The Arkells

Let me introduce you to the 2012 Juno Awards’ Band of the Year, Hamilton’s own, the Arkells.

After being recognized as New Group of the Year at the 2012 Junos for their debut album ‘Jackson Square,’ the Arkells have been consistently gaining momentum. Despite the extremely positive reviews for their debut record, the Arkells approached their sophomore effort Michigan Left looking to establish a different sound. Speaking with lead guitarist Mike DeAngelis, I got the chance to get a feel for the band’s mindset going into the recording of the new record. “We had a little more time this go round, which I think had a big effect on it. And we’ve learned a little bit more about songwriting and arrangement and stuff like that, so there was a focus on that as well. A lot of the record has live, off the floor elements because we wanted to keep that energy.”

Both Jackson Square and Michigan Left have some similar components, but there are some instantly recognizable differences in the sound. “I think it’s a pretty up-tempo record for the most part, so that style and that approach allowed it to be a bit more fun. Even though sonically speaking, it’s probably less heavy and thick than Jackson Square, when we play the songs live, they still have that kind of energy and it makes the set flow really well. We’ve been really pleased with that.”

There’s a lot of everyone playing together at the same time on Jackson Square, which is sort of what we were doing at the time. It’s a big wall of sound and guitars and that’s what we were going for. But this time out, we wanted to be more thoughtful.

There is an element of maturity in their music now, as Mike explains how the band is at a different point now than they were when they recorded their debut. “There’s a lot of everyone playing together at the same time on Jackson Square, which is sort of what we were doing at the time. It’s a big wall of sound and guitars and that’s what we were going for. But this time out, we wanted to be more thoughtful.” As the lead guitarist, Mike had more freedom this time around as he experiments with some really interesting riffs, like the first song on the album ‘Book Club.’ “As a guitar player, I had a lot more leading, more space and working with different textures and delay, all of the things you kind of hear on ‘Book Club.’ That’s a good example of a bunch of different guitar-layering that I wasn’t really thinking about on Jackson Square. Jackson Square was more like, plug it in, turn it up, which had its own charm and was what the band was like at the time.”

The bands that we’re nominated with are some big bands so that’s different. We felt like underdogs when we won last time and we sort of feel like underdogs again, so we’ll see how it goes. We’re really honoured to be a part of the whole thing.

Before the release of Michigan Left, the band suffered a minor setback when keyboardist Dan Griffin chose to go back to school, which made him unavailable for most of the Canadian promotional tour. Thus, the band called upon good friend Anthony Carrone, formerly of illScarlett, to fill the void on the keys. ““Anthony’s fit in really well, we really haven’t missed a beat there. He’s really positive about the new album so it’s awesome. We actually played a couple shows with Dan a few weeks ago, so there was 6 of us on stage at once, it was like a keyboard attack,” Mike joked.

The Arkells are a group of humble boys from Hamilton who fully acknowledge how fortunate they have been for all the critical acclaim linked to Michigan Left. After their nomination for Group of the Year at the Junos this year, Mike was quick to assure me that they felt like the underdogs going in again. “The bands that we’re nominated with are some big bands so that’s different. We felt like underdogs when we won last time and we sort of feel like underdogs again, so we’ll see how it goes. We’re really honoured to be a part of the whole thing.”

Being born and raised in the Great White North, naturally, the majority of their musical influences have come from Canadian musicians. In a recent show in Halifax, the band honoured one of Nova Scotia’s greatest exports, Joel Plaskett, with the cover of ‘Happen Now.’ “We love Joel Plaskett. Most of our musical influences are Canadian, and especially from that area of Canada, there’s so many great songwriters. We like to think about songs a lot, and how to write the best song we can, and there’s definitely so much inspiration from that part of Canada. They have a lot of appreciation for great songs.”

The opening line to the newest single ‘Kiss Cam,’ features an ode to Canada’s biggest band, the Tragically Hip: ‘This campfire won’t last forever, the Hip have only wrote so many songs.’ That line alone describes the ideal Canadian cottage experience for me, and obviously for the band as well. Not only has the Tragically Hip played a major role in their music, but also in the way they approach their live shows. “We recorded at the Hip’s studio so that was really cool seeing all of their stuff hanging around. They’re such a powerful live band, and we pride yourselves on being a live band and creating an atmosphere where everyone’s having a great time and wants to sing along and dance, and the Hip do that really well. We’ve certainly learned a lot from them in that sense.”

In my opinion, the Arkells’ greatest strength is their impressive live shows which have the same amount of ridiculous energy night in and night out. “As the shows get bigger, it’s harder to have the subtleties of talking to the crowd. It’s usually just like, ‘we’re going to play some music, are you guys ready?’ And so far, that’s been working for us,” Mike explained. Of course, with this unparallelled energy comes the intensed risk of hosting a crowd that likes to get crazy, as Mike refers to an experience the band had in Halifax. “We played a show in Halifax on this past tour, at the Greywood, which is the bar at Dalhousie University. The show was out of control, it was pretty wild. We haven’t played a show like that in a while. There’s no barrier and it was a low stage, and it was a packed house. Whenever the crowd is right there in front of you, and there’s no separation between anything, things get a little wild with people crowd surfing and that sort of stuff.”

There’s been some shows where there’s been a response that’s been so kind, that it’s kind of like ‘wow’. I’ve never had to like stop, and put my guitar down, ‘wait, stop the song guys, I need a moment here!’

Mike admits that the shows their hometown of Hamilton have a special emotional attachment to everyone in the band, but has there ever been a time where Mike couldn’t control his emotions on stage? “There’s been some shows where there’s been a response that’s been so kind, that it’s kind of like ‘wow’. I’ve never had to like stop, and put my guitar down, ‘wait, stop the song guys, I need a moment here!’ Usually with our shows, I don’t even have time to take a drink on stage. We’re a very ‘on to the next song’ kind of band, and keep the set a rollin’. There’s no time for emotions,” Mike laughs.

As for potential collaborations, Mike says the Arkells would be down for anything, regardless of the genre. “ There’s a lot of bands that we respect. I’m trying to think of something really whacky, like Dr. Dre or Kanye West, that would be pretty fun. Then there’s bands like Spoon or Wilco where I’m not sure we’d really collaborate, we’d probably just sit there and try to learn as much as we can.” Once again, in classic Arkells fashion, the band continues to stay incredibly humble and recognizes there’s still much for them to learn.

The band is currently touring in the United States, and when I spoke to Mike a few days before the band embarked on the big U.S tour, he had some interesting revelations. “It’s a big place,” Mike laughed. “We’re just trying to play as many shows as we can. We’re going on a long tour in the States as well to support the record, and hopefully find some people down there that enjoy it.” I’m sure there will be more than a few people adopting the Arkells’ music while they’re on the other side of the border. If it’s not their upbeat live shows that catch their attention, it will be their humble personalities and their genuine approach to music and success.

If you haven’t given these guys from Hamilton a chance yet, you’re missing out. I can’t stress this enough, as Michigan Left was not only one of my favourite Canadian rock records of 2011, but also one of my favourite by anyone in the rock business. Each song is catchy as hell, and will demand your attention from start to finish. Check the album out, and then go listen to their debut record Jackson Square as well. There’s too many redeeming qualities about this band to fit in this article, so do the research yourself and check them out when they come back to Canada in June.

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