To get a true handle on how far Arkells has progressed since forming at Hamilton’s McMaster University in 2006, listen to singer Max Kerman recount the group’s history of live shows in Vancouver.
“The band has grown in baby steps over the years,” the engaging frontman says, on the line from his home in Steeltown, Ontario. “It’s never been one day where we’ve gone, ‘Holy shit—we’re selling out a 5,000-cap arena.’ It’s all been very incremental.
“The first time we ever played Vancouver we played a strip club during some festival [Music West] that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that was 2008. The next time we came back we played to 100 people, the next time 300 people, then 500 and 700, and then we sold out the Commodore.
“And then we sold out two nights at the Commodore,” Kerman continues. “So it’s always been really gradual, but always headed in the right direction. And that’s a really healthy way of going about it, because you never feel like you’re in a spot that you can’t handle. It’s never ‘Oh my God—I’m totally overwhelmed right now.’ Instead, it’s more ‘This totally makes sense.’ ”
That Arkells’ upward trajectory continues in 2017 can be measured by the band’s playing the 8,000-capacity Thunderbird Arena at UBC this time through town. Admirably, the quintet’s pulling that off on the back of its most unrepentantly ambitious record to date.
Last summer’s Morning Report took the chances that no one saw coming. After building a devoted Canadian following with an unfussy brand of pop-friendly alt-rock, Kerman and his bandmates—guitarist Mike DeAngelis, bassist Nick Dika, drummer Tim Oxford, and keyboardist Anthony Carone—decided to unleash their inner art stars.
The audaciousness on Morning Report starts right off the top, with “Drake’s Dad” an ADHD blur of Muscle Shoals soul, far-away-eyes country, and string-laden baroque pop. “My Heart’s Always Yours” embraces classic new wave every bit as passionately as John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink did, while the synth-swooped “Private School” suggests that some of us took the death of David Bowie far harder than others.
Fittingly, Morning Report doesn’t stick to one template lyrically. So while Kerman starts out recounting real-life booze-blitzed road trips and raging parties on “Drake’s Dad” and “Private School”, more straight-ahead numbers like “Passenger Seat” and “Come Back Home” reflect on relationships and the emotional traumas they inevitably cause.
“The first batch of songs that emerged on this record were the sad songs,” the singer recalls with a laugh. “That’s sort of the place that I was in, and the things that I was interested in writing about. Then at about song number five I suddenly went, ‘Good lord, does the world really need another sad white guy moping around?’
“I kind of got sick of myself and went, ‘Lighten up already, man—this is not all of who you are.’ So I got a sense of humour, which is where songs like ‘Private School’ and ‘Drake’s Dad’ came from.”
What Morning Report shows is that Arkells’ members are fans of music that transcends North America’s rock-radio playlists. As sure as the band has slowly worked its way up from the Penthouse to midsize hockey arenas, Kerman is convinced fans are loyal enough to be in it for the long haul. Call that one of the benefits of building a following one small-club show at a time, rather than on the back of a single radio smash.
“I knew with a song like ‘Private School’, the first single, that people were going to be scratching their heads and going, ‘Well, what the fuck is this? That does not sound like ‘11:11’ or ‘Leather Jacket’,” Kerman says, referring to past Arkells hits. “But I had faith in the song, and faith that over time people would stop scratching their heads.
“Eventually, it will just be part of our catalogue in the same way that Billy Joel has a ton of different kinds of songs. I’m sure that the first time he put out ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ that people went ‘Whaatttt? He’s kind of rapping right now.’ But over time it just became another hit.”
Arkells headlines UBC’s Thunderbird Arena on Wednesday (February 1).