Hamilton’s very own rockers Arkells have been on the go together as a band since their formation in the halls of McMaster University back in 2006, so when a global pandemic stopped them from being able to do the two things they love most—travel & play shows—it felt strange and unfathomable. An untimely pause was exactly how the band’s reimagined acoustic-driven album Campfire Chords, a 19-track record of older songs completely reworked, was born.
At the start of quarantine the band—consisting of Mike DeAngelis, Nick Dika, Tim Oxford, Anthony Carone, and Max Kerman— alleviated the uneasiness felt during quarantine by hosting Instagram Live sessions called “Flatten The Curve Music class” where they’d teach viewers how to play specific songs while in quarantine. But while that was happening publicly, behind the scenes the band was carefully determining what songs to select for Campfire Chords. The decision process was rigorous: the song had to pass a “campfire” test; if the song could be stripped down and played around a campfire, it was approved.
Arkells’ fans might be used to seeing the band play their punchy songs live in venues around the world, but this is the record that fans can play in the quieter moments and events in their lives—a small gathering, a car road trip, or around a campfire. Not many bands can reach back to their earliest work and reconceptualize their sound for audiences of today, but there’s always been a timelessness of Arkells’ sound and songs; the political undertones of their debut album Jackson Square and the rock/indie songwriter influences on later albums like High Noon and Morning Report are both still common threads throughout their albums. Their new single “Quitting You,” a dreamy folk love song, is the only new song on the reimagined album but fits in perfectly with the rest of the older reimagined discography.
We had a chat with frontman Max Kerman about the recording process of “Quitting You” & Campfire Chords, how he feels the band has grown in the last 12+ years, and what Kerman’s favorite song is from Harry Styles’s Fine Line.
Congrats on the release of Campfire Chords!
Yeah, thank you! It’s awesome. It’s been a fun week, it always is fun putting out something like this.
How did the band come to the decision to make it into a full-length project? Did it start with writing and recording “Quitting You” or was it something you thought about doing for a while?
It actually started with the acoustic version of the song “Years in the Making” because that song came out as a proper single back in February. We thought it would be nice to make an acoustic version of it while we were stuck at home back in March. We never really recorded this way before, like me laying down acoustic guitar and vocals, then sending it to Tony to do keys and then to Mike, Tim, and Nick to add their parts in, too. It was unchartered territory for us, but the end product worked really well and we were really pleased with it. The second thing that happened that sort of brought out the album was these Instagram guitar classes over Live where I’d show people online how to play Arkells songs. When it was just myself and an acoustic guitar, people responded to it in a different way; they asked us to record these stripped-down versions of our songs. Knowing that we kinda had a template based on how we recorded the acoustic version of “Years in the Making,” we got to work on a bunch of other songs in our catalog with the idea that we just put a few out in the summer… which then really ballooned after that.
It’s amazing that you guys were able to create remotely because usually, you guys are always busy and on the go.
Yeah, the reality is we normally wouldn’t have had time to do something like this. We would’ve been working on new music or on tour. This was the best way to feel creative and productive while everyone was in quarantine. It was during that time “Quitting You” came together and it felt appropriate to put a new song on the record.
I loved seeing on Instagram how you guys wrote and recorded “Quitting You,” first starting with everyone isolated separately and then coming together when it was safe. Did that song feel a bit like crossing a finish line after months of being cooped up isolated?
Yeah, it was really nice to get together again with the guys and do something. You’re kind of playing blind a little bit when you’re recording at home; you’re hoping it fits together and you don’t have immediate feedback of the band in the room with each other. We went to our friend Aaron Goldstein’s studio in Toronto and Goldie’s one of our oldest friends and he’s one of the guys who introduced us to a lot of great singer/songwriter music back when we were first starting the band in the first year of university so it felt right to finish the record with him.
It’s been amazing to hear the reimagining of the tracks — getting to hear that second verse in “I’m Not The Sun” is amazing. How has it been to revisit songs the band wrote and released as early as 2008?
It’s been fun. A lot of them don’t necessarily make our setlist anymore—we probably play “I’m Not The Sun” once every 20 shows. It was good to think about those old songs again. Normally we don’t really look back; I don’t listen to our old records ever and I don’t even think I listened to our old records while we were making this [laughs]. I know how the chords go and I know what the lyrics are—although I did have to Google a couple, otherwise, they felt like new songs in a way. The production made them different and that’s what kept us interested.
Were there any songs that were more difficult to reimagine than others?
We tried to do ‘American Screams’ and that kind of fucked us up a little bit so we scraped it, but for the most part, all of them went pretty smoothly.
Out of the 19 songs, which one was your favorite to revisit and rework?
