Interview: Arkells talk “Morning Report”, music festivals, and must-hear Hamilton bands


Arkells

Arkells’ fourth album, Morning Report, (out Aug. 5th via Last Gang/eOne) is their most personal album yet. The new album which serves as the Hamilton quintet’s first new studio album since 2014’s High Noon, sees the return of producers Tony Hoffer (Beck, M83), Brian West (AWOLNATION), Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, My Morning Jacket), and Gus Van Go (The Stills, Wintersleep), and showcases everything that Arkells are and want to be, taking you through a 12-song journey that lets you get to know some of the people who’ve influenced the band over the years.

In our new interview, Kerman talks the making of Morning Report, the difference between urban and rural music festivals, and which Hamilton bands you should be listening to.

You just kicked off your summer tour at Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. How’d that go?

It was great. It was our first time playing that festival and I feel like that’s the beauty of being in a band, is that there’s always the next thing that you want to tackle, or the next opportunity that you’re striving for and it’s our first time being invited to play that festival, so that’s something else we can check off the list of things we want to do. We had a really good time, it was really hot, everything we expected it to be.

How do you approach a middle of nowhere rural festival like Bonnaroo vs an urban festival like Lollapalooza?

They’re all kind of similar to be honest. (laughing) There’s usually just a bunch of semi-drunk, hot, sweaty people excited for music. It’s probably a little dustier in Bonaroo compared to Lollapalooza, which is in the middle of the city. At least people can go home and shower in the friendly confines of an Airbnb or a hotel or something. But otherwise I find the festival experience to be kind of similar no matter where you go. That includes Canada, or Europe, we’ve done a few festivals over there too.

You talked about those drunk, sweaty people out in the crowd. The title “The Morning Report,” you said is a bit of a reference to those, let’s say, “memorable” nights. Can you think of any of the funniest morning reports that you’ve either given, or received over the years?

(Laughs) I don’t know if that’s really appropriate, if I can say that. It still happens ya know. It usually involves somebody hooking up with somebody. (laughs) My friend Julien, he has this ongoing bit, there’s a late night pizza place in Hamilton that you go to after the bar and the guys who work there got to know him. It’s this middle eastern family, but they really like Julien and he’d drunkenly start working behind the counter, start taking peoples orders and putting pizza in the oven. Sometimes he’d do it for two or three hours after the bar was closed, with a big smile on his face working for free because he thought it was hilarious and a fun thing to do. So sometimes we’d hear, I’d be like “hey Julien, how late were you working last night?” And he’d say “I was there until three in the morning, then they gave me a lift home.” (laughs) That kind of stuff, which I like. I have a lot of funny characters in my life and I like hearing about the stuff that they get up to.

You also said that a lot of the inspiration for this album came from all of the characters you have in your life and that you enjoy being able to write about them. Have any of the people in your life had enough influence to impact multiple songs, or even albums?

I actually spread out the love a little bit, but what’s funny is that I’m actually at a birthday party right now, it’s a 75th birthday party for Pete, the subject of the song “A Little Rain (A Song for Pete)”. I just stepped out and Pete’s the subject of that song, but his brother, who’s a really interesting guy, he’s the subject of the song “No Champagne Socialist”. So the Rosenthal family has two songs over the course of four albums that they can get credit for.

You described this album as Arkells’ weirdest, funniest, saddest, and most honest record yet. I think your single, “A Little More (A Song For Pete)”, really showcases those things coming together – hope and beauty in struggle. What’s the story behind that song? Who’s Pete?

Pete is an awesome guy, he’s actually a friend of my dad’s and I’m friends with his son Daniel. He’s really interesting, really smart. He works two jobs, he’s a UofT mathematics professor, he’s really interested in mathematics, I don’t know anything about that world. But also he’s an activist and he’s marched in Washington with Martin Luther King and has been fighting for civil rights. His parents are Jewish communists, he moved to Toronto in the 70’s and was at every demonstration, and he has since become a lawyer and he represents groups that don’t really have a voice, like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and a lot of First Nations groups.

