[Yesterday (September 22), Arkells released their new Laundry Pile album. Ottawa correspondent Ross MacDonald sat down with frontman Max Kerman to get caught up on things. – AC]
A Journal of Musical Things caught up with Arkells lead singer and guitarist Max Kerman before they played their final festival of the summer at Ottawa CityFolk . The Arkells new album ‘Laundry Pile’ was released on Thursday 21 September.
AJOMT – Since you did the deep-dive with Alan a few years ago you’ve been very busy. Blink Once in came out in 2021, Blink Twice was released in 2022, and now Laundry Pile is officially released next week. A Blink Once/Twice tour last year, and in a few weeks you are touring the US. Your shows are high-energy. Will you be catching your breath anytime soon?
Max – You know, we get that feedback a lot. People are like: what are you doing? Slow down! Or are you just tired? But ultimately, it kind of comes down to just wanting to entertain ourselves because this is our job, and we really like the job, and I think we have kept it interesting because we are always trying to challenge ourselves. I think we’d probably do less if it felt like it was the same thing over and over again, if we were making the same record over and over again, if it was the same tour, if it was the same bits. But every time we go out to see another band play or we listen to other music, we’re inspired by it. We want to entertain ourselves and try to beat the last thing that we did. I find the work to be energising. Of course, there’s moments when it’s quite stressful and it is exhausting, and there’s definitely stress that comes with the job, but the alternative where you’re not working seems way less fun and way less interesting.
And you know the other thing, and this is so important, especially in our line of business, if you don’t take the work super seriously, if you’re not trying to evolve and get better as a creative person and as artists, it will fade away. We’ve seen so many amazing bands that maybe forgot that it’s about pushing forward and maybe they got too comfortable or they lost interest; and then any good thing you had usually just begins to fade away because there’s thousands of other people that desperately want to have the same thing that you have. So I think you have to hold it pretty near, and just remember that it’s a very precious thing that you have. If you have any audience that cares about you.
AJOMT – You had numerous collaborations on Blink Once and Blink Twice (K. Flay, Cold War Kids, Lights, Tegan & Sara). ‘You Can Get It’ and ‘Past Life’ were huge. Did you set out to do so many collaborations or did it fall on you?
Max – Yeah it was definitely a goal that we had. We want each record to live in its own world. And I’ve always been really sort of envious and admired other genres, how they’re able to kind of collaborate with different artists. If you’re a hip-hop musician, if you’re a pop artist, or if you’re someone writing dance music, you’re constantly working with people, other artists and other acts. And for whatever reason, in the world of indie rock that we are in that doesn’t really happen quite as much. So I was like: well I want to have some fun too, and so I think that was important. It’s just to make those albums stand out on their own. And we actually had a little bit more time to figure that out because we weren’t touring, because it was during the pandemic, we actually had some time. So how do we go about reaching out to different artists? Can we do these things remotely? Do we all have to be together in the studio to get something done? And we were able to do a lot of those albums remotely. The band at times couldn’t be together because of pandemic rules, and we couldn’t get on planes. But we were still able to be creative from home, in the best way that we could. The other thing, and this is just for me, is that I was sort of tired of my own voice. By the time we got to making ‘Blink Once’ and then ‘Blink Twice’, it’d be so much more fun to hear somebody else’s voice sing with me on the albums, and it was just sort of like a mood I was in. It’s funny because now that we’ve gotten through those two records, and I’m proud of them, I’m actually really excited about ‘Laundry Pile’, which is just the five of us, and there’s very little outside input. It’s really just the five of us in a room. So these things evolve. I think its super important just to remember that creativity is always fluid. You’re always learning from the last thing you did, reacting to the last thing you did. So we’re never going to be dogmatic in our approach, everything is moving.
AJOMT – Musically your new album ‘Laundry Pile’ is softer than your previous albums. Tony is playing more acoustic piano, and acoustic guitars are more forward in several songs. And this year you performed a number of campfire shows. Is this a new direction or are you widening your portfolio?
Max – I think one of the charms of our past records is that they’re a little frenetic and a little all over the place, genre-wise and in production. For me, it’s fun and I’m a little ADD, so I think it’s okay to jump around. But I was really excited to try to make something with the band that had just a singular bit vibe. That is, you can play the record top to bottom and you’re not confused: what song is that album from? Which Arkells album is that song from? You put it on, and you’re like: oh, that just sounds like that one record. And it was a challenge for us because we’ve never really made something with that much restraint. The interesting thing is that so many of our songs start with just a piano or a guitar, they start in a very humble place. And it’s usually our tendency to try to build it into some grandiose thing and to layer it and to add horns and synths and guitars and guitars. But with this record, every time we started to get a little bit bigger in the production, it just never felt right. So it was really a practice in stripping everything back and just remembering that there’s some amazing singer-songwriter music that is just a vocal stomp, and an acoustic guitar, and a singular voice. You can get a lot done with very little, especially in singer-songwriter music. We wanted to stay true to that sound. We didn’t expect to make a record. We started hanging out back in January with just the goal of just kind of jamming and being around each other; we had no goal of making an album. But as we dove into some new songs, it was the dead of winter, we weren’t on tour, things just sort of began to materialise in a really organic way. And that’s how the album kind of made itself.
AJOMT – Over the years you have addressed many social issues. ‘Laundry Pile’ seems aimed at interpersonal relationships. Is this born of personal experiences, or are you wanting to address relationships in general?
