Sixty-four kilometres and a dozen-odd years away from where they first formed in Hamilton, Arkells were trying to keep up with their own momentum. As the producer Eric Ratz blasted a rough mix of the song Hand Me Downs into a studio control room in Toronto’s Parkdale in June, the rock band’s front man, Max Kerman, lifted his hands and began air-keyboarding. The song started to build, and he jumped from his chair, shifting to air-drums as the chorus hit. Then, “whoa-ohs” filling the room, he threw his arms high in the air.
“I wanted that to sound like Rolling on the River,” he said, referencing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. The version he really meant, though, was later recorded by Ike & Tina Turner. That song starts slow; it sounds familiar. But it becomes something entirely new, unexpected and fun. Something much bigger than before.
The track came to a close and Kerman hunted around the room for opinions. Before his bandmates could speak, Ratz, the Juno-winning engineer and producer of some of this century’s biggest Canadian rock ’n’ roll records, said two words: “stadium rock.”
There was pressure in those words. Not only were Arkells trying to finish Rally Cry, the full-length album they hoped would ride the coattails of the biggest single of their career, but late last year they took a gamble few Canadian musicians had ever done: They booked a professional football stadium.
On that June day, the show was less than three weeks away.
The bet had started innocently enough. The band – which features Kerman, guitarist Mike DeAngelis, bassist Nick Dika, keyboardist Anthony Carone and drummer Tim Oxford – had sold out Toronto’s Budweiser Stage with the band July Talk a year earlier. At that point, Arkells had already earned some Junos and gold records, many on the strength of the song Leather Jacket, a certified banger, and its album High Noon.
In 2017, though, something had changed: They put out a stand-alone single, Knocking at the Door, and it became an unexpected smash. With it, Nielsen Music declared Arkells the No. 2 Canadian rock band on Canadian radio that year, just behind the Tragically Hip.
When the band and its business team were plotting a follow-up Southern Ontario summer bash for 2018, they were thinking bigger, but not too big. The 17,000-capacity Budweiser Stage, for one, was back on the table. “Everything we do, we’re trying to push that needle,” Oxford said that day in the recording studio. But a homecoming was also on their minds. The Hamilton band had a good relationship with the Tiger-Cats, and the city’s CFL team happened to have a stadium to spare – as big a venue as a band could hope to book, and on a sentimental site for Hamiltonians. “It always felt like a unifying place,” Kerman said of the Ticats’ field on the erstwhile home of Ivor Wynne Stadium.
They booked it last October, originally planning to open the floor and lower bowl. But Knocking kept delivering. By the time the show, to be called the Rally, was first announced in February, Knocking had become Arkells’s second and fastest single to be certified gold. Within a month, demand for the Rally was so strong they decided to open up the full stadium.
The day they were listening back to the early mix of Hand Me Downs in the studio, they’d crossed the threshold of 21,000 tickets – with 3,000 more to follow. The show would be bigger, even, than OVO Fest, Drake’s celebrity-filled Toronto homecomings that have been among Canada’s most coveted concerts this decade. “I’d say we’ve knocked open a couple of doors,” Carone said as recording wound down that June day, sending his bandmates into fits of laughter.
A few weeks later, they’d be a little more nervous: As soon as they wrapped up sessions for their first full-length record since Knocking – Rally Cry will face the judgment of the marketplace on Oct. 19 via Universal Music Canada – they’d have to face the unexpected complexities of the biggest show they’d ever headlined. What once had been a workaday Canadian indie-rock band was taking a stadium-sized, double-barrelled dare.
But as with Ike & Tina’s version of Proud Mary, they took what they knew and turned it into something that worked for them. Something familiar, but bigger than you’d heard before.
Canadian rock is at a crossroads. Gord Downie is dead. Hedley front man Jacob Hoggard’s next appearance is likely to be in front of a judge. Many bands that have pushed the limits of how Canadian rock could sound this century, including Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, first built their careers by circumventing the traditional Canadian label system entirely.
As with rock itself, Arkells are in a structurally unique position. Yes, they were just behind the Hip last year among Canadian bands on Canadian rock radio stations monitored by Nielsen Music, but, stacked against all artists from every country and genre, Arkells were only the 65th-most-played artist over all in Canada. Hip hop has shifted to the forefront of the cultural conversation, pulling all of pop closer to its centre of gravity.
But in many ways, Arkells are the right kind of band for this decade. The most omnipresent Canadian major-label rock bands of the previous two decades, the Tragically Hip and Nickelback, tended to attract – though by no means exclusively – variations of highly male, highly beer-chugging “rawk” fan bases. Arkells songs and shows tend to bypass hoser leanings, offering a more inclusive, social-media-friendly alternative built for the 2010s.
