Arkells ignite around politics on their ambitious new album ‘Rally Cry’, a bold rock feat boasting stadium-sized anthems for the people.
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Max Kerman is extremely busy. The Arkells’ frontman has forgotten we had an interview scheduled; he’s misremembered the date. But he tells me it’s okay — we’ll conduct our conversation over the phone while he pedals across the city on a bike to Arkells’ keyboardist Anthony “Tony” Carone’s house. He’s meeting Carone and their other bandmate, guitarist Mike DeAngelis, to call fans who have left messages on their 1-800 hotline, which they’ve used to premiere their new single, “American Screams.” Absent from the surprise call session are drummer Tim Oxford and bassist Nick Dika.
The hotline is the brainchild of DeAngelis, who wanted a uniquely physical and digital way of releasing the new track from their impending fifth album, Rally Cry, due out October 19th. It was only fitting that such a retro-sounding song have an equally retro introduction to the world. Fans who dialed in could leave the band a message or listen to the track. Those who chose the latter would hear the funkiest, most disco-inflected Arkells song yet, thus marking itself as the most un-Arkells-like song they’ve ever released. But it has so much fun with itself, that it doesn’t matter.
There’s the shimmering undercurrent of Donna Summer mixed in with the quirky brilliance of Arcade Fire. With Carone tossing in some disco strings reminiscent of ABBA, the result is a ’70s-flavoured romp that commands respect for its thematic content and exuberant artistry. Echoing the sentiments of Rally Cry’s first single “People’s Champ,” “American Screams” is its older, more rambunctious brother that asks listeners to take note of the chaotic political conversations enveloping the world, and to be a little nicer to one another.
Stream: “American Screams” – Arkells
“[We saw] some of our favourite bands like Phoenix play while we were recording the record, and we thought ‘man, we could really use a song like that’ because it just gets a dancefloor moving in a way that we don’t quite have,” Kerman says.
“That’s mostly the image for everything we do, is seeing one of our heroes do something rad and going ‘oh can we try that?” he laughs.
So they did. They toyed around with an anthemic guitar chord progressions on “Show Me Don’t Tell Me,” a love ballad that doubles as a hat-tip to the rock idols that came before them. “That was a bit of a U2 reference, Phil Collins a little bit, Peter Gabriel too,” Kerman says.
There are also plenty of songs on the album about feelings, with friends filling the ancillary roles central to an Arkells song’s actualization. Such is the case with “Saturday Night,” a thumping tribute to going out with Kerman’s best friend Dan who is “truly a joyful, really smart, interesting guy, a great listener.”
“There’s lots of songs about going out on a Saturday night, and I recognize that the idea of Saturday night in a song is trite and has been done a million times. But I don’t think anybody has really captured the feeling of possibilities and the feeling of fun that I get when I hang out with my pals,” he explains. “I like the idea that anything can happen. Sometimes nothing happens but if you’re around good company you’ll enjoy yourself,” he says. “My other friend Greg once said, ‘the price of possibility is priceless,’ so I wrote that down.”
Kerman is eager for people to hear the new tracks because the band has been holding onto them for a number of months.
“I think the point of writing and recording music is to have it be heard,” he laughs. “So I’m excited to see how people react. The second part is getting to play them live. When we’re in the studio, obviously we’re trying to make a great recorded experience for the listener, but the second part of it is getting out there on the road and offering a live experience to these songs. I think these songs are going to fit into our catalogue really well.”
The band has already had a bit of a test run — if one could call it that — with the new material. “People’s Champ” was played this summer at the Arkells’ biggest headlining concert ever: “The Rally” in their hometown of Hamilton, ON. It was the most massive show the city had seen in decades, with approximately 24,000 people in attendance. In the following months they haven’t lost momentum, busily preparing for the album release and rehearsing for their upcoming American and European tours. They’ll be announcing dates for their home Canadian tour in a few weeks.
If there’s one thing fans can possibly expect from the impending shows in addition to the new tunes, it’s a more daringly stylish version of Kerman. His outfits have evolved along with the band’s sound over the years, transforming from his staple jeans and tees to fringed jackets and bombers galore, adorned in sequins and satin.
“I guess I have become a little more extravagant as a dresser,” he laughs. “I think as an artist you’re always trying to find new ideas that make you feel excited and that can either be a song that inspires you to write something new, or a look that inspires you to go in that direction, when you’re thinking about what you’re going to wear on stage,” he says.
“I think it’s the responsibility of an artist to keep pushing themselves and to keep being curious about the world around them, and that goes for music or fashion. At the end of the day, we’re entertainers and it’s important to figure out fresh ways to entertain people.”
The fashion is but a singular thread in the whole Arkells musical outfit. At their paramount they’re giving spirited performances of thought-provoking songs on how everyone is implicated in the choices they make, including the Arkells themselves. Since their debut record Jackson Square, they have always maintained a strong political beat pulsing throughout all of their albums. Rally Cry stands firmly alongside its predecessors, staring straight into the brightly burning Trumpian fires. Motown-inspired “People’s Champ” takes aim at the oval office’s current occupant, while fiery “Company Man” tackles capitalism and identity. “How did we get here?” Kerman sings. He doesn’t offer up any answers, but it’s just as well. The album gives their take; it’s up to the listeners to decide where to go from there.
Rally Cry stands firmly alongside its predecessors, staring straight into the brightly burning Trumpian fires.
But Rally Cry is far from an amalgamation of sobering realities. It possesses a series of striking and upbeat songs tailor-made to induce dancing, singing, clapping, stomping, swaying, while also cheekily commenting on the various ups and downs of everyday life. It’s a grandiose, sparkling leap forward. And apart from its many stadium-filling rock jams, there’s also lots to be said for the album’s unmistakable Arkells love ballads, vivid and tender in their lyrical prowess.
“It’s important for artists to write about whatever interests them and excites them and whatever they’re most passionate about. I think for me, I gravitate towards politics because it’s what I’m consuming every day. I’m pretty interested in the world around me, I think our music generally speaking is outward-looking and asking questions about how we’re all connected to one another as people,” he says. “[That] can take the form of a political song, it can take the form of a friendship or a relationship.”
Illuminating those special relationships to conjure up such rosy imagery involves several key ingredients.
“I think it’s about finding the little moments. I think the little moments tell a bigger story. If you’re able to describe the scene with detail from an interesting vantage point, that’s the first step in a good love song,” Kerman says.
“It’s very easy to say something general like ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’ or ‘you mean the world to me.’ Those sentiments can make it into a good love song, but you can only get away with a cheesier line like that if you add a personal detail into the story. When I think about the love songs that people feel most connected to in our catalogue, it’s the ones that describe a personal scene.”
Take a simple line like “I heard you singing in the shower” from “My Heart’s Always Yours” off of their 2016 album Morning Report. It’s from when Kerman overheard his girlfriend sing in the shower and he liked it so much the scene blossomed from there, evolving into a true crowd-pleaser. He also was enamoured with the idea of two people making out in a closet at a party, which took shape in “And Then Some.”
Both songs are only two examples of the colourful and often cinematic storytelling at the soul of every Arkells track. From start to finish, Rally Cry is no different. It weaves together intricate tales of people and places, of lovers and friends, of journeys across Canadian cities. The songs originate from memories and experiences arising from deeply personal fragments in space and time.
Kerman keeps notes in his phone of certain moments to serve as lyrical inspiration. One that stood out for him was a line: ‘some people have hand me down money, some people have hand me down clothes.’ The emotions tied to people coming from different places and experiencing shame or mixed feelings attached to their roots was something he wanted to explore. Thus, Rally Cry’s opening track, “Hand Me Downs” was born.
“That [line] gave me the will to start the song, and then from there we started building it out together, as we always do as a band. The theme or particular lyric has to be something that I’m really passionate about,” Kerman says.
It was a similar spark that ignited for the album’s closing track “Don’t Be a Stranger.”
“I have a few friends who are really smart and interesting but definitely suffer from anxiety and depression, and can kind of get in their own head, and that’s what that song’s about. I think we all have friends like that or have experienced that ourselves personally,” he says.
