A conversation with Max Kerman of the Arkells
The relationship with one’s hometown is something special. Whether you love where you’re from, hate it, or simply feel a connection to it because it’s where you’re from – it is where you’re from and it is a place that you will always have a unique bond with. For musicians, there is an even stronger bond with the place they came from – country as well as city or town – because everything started there, every show they played in that city or town led to where they ended up in their careers. There is a true sense of community in the Canadian music scene and the Arkells are very grateful for how this beautiful country’s arms have opened so widely to them over the years.
That special connection doesn’t only pertain to the country as a land either. Those fans who were at your first show are likely to be at your 1,000th. You grow with your fans and it would be crazy to think that the band doesn’t notice faces of fans that have kept coming out over the years. “I think when it comes to the relationship we have with [Canadians, it’s] the deepest because we’ve been doing it for the longest in these places. That’s one of my favorite parts, touring and developing a real relationship with the cities and communities that we get to play [in], because it’s like well I remember seeing you guys in 2009 or I saw you in 2012,” vocalist Max Kerman said in our recent interview between a taping at CBC Studios and a photoshoot at Union Station in Toronto. He went on to talk about the real memories that are made with these people and how it helps make the shows more fun because everyone has a good understanding of what the show is about and what the purpose is.
Not only are the Arkells Canadian, but they don’t come directly from an epicenter like Toronto or Vancouver, where all the resources were at the tips of their fingers. However, Kerman believes that worked in their favor. “I think Hamilton as a place was really helpful to our band. If we were in Toronto, I think we would’ve felt like a small fish in a big pond. Because Hamilton is a smaller place, we had a chance to open up for bigger bands and get exposure to real touring acts that we wouldn’t have had in Toronto,” he said, speaking of how much he thinks Hamilton contributed to the growth of a band that has become a huge staple in Canadian music in recent years.
The appreciation is definitely not one-sided, either. The love and appreciation between the Arkells and Canada has been reciprocal, to say the least. “I know it’s pretty rare, so we were really happy to get the call again,” Max said, reflecting on being asked to take the stage and perform at the Juno Awards consecutively for the past two years. Their fourth studio album, Morning Report, released in 2016, was a 2017 Rock Album of the Year Juno nominee and provided the material for both performances. There are many talented Canadian artists and groups who are all just waiting for a chance to gain that type of exposure, whose songs could’ve been chosen to fill that slot, making the chance being given to them twice that much more of an honor. The bread and butter of bands these days is touring, so the Arkells really want to direct everybody to their songs and to the live show, and the Junos is a perfect chance to reach more people, “to forge more eyes.”
It may be a rarity, but when you watch footage of the performances, you quickly see why they were chosen to come back for a second performance. The band truly went the extra mile, setting the performances apart from any one of their live shows and really drawing in the viewers. “I think the difference is that you’re preparing not only for the people in the room, but for TV viewers too.” Kerman said it was a “bit of a learning curve” for them because performing live to a room full of people is one thing, but keeping it interesting and “connecting to the viewers at home” as well is another. “I think it’s important to take those extra steps to make sure we’re putting on an entertaining television performance too,” Kerman explained, putting emphasis on the added factors, like camera blocking, tech design, and “even a bit of rock n’ roll choreography.”
‘Morning Report’ clearly stole the hearts of the ceremony organizers, but the Tragically Hip’s ‘Man Machine Poem’ took home Rock Album of the Year. Though now, with the release of their latest album ‘Rally Cry’, the Arkells have got another shot at Rock Album of the Year in 2019. Kerman said that this is likely their most focused effort yet and that they knew exactly what each song was trying to be and what their set list would look like. “I think on this record, we wanted to learn from the last one and make something that was different.” They’re a band that likes to tour but is always striving towards creating and working on new material, so they recorded this album between tours and Kerman believes that’s what kept the “whole job so fresh” for them. “If you spend too much [time on] either, touring or recording, you probably get a little tired of it. At least I do.”
While they were quite sure what the point of every song was and where each would live inside of their set list, they didn’t go into the writing and recording process with a concept record in mind. Although, when Kerman reflected on the record, he said “it’s interesting, the more you write, the more you record, you realize there [are] themes that happen and you don’t even realize it,” admitting that love was a very present theme on the album.
Like anything done in a passionate manner, it’s easy to get caught up and subconsciously add pieces or natural consistencies without noticing. “We didn’t really go in with that intention, but just through doing it, things emerge that you couldn’t really have planned for.” The record is very outward looking. Kerman describes it as a record about how we’re all connected to each other and how we have to lean on each other through our many trials and tribulations, as well as how our environment plays a large role in who we are as people.
