Lucas Canzona, standing not far from the stage with a friend, can’t believe his luck. Freshly 19, the political science major from McMaster University is used to feeling shut out of club shows. But acting on impulse, he's bolted off campus as soon as he caught word of the concert on Twitter. He hopped a bus on Main Street and arrived at Dr. Disc just in time to claim the record store’s last pair of tickets.
“I remember the frenzy and the craziness of people contacting the club," recalls This Ain't Hollywood co-owner Lou Molinaro. "All sorts of industry types, but really anyone with even a yardstick of credentials wanted to see that show.” A year and a half later, Molinaro still looks at video footage of the night.
Arkells fans are a little wild. They dance. They sing along. They scream. In Hamilton, it's all at double volume. Inside This Ain’t Hollywood, soon everyone will be sweating and cheering, singing and crowd-surfing. When Max Kerman, himself a McMaster political science graduate, waves his old student ID in the air, Lucas Canzona will pull out his card and soon find himself singing “Whistleblower” into the microphone alongside the lead singer. Hamilton fans don’t just love Arkells. They are Arkells.
Hamilton fans don’t just love Arkells. They are Arkells.
Hamilton fans don’t just love Arkells. They are Arkells.
If Hamilton reveres the Arkells, the feeling is mutual. For nine years the city has helped define their sound, their lyrics, and approach to performing. So deep are the ties between Arkells and Steel City that it’s become difficult to say for sure if one has elevated the status of the other. Both have benefited from the association.
Their Hamilton credentials are beyond question, but as their third LP, High Noon, comes out this week, it's worth asking: outside of Hamilton, can the band find a wider audience that’s just as adoring?
Win Arkells' High Noon on vinyl by following Chart Attack on Twitter and retweeting the following tweet:
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) August 6, 2014
But Arkells' trajectory is more of a zig-zag. Three of the five members of the band's current lineup – Max Kerman, Mike DeAngelis, Nick Dika, Tim Oxford, and Anthony Carone – played their first show as part of a battle of the bands competition during the spring of their first year at McMaster in 2006. (Kerman told the CBC last winter that in order to transport their gear to the campus pub, the guys loaded it all into a shopping cart from a nearby store.)
Success didn't come until later, when the band played a late-night gig at Toronto’s NXNE festival and a perceptive audience member got their demo into the right hands. After releasing their debut album Jackson Square (2008) and logging many miles on the road, Arkells went on to win two Juno Awards – one for New Group of the Year in 2010 and another for Group of the Year in 2012. Their second album, Michigan Left (2011), was even more successful than their first, earning them a spot in the Canadian top ten and selling 4,800 copies its first week.
Kerman still says, though, that the city of Hamilton was instrumental to their rise. When Tokyo Police Club came to town and needed a local opener, they were the band to do it. This happened again and again. “If we were in a place like Toronto, up against a thousand other bands, we probably wouldn’t have been able to have those experiences,” he admits.
References to people and places in Hamilton abound in their lyrics. Jackson Square, of course, is a shopping mall in the downtown core and serves as the setting for the song “Abigail.” Songs from Michigan Left, “Where U Goin” and “Bloodlines,” refer to McMaster’s Brandon Hall and the nearby Niagara Escarpment.
Lines from one of Arkells' signature songs, “John Lennon,” refer to the efforts of an angry community group: “The neighbourhood’s up in arms,” Kerman sings. “They’re trying to shut down all the bars. When everyone’s a private eye, they’re hiding in the bushes every night.” The words, Kerman once explained to an audience of McMaster students, refer to the Westdale Against Drunk Students Association (or: “WADS”). “I don’t want to rag on anybody,” he says, “but they were so frustrated with you drunken assholes coming home from Quarters and throwing up on their lawns that they hid in the bushes with cameras and they documented all the debauchery that was going on.”
“I think the music would have spoken for itself, but it seems as though the sense of real community in Hamilton helped them gain support – from audience and peers,” CFMU's James Tennant says. Even today the band continues to get significant airplay on campus radio and they give back by contributing a song to the station’s annual compilation almost every year. In a way, serving the city has helped them stand out from the armies of bands marching in more internationally recognized "music cities" like Montreal. It’s given them edge. The city is, as Molinaro calls it, a “weapon that seems to work well for them.”
“They always seem to be really engaged with the city,” adds Heather Mueller, a concert planner who helped bring about last year’s Family Day show and a night of special performances this year with Boris Brott and The National Academy Orchestra. A musician herself, Mueller says that members of Hamilton’s music community are inherently supportive. Musicians go out to see each other perform all the time. “We have all these small venues and medium sized venues, and a lot of the time, you’ll see familiar faces. It’s kind of comforting.”
The band is aware of that dichotomy. In the summer of 2013, when it came time to write and rehearse the songs for High Noon, they lugged their gear to the second floor of an empty nightclub. Inspired by the city's reputation as a "work in progress,"they posted a blog entry that articulated how their relationship to Hamilton informed their creative process. Calling the city "the ideal scene for witnessing Western life," they wrote, "living here, we aren't sheltered from heartache, but have good reason for hope."
That something meant experimenting with new sounds – working with a strings section, for example, and incorporating different synthesizers that they hadn’t used before. They also worked with Tony Hoffer, an L.A.-based producer known for working with Beck and M83. In spite of all this, High Noon doesn’t stray too far from home – at least from a lyrical standpoint. The song "11:11," for instance, is set at The Casbah, the venue which Lou Molinaro had booked the band to play almost a decade ago.
Many Canadian musicians have made a name for themselves by singing about the places they come from: The Tragically Hip about Kingston, Joel Plaskett about Halifax, Dan Mangan about Vancouver. All are successful, and all have toured the country east to west extensively, catering to the fans who love them most. But there's more money in the American and international markets. The Canadian market is small and has room for fewer stars.
Dick Weissman, an American musician and music business expert in Denver says a band’s hometown doesn’t actually play a large role in determining commercial success. It’s just one small part of what publicists and promoters use to set a group apart. “Very few of the bands that make it are even from New York, or L.A., or Nashville,” he says.
Could Arkells explode outside of Canada, a la Arcade Fire, even though so much of their music celebrates the small city they come from? Weissman is skeptical, as electronic and hip-hop music seem to be dominating the American market right now. “I also don’t know what Americans would make of something like ‘The Ballad of Hugo Chavez!’” he jokes. “It’s a very Canadian thing to not accept the American party line.” At a recent show in New York, the band played to a thin audience full of Canadian expats.
Though they are certainly aware of how difficult it is to make a living playing music in Canada, Arkells’ international audience isn’t something Kerman and his bandmates agonize over. “Just because we achieved some success in Canada, we never think it’s our given right to have thousands of people showing up to a show in, say, Dallas, Texas,” Kerman says.
And so Arkells still call Hamilton home. When they’re not touring, they’re content to just put their heads to the ground and work away at their music. Like the city itself, they try to grow as musicians while still retaining a little bit of the rawness that endeared them to fans in the first place.
Living here, we aren't sheltered from heartache, but have good reason for hope.
“I grew up in Toronto and I love Toronto but there’s something about Hamilton that makes it an amazing ‘work in progress,’” Kerman says. “It reflects more of the dynamics of North America in a way that you don’t necessarily get if you’re living in Brooklyn or living in the countryside. It kind of has a little bit of everything.”
Arkells make music that bears trace of the place it was made, and in return, Hamilton has embraced them as ambassadors of the city. As big as their music may get, they're still that band pulling into town to play a club called This Ain't Hollywood.
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