I’m a real sucker for gospel music so I loved making “A Little Rain.” That was probably my favorite. It stands out to me because a lot of the songs have a folk treatment and that one has a real gospel treatment. Our friend Marla Joy stacked our vocals to make it sound like a gospel choir, Aaron Goldstein played a little electric guitar on it, so it really was a great group effort. I have really good memories in high school going to this thing called the Gospel Brunch at this venue in Toronto called Hugh’s Room and it’s put on by this local musician named Ken Whiteley. He would bring in the best gospel players from around and you go there for brunch and you just sing these gospel songs together.
[Laughs] It is! I’m not religious at all but I love the music and it’s really powerful stuff. I love a lot of the sentiments in the songs, so it was really fun to put that treatment on the song.
The “Take Me Home” outro is such a lovely treat at the end! It’s so nice to hear people singing along live to music again after quarantine. Why did you decide to keep that little celebration on as a track at the end?
Since we were producing the thing ourselves, we thought it’d be fun to leave little nuggets for fans that are more than just the recorded songs. At the top of “A Little Rain” on Campfire Chords, we just took an iPhone video of Mike and I warming up before a show and used the audio from that and put it on the top of the song to really try to make it a full album experience. When there are little interludes in there or moments that are taken outside of the studio that are put into the studio record, it makes it kind of unique. We played this dinner party last year for a small crowd and we finished the set with “Leather Jacket” around a piano and then the Northern Soul Horns came out and did this Norman style brass finale. We had that on an iPhone video and thought it would be a fun way to finish the record. The whole record has an at-home vibe to it, it’s a really small and intimate thing.
Although The Rally in Hamilton this year was postponed, fans are getting a TV performance through a special edition of the Budweiser Stage recorded in Canada’s cottage country. How did it feel to perform together as a band with somewhat of an audience in mind for one of the first times this year?
Again, it was one of these projects that maybe wouldn’t have been available in any other year but the chance to shoot and produce our own television special around the album made a lot of sense. Whenever we get messages of people sending videos of Arkells being played at a campfire or at a house party or someone doing their workout to us or something, I’m always really delighted by that. I love being a part of people’s lives in that way. We thought it would be a cool thing to take these songs to an intimate setting where people might listen to them, like at their cottage or around a campfire.
The first time I saw you guys were at the Sound of Music Festival in 2010 and since then you’ve played at iconic venues like Massey Hall and sold out the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. It’s been amazing to see how you’ve grown but how you can still capture an audience of 5,000 or 20,000. How would you describe the growth of the band over the last 12 plus years?
It’s been pretty slow and steady in a really positive way. We never really had a moment in our career where we ever thought we were over our heads. It always just felt natural, like we were ready for this next step. We’d opened for a lot of bigger bands on bigger stages, like The Tragically Hip, Them Crooked Vultures, Metric and we played big festivals, too. When we finally got a chance to headline those kinds of rooms, we really felt ready for it. It feels slow and steady, brick by brick, which is just fine.
The band has always been outspoken— whether that’s when you’ve called out political leaders, critiquing how some people tend to look down on Steel Cities like Hamilton, or encouraging people to invest in local causes like the SoBi bike program and local journalism. This has been something that has been a thread throughout all of your music since Jackson Square. Why have those ideals been such a core part of the band since the start?
I think it has to do with the people we surround ourselves with—my mom is a recently retired high school teacher, my dad is a social worker by trade, and we have lots of friends that work as civil servants and have jobs that are in service of others. We think about their hard work and their selflessness and how they live a life in the service of others. It’s one of the most reputable things that someone can choose to do, so all those things make their way into our music. Being outspoken never really feels like we are going out of our way to make a stand, it’s just natural; it’s typically a reflection of what we were talking about that day with our friends and our community.
Your influences span across genres, from indie rock to Motown. Who are some of the music acts inspiring the Arkells as of late?
This is a pretty folky record! I love the new Phoebe Bridgers’ record, the new HAIM, too. The 1975’s latest record was great. It’s New Music Friday so there’s lots of stuff coming out, too. The Killers’ new album is meant to be amazing, I’m excited to check it out. That TikTok song “Roses” was one I liked a lot too! It’s nothing like Campfire Chords at all but I liked it a lot! [Laughs]
Because I know how much you love the boys from One Direction, I’m interested to hear what your favorite song from Fine Line by Harry Styles is if you’ve listened to it.
Oh yeah, I definitely have listened to it. Great question. If you ask me my favorite outfit of his I would have an answer but picking a song is hard. The acoustic track in the middle of the record is my favorite…. “Cherry”! That’s a great song. We were meant to see him live in Toronto this summer, we had a dream to go fly to Europe to see him but we will have to plan that some other time.
Lastly, when the world gets a bit more back to normal, what are you most excited about to do as a band?
Just play shows and travel. That’s literally the only thing that’s missing in my life right now.
You guys have been touring non-stop basically since the start of the band so this has definitely been kind of a change.
Yeah, we are a band that likes keeping busy. We just want to get back to work!