He’s been involved a lot of inquests for police shootings and he basically does all that work for free. He essentially works two full time jobs. He’s the loveliest, most fun guy, [who] doesn’t care about money at all. A very hopeful, positive, fun guy. Very interested in other people. Sometimes smart people aren’t that interested in other people and he’s one of the smartest people I know and is fascinated by other people. Anyways, that’s Peter.

I think about him and how he’s always been there for other people. Whether it’s me, or my family, or people that don’t even know him that need a lawyer, he has a really hard time saying no. I wanted to paint a picture about seeing him and him being a hopeful person and a positive spirit to be around during hard times. So it’s about that friendship that we have, but also it extends to the way a lot of people feel about Pete. It’s a general thank you to him and the positive affect he’s had on a lot of different lives that he’s touched.

I’m sure he loves hearing that. It sounds like he had a really positive affect on you, at least from what I can take from the song.

Yeah! We have a very affectionate relationship with one another, he’s one of my dad’s best friends. A very sweet guy.

What was the writing/recording process like for this album in comparison to High Noon? What kind of themes did you focus on while you were writing it? 

I try not to have that much of an agenda when it comes to themes. I find that the stuff that turns out best is the stuff that’s meaningful to me and that could be any number of things, depending on where I’m at in my life. I try to focus on just the work, at least at first, and that’s coming up with meaningful themes. I’m always hacking away at that, I try to have a list of ideas on my phone whether it’s a one liner, or a lyrical idea for a song. The one thing I wanted to try on this record, and that’s the fun of this band, that you get to try new shit and see what works and what doesn’t work.

I was listening to demos from High Noon after [it] came out and I realized we probably over demoed it, in that we did about seven versions of “Come to Light” before we recorded in the studio and they weren’t all that different from each other. It was just us over rehearsing a song. We also end up losing some cool stuff in those early versions that didn’t make it onto the record, just because our brains got bored of it as we were playing it. So I was like “I don’t want to lose this fresh, instinctive, creative moment by over rehearsing.” My attitude was if it passes a gut check, which is does the song have a chord melody that’s pleasing? Does the song have lyrics that mean something? If it passes that, then let’s rehearse it a bit and then get right into the studio with a producer that [we] trust and a studio that’s good, then how bad could it go? That was my attitude going into it and it worked out just as I hoped it would.

We worked with four different producers on this record, each one was different, but awesome. We worked with some amazing studios and we got a lot of time to create in the studio and come up with really exciting ideas. I think the idea of holding up in a studio, rehearsing something for eight months, then holding up in a studio to do 12 songs over 40 days, to me that seems kind of daunting and I wasn’t going to enjoy it that much. So we did two songs in September, toured a bit, did another five in October, toured a bit, then did another five in December. Then we turned around and we had 12 songs. If you can keep this attitude, just make it about the work, work every day, be thinking about stuff, then you’ll turn around and you’ll have something to show for it. I feel like that’s the best way for us to get stuff done.

That was quite the production team. There was Joe Chiccarelli who produced for The Strokes, and My morning Jacket, Tony Hoffer (Beck), Brian West (Bono, Maroon 5) and Gus Van Go. Was it difficult to work with 4 producers simultaneously?

No, it wasn’t. Essentially, we did one song with Tony, who did our last record [and] is an amazing producer, we did one song with Brian West, “Private Schools”, which were both done in September. So each guy was working on a different song, it wasn’t like they all had their hands on the same songs. We did five with Gus Van Go, we’ve never worked with Gus, but we’ve known him for a long time. Then we did five with Joe Chiccarelli, so each guy had their own batch and was able to really focus on the songs that were presented to them, which I think was good. I think for one producer to take on 12 songs, I think that’s almost even a daunting task sometimes.

The thing I’ve realized about a lot of these professional guys is that what makes them world renowned, respected producers is that they’re really good with communicating with people. They’re really good at the ins and outs of working in a studio, they have amazing stamina, they can speak the language of the drummer, the bass player, the singer, the guitar player, and the keyboard player. They can talk to everybody, so I think that’s the one thing they all have in common. They’re really good communicators, they’re caring people, and you trust them [enough] to hand off your baby to them and let them help you shape it.