Their single, ‘Don’t Be A Stranger’, stands out on this record, much as ‘A Song for Pete’ did on ‘Morning Report’. “It felt like a final song for this collection. The song is about… I think everybody has struggled with mental health issues themselves, or have close friends that have suffered through it. The song is about a friend, a couple friends of mine,” he said, adding that it’s a composite story about them going through experiences where they’re shut out from the rest of the world. This was his way of saying don’t be a stranger, that he’s there whenever they want to reach out. Moreover, thinking about being that kind of person. The biggest factor in many cases of suicide is people thinking that they’re alone and that no one cares, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Millions of people struggle from thoughts like that on a daily basis and it’s amazing to see the worldwide conversation that has continued growing on this topic. Facebook’s news feed has become littered with people saying “even if we don’t talk, even if we aren’t friends, even if we just met – I’m here. I can get the coffee running, my door is open.” There is now seemingly more people encouraging compassion than breaking each other down and Kerman among many can say, “I love that sentiment. Just knowing that it’s like, whenever you’re ready, I’m here to talk.”
Suicide is an ever-growing epidemic that does not discriminate race, gender, social status, or hierarchy. As famed serial killer, Robert Alton Harris said, “you can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper.” Many people see the spotlight hit someone and think that it’s a great release of any type of hardship, but no matter where you stand, death will find you and it will take your life and affect the lives of everyone who you touched in yours. The death of Canadian musical legend Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip hit the hearts of people all around the world, especially Canadians and Canadian musicians. The Tragically Hip is the first name that comes to mind when many people think of Canadian music, up there with Neil Young and Bryan Adams. They inspired countless acts that have come out over the years – the Arkells among them.
The Hip continues to influence the band to this day, going so far as Downie indirectly inspiring ‘Relentless’, the ‘Rally Cry’ track you’ll likely hear most on the radio. The track started off as a simple voice clip of Kerman singing over a track that his father, who he’s been exchanging musical findings with since he began showing him music like the Beatles as a small child, showed him one day. Kerman’s father introduced him to a South African artist named Chicco one day and he fell in love with the song immediately, made that voice clip, and sent it right over to a bandmate to be chopped up and turned into the beginnings of Relentless.
Finding a meaningful chorus is one of the hardest things when putting a song together, but a bar-side quote about Downie’s relentless nature struck Kerman with that write it down on a napkin and keep it because I’ve found just what I was looking for feeling. “You’ve got to keep your eyes peeled because you might find it that way,” Kerman said as he described the day that he and Mike DeAngelis were in Kingston and met up with Hip guitarist and close friend, Paul Langlois, for a beer. The three sat down and chatted for hours about Gord, what it’s like to be in a band, and surely much more. “We really look up to Paul and he’s been really good to us over the years. He was reflecting on Gord and what it means to be in a band and in that conversation he was saying how Gord was such a persistent guy and how he loved to work and always wanted to tour and chase the next thing. He said he was relentless, like a dog on a bone, and I was like that is such a cool line! So we borrowed it and that’s what made it into the song.”
That conversation led to more talk of why the Hip was such an influence on the Arkells as a band as they dove into what it means to be in a band and Kerman said what he’s learnt most since they started playing in a band is keeping in mind that a band is an accumulation of “decades worth of work and it’s a good reminder that it’s not one thing that defines an artist, I think it’s a collection of a lot of moments that you create over the years, whether it’s creating a song, or it’s putting on a performance that lets you have a performance with the music fans,” which he was reminded of by taking a look at the Hip.
When you’re a part of something like being in a band for so long, it isn’t too hard to fall into a state of repetition and lose touch with what it really means, or what it’s all about and it’s great to see a band like the Hip or the Arkells who still truly appreciate that. Every person involved in the creation of what a band puts out, the records, the live performances, the interaction with fans, or what be it, brings in their piece and the outcome is defined by the differences between them as they’re all put together. For the Arkells, Kerman is the guy who looks at the big picture. He admittedly is not one for the little details, but that’s how it all comes together, each one of them bringing in their own piece and moving forward with it. “We’re always looking forward, we’re not thinking too much about what we did last week.” Right now the next step forward for the Arkells is a tour right here in Canada, starting at the end of January. So, check out the tour dates below to find out when they’ll be at a venue near you and get those tickets on your Christmas list!
Canadian tour dates
01.31.2019 Edmonton, AB – Rogers Place w/ Lord Huron
02.02.2019 Vancouver, BC – Pacific Coliseum w/ Lord Huron
02.03.2019 Victoria, BC – Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre w/ Lord Huron
02.05.2019 Kelowna, BC – Prospera Place w/ Lord Huron
02.08.2019 Saskatoon, SK – SaskTel Centre w/ Lord Huron
02.09.2019 Calgary, AB – Scotiabank Saddledome w/ Lord Huron
02.11.2019 Winnipeg, MB – Bell MTS Centre w/ Lord Huron
02.14.2019 Kitchener, ON – The Aud w/ Lord Huron
02.15.2019 Ottawa, ON – Richcraft Live at Canadian Tire Centre w/ Lord Huron
02.16.2019 Toronto, ON – Scotiabank Arena w/ Lord Huron
02.19.2019 Montreal, QC – MTELUS w/ Lord Huron
This interview was originally published on The Spill Magazine’s website.