Arkells frontman Max Kerman talks campfire songs and the cottage

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“Does it pass the campfire test?” That’s a question Canadian band Arkells often asks themselves when they’re working on new music. If a song can be stripped back, played acoustically, and sung around a campfire, then they know they’re on their way. This approach was the starting point for the band’s latest project, Campfire Chords, a stripped-back, acoustic reinterpretation of some of their most-beloved songs. We sat down with lead singer Max Kerman to talk about making the album during a pandemic and his ties to cottaging.

Can you tell me about where the inspiration for Campfire Chords came from?
“We were working on our next album when quarantine hit, but it didn’t feel right putting out new music if we couldn’t go out and tour it. We realized that 2020 was going to be a quieter year for everyone. With no big events, most of the music that people would be listening to would be in their homes, balconies, kitchens, or around campfires. We’ve never had time to make an acoustic record because we’ve been so busy playing shows, but with everyone stuck at home, we had a new path. We all recorded our parts from home, then sent them to our keyboardist, Tony, and he assembled and made sense of the arrangements.”

arkells campfire chords album cover art with patch stitched with campfire on a night sky

How did you decide to do an acoustic album?
“The idea of an acoustic album has always seemed boring to us, so if we were going to do it, we wanted to make sure the tunes were fully reimagined versions of the originals. Once we got going on these arrangements, we realized that we could make this album special and unique.”

How did you pick which songs would be on the album?
“All of our songs work acoustically, but some just feel a little more natural than others. I sat with my guitar or at my piano and played them quietly to myself, and whatever passed the gut-check was what we’d start on. We assumed we’d only do 10 or 12 songs, but then we got carried away and ended up going for 18.”

What’s your favourite song on the album?
“‘A Little Rain (A Song For Pete)’ sticks out to me. It’s got this whole gospel vibe that really appeals to the communal part of music that I love so much. All these moving parts working together to create something big.”

How was it putting together an album during a pandemic?
“It was a new thing for us—working separately. But it had its advantages. We weren’t on the clock. In a studio, you’re constantly aware that you have a finite amount of time to finish the song. You also have the whole band there, plus a producer and an engineer. There’s a lot going on. This can be good and bad. Recording from home allowed everyone to work a little more deliberately. Maybe lonelier, but it allowed everyone to breathe a bit.”

Pivoting a bit to some cottage-focussed questions: the band has played the Kee to Bala a couple of times. What’s the appeal of that show?
“Love The Kee. Such an iconic venue with so much history. The old wooden dance floor, the high stage. It’s really unique. It’s the only venue in Muskoka, so you’re the only game in town. People come by the bus load—or boat—and are ready to party.”

Bands like The Hip are so closely tied to the cottage for a lot of people because they have a distinctly Canadian sound and feel. How much does being Canadian influence your music?
“There’s a great history of Canadian songwriters and their music that translates perfectly to an acoustic guitar around a campfire. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Gordon Lightfoot. It’s the music of our parent’s generation and what we all grew up listening to around the house. It’s in our DNA.”

Max Kerman, Arkells singer completing a jigsaw puzzle in a cottage, album promo shot

Did you grow up cottaging?
“We didn’t have a cottage, but we’ve had some friends with cottages, which is kind of the move, in my opinion! All of the fun, none of the work. We’ll bring some groceries and beer, and be out of there by Sunday night.”

What are your favourite bands or songs to listen to at the cottage?
“It’s hard to beat Neil. Anything from After The Gold Rush.”

That’s not all—we also asked Max some burning cottage questions (butter tarts: raisins or no raisins?), which you can see as part of the full Arkells Instagram takeover with Cottage Coach Adam Holman.