There are no alchemists in the music business. No one has the ability to forge a composition from iron, wave a magic wand over it, and to turn it into gold.
There are composers who seem magical, though; who understand where popular music intersects with their own vision of the musical zeitgeist they hope to create. Every meticulously crafted piece they compose and arrange is destined for success.
For every Max Martin, however, there are many Max Kermans. Kerman, principal songwriter for Arkells, would love to know what elements of songwriting have led the band to their current level of success. Yet for him, as for most songwriters, it’s impossible to isolate the elements that connect with listeners. They’re simply there.
“We were writing for nobody, and that was the thing that connected with people.” – Max Kerman of Arkells
“I know the band has something special, but I think most bands probably think that,” Kerman says. “Our initial success, getting a shot at radio – that always felt a little bit like the luck of the draw.”
Perhaps, but like most successful bands, Arkells have made their own luck. The band members came to Hamilton as students and aspiring musicians, but they left as… well, they never left. They graduated from McMaster University, changed their band name to match the West-end street on which they lived, and came to identify with the city. Shows at smallish clubs like The Casbah became more and more of an event each time, as the city came to identify with Arkells. Their breakthrough single, “The Boss Is Coming,” was inspired by the Constantines, dates back to those Casbah days, and was notably different than most mainstream rock radio hits.
“The bands that we were listening to when we were writing Jackson Square were indie bands,” Kerman recalls. “Constantines, Joel Plaskett, Weakerthans, Cuff the Duke – those bands have all had amazing careers, they’ve always been beloved on the indie scene, but haven’t really been on [mainstream] radio. Maybe the difference between us and those bands is that our pop sensibilities come to the front in a more obvious way.”
In the second half of 2014, Arkells’ third album, High Noon, debuted in the number three position on the Soundscan charts. The album, produced by Tony Hoffer (Phoenix, M83), with some songs recorded by Eric Ratz (Metric), is poppy and well-produced enough to cross over into the mainstream without alienating their early, indie-minded fans.
“We’ve always been lucky in that we just had these songs that came very naturally,” says Kerman. “We were writing for nobody, and that was the thing that connected with people. So [now we] know that if we just do something that feels honest, with the band’s musical sensibilities in there, then hopefully it should be good.”
The internal mechanics of the band’s songwriting process work smoothly, in part because everyone in the group has their own area of concern. “Everybody’s opinionated about a particular thing,” Kerman says, “but often, it’s something about which the others don’t care that much. We complement each other. We all know that the song is the most important thing, so whatever’s good for the song is what needs to be done. So if that means you’ve been playing something you find really boring for a whole verse, you’ve kind of just got to do it.”
Since the release of High Noon, Arkells have successfully navigated around a few bumps in their road. The departure of founding member Dan Griffin, for example, could have thrown them off the rails, but his replacement, keyboardist Anthony Carone, filled that gap suitably, while bringing new dimensions to the band’s dynamic. This past fall, The Arkells drew the largest crowds to date at Hamilton’s Supercrawl festival in September, and played an unprecedented three nights straight at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall in November. Still, success is relative, and that fact keeps Arkells on their toes and on the road.
“It still feels like it’s so much a work in progress,” Kerman says. “We get our fair share of attention in Hamilton and Canada, but we spend a lot of time outside Canada and we’re really working hard at growing the audience. A lot of shows remind us of the days playing at the Casbah… and I love those shows.”
Publisher: Arkells Music Inc
Discography: Deadlines EP (2007), Jackson Square (2008), Michigan Left (2011), High Noon (2014)
SOCAN members since 2007 (Dan Griffin), 2008 (Max Kerman, Tim Oxford, Nick Dika), 2009 (Mike DeAngelis), 2010 (Anthony Carone)
Turning the Page
“It was the day we looked around and we realized none of us had jobs anymore,” says Kerman. “We were all sort of working part-time jobs as we were touring, and then one day – I think it was in the van – I looked around and said, ‘Wait a second, I don’t have a part-time job, and none of these guys do either.’ When we come home from a tour we can relax or work on more music. It was pretty amazing to realize the band is our job and it keeps the lights on.”