Arkells Reach New Heights for Hamilton on 'Rally Cry'

Arkells Reach New Heights for Hamilton on 'Rally Cry'
Photo: Matt Barnes
Sitting in the comfy control room of Toronto's Noble Street Studios, the five members of Arkells are trying to explain why they get along so well. They all seem like genuinely nice guys who take turns praising or crediting each other. But there have to be times when they get on each other's nerves, because no band can be this cordial after 12 years together.
"Group work is always hard, especially when you're making something from nothing," frontman Max Kerman says. "We're still learning how to get out of each other's way, to let people have their own space and time to simmer on an idea. We did better than ever on this record. Not to say that it was always easy."
"Me and Tim almost knocked each other out in Sudbury one time," chimes in keyboardist Anthony Carone.
Now we're talking.
"We've been doing this a long time," adds drummer Tim Oxford, defensively. "The bulk of the fights have happened. Everyone respects each other to know, 'Okay, I'm pressing his button.' But I think you just grow as a group."
According to the band, it's the rhythm section of Oxford and bassist Nick Dika that "go at it the most." A few playful back-and-forth jabs emerge, and then laughter.
"I like how this comment just all of a sudden had everybody fighting with each other!" chuckles Carone.
"It's like on Behind the Music," says guitarist Mike DeAngelis. "'Everything was fine until Exclaim! mentioned how well they get along, and then...'"
The fact is, Arkells keep such good company because they know that this good thing they have going can stop at any moment. Not soon, not for them — not with their hotly anticipated new album, Rally Cry, out this month.
"We're so precious about the job because it's kind of an impossible thing, being in a band," continues Kerman. "I don't mean that facetiously, but getting to play your own music and running your own little family business that pays the bills is almost impossible, statistically speaking. And so when you say, 'Oh you guys really get along,' it's because this is such a fortunate and privileged position to be in. We need to get along. It's so fucking rare and we just don't want to lose it."
Arkells have been a band since they all met at McMaster University in their first year (with the exception of Carone, who joined in 2011, after original keyboardist Dan Griffin left to pursue a law degree). They've called Hamilton, Ontario home since those formative days; without the city's influence, they would likely be a different band, or perhaps not one at all. They certainly would not be called Arkells.
Their name is a tribute to Arkell Street, where all five lived together in a house/practice space. Hamilton offered a smaller, supportive music scene that was perfect for a young band. Here, they got opportunities that a larger city like Toronto couldn't offer them. And while their first show would be at McMaster's annual battle of the bands — where they placed second to a topless ska band — it didn't take long for Arkells to get some proper gigs.
"Early on, getting gigs in other cities was not much of a thing," DeAngelis explains. "We had to get on a Greyhound or have one of our parents drive us. We got to play a lot of shows in Hamilton [at] venues like the Underground and the Casbah, which were booking the Stills and Arcade Fire."
After self-releasing the Deadlines EP, Arkells signed to Dine Alone for 2008's Jackson Square, named after the shopping mall at the nucleus of downtown Hamilton. Influenced by compatriots like Constantines and Wintersleep, the album was a gritty, robust set of rockers that were picked up by national rock radio and MuchMusic.
Arkells toured endlessly and their "hard working band" rep earned them their first Juno Award for Breakthrough Group in 2010. Across their next three albums — 2011's Michigan Left, 2014's High Noon and 2016's Morning Report — they polished up their sound to incorporate soul and pop influences, and the Junos kept coming: Rock Album in 2015, and Group of the Year in both 2012 and 2015.
Their fifth album, Rally Cry, finds Arkells aiming for the stars. There are the usual radio-friendly rock anthems, like the life-affirming "Only for a Moment" and the Springsteen-ish "Saturday Night," as well as some political commentary on "People's Champ" and "American Screams." But there are also surprises, like Afropop-sampling "Relentless" and a burning soul stomper called "Eyes on the Prize," which, halfway through, turns gospel and finds Kerman mimicking an evangelist.
"The cool thing with 'Eyes On the Prize' was Max being so spontaneous and positive," DeAngelis says. "And Tony is an amazing piano player, so he can follow in real time what Max is doing in that moment. It's actually a real nice, organic section of the song, because the rest of the song is regimented in a pop production style."
The confidence to attempt "Eyes on the Prize" came from a successful experiment last year. Eight months after the release of the gold-selling Morning Report, Arkells released a one-off single called "Knocking at the Door." It featured their friends in the Northern Soul Horns and a group of sensational backing singers dubbed the Arkettes and embedded the band's love for soul music even deeper into their rock core. "Even though not all of our songs sound like soul, the intent is there," Kerman says. "When we perform live it's a very communal experience. The show works best when everybody is participating. To me that is a natural connection to soul music."
