ARKELLS’ UPWARD TRAJECTORY CONTINUES >>>
To get a true handle on how far 2
Arkells has progressed since forming at Hamilton’s Mcmaster University in 2006, listen to singer Max Kerman recount the group’s history of live shows in Vancouver.
“The band has grown in baby steps over the years,” the engaging frontman says, on the line from his home in Steeltown, Ontario. “It’s never been one day where we’ve gone, ‘Holy shit—we’re selling out a 5,000-cap arena.’ It’s all been very incremental. The first time we ever played Vancouver we played a strip club during some festival [Music West] that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that was 2008. The next time we came back we played to 100 people, the next time 300 people, then 500 and 700, and then we sold out the Commodore.
“And then we sold out two nights at the Commodore,” Kerman continues. “So it’s always been really gradual, but always headed in the right direction. And that’s a really healthy way of going about it, because you never feel like you’re in a spot that you can’t handle. It’s never ‘Oh my God—i’m totally overwhelmed right now.’ Instead, it’s more ‘This totally makes sense.’ ”
That Arkells’ upward trajectory continues in 2017 can be measured by the band’s playing the 8,000capacity Thunderbird Arena at UBC this time through town. Admirably, the quintet’s pulling that off on the back of its most unrepentantly ambitious record to date.
Last summer’s Morning Report took the chances that no one saw coming. After building a devoted Canadian following with an unfussy brand of pop-friendly alt-rock, Kerman and his bandmates—guitarist Mike Deangelis, bassist Nick Dika, drummer Tim Oxford, and keyboardist Anthony Carone—decided to unleash their inner art stars. The audaciousness on Morning Report starts right off the top, with “Drake’s Dad” an ADHD blur of Muscle Shoals soul, far-away-eyes country, and string-laden baroque pop. “My Heart’s Always Yours” embraces classic new wave every bit as passionately as John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink did, while the synth-swooped “Private School” suggests that some of us took the death of David Bowie far harder than others.
Fittingly, Morning Report doesn’t stick to one template lyrically. So while Kerman starts out recounting real-life booze-blitzed road trips and raging parties on “Drake’s Dad” and “Private School”, more straightahead numbers like “Passenger Seat” and “Come Back Home” reflect on relationships and the emotional traumas they inevitably cause.
“The first batch of songs that emerged on this record were the sad songs,” the singer recalls with a laugh. “That’s sort of the place that I was in, and the things that I was interested in writing about. Then at about song number five I suddenly went, ‘Good lord, does the world really need another sad white guy moping around?’ I kind of got sick of myself and went, ‘Lighten up already, man—this is not all of who you are.’ So I got a sense of humour, which is where songs like ‘Private School’ and ‘Drake’s Dad’ came from.”
What Morning Report shows is that Arkells’ members are fans of music that transcends North America’s rock-radio playlists. As sure as the band has slowly worked its way up from the Penthouse to midsize hockey arenas, Kerman is convinced fans are loyal enough to be in it for the long haul. Call that one of the benefits of building a following one small-club show at a time, rather than on the back of a single radio smash.
“I knew with a song like ‘Private School’, the first single, that people were going to be scratching their heads and going, ‘Well, what the fuck is this? That does not sound like ‘11:11’ or ‘Leather Jacket’,” Kerman says, referring to past Arkells hits. “But I had faith in the song, and faith that over time people would stop scratching their heads. Eventually, it will just be part of our catalogue in the same way that Billy Joel has a ton of different kinds of songs. I’m sure that the first time he put out ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ that people went ‘Whaatttt? He’s kind of rapping right now.’ But over time it just became another hit.”
Arkells headlines UBC’S Thunderbird Arena on Wednesday (February 1).
I came for the tigers, but stayed for the music. Call me shallow, but I was hooked on Banda Magda the moment I saw the globetrotting quartet’s promo photo, which depicts an amiably ferallooking Magda Giannikou crouching in front of a woman in a striped dress and two besuited guys in tiger heads.
Giannikou—a Greek-born, Berklee College of Music–trained, and New York City–based polymath—has already established creative partnerships with the jazz-fusion innovators in Snarky Puppy and the erudite internationalists of the Kronos Quartet, despite flying so far under the radar that her Vancouver debut is going to take place in the intimate confines of St. James Hall. But she’s not going to stay an underground sensation for long, for her visual flair is as compelling as her suave mix of musical styles.
“I’m a very visual person: whenever I sing or I compose or I write, I see things, and I try as much as possible to convey these things visually for our audiences, so they can have a similar experience,” Giannikou explains, reached in Buenos Aires, where the singer, accordion player, and sound engineer is producing composer Javier Zacharias’s first album of songs. “That’s why our pictures are very vibrant, because I feel those colours in my inner eye.”
It’s promising, then, that Banda Magda’s soon-to-be-released third album sports a lengthy but revealing title: TIGRE: A Technicolor Collection of Songs, Instrumental Music and Short Films About Courage and Fearlessness. In seizing the multimedia day, Giannikou is honouring her synesthesia—a condition in which the different senses intertwine in the mind—as well as offering just what the world needs in this time of ever-escalating worry.
“I remember a really cold winter in New York, three years ago, when the idea came into my mind,” she says. “We’d played a gig that didn’t pay much, and I was having trouble making ends meet, and although I feel very passionate about my work, there had been moments where I’d been questioning it, like, ‘What am I doing here? This is nuts! I don’t have money to pay my rent, but I’m booking a tour…’
“We’ve made many choices in the past that were completely insane, but we’re still here, and we’re still doing it,” she continues. “And more and more I realize that there’s no way back anymore. We’re in it for real.”
The strength to continue comes, in part, from the reception that Banda Magda’s music has been getting. “It’s from simple messages of people saying ‘Hi! I really love your music, and I play it in the morning, and it makes light,’” she says. “If you hear five people saying that, it makes you want to not stop.”
But Giannikou draws on more than fan support. A major inspiration for her music is Brazil, where—beginning with the bossa nova and continuing on through the Tropicália movement of the late 1960s—artists have often found warm inspiration in less-thanideal conditions.
“I love music that has that element of seeing the joy through pain or suffering, and [Brazilian] artists have that,” she says. “You listen to Elis Regina and she might be singing a song that talks about challenging things emotionally, but then there is also this joy that comes out of her. Another artist who does that is Edith Piaf. I appreciate and I admire those kinds of artists. Their way of communicating with their audience is not transmitting their pain, but rather opening some kind of window to light. So if you listen to the album, it’s about fear, but the way it comes out, it’s with a smile. It’s not with a frown.”
Could you use some of that light right now? Yeah, me too. Banda Magda plays St. James Hall on Sunday (January 29).