There’s an eagerness and earnestness in almost everything the band does. Kerman is the embodiment of it. He will pull a fan on stage to sing in his stead; he will take the time to respond to your Twitter message. He wants you to have a good time. The front man could be accused of putting on an act if he hadn’t been like this seemingly forever. “His energy is a crucial component of the band,” says Andrew Baulcomb, author of Evenings & Weekends, the Hamilton music-scene history book that chronicled Arkells’s early rise.
Powered in part by a progressive streak, this attitude has been strung through Arkells songs for the past decade, from 2008’s No Champagne Socialist to this year’s People’s Champ. What has changed about the band, though, is the music that carries them. Their first recordings reflected the Canadian indie-rock that ruled while most of them studied at Hamilton’s McMaster University: a sprinkle of Two Hours Traffic here, a pinch of Wintersleep there. As the members grew into themselves, their musical palettes broadened, incorporating the FM-friendly sounds of Hall & Oates and Don Henley.
Knocking at the Door was something else entirely. It caught Arkells playing with a well-honed hook, wild swings in tempo and an arrangement well-thickened by the “Arkettes” backing vocalists and Northern Soul horns. It had grandeur.
And it spoke for itself: Released as a stand-alone single in April, 2017, without the benefit of album-cycle marketing, Knocking spent 11 weeks atop Nielsen Music Canada’s Overall Rock chart – something accomplished by only five other Canadian songs since 1995. Arkells wound up performing it at the NHL Awards, on an impromptu trip to the Canada Olympic House in Pyeongchang last February, and at the 2018 Junos. It became a regular feature on North American sportscasts – not least of which being the Super Bowl.
Describing what changed with Knocking, Kerman revisits his indie roots, lowering his voice to quote a Constantines song in front man Bry Webb’s rasp.
“‘You do what you can do with what you got,’” Kerman mimics. “Knocking at the Door was an example of us looking around and going, ‘Hip-hop dudes can just put out a single whenever they want.’ Why can’t we do that? Then we did it. And it opened a bunch of doors for us that we didn’t know existed.”
To build on the song’s fortunes for their follow-up, Rally Cry, Arkells returned to its architect. Eric Ratz had already delivered them a hit with Leather Jacket, but the band had turned to other producers for 2016’s Morning Report. With Ratz, they later realized, they were able to bestow the urgency of their live shows upon the aww-shucks earnestness of their songwriting.
At Toronto’s Noble Street Studios in June, the band was feeling confident in the approach. Kanye West – who that month was churning out weekly seven-track records, sometimes with up-to-the-minute changes – came up repeatedly as an example. As recently as for 2014’s High Noon, Arkells had tended to schedule rehearsals, revise and preproduce as much as they could. But discussing the new record, they kept turning to the word “instinct.”
“That process of hitting the ground running with the tunes, and working faster to capture your first instinct – Eric’s been great at getting the best out of us in that way of working,” DeAngelis said. Earlier that day, as Kerman laid down vocals for Stranger, the two of them and Ratz critiqued and revised the lyrics in real time. An hour later, Dika was rewriting bass parts on the spot to better complement Oxford’s drumming. “There’s something about everybody’s instinct that can often be good,” Kerman said.
Rally Cry really is the sound of the band trying new things. Relentless, announced on Tuesday as the album’s latest single, marks the first time the band has used a sample. It builds around a slice of South African producer Sello (Chicco) Twala’s Sixolele Baba, with a hook inspired by a conversation with the Hip’s Paul Langlois – who described his late friend Gord Downie as “relentless – like a dog on a bone.”
Like Hand Me Downs, Relentless goes big – and already has the sound of a live-set staple, like the band’s earlier single People’s Champ, which digs into the grooves they’ve honed with their regular Motown cover sets. The real size of the record’s aspirations is most obvious, though, in its fifth track, Show Me Don’t Tell Me. Its airy open, its slow build, its thundering climax: This is a U2 ballad, distilled. It’s not intentional, but it’s fitting as a centrepiece. It’s a song that wants to sound stadium-sized.
As the Rally approached, a low-lying anxiety began to emerge in Arkells’s camp. They were quickly learning that you can’t control everything as your ambitions grow. There was Hamilton’s forecast of rain that day, which Kerman told everyone, including his mother, was “personally insulting.” But equally of concern was a different kind of complication that can come as musicians mature in their careers. Carone was about to become a father.
