Arkells, for many people – particularly outside Canada, may be a new band, but they come fully formed off the back of three surprisingly well-crafted albums, Jackson Square, Michigan Left, and their latest High Noon. Their first album Jackson Square, in 2010 won them a presigious Juno award for best new band, and in 2012 they won a second Juno Award as bset group of the year. Strong guitars pin down their clevarly crafted songs, almost all of which combine rousing and instantly memorable hooks with clever and often provocative lyrics – flying the flag shamelessly for intelligent pop/rock.
I generally like political music that has subtlety. The Clash are very political but they don’t often hit you over the head.
Frontman Max Kerman talked to TMO about the latest album, High Noon
Tell us a little bit about High Noon. How does it fit with your other two albums, Jackson Square and Michigan Left?
We weren’t interested in making another Jackson Square or Michigan Left. We are proud of those records and love playing them live, but it would’ve been uninspired and boring to use the same studio tricks and production. We worked with Tony Hoffer to dial in something completely fresh. That said, I think High Noon is somewhat of a Highbred of the two. There are some rock n ‘roll moments that are more akin to Jackson Square and pop-influences that were prominent on Michigan Left. Ultimately, I think all three records are unique and have their own vibe,
Music, good and bad, gets under your skin like nothing else; If there was one song in the world you could forget, what would it be and why?
Ha, I am not in the business of shitting on other people’s hard work. But if I had to choose one song, it’s Payphone by Maroon 5. Not because it’s a bad song – it’s a great pop tune after all. But we had the demo for Leather Jacket kicking around for a while with the main lyric involving the word ‘Payphone’. Then Maroon 5 put out their tune and beat us to the punch. Our song is cheekier, and a completely different thing, so no one has seemed to mind. But I’d prefer the notion that I came up with the the idea. Ha!
If we put an imaginary gun to your head and demanded that you describe your music in one word, what would it be?
Based on my last answer: Cheeky.
How important is geography and location to your songwriting? For example, you recorded High Noon in Hamilton – could you imagine the album being the same if you’d written and recorded it somewhere else?
I don’t know much about studios. We spend most of our time touring, and very little time recording comparatively. I think you can create great musical moments in a number of different spaces. Sometimes home-demo’s capture a texture you can’t reproduce. I think our lyrics are influenced by our friends and community, and Hamilton plays in a role in that way.
One of the things we’re always interested in, here at TMO, is what drives artist to create; what makes songwriters move from singing songs they’ve learned, to actually writing songs. Can you remember the first song you wrote, and what drove you to write?
I was/am obsessed with the Beatles, and as a kid was always reading about how they created their songs. My dad taught me a couple chords and I was off to the races. Most of the stuff I wrote when I was 16-17 was terrible, but there are actually a couple songs that still remain. Tragic Flaw from Jackson Square was written when I was 16 and has become a fan favourite. The great thing about songwriting is you can stumble into some great material when you’re just starting.
If you could have any artists, living or dead, work with you, who would it be and why?
It would be great to do something with Lennon AND McCartney. Get them in the same room. Have them even out my ideas.
Let’s talk about politics and music – what’s the ambition for a song like The Ballad of Hugo Chavez? Can music affect people’s politics? Have you been influenced by any politically charged bands?
I generally like political music that has subtlety. The Clash are very political but they don’t often hit you over the head. They are “punk” but their lyrics are more nuanced than most punk music. The ideas/narratives are often more complicated and layered. I really love that. Springsteen does this too.
I write songs when there is a subject that compels me so deeply that I feel the need to tell my own little version of the story. On the new record, Fake Money, Hey Kids, Systematic, What Are You Holding On To? all get in to this.
Taylor Swift has snubbed Spotify, saying that it adds to the perception ‘that music has no value and should be free’. Do you think she was right to take her music off streaming?
I don’t know. I really dig and admire Taylor Swift, and understand her point. We are in the middle of an evolution, and if we expect artists to continue to make meaningful work, then we must encourage the culture to pay a respectable wage, worthy of musician/songwriters’ time and dedication to the craft. After all, music brings great joy and meaning to many people’s lives. It does feel that the artist’s drive to create is being taken advantage of by technology and illegal downloading.
Technology has also democratized music in a wonderful way. People can share music freely, and traditional music gatekeepers (labels) who used to hold all of the power don’t have the same reign. There must be some kind of in-between, but it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet. I don’t know.
You’ve toured and played with loads of bands. What’s the best bit of musical advice you’ve been given? And what’s the worst?
We haven’t got much “direct” advice, but we’ve observed the greats from up-close, and their dedication to the craft is what connects them all. They all take their work so seriously. They aren’t lazy. They care so deeply about their work, and are constantly trying to outdo themselves. It’s very inspiring.
Bad advice, again has been more observational: don’t take yourself too seriously, and be kind to everyone who is helping you along.
This is an unfair question, maybe like asking you to choose between kids, but let’s imagine you have just one song to save from High Noon – what would it be and why?
Never Thought That This Would Happen. It’s dreamy, cinematic, and rocking’ all at once. There’s a clever Beatles style bridge that I’m impressed we pulled off. The song feels out of our wheel-house, but also completely appropriate in our catalogue.