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Max Kerman on checking privilege, Arkells' more 'populist' sound on Morning Report

Jon Dekel

One sunny day this past February, a small group of models gathered in a studio in Toronto's east end. Though they were booked through the usual means, the five strong crew was being paid to be more than just the usual, aesthetically pleasing window dressing. Outfitted in Gossip Girl chic, they sullenly posed as a metaphor for a privileged class mentality.

The scene was a set up for "Private School," the first single off of Hamilton band Arkells' forthcoming album, Morning Report. In the accompanying video, directed by former Sum 41 drummer Steve Jocz, the band plays an errant crew on a GQ-esque fashion shoot, paralleling the single's social commentary. 

“It's sort of a silly song but I think there are some deeper themes there,” singer Max Kerman explains, sinking into a couch during a blocking break for the just-released promo clip. “Videos are a weird thing in 2016, generally speaking. We just wanted to have fun.”

Below, Kerman discusses his working-class origins, the single’s social commentary and the concept behind the band’s upcoming album.

On your first album, Arkells were presented as working-class kids from Hamilton. Is “Private School” a throwback to that era, thematically if not musically?  

I'm a public school kid. My mom's a high school teacher. I come from a long line of public school teachers. The thing that drives me nuts about people that are born into privilege or born into good luck is when they don't recognize it. If you happen to be born into a nice family that's equipped you for the world, God bless you. And I was. But there is a segment of the population that was born into it and has no self-awareness for their good fortune. So that's what the song is talking about.

It's not talking about specific people who went to private school. I think there's some comedy in those type of people. Like in the bridge I sing in a whiny voice, "Let's go to the party/ I want to drink the Bacardi/ who's bringing the Molly/ let's get a bit naughty." Like, do you know what other people are going through? These are your problems? And it also ties into a theme: when you meet someone who has a nice, put-together life and is pretty to look at, I think it's human nature to want to like them. But when you realize that some of these people lack the awareness of how fun a life they have, it makes them really hard to like. "So I just want to love you/ but it's so hard." [Musically] a lot of the material [on the new album] is different for us. We don't have a song on any of our previous records that sounds like this. I'm singing in a slightly lower register in a Beck kinda way. When we were recording the song the idea was to keep it stupid. Tim [Oxford]'s drumming like a caveman, Tony [Carone]'s slamming the piano, literally like a caveman. The whole thing is kind of stupid but I like that.

So it’s not a shot at all kids who went to private school?

It’s about no one in particular. I keep notes on my phone for song ideas and I had one that just said “Private school girls, private school boys.” I thought that was interesting. But there's something when you think about the divide in the American or British school system. It's almost like a caste system. That's why I like that we have a good public school system in Canada.

So it’s a political song?

I feel like talking about issues around privilege is always really interesting. Everybody likes to think about it, but executing a pop song about it is really hard. A lot of people try and not necessarily do the best job. So doing it in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way and recognizing that there's complexities to everybody's personal situation. So the song is critical but it's also about feeling like an outsider because I still love them but I also hate them.

You’re a band with hits and Junos now. Do you still feel like an outsider?

There is maybe some privilege in my position. I feel like there is definitely maybe a bit of contradiction in the song but the role of the songwriter is to tell stories. Even when Springsteen sings about shit today, he hasn't been associated with a working-class life in like 40 years but the songs come from a very formative place. When I sing those songs I think about my mom, who's a high school teacher; I think about my dad who worked in a group home with teenagers; I think about other people in my life who do really important work with social justice. To me those are people that really get me off and get me excited. So when I'm singing about those things, I'm singing from their perspective because they're part of me.

Why did you name the album Morning Report?

We have a group Facebook message with like 15 friends and people keep each other in the loop. And one person will always spill a whole story about what happened to them the night before. So you get to go over what happened and figure out those missed details. So there's some personal songs and there are also just songs about my friends. And I like the idea of reporting on their lives a little bit.

They don’t mind?

They know they're being written about; they love it. They just like being included. I like the idea of just observing other people's lives and relating to it. If there's a break-up song it's about my friend's situation but also I've been there before.

Since we’re talking about social classes, I wanted to ask you how it’s been transitioning into a “pop band,” at least in Canada.

I like making music that a lot of people sing along to. That's always what we're going for. And I think that's reflective of my personality. We don't want to make populist shit just for the sake of being populist. I really admire when people can pull off fresh-sounding music that appeals to a wide crowd. Like Zayn's "It's You." We try to do that.

Have you gotten any blowback?

I don't think we've had a backlash for it because I think it comes from an honest place. Even if the music's changed a little bit or we have nicer haircuts now, the heart of it hasn't really changed. I don't think, at least. I think bands get into trouble when they go outside of who they are. Who we are is people who like to play big ol' rock 'n' roll songs which people like to sing along to.