Love for "Knocking at the Door" spread like wildfire. Inspired by the 2017 Women's March, the song became a rousing anthem for all types of celebrations, appearing in Budweiser ads, hockey games from Edmonton to Cologne, Germany, and this year's Super Bowl. They even played it for Canadian athletes during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, at the request of gold medallists and number one Arkellians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
"When we started having our music integrated into these epic sports montages, I was like, 'This is fucking sick!' I love that," says Kerman, an avid sports fan who just opened up a sports bar in Hamilton with Dika. "I also don't think the culture is as stratified as it used to be, where you're either a jock or a music nerd. Now there is a lot more crossover in the culture."
Even before Rally Cry hits the streets, its songs are already popping up to promote hockey's return. Budweiser used "Relentless" in an ad on the NHL's opening night, and the Toronto Maple Leafs co-opted "Saturday Night" for a montage celebrating that Canadian tradition.
But if Arkells' heart belongs to one team, it's the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who contacted the band to write their official anthem. "Ticats Are Hummin'" was released as a download in 2012, with proceeds going to the Boys and Girls Club of Hamilton. "My favourite YouTube comment for the 'Ticats Are Hummin'' video was 'Hey Arkells, your Hamilton is showing,'" admits Tim Oxford. "I love that."
No exaggeration: Arkells are to Hamilton what Drake is to Toronto. This past June, they threw a party that was bigger than OVO Fest.
Dubbed "The Rally," Arkells showed their Hamilton spirit by playing the Ticats home, Tim Hortons Field, and 24,000 bodies filled the stands. They'd played Hamilton's hockey arena, FirstOntario Centre, but on this day, Arkells reached stadium rock status. "Well, for one day," laughs DeAngelis.
Mark Furukawa is the owner of long-running Hamilton record shop, Dr. Disc, and has been an influential figure in Hamilton's music scene for 27 years. He's seen the band transform from a pack of university kids into the city's biggest musical export ever. He was at Tim Hortons Field representing the Hamilton Music Advisory Team, which he chairs, but he was also there to cheer on his friends.
"Even though they've become Juno Award-winning Canadian superstars, Arkells still live, sleep, breathe and promote Hamilton, every chance they get," Furukawa says. "The concert was a Hamilton-Arkells love fest. Arkells had self-produced a video montage all about Hamilton and handed out 'rally towels' in Ticats colours. They are the real Hamilton deal, and each band member embodies the city's spirit."
"The thing about that stadium is that everybody in the city, whether you like football or not, goes there to hang," says Kerman. "Even for a Ticats game, people just go because it's the thing to do. It's a very fun, unifying place."
The Rally turned out to be Hamilton's largest outdoor stadium concert since Pink Floyd in 1975, but more than anything, it was a celebration of all things Hamilton. Arkells partnered with Plus1 organization to donate proceeds from each ticket to the Refuge Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health. They also arranged for free transportation to and from the event via Hamilton Street Railway, personally led a mass SoBi bike ride to the stadium, and invited local vendors to sell their goods at a pop-up flea market out front.
"People have come to discover our band in a lot of different ways," says Kerman. "It's what I like about sports: you get a lot of different people at an event. I feel like Arkells concerts have a similar widespread demo, which is really cool. It's a communal affair to begin with and everyone is welcome."
Arkells' ability to unite a wide range of music fans is reminiscent of another great Canadian rock band that a similar impact. The mere mention of the Tragically Hip has all five Arkells blushing and humbly shooting the suggestion down. But since the Hip sadly left us in 2017 following the passing of Gord Downie, there is currently an opening for the position of "Canada's band." The fact that the chorus of Rally Cry's "Relentless" was inspired by something the Hip's Paul Langlois told them about Downie feels all too fitting.
Having toured with the Hip in 2013, the guys in Arkells know what kind of responsibility comes with being that band for Canada, but with Rally Cry set to take them to that level the guys seem ready. They spent every opportunity they could studying how the CanRock legends operated and it struck a chord with them.
"Just the way they treated other people, it would be cool if we could be like the Hip in that sense," says DeAngelis. "They changed a lot as they went on, and I feel like we've also experienced that to a degree, as people are still entering our music at different times."
"They never called it in," Kerman adds. "They always gave a fuck. Of all the bands in their generation, they were the most pro and dignified, and that's what put them in that rarefied air. We tried to learn from the best."