Telling those stories, in addition to making them one of the most relatable acts in rock music, has also cemented them as a pillar of the community. They regularly engage and give back to the causes they advocate for, whether it be on social media or in their songs. Donating a dollar from every ticket sold at “The Rally” to support the Refuge Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health is only one example. In acting like “people’s champs,” some fans have bestowed them with the title “the people’s band.”
“It’s a nice thing to say,” Kerman laughs.
Unlike famous musicians who are untouchable and aloof and sit comfortably behind the glass wall of fame, the divide between the Arkells and their fans is a more penetrable boundary. It’s warm, friendly and inviting. They re-tweet shout-outs on Twitter. They reply to Instagram comments. They meet fans after their shows. They phone them to inform them they’ll be playing in their cities. They understand the importance of it all: fandom is a form of capital, literally and culturally. But for them it’s more about the people themselves.
“One of the things about our band, I don’t feel we’ve ever presented ourselves on a pedestal. Our shows work way better when everyone is participating. In that vein I think we have a very community feel. Those are the kinds of artists I look up to the most as performers,” he says.
“For me personally, the job of this band has a few parts to it. The nucleus is the song. Nothing happens unless the material is good itself. How do we perform it live and how do we put on a great show, that’s number two,” he explains. “And number three is how do we make sure people are at least aware of the music? There are so many bands out there, so many amazing artists who are deserving of attention. So, it’s kind of up to the band to figure out a creative and interesting way to present the music. We like thinking about a fun way to premiere a song.”
That they’ve accomplished most recently with the rollout of their two newest singles from Rally Cry — the hotline and an accompanying billboard for “American Screams” and an inimitable pop-up performance for the previous single “Only for a Moment.”
“At karaoke we were trading each verse, you wore my jacket and I carried your purse,” Kerman sings on the glittering “Only for a Moment.” The lyric manifested literally when the band participated in an impromptu karaoke night to sing along with fans. People packed in to Bar + Karaoke to belt out the new song and their favourite Arkells hits. They were also treated to some throwbacks courtesy of a song bank carrying Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
Melding the old and the new is something the Arkells have always been quite good at, but Rally Cry will be their most brazen effort yet. They’ve always been forthright in their music and their ability to render that sincerity sonically without losing any fervor. As time has gone by, it’s emboldened them to experiment more.
When Rally Cry is released, it will mark almost 10 years exactly since the Arkells’ first album.
Kerman says it’s been “a collection of little moments that add up to what your career looks like.” He says he hopes up-and-coming artists will try to learn from every day, making the most of each experience.
“If you’re taking notes, and you’re being curious and you’re trying to improve, it will add up. In a couple years you’ll be able to look back and go ‘oh I did a bunch of stuff that I’m proud of’ and maybe stuff that you’re not proud too, but that’s okay, it’s all part of learning,” he says.
“We did not happen overnight. It’s literally [been] brick by brick.”
In that regard, Rally Cry is a cumulation of all those years. It’s a honed version of what the band sounds like with the volume cranked to the max. The ideas are all there and refined. The songs are shiny and big — a concise batch of tracks primed to ascend to the tops of the charts and all brimming with substance. It’s an album embodying duality. It’s unlike what they’ve done before — it’s intrepid and groovier — yet it still carries the distinct Arkells sound.
“We never want to repeat ourselves,” he says.
I hear a vehicle rumble by on Kerman’s end of the phone. He says he’s on a Bike Share Toronto bicycle. It’s apt — in the past, the band has shown a lot of support for public transit. From the “People’s Champ” music video where they have a dance party on a Hamilton Street Railway bus, to the day of “The Rally” when they rode alongside fans on Sobi bicycles to the stadium for the concert, it’s typical Arkells behaviour. Kerman says he wouldn’t rule out writing a jingle for a transportation system — or voicing one.
“It depends on what the confines of the writing tasks would be, it would have to be cool you know? It depends on how much creative freedom they’d give us,” he laughs.
I chuckled. Given their track record, when it comes to pulling off the unexpected, they tend to succeed.
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📸 © Matt Barnes