the AU interview: Max Kerman of Arkells (Canada) talks Rock and Roll, touring, and Springsteen

As part of our On The Rocks feature, the AU review’s Alex Houle caught up with Max Kerman, frontman of award-winning Canadian rock band, Arkells. Kerman shared with us his insightful opinion on the “death of Rock and Roll,” chatted about his musical influences and latest album, High Noon, and explained why he might never tour in Australia.

Most commonly the Internet defines your music as “alternative rock” Does Arkells identify as a rock band? Explain.

Max Kerman: To be honest. I don’t know. The lines are very blurred these days when it comes to assigning genres to band. Because “Hard Rock/Alternative” would probably sound very different than “Indie/Alternative.” I think “alternative” just means there are guitars in it, and it might get played on the radio.

It’s clear you have classic rock influences on the new album, High Noon: Elton John, The Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones. Why do you think you’re able to translate these classics in a way that becomes accessible to today’s generation?

MK: Most music that sounds fresh today is just a compilation of things from the past, re-arranged. Fun is very Queen sounding. Phoenix clearly loves Fleetwood Mac. Bruno Mars loves The Police and 80’s funk music. But all of those modern acts aren’t “ripping off” their hero’s, they are just part of the evolution of pop music. I love seeing the lineage between generations.

Artists such as The Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and even much of 80’s metal have all spoken about their dissatisfaction with those who run their generation. These themes are also present throughout much of Arkells’ lyrics. So, if Rock is supposedly a dying genre, what does this mean for our generation?

MK: Just because guitar-based Rock and Roll as we know it isn’t as popular, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists out there fighting the good fight. Mackelmore’s Same Love brought me to tears. That song is as good as any 70’s political anthem out there. Generally speaking, I’d like to hear a few more protest songs in the popular culture, and it’s up to artists—rock or otherwise—to sing and write about important matters.

What is your definitive opinion on the issue at point: is rock dead? Why/Why not?

MK: I don’t know, and don’t really care. We’ll keep plugging away and following our creative instincts. If people care, then good for us – we’re lucky and we’ll hold it dear. If people don’t give a shit, then we’ll have to find something else to do to pay the rent. We’re not entitled to anything. We’re not divine beings.

What can we do, we being both fans and artists, to keep rock alive and strong?

MK: Not to sound like Dave Grohl, but I think there is a real magic to seeing people perform instruments in a live setting. Seeing musicians interact with each other (musically) and with the crowd can be so moving. That feeling is really hard to recreate and beat. I think encouraging that kind of artistic pursuit is important.

I like going to the club and dancing to the DJ as much as the next girl, but that kind of entertainment feels more surface level to me. I think deep satisfaction of any art often comes with a level of attention and commitment from the viewer/listener. Going to a Rock and Roll show requires more than seeing a DJ, but I think the payoff has a higher ceiling. You should support Rock and Roll for the same reason you should support reading a book or going to an art gallery. It’s a worthy artistic pursuit. If we are interested in holding on to this, keep nurturing all the young talent by going to the shows, tweeting about it, buying their shitty EPs. All that kind of encouragement is really important to young acts. Every great band/artist started as a terrible band/artist.

Going off your experience so far as an artist, what changes would you like to see take place in the music industry on a grand scale?

MK: It’s a tough question, because most parties in the industry are getting squeezed one way or another. Since touring and playing live is the way bands will (eventually) make the majority of their money (if things go well), it would be great to see affordable ways to tour, especially when you’re just starting out. If there was greater effort and thought put in to how to make travel and accommodation cheaper, I think more bands would put in the time to tour in new territories.

Right now, touring is very expensive and financially (and emotionally) draining for any new band.

If you could emulate the career of any rock star before you, who would it be and why?

MK: Springsteen. He treats his fans right, cares about the live show, is always creating…

Arkells are an incredibly down to earth band: constantly giving away free tickets, donating to charity, interacting with fans on twitter, including your dads in music videos, and writing the anthem for your hometown football team. What keeps you from indulging in the proverbial Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll life style?

MK: Ha! Is that a backhanded insult? I think the days of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll don’t exist like they used to. There’s not enough money! If you do over-indulge, then you’ll be a broke joke emailing your parents for money all the time. Also, I think we just really appreciate the job we have, and don’t want to fuck it up. We’re our own boss, and we don’t want to go out of business.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: why haven’t you toured Australia?!

MK: No offense to Australia! Everyone has told us how beautiful it is. We haven’t been there for practical reasons: 1) Long-ass flight. I hate long flights. 2) It’s basically the size and population of Canada, and everyone says Canada is the worst place to tour because of the geography. We are inclined to agree. At the moment is seems more practical to tour in more geographically dense places that are closer to my house.

You recently put out your new album, High Noon. It went to number one on iTunes in Canada. You also regularly sell out your shows. Why do you think that is?

MK: Ha, I don’t know. I’m still kind of bewildered. Every band’s success is unique so it’s hard to point to one reason why. In part, I do think our openness to talk about new music—covering Katy Perry, referencing Ja Rule—does speak to the emerging type of music fandom in today’s culture. The culture isn’t stratified in the way it used to be. You can be fans of many types of music and not be ostracized. I think our fans enjoy that about our attitude.

High Noon has been your most commercially successful album to date. Are you working on its follow up?

MK: We have pop/commercial sensibilities, but we never go out to make a “commercial” record. We always just try to make something that is honest and relatable. We’re very pleased High Noon has reached a greater audience, but we’ll stick to our formula of making music that feels authentic to us.

You’ve won several (Canadian) Juno Awards, achieved a number one record, and toured with Canada’s darlings, The Tragically Hip. What do you most want to accomplish next, and how will you work towards it?

MK: Just keep being self-employed is always priority number one. Ha! We’d like to keep growing the band everywhere we can. There’s nothing more satisfying than showing up in a city far away from home and having a crowd of people sing your songs. We’d like to keep trying to do that.

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Check out Arkells’ single “Leather Jacket” here:

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