"That one came out pretty cool. Check this out, let me know if you can hear this." Before I could muster an enthusiastic 'ok', "Whistleblower," the song that first put me onto the revered Canadian indie band, The Arkells, is blasted over the phone to me. Except that this isn't the rugged, blue-collar version that I'm familiar with. It's naked and stripped-down. A re-imagined acoustic version that, along with eighteen more of their carefully selected favourites, makes up their new album, Campfire Chords.
The Hamilton band's frontman, Max Kerman, is eagerly playing this new version of the song to me after I express my excitement for hearing its acoustic sibling. "It wasn't that much of a stretch for us in our minds, at least, to bring these songs into a smaller setting because most of them were written on a piano or on a guitar first," he explains, debunking any of my preconceived notions that re-writing their most energetic and lively songs would be, well, hard. As a band that has quietly and drastically built up a dedicated fanbase that follows them around the country—and across the border—since their inception in 2006, releasing an album that aims to slow things down seems almost like an oxymoron. "We spend a lot more of our time playing shows and being on the road than we do in a recording studio, and we obviously want to provide a special quality or experience to a song when we're recording, but in the back of our minds, we're also thinking, 'what is the crowd going to do during this part of the song? What stupid dance am I going to do here?'"
"But right now, people aren't in large groups dancing and screaming on top of each other. Thinking of our own lives and what our friends and family are doing−a lot of backyard hangs, patios, balconies in condos apartments. Maybe you go to the beach, maybe you go camping. How can we play in that world?" That question would ultimately lead them on the path to hang up the new album they were months into recording, and find a more accessible way to interact with their fans in the new, isolated normal. With a sizeable catalog of five albums and two EPs, they managed to narrow down the track list to nineteen songs, ranging from some of their greatest radio hits to other, less expected ones.
"I'm Not The Sun," a vulnerable personal narrative that deviates from the heavy socio-political messages in their debut album may just be the most surprising. While Jackson Square revelled in its tireless pursuit of recording the quintessential anthem for the working person, "I'm Not The Sun" took a large step back with hushed, patient drums and soft guitar-licked hooks. But somehow, the acoustic reimagining in Campfire Chords manages to reinvigorate this oft-forgotten song, with Kerman's roaring vocals giving way to serene piano keys in a truly picturesque acoustic landscape. Evidently, it passed the "campfire test," whereby the band determines whether a song can be stripped down and played around a campfire— the same philosophy that inspired the new album and the only new song to be added, "Quitting You."
Though this new project was not a planned or expected endeavour, their delivery has only strengthened their bid for the often thrown around title of the ultimate people's band. "You know, foundationally, we grew up listening to a lot of great Canadian indie rock music: Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, the Constantines. And I remember going to those shows when I was eighteen-years-old, and just thinking like, 'oh this show is not just about the band on stage, the song, but everybody in the crowd.' And I think that's a very big part of our DNA as a band that it's not just about us. The show kind of only works if everybody in the building is in it together. And I think, probably, we have that reputation as it comes from that ethos." Kerman is also quick to note that his fascination with the overworked, the overlooked, and the rallying for social justice comes mainly from his parents—a social worker and a high school teacher. "I revere people who work in service of others," he admits, often characterizing the plight of the working class, the young social warriors, and everyone else in-between in his songwriting.
There is nothing particularly revolutionary to the Arkells. Their songs are well meaning, clever, and riddled with catchy hooks. But at the end of the day, they're just another band of close-knit friends who simply love to perform. And therein lies the magic that compels thousands of fans to follow them around the country on their tours. Whether it's in a sold out stadium, or a small side stage on a university campus lawn, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that this is exactly where they are meant to be, at exactly this time, with exactly these fans. And if they can no longer live that experience with you, then at least let them serenade you around your next campfire.