Max – I think for me the pandemic was really interesting because it was like an exercise in how does a busy-body stay busy? And I’m really proud that we were able to keep the thing on the tracks and we were able to be creative. So much of my life was just like: okay, how do I stay creative? How do I stay professionally busy? And everybody dealt with the pandemic in a different way. But I think after getting through that, I think: okay, what do I want out of my personal life? What do I wanna learn from the last few years? How do I want to be better moving forward? What do I want out of deep relationships and how do I make them as good as possible? So yeah, the record doesn’t really have any political songs. It’s really just a record about love.
AJOMT – The hit single ‘Skin’ uses three definitions for the word: touching a person’s skin (“I like your skin when you’re getting goosebumps” offers an excellent visualization), and also superficiality like “skin deep”, and commitment as in “skin in the game”. Is the song title most reflective of the latter? (skin in the game?)
Max – I was thinking about the tenants of country songwriting where there’s usually some kind of play on words that sort of gets tidied up by the end of the course. I like that structure,
and I think it’s about the intimacy of really knowing somebody’s body and what their skin smells like or what it looks like in a certain hour of the day, or how it reacts in certain moments. So it’s getting to know somebody, but then I think the measure of a good relationship is somebody who’s not afraid of commitments and somebody who wants to really dig into every corner of life and of living. So it’s about wanting to make that commitment that’s more than just the surface level stuff.
AJOMT – Is ‘Shot In The Dark’ the next single to be released?
Max – Is that what you hear? There’s a limited amount of jaunty songs on the album. There’s a lot of slow burners. And it’s funny, we had rehearsal today where we were jamming that song and it felt super good. It definitely has a 90s Beck stoner thing kind of happening in my mind a little bit. Aanytime any of our songs get attention, we’re grateful for it. And it’s so funny, these days what does a single really even mean? What does radio play even mean? There’s so many things to distract people, there’s like 80,000 new songs a day on Spotify. The old gatekeepers that used to exist in our industry don’t really exist anymore. And that’s not a bad thing, I think it’s a really interesting place to work. But it feels like we’re always learning how to best interact with the music community.
Somebody mentioned Wilco, there’s some Wilco vibe there. But yeah Beck, but even just kind of grungy just like acoustic pop from the 90s.
AJOMT – All your collaborations were highly successful, who will you be collaborating with next?
Max – Oh, good question. We don’t have anything on the docket right now. We’re just kind of focused on getting this thing (‘Laundry Pile’) out the door. You know, talk to me in two weeks.
AJOMT – You are one of the most successful Canadian rock bands, the most Juno awards for group of the year amongst the many accolades. Selling out stadiums across the country. A gazillion streams. How have you been doing in the US? Typically a lot of Canadian artists find it difficult to break into the US market?
Max – I think the reality is that it is just so hard to be a band, number one. So that’s usually the place where we start from, where it’s just like just being a band for as long as we’ve been together, and be able to not work a day job, we’re already further ahead than 99% of musicians that dream to write their own songs. And we’re so grateful for that! I don’t say that, like with any pumping my chest at all, I’m just where we start from a place of gratitude. Being in a band, and putting out eight records and being able to pay our rent and all that stuff is such an accomplishment. And then when it comes to this question of success outside of Canada, we’ve toured America so many times. And every time we’re always paired up with an American band that is young, and it’s always the same pitch. It’s from our American agent, and it’ll be: hey, this band just got signed to a really cool label, they got a really amazing management team, they’re based in New York, or they’re based in LA, and it’s really good idea for you guys to take them on because they’re gonna be the next big thing. And all those bands do not exist anymore.
So this idea that it’s a Canadian thing, I always sort of rejected the premise, because it’s not a Canadian thing. It’s just a being in a band thing. The other thing too, which is funny, is that if you go to the UK and you go see a festival, like a big festival like Reading and Leeds or whatever, 80% of the acts I’ve never heard of, and they’re big acts in the UK, really big acts. And when they come over to North America they don’t have quite the same size of audience. So a lot of it just has to do with if you’re lucky enough to have an audience, it usually has some connection to domestic pride or local regional pride. Or it was a flash in the pan moment that got them off and running. So yeah, I would just say we love touring in America, love touring in the UK, love touring in Germany; and every time we go back, it gets a little bit better. And that’s the name of the game. If you can just keep on building it kind of brick brick, and be grateful for it.
AJOMT – You have a multi-generational appeal, at your concerts you see parents with pre-teen kids right up to fans in their 60’s and older. Do you expressly target all generations? Or just music lovers in general?
Max – We’ll take what we can get, first of all. Whoever wants to join the party is welcome. But I would say it’s interesting, because I still feel like a spring chicken. But the reality is that our first record came out in 2008. And so let’s say, just doing the math here, if you were a 26 year old when you first heard our first record ‘Jackson Square’ in 2008, so that’s 15 years ago, so now you’re 41. And there’s a chance that you have a 12 year old. And there’s a chance that you told your parents about the band. Okay, now there’s Arkells fans that saw us as their frosh week in 2010, or something. And now they are parents and they have a six year old running around the house singing ‘Reckoning’. So it’s just sort of a numbers game I think, in a lot of ways, where we’ve continued to work with and continued to play with other bands. A lot of people were introduced to us when we opened for The Tragically Hip in 2013. And The Hip fans would have been 42 when they saw us in 2013. Yeah, so it’s cool and it’s kind of a beautiful thing.
AJOMT – A big thanks to Max, the Arkells, their label, and their manager Ashley for putting this interview together.