Arkells want to make you dance and cry

The Ontario rock quintet with pop-radio swagger performs at A&R Bar on Wednesday, May 25

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive

“I want to try doing one of those songs where people are happy and dancing, but everyone’s really ... sad when they listen to the lyrics,” Max Kerman says before “Swing Swing Swing,” a song on the Canadian rock band’s sixth studio album, Blink Once, released last fall.  

“One of the reasons why I wanted to include that preamble in the song is that I feel like our band is considered to be a very optimistic, hopeful, hunky-dory band. And I think on a certain level we do embody those characteristics,” Kerman said in a recent phone call. “But I do think that the storytelling in a lot of our songs is deeper than that. Most of our material touches on pretty sensitive, emotional, hard relationship issues and political issues. … Our more hardcore fans, they know that, and I think that’s why the songs really resonate. And for the average listener, it was an attempt to get people to listen a little bit harder.” 

Much of Blink Once aligns with Kerman’s sad-lyrics-happy-melody mission statement, leading off with “Liberation,” a synth-heavy, Muse-evoking track that finds the Hamilton, Ontario, five-piece wrestling with the loss of a friend who died of cancer in 2019. While the majority of Blink Once was written and recorded before March of 2020, the early days of the pandemic didn’t feel like the right time to release the album.

“I think a lot of people were looking for music that just felt comforting — songs that you could, in a trustful way, lean on; songs that you knew would make you feel a certain way,” said Kerman, who pivoted with his bandmates to a project that felt more fitting, 2020’s Campfire Chords, featuring acoustic renditions of previously released Arkells songs. “We still wanted to be creative, even though we couldn’t leave the house to be with each other. … It was a great exercise in being productive from home and sending files around to each member of the band.” 

Eventually, as the pandemic dragged on, Arkells began to feel like the world was ready for new music. In fact, because of Blink Once’s themes of grief and loss, the record was poised to have even more of an impact. “The songs and the subject matter seem to hit harder while we're going through this pandemic,” Kerman said. “If you're a human, you're going to be dealing with loss and grief and changing relationships, but I do think that with the last couple of years we felt all those things harder.”

Now, amid a tour that will stop at A&R Bar in Columbus on Wednesday, May 25, Kerman and the band are focusing on follow-up record Blink Twice, due later this year. “We always knew there'd be a companion record to Blink Once,” Kerman said. “The outro track on Blink Once is actually a Taylor Swift-style Easter egg, because it's actually a part of ‘Reckoning,’ which is the first song off Blink Twice.”

Kerman said the new album is partially inspired by the way the band approached “You Can Get It,” a collaborative Blink Once song that featured vocals from K.Flay. “We learned a lot doing that song with K.Flay. It was so much fun, and, to be honest, I was tired of my own voice. … It makes me so excited to hear another voice on an Arkells song,” Kerman said. “We're definitely doing more of that on this record. I can't really say too much, but we just put out a song with Cold War Kids (“Past Life”), and there’s going to be more of where that came from.”

Check out the video for “Past Life,” featuring Will Forte and Cold War Kids, below.