Tim Oxford and Max Kerman of The Arkells talk to VO
Tim Oxford could not have known it at the time, but one day his job as a golf ball sorter would be inspiration for one of the most heart-pumping tracks off his band's 2008 album Jackson Square. "Oh, the Boss is Coming!" speaks of the drudgery, boredom and injustice of jobs like the one Oxford had. "I sorted golf-balls by number. Number ones in one bucket, number twos in another bucket. That is the most tedious, irritating job known to man," said the drummer of the Arkells.
Oxford and lead singer Max Kerman, who sat down to speak with VO Thursday, may no longer be cogs in the machine of menial labour, but, said Oxford, "You’ve got to respect anyone who’s sticking it out nine to five doing that. (Kerman told me that he lasted two hours at a telemarketing job before walking out during the training session).
Without missing a beat, when I ask who inspires them, Oxford says "Max!" and Kerman responds "Tim!" And the two members of the Arkells do compliment one another. The lead singer, who is both engaging and nonchalant, plays the role of the comedian while also gamely answering all of my questions. Oxford is quieter, down-to-earth, and injects reflective commentary into our conversation.
Tim Oxford set the beat.
Earlier this year the band, whose indie rock sound has been described by Now Magazine as having "an awesome muscular quality," won a Juno Award for New Group of the Year. But they claim that they haven't mastered the art of looking paparazzi-ready at the airport. "When we go to Toronto we still look like a bunch of bumbling fools with our guitar cases falling off the dolly. Struggling at the airport never really changes," Kerman said. Switching his tone, he adds that, "It's been really cool to celebrate our hard work with the people who have been supportive of us."
It's been four years since the group was formed on Arkell Street, where some of the band members lived, in Hamilton. "It was a home birth, a water birth, we had a [mid-wife]," Kerman joked. They enjoyed playing music together and were inspired by other musicians so they began to write and perform their own songs, he said.
The music scene in Hamilton provided a nuturing environment for the newly-conceived band. "You need other bands to help you build a scene and find places to play, so for us it’s been a very supportive scene. And now it’s great to get together with a bunch of bands whenever we can," Oxford said.
Max Kerman entertained the crowd at UBC.
I can't help but notice that some of the songs off their most recent album touch on themes of socialism and the struggle of the working class. Another single from Jackson Square references Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, and "No Champagne Socialist," is about a young man loyal to his ideals.
So is their music political? Sometimes, said Kerman. But ultimately what the Arkells love is storytelling. "I don’t think it’s trying to say anything. People can interpret it how they like. We’re just trying to be good storytellers," he said.
Kerman said that his band also enjoys listening to stories, which provide inspiration for their music. They are fans of This American Life and the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi. The Ballad of Hugo Chavez was written because they're "interested in profiles of interesting people and he's an interesting guy," said the lead singer.
Before I spoke with Kerman and Oxford they had just played a free concert for back-to-school students at UBC's Student Union Building. University campuses, often a hotbed for activism, seemed to me the ideal place to encourage young people to think about the world differently. Does the band want their music to motivate fans to take action?
"If the music produces something positive, I think that’s a really good thing. If it makes people more thoughtful about certain issues then that’s great, " Kerman said.
The band tries to give back to the community through their own charity work. Oxford, who lost his father to colorectal cancer, is involved with the Canadian Colorectal Society. The Arkells have also added their voices to War Child's Busking For Change event.
But if the music scene starts to get old, Kerman and Oxford said they would opt for a student's life and go to UBC (their alma mater is McMaster). "We’d major in hacky-sack. Minor in hanging-out," Kerman said.
The Arkells' free concert was made possible by TD Canada Trust's secret shows series. Although the show was promoted during the first weeks of school, the identity of the band was kept secret until two days before the event. Students, many of whom are in the first year at UBC, gathered on the grassy hill by the Student Union Building to watch the show.
"It was pretty awesome," said Sifat Hasan after the set. "If there are concerts like this every week, I think university will be fun!"
"It made you want to dance," said Jackie MacDiarmid, who had never heard of the band until now.
Best seat in the house.
The band stuck around to sign autographs and talk to fans, who were also treated to free pizza before the show.