In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “essential” by any definition they choose. This week, Max Kerman of Hamilton heroes Arkells tells us about the genre-agnostic approach the band took on their new album Morning Report.
Arkells burst onto the Canadian rock scene in the late 2000s with their buoyant, soul-influenced rock and dependably high-energy live sets. Very quickly, on the strength of huge sing-a-long singles like “Oh, the Boss is Coming!” and “Michigan Left” the band solidified themselves in the ranks of the bands and artists they grew up admiring: The Weakerthans, Constantines, and Joel Plaskett — acts revered by fans for crafting a unique sound largely sticking to that sound.
Arkells third full-length, 2014’s High Noon was a safe, but entertaining play. Only three albums in, they had managed to create classics like “Fake Money” and “Leather Jacket.” It appeared that you always knew what you were going to get with the Hamilton five-piece.
But on Morning Report, released last week, Arkells have thrown a curveball. Instead of another record full of bouncy, pop-rock ditties, there is a slower, more tender vibe. The band’s love of hip-hop is evident throughout, most notably on lead singles “Private School” and “Drake’s Dad.”
Spiritually, I’m always inspired by artists who don’t give a fuck about what the public assumes they ought to do.
It's this kind of writing, along with relentless touring, that's given them the kind of rapport with Canadian fans that should prime them to inherit the seat of the nationally beloved Tragically Hip as the new quintessential Canadian band.
So, for Essential Albums, I asked Max Kerman to describe his Top 5 CanCon albums. I thought this would have been (and forgive the constant baseball references but it is August, after all) a lob ball. But Kerman wasn’t interested in the safe play. This is, of course, the new Arkells, the one that refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular sound.
So instead, Kerman broke with the usual Essential Albums format and dove deep into the many disparate influences on Morning Report — from classic rock to Atlanta hip-hop to Top 40 — and told us exactly how they came together.
Arkells' Morning Report is out now via Universal Music Canada.
Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon (2015)
Kerman says the Polaris Prize-shortlisted record inspired the dreamy and swooning “Hangs the Moon.”
“Time will tell if the material is any good and if it holds up,” says Kerman. “The perspective of time is wonderful. So far the reaction to Morning Report has been really exciting, and judging by Twitter weird songs like ‘Passenger Seat’ and ‘Hangs the Moon’ are getting the most love. We’ll see what’s on the setlist in 5 years though.”
Kerman understands that when Arkells release a new record, they can’t please everyone.
“When a band’s been around for a bit, certain types of people will make proclamations about the new LP, and sometimes be even outraged about a new direction,” he says. “But time will tell. When we put out High Noon some people were offended about our new ‘pop’ sound, whatever that means.”
Weezer, “Beverly Hills” (2005)
In an age when all consumers of music, be it fans or critics, are so quick to rush to judgement, Kerman prefers a more patient approach. He points to Weezer, one of the more slagged-on groups in recent pop-rock history as a band that time has treated well.
“Weezer is a good example of this — people like to make grand statements about what a new LP ‘is,’ but fast forward a couple years and you go and see the band in concert and you go 'Ah, turns out I LOVE ‘Beverly Hills,’ and it sounds just fine next to ‘El Scorcho.’ I find the music press to have an oddly aggressive relationship with music. I’m much more passive. Let time sort these things out.”
The Band, “Don’t Do It” (1972) & Youngbloodz ft. Jim Crow, Big Boi, “85” (2000)
“The original beat for ‘Drake’s Dad’ was inspired by a Levon Helm kind of beat, a southern kind of groove, like in 'Don’t Do It,' and from there was manipulated it in to an Atlanta hip-hop kind of thing for the first verse. Something like '85' by Youngbloodz. To my ears, it kind of gets you to the same place, where the vocal plays off the rhythm. 'Don’t Do It' and '85' aren’t that dissimilar to me,” says Kerman.
“Spiritually, I’m always inspired by artists who don’t give a fuck about what the public assumes they ought to do. Tegan and Sara did that with Heartthrob. Kanye does it every record. Wilco had a pretty good run where you didn’t know where they were going to go. Paul Simon is another.”
Whereas 2011’s jubilant Michigan Left felt like a record entirely influenced by Hall & Oates, this time around Kerman and Arkells weren’t limited to one artist that dictated the feel of the record. And it just so happened that the artists that did inspire the band had very little in common.
“'Hung Up' was channeling some Elvis Costello stuff. When we added 12 string acoustic guitar in the pre-chorus of 'My Heart’s Always Yours’ we were talking about ABBA. Lana Del Ray inspired 'Passenger Seat.'”
“The vocal delay pad in the verse of 'And Then Some' was inspired by Justin Bieber,” he says. “Sax in 'Come Back Home' was Van Morrison.”
To Kerman, whether a record came out a few weeks or a few years back, it's still ripe for influence. Top 40 pop and classic rock were once at odds with each other but more and more lately, thanks to open-minded musicians like Arkells, rock bands are not afraid to indulge their poppy inclinations without worrying about their cool points.
“To me, all of our records sound simply like us, in whatever year we are making it,” Kerman says. “The records are a reflection of where we are at as music fans. Our musical palette has only grown each year, so there’s more influences injected in to our music each time we record."
"Mike D in our band said this once, and it really stuck with me: 'we are supposed to be the arbiters of what’s fresh. Of what’s cool. As soon as you start feeling limited to what people think you ought to do, then the art is going to be shit.'”