks, chalking it up and spit-balling it to the masses.
“We were really excited to run with the idea of not over-demoing a song. If we had a core idea for a song or a form we were like ‘ok let’s go record this immediately with a producer and capture that initial creative burst of energy, and trust that,’ says Kerman. “If everyone is holding each other accountable, then we’re good to go.”
“One of the things that’s great about that process, like not having every song set in stone before we go in, is it really allowed more freedom for us to say ‘hey Tony go to town on this’ and if there were other ideas we ran with it,” DeAngelis adds. “It wasn’t about waiting to have 12 full songs completed and realized, that way we could work on other stuff while one song is being produced, for example.”
Kerman compares it similarly to hip-hop or electronic music, where locales or deadlines mean little when it comes to getting the actual songs out there. Simply put: ripping the cage open to experiment freely, wherever and whenever.
“When you’re stuck with all these confines you’re limited, obviously, and I don’t think that’s good for creativity. I think one thing I learned from it all is sometimes your gut instinct is the right instinct,” Kerman says.
Morning Report dropped on August 5; by coincidence, two years to the day of their 2014 gold-vetted album, High Noon. Primarily recorded in Toronto, except for a quick jet to LA to record “A Little Rain” and “Round and Round” with Joe Chiccarelli and Gus Van Go, respectively, the album pockets 12 songs that dab into everything from superfluous parties to chance encounters with Drake’s dad.
“Other records I think I generally talked more about political issues that were on my mind, but this record I kept things to more of a smaller circle and more about the community that immediately surrounded me, which is my friends, my girlfriend, my family, my neighbours,” notes Kerman. “I kept the script a little smaller on this one lyrically.”
And then there are songs like “Private School,” which is a blatant mockery of highly touted personas that boast self-proclaimed notoriety.
As DeAngelis lays out: “I think the idea of private school is an interesting vessel for the notion of privilege, how we hold onto that privilege, and how that can affect the way we treat other people. Like perhaps ‘we’ can see ourselves as better than someone else in the world.”
“Private school seems like such an unnecessary cost,” echoes Kerman. “To feel like you have to send your kid to a private school, especially in a country where public schools are so good — I mean, you miss that world experience and being around people that aren’t exactly like you.”
We all have our tales of debauchery, and this album plays homage to the postscript, recalled through stories of trying times and late night weirdness.
The tracklist comes tight, with lyrics like “I’m the town crier and you’re reluctant royalty” (“And Then Some”) as well as pokes to Canadian dance institutions like Electric Circus (“Round and Round”). It provides a Springsteen-meets-Bryan Adams concoction (“Making Due”), while “Passenger Seat” reminds us what it’s like to feel a song with someone next to you, and even more when they’re not. And then there’s possibly the catchiest song of the bunch: “Drake’s Dad.”
“That song just combines so much of my favourite music into one thing,” explains Kerman. “I love hip-hop, I love the Elton John/Paul McCartney chord changes, the pre-chorus with gospel, and there’s a narrative there. It starts with Memphis and ends with me singing in the shower, and to me, it’s a very adventurous song.”
DeAngelis, who often edits the songs Kerman pens, helps convey what’s scribbled from the frontman’s brain. It’s this collaborative ethos that helps Arkells songs take shape.
Take “Round and Round,” which DeAngelis points to as a song that they “jumped in head first with,” one that was “introduced as more of an acoustic bass song,” only to be hollowed out with other musical nuances.
“It’s amazing when you don’t go in with a plan and you can get these really interesting expressions,” says DeAngelis. “Then you have a great producer who is ready to capture it, which is incredible to see happen. I think [‘Round and Round’] is a song that, I don’t want to say surprised me, but I think after going through the whole process, watching it all come together and seeing it transform in a way, I really enjoyed that.”
A recent piece done here at AUX delved into the behind-the-scenes music crew, or as dubbed in Cameron Crowe’s new show, the “roadies.” These central figures are the backbone to a band’s ongoing success, and Arkells sure know about that.
“Everybody is skilled in their own way and the fact that we happen to have this one personality where we get to be the guys jumping around on stage, well that just happens to be one personality, “ explains Kerman. “Those guys who happen to part of team Arkells all have their own personality types and excel, whether it is our accountant or sound engineer, they do shit we could never do. Just because I happen to do something that makes people clap their hands at the end of a show, doesn’t mean I’m better.”
From their inaugural full-length, 2008’s Jackson Square, to present day, Arkells have forged their catalogue in a climactic way, and while it may be eight years later, don’t expect a contentious rock star mentality to drizzle through their dialogue. They are self-aware.
“Looking back, I think we were pretty tickled to be playing to 100 people that cared, that was a big deal, and it took a long time for us to even get there,” DeAngelis humbly notes. “I think because we value that, and that was an open accomplishment, and something we never thought we would get, it didn’t feel like we were slumming or ever having a really tough time you know. It always felt like we were moving in the right direction. We’re pretty fortunate.”
And being a band that has been able to make their living solely off of their music, without having to work a part-time job for five to six years now, is a testament to their hard work.
“The reason why you work your fucking hardest every single day is you don’t know [if] what you did today is going to pay off in two years, five years,” Kerman adds.
He points to the track “11:11,” off of High Noon, which he hacked away at for a long time, and was then further hacked away at by the band before they recorded it two years ago. That song and that album, in Kerman’s words, “has never been bigger than it is today,” and seeing the reaction “11:11” received at WayHome, with the crowd chanting along, proved that you simply never know if, when, or how things will pan out.
As Kerman puts it: “Even though it can be discouraging and you can feel defeated — man we’ve felt defeated 100 times, 1000 times over the course of the last year even – it’s like, you can either feel sorry for yourself and pack up your bags and get going, or you can keep trying ‘cause that’s the only option as far as I’m concerned. Trust what you’re doing is good, and in time it might be appreciated.”
Morning Report is out now, and Arkells are currently on a North American run supporting Frank Turner. They’ll be part of X-Fest, the Sonic Boom Festival, and have another big first this coming November: two shows at Toronto’s infamous Massey Hall.
Tickets and all that goodness here.