His wife, the photographer Scarlet O’Neill, was due with their first child June 10. But June 10 rolled around and the baby wasn’t budging. A day passed, as did many others, and by Thursday, June 21, it became possible that two of the biggest moments of Carone’s life might collide.
His family, he said, understood he had to make the gig, even if it pained him to be gone for his first child’s birth. Every possible outcome was running through his head. One worried him more than others: What if he found out his wife had gone into labour just before he hit the stage?
Arkells had spent the past year on the brink of superstardom – and in the days leading up to the concert, Carone feared he might be facing a tough choice. The band had made quiet investments for months, among them a custom catwalk stage, a band-logo sign so big it could hardly fit in their touring rig and a payphone to haul onstage to complement the chorus of Leather Jacket. They keenly studied the past year’s most high-impact concerts, from Arcade Fire’s boxing-ring bonanzas to Beyoncé’s acclaimed Coachella shows. They hyped the show up enough that 24,000 fans had paid to join them.
But, in the end, Oscar James Carone was born the day before, on Friday morning, healthy as can be, and as the fans flocked to foggy Tim Hortons Field on June 23, his father could be found showing everyone photos of his new son next to a “People’s Champ” medallion. The rain, too, had dissipated hours earlier.
Still, it had been a long day for everyone, after spending hours riding bike-share bicycles around Hamilton, chatting with locals and posing for photos to whip up excitement. Exhaustion, and the weight of what was to come, was creeping in.
Half an hour before showtime, Carone emerged from the green room, pushing his hands downward from his chest, “just trying to keep it all down.” DeAngelis followed him into the hallway, warming up on a Frank Brothers guitar. “Sitting around today was like torture,” he said. Only Kerman appeared calm. He waltzed out, making sure no cup around him was empty, before sneaking into an opening act’s dressing room to invite them onstage for the show’s encore.
Ten minutes before 9 p.m., the band, their business team, their horn section and backup singers arrived side stage to psych themselves up. They posed for photos, ensuring the whole payroll was in the shot. They’d all worked toward the day’s gamble. “No rain, and baby’s born,” their manager, Ashley Poitevin, said, looking up to the soft-grey sky. She sighed, then smiled. “It doesn’t rain on my boys."
And then Arkells walked to the stage to face their families, their friends and the fans that had stuck with them since forming across town a dozen years earlier, and presented them with a blast of horn and guitar: Knocking at the Door. In return, tens of thousands of people spun bright-yellow rally towels wildly in the air.
It turned out that playing stadium rock is a lot like playing regular rock. It required the same instinct and earnestness, just scaled up. Of course, Kerman and DeAngelis leaned on each other during Knocking like Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons; that’s the stadium rock they know. Of course, Kerman pulled up a fan from the front to play his guitar in the middle of Private School; that’s who Kerman is. Of course, he paid tribute to Carone during the ballad And Then Some, sending the keyboardist into jumbotron-sized fits of tears; that’s who has his back.
And of course, when faced with breaking the stadium’s 11 o’clock curfew, Kerman, riding the night’s adrenalin, couldn’t turn his usual self off. Before running back on stage for the encore, he took a shot of whisky, grabbed Poitevin’s shoulders and yelled, “We’ll pay the fine!”
Arkells’s elders in the crowd watched with awe. “They never really wavered from their intention, and they’re achieving it now,” said John-Angus MacDonald, guitarist for the Trews, for whom Arkells opened in the early days. Author and former long-time Our Lady Peace drummer Jeremy Taggart, who taught Oxford how to play, was beaming: “Less than 1 per cent have gotten where they’ve gotten, and where they’ve gotten is because of the work they’ve done.”
Chris Taylor, eOne Music’s global president, the head of Arkells’s management team, and one of Canada’s most well-known music deal-makers, called the Rally “a shining example of how powerful a band can get if they build it properly: brick by brick by brick. … I don’t see another band in Canada doing it like them.”
They’d poured the ingredients of Knocking at the Door – all that instinct and all that earnestness – into the biggest headlining show of their lives. They matched the song’s momentum and won the day’s gamble. Now, they just had to hope Rally Cry would sustain it.
It took a while to unwind after the show. “You nearly killed me, man,” Carone told Kerman backstage as he went in for a hug. Oxford and DeAngelis were across the room, trying to figure out what caused a sound delay. Everyone dug into some pizza. On a couch, Poitevin scrolled through social media, showing the band videos that hundreds of fans had already uploaded.
Then, speaking to no one in particular, Kerman blurted something out. “That was like an alternate reality,” he said. But it wasn’t: It was the reality Arkells had made for themselves.
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