Analogue Music | Arkells


By Matt Conner

The original plan would have called for a conversation about acoustic retakes.

These days, Max Kerman and the rest of Arkells are promoting a brand new album, Laundry Pile, but that wasn't the stated goal when they settled in last January for some studio session work in the Toronto cold. Originally, they were going to rework some of their back catalog with new acoustic versions to see what happened but that idea had about 20 minutes of energy behind it. Then they got bored.

With time still left in those sessions, it wasn't long before Kerman and co. started writing new songs, ones without the typical anthemic approach that has become the calling card of the veteran rock band. The goal was to strip things down, to maintain that roots-oriented ethos inside of new compositions. As it turns out, showing a bit of restraint for the first time was quite inspiring.

Fresh on the heels of their fall headlining tour, we sat down with Kerman to hear the story behind the band's latest and what he's learning about serving the song.

Analogue: When we last talked there was a lot of great touring opportunities happening for the band, but it feels like there’s a great groundswell today as well. Does it feel that way for you within it all—that good things are happening?

Max Kerman: It’s a good question and it’s something I think about a lot. How do you keep the job excitement? How do you maintain awe and wonder in the job when you’ve been doing it as long as we have? This is our ninth record. I’m 36 and I met the guys when I was 17. I think a lot of bands fade away because they don’t find active ways to keep the job interesting, and I think that’s a huge priority for us. How do we go into every record, every tour, every kind of daily task with some sense of figuring out how to make it entertaining for ourselves?

With this record, it was a 180 from the last couple of things that we did. Through the pandemic, we made a lot of music that was really spirited and really upbeat. We were just thinking about the fact that we could finally get out of the house and we wanted to have these big songs for people. Now that we’ve gone through all of that, we wanted to pause and think about, ‘What’s the state of our lives? What are the themes happening personally?’ We ended up doing the opposite. We made a quiet singer-songwriter album and that was actually the most entertaining thing for us to do in the moment. It also felt like the most honest thing to do in the moment.

I guess to answer your question, we’re just constantly reacting to the last thing that we did and trying to make it interesting for yourself.

Analogue: You can’t artificially manufacture that awe and wonder.

Max: I think if I’m not excited about something, I get disinterested pretty quickly. I get pretty sleepy and have to take a nap. But if I’m energized by something, I’ll go all day long. I’ll be very invested in trying to make it as good as possible.

So I think that’s where it comes from. I’m always looking for sources of energy. The interesting thing is that this job is very fluid. What would have given me energy five years ago is different today—a creative idea, a type of sound. It’s fluid and cyclical, too. So I think I am aware that I’m trying to find these sources of energy because that’s where it’s fun.

Analogue: Did you make that sonic left turn you mentioned on this album because you’d made so many anthems over the years? Was it reactive or did you just organically write them and realize after the fact?

Max: There’s definitely a bit of that for sure, that we have lots of anthemic material. I love those songs. But to be honest, I was listening to some singer-songwriter music that get these adjectives attached to it like “soulful” or “emotional” or “vulnerable,” and I always thought, ‘Well, our music has all of that stuff but we don’t get those labels ever.’ I know the beginnings of all of our songs start from a vulnerable place. You can play any of them on an acoustic guitar and you could record them that way and it would feel like that.

A big thing with this record was that we didn’t want to build it up. Anytime we had that instinct to make something into a grandiose production, Anthony, our keyboard player, would be like, ‘Nope! Take it out! Take it out!’ So it was a real exercise in restraint and less is more. I think that’s what we learned. Less is more.

We’ve gotten to know the guys in the Lumineers and we know the guys in Mt. Joy. Listening to those artists reminded us that the more you put in, the more it takes away from what you’re trying to say, so we wanted to keep it as simple as we could. It was difficult because that’s not our first instinct often, but the more we settled into it and the more we understood what we wanted it to be, the easier it became to keep it small.

"Because we went in not thinking we were making an album and because there was no deadline or agenda or timelines, I think that added to the sound."

Analogue: I’m glad you said that because I wanted to know how difficult it was. How did the chemistry of the band come into this because restraint likely means someone is not getting into the picture, right?

Max: That’s a good point. I thought about this a lot lately. When you’re making albums, especially in the early days, you’re broke and touring so much that you don’t know what the future looks like. That can add to the magic, but it’s interesting that now that we know each other so well and we’re more secure in our lives, it’s okay if someone goes, ‘I don’t need to play on this song’ or ‘I think it’s better if it’s only piano and a vocal because that will serve the song the best.’ I think that comes with maturity that allows the songs to be what they are.

Analogue: I love the phrase ‘serving the song’ and so glad to hear you use it. What did you learn about that process from this album in particular?

Max: I think I touched on it earlier in that sometimes the most important thing is just hearing a voice and letting very little do all of the talking. We were all together working, just as a band in a room.

One of my favorite moments of the recording was on the song “Life Is” where it goes into this dreamy Beach Boys world in the bridge. We were figuring things out on the spot, just the five of us hanging out in this really small control room, and we ended up singing this doo-wop three-part harmony. Nick was there, but Tony had a bass part idea. Nick is our bassist but he was like, ‘No, Tony, you play it.’ Tim was there having a great time, but he’s not even on the song. But it happened because the five of us were in the room together. That’s just a really powerful reminder that your collective energy can make a big difference in the song.

Analogue: How many of these songs were road-tested before coming into record them?

Max: None of them. We weren’t expecting to make an album. We came off the road and we were pretty busy last year. In January we got together just to hang out and we were touring our friend’s music-making space in Toronto, which has these beautiful big windows and it’s warm and comfortable. It was the dead of winter and the goal was to work on these acoustic versions of older songs. About 20 minutes in, we realized we were bored and wanted to work on something new.

So we weren’t expecting to make a new album, but as we started writing new material, one thing led to another and we realized, ‘Oh, maybe we have an album.’ But because we went in not thinking we were making an album and because there was no deadline or agenda or timelines, I think that added to the sound.

Analogue: Is that an example of what you said earlier, then, about following the interest?

Max: The last couple of records, there’s dance music and hip-hop production and some pop production and obviously some soul and rock in there. We made those records throughout COVID and the sessions were blocks. We were working with some different producers doing the best we could in that particular time. I love those records and I’m proud of them. We got to work with different artists. But I think the reaction to that was to have no agenda, the five of us in a room, without any bells and whistles to see what happened.

VISIT: Arkells

Photo: Nathan Nash