You hear the odd story in VH1 behind the music where the producer was high on coke and screaming at people or something like that, but in our experience it’s been the total opposite. The producers have been very caring [and] supportive.

Like you said, it’s kind of like handing off your babies. Did ideas clash or was it a mostly smooth process?

No. I think there’s always going to be healthy debate in the studio and that’s part of the creative process, especially when you’re working in a group. People are going to have different ideas, but I think a good producer says “hey, let’s try it.” The point is not to get overly philosophical about something, it’s more let’s try the idea, if it hits you and it’s exciting, then we keep it and if it doesn’t seem that exciting, then you scrap it and try something new. It’s more about experimenting and dabbling with sound and parts. Generally speaking from there, people are relatively on the same page when it comes to the taste and general impression the Arkells want to put out into the world. I didn’t find that we clashed much, it was more just healthy debate and discovery.

They’re super intimate songs. Do you feel vulnerable at all, putting all of those different emotions out into the world through your music?

For the most part I’m pretty comfortable, I think the more we do it, the more comfortable I am actually with not veiling myself as much. I think a lot of younger bands and I include myself in the earlier days, maybe feel a bit insecure about something that reveals a lot. It’s our fourth record [though] and I think I’ve embraced the idea of being a storyteller and that’s my job. My job is to tell good stories and that often means not being afraid to say tough things.

Arkells are very well recognized in Canada, but this will be your first release under a U.S. label. Is there any intimidation inside of the excitement of sprouting from your Canadian roots a bit?

It feels on this record that the team is really excited to help connect some dots in the states. What I like to say is my hands are spread very far apart right now, there are that many worthy, talented bands, now I’m bringing my hands an inch together, and there’s that many spots when it comes to radio or the general popular culture. So it’s a very competitive thing to get anywhere in this business. My attitude is as long as you try your best and are as thoughtful and hard working as you can be every day, then you can sleep at night. After that, it’s out of your hands. You cross your fingers and hope you get some good luck on your side and that’s all you can really do.

Yeah it is really hard, especially in Canada. While there have been some amazing artists to come out of Steel City, it’s not Toronto or Vancouver. Do you think you have to work harder, becoming a band out of Hamilton?

I think it’s hard out of anywhere to be honest. (laughs) I think bands in Toronto would say it’s oversaturated and there’s too many bands in Toronto, or New York. I think it’s hard out of anywhere.

How would you describe the music scene in Hamilton?

It’s cool, everyone kinda knows each other. It’s a small enough place that most of the musicians that live downtown run into people all the time. There’s a lot of guys that are in bands that also work at the bar I go to, or coffee shops. I like it though, everyone is really supportive, there doesn’t seem to be any real rivalries or anything like that. Everyone is generally encouraging of one another.

That’s awesome. It’s nice to have that sense of community, especially in a scene that’s so competitive.

Yeah, totally.

What does being a Hamilton based band mean to you guys?

It’s the only thing we really know. I like that we’re not a Toronto band, as I said there’s a lot of Toronto bands. I like championing stuff that has a bit of an underdog feel to it. It’s nice when you get home… we get told a lot when I’m out and about in Hamilton that people are proud of us, that’s always a really nice thing to hear. Hamilton has had a rough and tumble reputation, but there’s a lot of great stuff happening in the city and a lot of really good people and I like showcasing that part of it too.

What would you say are some must hear Hamilton artists?

Terra Lightfoot, she’s been really busy, she’s an old friend of ours. The Dirty Nil are old friends of ours, they’ve been busy boys. Monster Truck obviously, we toured with Brandon, who’s the keyboard player. He was in a band called Saint Alvia Cartel, who the Arkells did their first western Canadian tour with, so we’ve known Brandon for a long time. There’s a lot of awesome stuff.

Pre-order Morning Report here.

This article can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.

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