Arkells. Max Kerman second from right. Photo courtesy of Matt Barnes.
Hamilton, Ontario’s Arkells are nothing short of national heroes, their buoyant rock ‘n’ soul a constant presence on festival stages, radio waves, and iPods across Canada. All the work involved in being a band for ten years hasn’t yet take a toll on the fivesome, who are gearing up to release their fourth album Morning Report on August 4th. Though they’re nearly an institution now, it wasn’t that long ago when they were scrappy rockers who chronicled the exploits of South American politicians, Jewish families in 1960s New York, and beleaguered church choirs. Armed with Steeltown grit and frontman Max Kerman’s commanding holler, Arkells’ 2008 debut album Jackson Square transcended the "CanRock" label saddled onto the band with idiosyncratic songwriting and spirited playing. The years since have seen a pronounced 80s soul and pop influence temper the band’s rough-hewn majesty into muscular, glistening arena-anthems as their fanbase and fame has grown exponentially. But what about the “day one” fans captivated by that raggedness in the first place? We sat down with Max to discuss the band’s legacy and had him come face-to-face with the opinions of one particularly avid fan.
I have a letter from a fan, a friend of a friend of mine. They wanted me to read it to you so I’m going to read it paragraph by paragraph and you’re going to respond to each section.
Okay, so: “Hi Max, congrats on the new album. I’ve been a fan of Arkells since I heard “Oh the Boss Is Coming” on 102.1 the Edge back in 2008. The fact that you guys had this very unpretentious but kind of humourous blue-collar aesthetic really stuck with me, because you guys were actually doing factory jobs in Hamilton.”
Interesting. We’ve never worked in a factory, that’s a misconception about us. We have worked enough shitty fucking jobs to appreciate the type of work that would go into a factory… Actually I shouldn’t say that, Mike [DeAngelis, Arkells guitarist] worked in a factory in Waterloo. It was a shipping factory. But that song definitely comes from having to work terrible jobs. I’ll continue.
“I bought Jackson Square and fell in love with it. I especially loved how the hooks were so natural and didn’t call attention to themselves. But what I Ioved the most was how specific the lyrics were. I don’t know how you approached the songs but it seemed like their subjects were pulled from old newspaper clippings and library archives. Songs like ‘No Champagne Socialist’, ‘The Choir’ and ‘Hugo Chavez’ were great storytelling with incredible playing, especially the bass, and huge choruses.”
That’s a nice thing to say. I feel like when I approach the lyrics, it’s always really good exercise to start really small on subject so instead of trying to paint with a really broad stroke, focus on one particular moment and then the listeners can sort of create a scene themselves. For instance, a song like “Hugo Chavez”, I think when I wrote it he was a little more well-liked and now people unanimously hate the guy. I still think he’s a very interesting person. But that particular song is just about a moment when he was in jail in the early 90s. Being in jail allowed him to read about Simón Bolívar and the socialist revolution. I just thought that scene was an interesting idea, just reading in a prison cell. And that speaks to everything else he’s done before and since. Learning that you can tell stories in that kind of style definitely informed my songwriting. It was okay to talk about something specific and small and letting listeners create a scene from that.
“The basement band I was in at the time would often cover the Jackson songs and I caught Arkells live a few times too. The music on that album was very hopeful and inviting.”
I think a lot of my favourite music and songwriters, they can write about serious things but underneath it there’s a bit of hope and positive vibes. Bruce Springsteen is a good example of a guy who writes about pretty sad shit regularly but there’s an underlying that things can get a little better. Also, the new Chance the Rapper record, which is my favourite album of the year so far. He’s amazing. He’s another guy able to write about serious things but he can be funny, he’s also hopeful. There’s a joyfulness inherent in the music and I’d like to try and channel that spirit as much as I can.
They take a different turn here, I think. “To me, something happened when Michigan Left came out in 2011. You guys lost me. The songs no longer had the same magic, even if they were essentially about the same things. But there was such a wishy-washy bleh-ness to how they were played and performed. I couldn’t find any soul.”
