Interview with vocalist/guitarist Max Kerman | By John B. Moore
Arkells are not quite a household name across the U.S.—yet—despite a steadily growing fanbase they’ve been winning over, show by show, for most of the past decade. But in their native Hamilton, Ontario, they may as well be U2 or Foo Fighters or whatever wildly successful rock band comes to mind. Earlier this year, they managed to sell out the 24,000-seat Tim Hortons Field in their hometown. Frank Turner was an early champion of the band, taking them out on tours throughout the years, including a just-concluded run of Canadian dates.
As Arkells celebrate the release of their latest album, Rally Cry, on Oct. 19 via Last Gang Records, the band appear to be on the verge of expanding their dominance across the entire continent.
With the band prepping for a whole new run of dates behind the new record, vocalist and guitarist Max Kerman takes a moment to speak about Rally Cry, finding time to record when they’re always on the road, and writing the next great Trump protest song.
You are unapologetically a rock band. Given the countless headlines about the death of guitar music, what does it feel like to be in a rock band in 2018?
We’ve never felt like anything is owed to us, so we’re not in a position to complain about much. It’s really a luxury to be in the position we are. Our full-time job is writing, recording, and performing our own music, and that’s what pays the bills. How great, right?
I haven’t really thought a ton about the “guitar music is dead” narrative. We’re aware that rock takes a smaller piece of the pie these days, but to be honest, that’s totally fine with me. I’m so inspired by artists outside of our genre, and it informs much of the way we work. Without this becoming a thesis paper, I’d just say that you can choose to look at something as a problem or a riddle to solve. We enjoy a good riddle.
The first song you released a video for, “Relentless,” sounds pretty different from the music you have come to be known for. Was there a conscious decision to expand on your sound a bit on this record?
The goal is simply to make our own ears tingle with joy. With the sample, it was an entirely new way to write a song, and it felt amazing and quite natural. I’m a fan of hip hop music, and I’ve always marveled at how producers chop up tracks to create something entirely new. That was the ethos with this. My favorite artists are always keeping their audience on their toes: Bowie, Prince, Beck, Kanye, Radiohead, Wilco. To not feel beholden to anyone but yourself is the most liberating place to be as an artist.
Arkells seem to be on an endless tour. Did you take a lot of time off to work on this record or did you have to fit it in between tours?
Ha, that’s like saying, “You seem to endlessly be going to work.” We’re adults, and this is our job! Part of the job is touring, and we generally enjoy it. The trick is to pace yourself. The trick is to find ways to keep it fresh. The best way for us to keep it fresh is to get in the studio and create something brand new, get really fired up about it, and then get back on the road.
We made this record between tours, but it never really felt rushed. I don’t like laboring on things for too long. All I know is we were jazzed to write it and get back on the horse.
You have never been shy about speaking up on political issues. Can you talk about the song “People’s Champ” and why you decided to address Trump in song?
It’s a subject that comes up all the time in the van and tour bus. We have group chats where we send around articles. I’ve always written about political subjects, and Trump has inserted himself in our lives in such a grand way. It was almost impossible not to write about him. I’ve always loved music that is both hooky and has real meaning. The Clash did this; Stevie Wonder did this. They were able to write something you had stuck in your head and slyly managed to insert some storytelling and politics in there all at once. With “People’s Champ,” that’s what we’re going for. It’s music to keep you motivated when you’re marching.
Is there a theme that runs through most of the songs on Rally Cry?
It’s an outward-looking record. It’s not a solemn, introspective, wrote-it-in-my-bedroom kind of thing. There’s a lot of themes, generally, about how we’re connected with each other, how we need each other.
What’s next for the band?
Just thinking about how we make this tour as memorable as possible. We have one night in each town to create some memories, and that’s the task at hand.