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This article was published 6/2/2019 (192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
During the past decade, Juno Award-winning five-piece the Arkells has quietly climbed the ranks from bar band to one of Canada’s most successful acts.
Monday, Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m.
Bell MTS Place
Tickets $46-$75 at Ticketmaster
The shift has been slow and steady, but it kicked into overdrive by their massively successful 2017 single, Knocking at the Door, which became the go-to track for sports montages the country over, and was adopted as the unofficial soundtrack for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year (Air Canada ended up flying the guys overseas to perform for the athletes at Canada House).
Building off of that momentum, in the spring of 2018, the Arkells hosted a stadium show, The Rally, at Tim Hortons Field in their hometown of Hamilton for 24,000 fans, and now, they have just kicked off their first headlining arena tour, which hits Bell MTS Place Monday, Feb. 11, in support of their new record, Rally Cry.
Frontman Max Kerman chatted with the Free Press a few days before the band hit the road to discuss The Rally and Rally Cry, and how the band has managed to build a fanbase that is ready for anything the Arkells can throw at them.
Free Press: Before we talk about the record, I wanted to ask about The Rally. You guys have had some big shows in your career, but this was next level.
Max Kerman: Yeah it was definitely a surreal experience. We really wanted to curate something from the ground up and be part of every decision and I think for our band, the more creative control we have over things we do, the more we enjoy it. And we had a pretty good feeling the people in Hamilton would be excited if we put on a summer event and we had support from the Ticats and the city; we were able to get the public buses to run for free for anyone who had a ticket, we organized a bike ride, we had an artists market because there’s a great artist community in Hamilton and we wanted to shine a light on that. So there was a lot of TLC we put into the various aspects of the day, and it made fro a really memorable day.
FP: The tracks on Rally Cry feel a bit bigger, sonically. Was the possibility of bigger venues, such as The Rally and this arena tour, taken into consideration when you were making this record?
MK: I think all of our experiences influence the way we write and record and take on the next thing, do the next project. I think we recognize that we’re a real touring band and we spend a lot of time on the road and it’s important to us that the songs translate live because we’re going to be spending a lot of time on the road playing these songs. So in the studio, you want to make a great recorded experience for the listener, but as I said, we definitely were thinking about, like, ‘Oh maybe at the chorus the audience will move like this,’ or, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity for a great sing along,’ or, ‘This middle section could be a longer jam.’ Those were the kinds of conversations we were having when we made the record.
FP: You are not strangers to writing political tunes, songs on Rally Cry included, but those songs also tend to be your biggest bangers. Do you think those themes and ideas are easier for people to digest when they are set to music that they can dance to?
MK: Good point. I think the political songs that we have are sung with extra passion, so people are just listening to the sonic quality of the vocals and energy of the music itself, they’re going to get fired up. And then it’s up to the listener if they want to really dive in to the deeper meanings of the songs. I don’t think it’s any different than Stevie Wonder or Bruce Springsteen or the Clash; I think a lot of music fans are attracted to them at first because the melodies are great and the rhythms are great and because they are sung with passion and there’s an energy and liveliness, but if you want to dig into the lyrics, you can, and recognize they are talking about something a little grander.
FP: And on the flip side, I would argue you have also penned some of the best modern love songs; what do you think makes for the most effect love songs?
MK: Good question. I think you want to be talking about a universal experience but from a unique vantage point. I think that’s the secret sauce; you want something that is relatable but also you’re able to describe a little moment or a little detail in a way that hasn’t been done before. If it’s been done before, then the song will feel trite immediately. For me, that’s the challenge as a songwriter; how do you zoom in describe smaller tender details and then let the listener paint the rest of the picture for themselves?
FP: How do you do that? Do you pull mostly from your own experiences or draw on other streams of inspiration?
MK: I mean I’d say the lyrics are a combination of personal experiences or stories I’ve heard from friends or things I’ve read about that I feel connected to and want to put my own spin on. That is definitely something I lean on a lot as a writer, is hearing another person’s story and then going, ‘Oh, I have a version of that,’ and that will give me the inspiration. Also I think, a lot of the clever lyrics in our music is just clever things my friends have said and I write them down quickly (laughs).
FP: Prior to Rally Cry, you released Knocking at the Door, which did so incredibly well. Were you at all surprised how fans took to the track, given it sounded a bit different than what you’ve released in the past?
MK: I think the thing with all of our songs, I think there’s a real sense of optimism. We love all of our songs, when we’re making a record we definitely jump around with favourite songs, and they all mean something special to us, but that’s the exciting part of being in a working band, you work on this material and then you put them out in the world and you just don’t know where they’re going to land. It’s not up to us; it’s a combination of where the culture is at and if the gods are smiling on you, a little bit of luck, like if you land a commercial or you happen to go on tour when the song comes out, there are so many different factors at play that make a song a hit. There’s definitely a unknown factor that I kind of enjoy. Like the bangers that end up in sports montages, that is a very cool thing to experience; if I’m at a Maple Leafs game and they play one of our songs, that’s so cool. And we get probably three to five emails per week of people sending in videos from their first dance at their wedding to one of our songs, and that’s really cool. So I’m glad we get to be part of a few cultural spaces, I think that’s such a treat when it comes to this job.
FP: Yeah that’s very neat. I’d say it’s actually quite uncommon for a band to be versatile the same way you guys are.
MK: The thing is I kind of want it all, you know? (laughs) I’ll see a singer-songwriter and go, ‘Ah, I’d love to do that, can we do something a little more tender?’ And then I’ll hear some hard rock thing and be like, ‘We should do that!’ or something that’s poppier or more hip-hop inspired, I love that stuff too! For better or worse, we are definitely interested in a lot of different music and we’re chasing all sorts of ideas.
FP: And it’s nice because I feel like your fans are open to going along with you no matter what direction you head off in.
MK: Yeah, we’ve consciously tried to cultivate an audience that is along for the ride. And I say that because my favourite artists are the ones that you are going to be delightfully surprising whenever they put out something new. And I wouldn’t compare ourselves to these artists, but whether it’s Beck or Kanye West or Radiohead, or further back, the Beatles or Bowie, they were constantly keeping their audience on their toes. And if you do it enough, your audience actually looks forward to it. I think a lot of music fans for bands that put out more customary records, that you’re expecting, they come to those bands because they want to hear a certain sound, but there’s other artists that can put out new music and the whole point of putting out new music is to be surprised and delighted, and we strive to go in that direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 10:27 AM CST: Typo fixed.