Some have described The Arkells as having ‘exploded’ onto the scene, or say they’re amidst a meteoric rise. And there is some truth to that, given they’re about to play their first headlining show at the Canadian Tire Centre this Friday, as part of a cross-Canada arena tour to promote their latest album Rally Cry. You can be forgiven for thinking that they’ve ‘arrived’. However, this description implies that stardom came quickly and easily to them. Neither could be further from the truth.
First, while they did burst onto the scene with their debut single “Oh, the Boss is Coming!” in 2008, The Arkells have steadily churned out hit albums and singles. The Hamiltonians just released their fifth studio album, with the previous four LPs all being certified gold records in Canada. They have ten Top 10 singles to their credit, and their newest, “Hand Me Downs” is working its way towards joining that list.
Second, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more relentless (pun intended) band when it comes to performing. They have already played most of the venues in the city, upgrading each trip back, and have graduated from opening act to headliner throughout these trips. Since the early days of Barrymore’s and Zaphod’s, they’ve played hundreds of shows, and graced the stages of some of the world’s largest festivals (Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, etc.). They’ve paid their dues, and earned the experience to take the step to the biggest stages in the country.
We caught up with front man Max Kerman this week, on a short hiatus between the Western and Eastern legs of their Canadian dates, and had a chat about their endless touring, their graduation to the big stages, and what else they have on tap for 2019.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: This is your first tour headlining arenas. How is that going?
Max Kerman: It’s been awesome actually. I’ve been loving it. Every night, I think we get a bit better. It’s been really great to make use of the space, since there’s a lot of stage to cover, and in our case we also have a catwalk. It’s been fun because, we’ve had a lot of ideas that we’ve been sort of working on over the past ten years, in one form or another when it comes to putting on a really entertaining rock and roll show. When it comes to these arena shows, it’s the biggest and best versions of the things we’ve been working on for a long time. We have the horns section, and little details like setlist transitions, and how the flow of the night is going to work. Those are all things that we’re students of. We’ve been really pleased with how it’s gone so far.
“When it comes to these arena shows, it’s the biggest and best versions of the things we’ve been working on for a long time.”
In listening to your catalogue over the last decade, a lot of your songs seem tailor-made for the big stage.
It’s funny, some people say ‘this new record is made for stadiums’ or something like that, but I think we’ve always been kind of doing big sounding rock songs. I feel like all the material kind of works. But with that said, we’ve been playing a lot of the new record Rally Cry at these shows, and those songs feel particularly good in these big rooms.
Your tour schedule is relentless, and over the past few years, you’ve averaged around one hundred shows a year. Does it ever get tedious?
Nick, our bassist, he keeps everybody’s ego in line pretty good. He has a bit of Catholic guilt in him, so the minute we start moping because the schedule has gotten a little too busy, he reminds us that everybody else has to work jobs five days a week, 50 weeks a year, so buck up, this is what we signed up for. And the other thing is we all love touring. For us, the reason we’re able to do it, is we have figured out a way to make the job feel fresh. Ports don’t all look the same and feel the same.
“We’re just thinking what would be the best way to create moments and experiences with people who are interested in our band. To us, it’s just another creative pursuit–how do we create a bond. I love it.”
We really go out of our way to make the job as fun and as new feeling as possible. So even with some of the promo stuff we’ve been doing on this tour, we’ve done pop-up shows on a train in Calgary, we did one in a donut shop, we just kind of do fun things. It’s all part of the idea of chasing new experiences that keeps the job interesting. It doesn’t feel old because we’re constantly doing new things.
We feel really lucky that we have this unique opportunity to be a part of someone else’s life through our music. We’re just thinking what would be the best way to create moments and experiences with people who are interested in our band. To us, it’s just another creative pursuit–how do we create a bond. I love it. It’s my favourite part of music is the communal aspect of it.
Now that you have five albums, you’re starting to have a substantive amount of material to choose from for your setlist.
It is hard, and for this tour, there’s a lot of conversations. But it’s one of my favourite parts of the job is thinking about how the night will feel, and how the songs will flow, but we were trying to think ‘what would be a fun thing to do to make sure we get into some deep cuts and do some songs that people would love to hear, but wouldn’t necessarily be expecting because they’re not singles, maybe they’re from early records, so we set up a hotline and we got people to call in and tell us the show they’re going to and a deep cut they’d like to hear, and why it’s important to them, and then at the show we’re playing the voice message. Last night we played in Winnipeg, and they wanted ‘John Lennon’. That’s a song we haven’t played much at all lately, but used to be a staple in our set, so we played the voicemail and launched into the song. So it’s been fun.
Looking ahead to 2019, after this tour, you’ve got a string of American dates, but your summer is still open. Any plans of doing festivals this summer?
Ya, we’re planning on doing a bunch of festival stuff. I assume we’ll be pretty busy. Our team knows that we like to work. We’re lucky that we work with an awesome label, management and booking agent. We’ve worked with them all for a number of years now, and they get what we’re about. And we tend to have a good time together, dreaming up ideas for different shows and things to chase after.
There’s just so much music to be consumed, and so just trying to find your place in the music culture is one of the question marks every band has.”
You’ve already done a lot of the major festivals already, but are there some that you have on your bucket list that you’re looking to cross off?
This summer we’re actually doing some in the U.K. and we’ve never really done any of those before, so we’re stoked about that. That’ll be new. But you’re right, we’ve played Coachella, Bonnarroo, Lollapalooza. We just wanted to experience them on a personal level, but then also use them as an opportunity to play for new fans, and that’s always part of the goal, just to get the tunes out there. There’s just so much music to be consumed, and so just trying to find your place in the music culture is one of the question marks every band has, and you can do that in a variety of ways, through radio play, through festivals, through opening spots, through commercials. We tend to look at all of those as opportunities to make a connection with fans.
Reviews of the shows on the Western leg of the tour have been exceptional, so if the early returns hold, Ottawa is in for quite a night Friday, with lots of connections being made.
Arkells will be performing at the Canadian Tire Centre on February 15 with special guests Lord Huron. Doors open at 7:30. Tickets cost $43–102 online. They have partnered with PLUS1 so that $1 from every ticket is going to support the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants in Canada through the Canadian Council for Refugees.