After a year in which they’ve already played the biggest stadium show to hit Hamilton since Pink Floyd in 1975, and captured the Canadian imagination by hijacking the Winter Olympics party in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Arkells are poised to drop what will very likely be the biggest album of their career.
Regardless of how Rally Cry, out Friday, ultimately does, it already stands as their biggest-sounding record to date. The Arkells have gamely embraced the new status as “stadium rockers” they’ve enjoyed since hosting a massive gig dubbed the Rally before 24,000 fans at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field in June, blowing their crowd-pleasing everyman anthems up to gargantuan size with the aid of producer Eric Ratz — who helmed their smash 2017 single-turned-sporting-event-singalong “Knocking at the Door” — on Rally Cry, while also embracing whatever stylistic fancies that struck them in the studio.
As frontman Max Kerman puts it, “our musical palette has expanded so much that literally nothing is off the table now when it comes to making our own music.”
The Star sat down with all five Arkells — Kerman, bassist Nick Dika, guitarist Mike DeAngelis, drummer Tim Oxford and keyboardist Tony Carone — this week, just as they were passing around yellow-vinyl copies of Rally Cry for the first time, and before Friday’s scheduled pop-up shop at Toronto’s Union Station.
How would you describe the new album to someone who’s never heard it?
Max: I’d say it’s an outward-looking record. And it wasn’t intentionally written like this, but I think all the songs are sort of asking questions about how we’re connected to each other.
Nick: From a musical perspective, I think it kind of marries a lot of stuff we’ve done live with stuff we’ve done in the studio whereas before, on record, we’ve taken it more one way or the other.
Mike: When I hear this record, I hear some of the confidence that we’ve built over the last few years. It’s like a confidence to take our first instincts and put them down and combine that with our experience in the studio and still have some refinement.
Tim: It’s five guys living in the now and doing their best. It’s a wild ride and hang on tight.
Tony: I would just say I think we finally captured the essence of who we are live and put it into a recording.
What’s the least obvious musical influence you hear on this record?
Max: On “Only for a Moment,” we were trying to think of ways to modernize an otherwise classic-sounding song, and I like that song “Slow Hands” by Niall Horan because it sounds like there’s an acoustic guitar playing the chords but it’s actually just the “click, click, click” of the acoustic guitar. I thought that was kind of a cool way to make the listener think it’s an acoustic guitar chording but not actually hear the chords of the acoustic guitar, so we used that trick in “Only for a Moment.”
Nick: “Eyes on the Prize” has kind of a hip-hop/Chance the Rapper/Kanye production-style influence, I think.
Mike: In “Relentless,” for the chopped-up sample, in my head I was thinking of Moby’s Play — just the idea of chopping rhythms into it and the sample not sounding super-pristine, and kind of sounding “field recording”-esque because it was recorded off an iPhone. In the studio you have access to all these crazy microphones that can sound so accurate, but I’ve heard lots of musicians say they love the iPhone microphone because there’s something about it that sounds old and different and not what you get from a fancy microphone.
Tim: For not so obvious, I would say “Company Man.” I was listening to and in the headspace of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” especially that era of drums. I thought it was really kind of fitting for that song.
Tony: On “American Screams,” I didn’t really rip it off, but the string part is pretty fashioned from (Gloria Gaynor’s) “I Will Survive.” There’s, like, a suspension note that’s so particular to that song and I used it in the chorus but you’d have to be hardcore to notice it.
What’s the most obvious musical influence you hear on this record?
MK: The reference to me that’s really obvious is on “Company Man.” I was listening to a lot of Bob Marley and there’s a riff in that song that’s very much a Bob Marley riff. And there are some upstrokes on the keys that have a slight reggae tinge.
Nick: For obvious, I’d say “Don’t Be a Stranger” is influenced by some of the modern-rock bands that we weren’t necessarily listening to 10 years ago, like Cage the Elephant.
MD: “Show Me Don’t Tell Me” definitely has a bit of the Edge happening in guitar world, but I’m embracing it.
TO: “People’s Champ,” for me at least, is a bit of a Mark Ronson kind of “Uptown Funk” reference.
TC: I’ll go back to “Show Me Don’t Tell Me.” I never got the Edge thing, by the way. The guys mentioned it to me in an early email and I was, like, “I don’t hear it.” But I also don’t listen to a lot of U2. But the super-obvious influence for me is Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” because of the 808 drum sample in there. They kept throwing me this dancehall-rhythm thing, and Max had this original piano demo that was super-hard to follow so I said, “Let’s take the notes from the piano thing and put it into an 808.” And it kinda would up with the same tones of “Delicate” through that 808 dancehall rhythm.
Sum up the spirit of the Rally Cry sessions in one word.
Max: “Confident.” I know we figured it out. There were hard days, for sure, and days where we got frustrated with how it was going and with each other, but it was, like, “I know we’ll figure it out.”
Mike: I’m going with “adventure.”
Tim: I’m gonna say “fulfilment.” I feel it’s a good mix of the confidence we had we’d be able to get it and also the execution of it is just fulfilling.
Tony: I wanna say “stoned.” We smoked a lot of weed making this record. That’s why my brain’s not working anymore.
You’ve already done the Olympics and the Rally this year. What do you do to top those achievements?
Max: That’s the thing about being in a band. There’s always the next thing to chase, no matter what level you’re at. I was actually thinking about that the other day. I sometimes wonder if the Killers, who are wildly popular and wildly successful, get a little bit like, “I wish we had what Coldplay has.” And Coldplay’s got their whole U2 thing. And then maybe Bono’s, like, “Yeah, but we don’t have what McCartney has.” McCartney’s probably the top of the heap, but then McCartney’s, like, “They don’t like me like they like John Lennon. And John Lennon’s dead” … The thing is, there’s always the next thing to chase. And there’s a million things for us to chase after.
Nick: After playing the Rally, wanting to play more stadium shows. And after the Olympics thing? Probably participating in the Olympics.
Tim: To still be doing this in 10 years would be — and watch this 360 — to have the same fulfilment in 10 years.
Mike: If somehow this band could, like, take me to space. If Elon (Musk) wants to start, like, a “sessions in space” kinda thing, to be the first band to perform in space.
Tony: I’d say the Rally in different cities. Just more Rallys.
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner