INTERVIEW: Arkells

Even with their name surfacing almost everywhere across Canadian cities, towns and provinces, it seems like the ARKELLS don’t have any intentions of slowing down. The rock and roll five-piece have garnered a great deal of respect on a local and national scale thanks to determination and that fearless mentality of making music for music. Still, it’s their latest tip of the hat – Michigan Left, an LP overflowing with feel-good alt rock and organic songwriting – that has been their firestarter. We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Mike DeAngelis to discuss the band’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, their inflating popularity and their penchant for writing about life north of the border.

A little while ago I heard one of your new songs (“Where U Goin”) on an episode of the new 90210 – did you know about that ahead of time?

Yeah, we knew that was going to happen. They asked us if they could use the song and we told them they could.
 
How does something like that happen?

I’m not sure. It’s a pretty mysterious world, the whole “placement” thing, so, I’m not entirely sure how they stumbled across the song but we’re glad they did. It was interesting seeing and hearing the song and the sort of theme. We were on tour so we didn’t get to watch it the first time it aired, but we watched it after and I thought it was pretty cute. I think some people were surprised at that for sure.
 
Most of the band met at McMaster University in Hamilton, is that right?

Yeah, Max, Nick and myself lived there and have been living there since we really started going to school. We met Tim as well, separately, but the three of us all met at McMaster.
 
So none of you attended high school together?

I went to a high school called GCVI (Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute) in Guelph. Nick went to high school in London and Max went to school in downtown Toronto.

Did you develop most of your musical tastes then?

I got there in 2000 and graduated in 2004. I feel like a little bit of a late bloomer, but definitely by Grade 11 and Grade 12 I had started listening to music that was outside of my experience, and I think it shaped a lot of what I listened to… bands like The Weakerthans and Sam Roberts and Canadian rock and roll. I was awakened to that music and I think it shaped a lot in terms of who I ended up playing music with eventually.
 
Next is a series of questions about Hamilton, Ontario crafted with some help from a friend of mine who is a native of the city – have you ever gotten into any kind of trouble on a night out to Hess Village?

I’ve never been in any legal trouble, but there’s always trouble a-brewing in Hess (laughs). I don’t really spend too much time there anymore, it’s sort of a different scene. But I’ve definitely witnessed a punch-out or two there.
 
What’s the last thing you bought at Jackson Square?

Just this past week I bought a $5 “Cheap Tuesday” ticket to see Safe House at Jackson Square. It was pretty interesting. It was on Valentine’s Day. So, me and some of my single friends went out and had a dude’s night watching a Denzel Washington movie. That was the last thing, a movie ticket.
 
The CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats nearly had a winning season last year, and made it to the division finals – was that on yours, or any other member of the band’s radar?

Well yeah, because we did the kick-off at the Grey Cup. The McMaster University football team was there for the Vanier Cup, so we were definitely hoping that it would be a real Hamilton weekend and we would have the Ti-Cats there, but it didn’t work out. Maybe next year.

Oh, The Boss is Coming!” seems to tell a story about blue collar work and now, on the new album you have a song dedicated to whistleblowers in the workplace – what’s behind your band’s connection to the working man?

We’ve all worked jobs. The song related specifically to Max and him working. With “Whistleblower”, it’s an interesting story; it’s about (New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning-journalist) David Barstow (New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner) and him blowing the whistle. It’s sort of a shout out to all those people that put what’s right in front of what’s easy, because there’s a lot of personal sacrifice that goes into it. So, you know, this one new song kind of goes out to them.

How important do you guys think it is to be informed and on top of current events?

Max and I both took political science at McMaster University, so we like to keep up with current events and we like to sort of think about them and debate them. So, they inevitably end up in the music. We don’t like to beat anybody over the head with stuff, but sometimes there are great stories that arrive from those journalistic stories. A great one can come from personal experience or something that you read. We take it all and put those stories to music.

You’ve got a knack for picking songs to cover – Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” and, recently, Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. What made you want to play those two songs in particular?

We’re fans of those songs. Well, obviously everyone is a fan of “Ms. Jackson”, so that’s an easy choice. “Video Games” just seemed like a pretty fun Valentine’s Day kind of song, so we whipped up an acoustic version of it. We’ve been doing it live, but we did that version of it for that and it’s a song we’ve been listening to. It’s a really good tune, and we interpreted it our own way.
 
You’ll soon be on tour with another group that covers Outkast, The Maine. How did you get linked up with them?

They reached out to us over Twitter funnily enough and we sort of tweeted back and forth and it came to be that they were doing a big old tour and they wanted us along. We’re really happy to be doing it and we’re going through the United States for a couple of months and playing quite a number of shows so we’re really excited. We’ve never met them in person, but I’m sure they’re great dudes and they’re a great band, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
 
Have you played an American tour of this scale before?

This is the first one in a little while. We did one two summers ago with Tokyo Police Club; that was a ball. We became really best buds with those guys. But we didn’t have a new record out at the time so now we’re excited to be playing songs off of Michigan Left.
 
Are traditional channels like radio station airplay and old-fashioned concerts still the best way to get people talking about your music?

I can’t say if it’s the best, but it’s definitely been really helpful to us. The radio and touring are sort of what I think has helped our audience grow and those formats work quite well for us. There are so many different ways to get attention for your band these days, especially with the Internet mixing things up, which is awesome, but, some of the more traditional ways of getting exposure have, I suppose, been more suited to us. But there’s also stuff like Soundcloud where we put this new Lana Del Rey cover on and that’s something that ten years ago – the idea of a band just recording something and then having it available immediately for everyone to listen to – wouldn’t have happened. It’s definitely a luxury and I think it helps get the music out there in a really powerful way.
 
You mention the band The Tragically Hip in the song “Kiss Cam” on your new album; what was it like touring with them in 2009?

Playing shows with those guys is always really inspiring. They play, obviously, huge shows, and they have so many hit songs. It’s really great to see, between the band always killing it and being so solid, and Gord Downie being so charismatic, you can really see there’s something magical about them live. That has, in a lot of ways, been the key to their success, especially in the live sense, like when they play a show in the summer and there are thousands and thousands of people there. It’s a real experience. We just try and learn, more than anything.
 
Your album will be released in America in April. Do you think it’ll resonate with American rock fans, even if you do – like The Hip – make Canadian references in your songs?

We hope so. We’re going to approach it the same way we did in Canada. That means getting down there and playing some shows and hopefully getting people into the music one-by-one.
 

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