Interesting, cool. I think the challenge for any band is being able to create something that’s honest to themselves and not repetitive. When we made Jackson Square, it was very much a reflection of the music we were listening to at the time like Constantines, the Weakerthans, Wintersleep. It kind of sounds like a CanRock, alternative record. By the time we were making Michigan Left we were listening to different things.
I think the thing I love about the group of guys I get to play music with is that everyone isn’t afraid to venture outside of their comfort zone. We’re always seeking out new music. If you were to check text messages between the band it’s like, “have you heard the new Beyonce album?” We’re really interested in music that’s outside of the “white guy indie rock” genre. So by the time we started recording Michigan Left we were into Hall & Oates. That definitely gives it a different aesthetic. I feel really good about that album. When you put out a record, you might lose people but you also might gain people too and if you kept on doing the same thing, you might keep those fans but also bore them a little. I think the ceiling is so much higher when you try different shit. It’s funny though, there’s definitely people who were caught off guard by Michigan Left and people who didn’t like Jackson Square but were brought to the band because Michigan Left offered them something a little bit different.
“I still thought the live shows were great but I wasn’t big on the more polished direction you guys had taken. In fact, as much as I hate this term, I felt like Arkells had sold out and worse, the album was taking attention away from promising new Canadian artists at the time. For example, in my group of friends, Michigan Left was way more listened-to and talked-about than the Weeknd's House of Balloons or any of his other mixtapes from 2011."
Oh, interesting. Well, the Weeknd’s doing okay now! [laughs] I can appreciate that. [makes a sizing gesture with his arms] There’s this many talented bands and there’s this many spots in the culture or on the radio or whatever so occasionally we take up those spots. In other places we don’t and we’re trying to get in there. I think for us, you can always sort of put it out and see how the world takes it. After we’ve made new music, it’s out of our hands.
“In any case, I got into different scenes and styles of music afterwards and I lost track of Arkells' music, but I still had complicated feelings whenever I heard “Leather Jacket” somewhere. I really liked “Never Thought That This Could Happen”, though. The use of the 70s-style harmonies and chords was real neat. I also still appreciate that you guys pay constant tribute to Motown and classic soul through your covers and other avenues.”
I appreciate the nice things about that. I don’t know what to say to that. That’s cool though. The other thing that I’ve realized is that, I think this is why, as long you’re motivated and inspired to keep putting out music is that you have a moment to capture a… There’s always a new group of 19-year-olds. Bands you get into when you’re a young person can stay with you for a long time. It’s cool that there’s definitely a different 16-year-old right now that might get into Morning Report. That’s just the evolution of the way music consuming works when it comes to a point in your life. For me too, a band like Wilco was really formative for me when I was 20 but I have a different relationship with them now. There’s a different 20-year-old who’s maybe getting into them with their new album. You never know who you’re gonna grab.
This is the last paragraph here. “You seem like some stand-up dudes, which I guess has always been the central aspect of Arkells to me. Congrats on ten years and good luck on the new record and everything that comes after. Sincerely, Phil Witmer, the Guy Doing This Interview With You, and a fan.”
Nice, cool, great. Yeah it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to the new one. Right now it’s in a very pure state. We know how we feel about it but then your emotions can get fucked with depending on how people react to it. So far with “Private School”, it’s been a really great reaction in that people are kind of left scratching their head a little bit like “what the fuck is this” but overall it’s been really encouraging because people appreciate that we’re trying something new.
After our talk, I still didn't feel vindicated. Max was too confident in Arkells' new direction to admit that Jackson Square was still their best album and that they never should have abandoned their old sound. My vision of a sobbing Max Kerman, crying out "PHIL, YOU'RE RIGHT!" would not come to pass. Maybe it's best to let go of teenage hangups and accept that sometimes people grow up, they change priorities, that they can't be that little indie rock band from Hamilton forever.
Or I can just play Jackson Square over and over and drown in nostalgia, 'cause man does that feel good.