Arkells Break Down 'Blink Once' Track-by-Track
The band open up about hip-hop influences, loss, and the importance of voice notes
Published Sep 22, 2021Hamilton, ON-bred rock band Arkells have fully leaned into their sound for their sixth album, Blink Once, out today via Universal Music Canada. They know what they're good at, and they like to do it big — they've doubled down on the confident horn arrangements and hip-hop influences, offer plenty of introspection with sombre interludes, and brought in new collaborators for some fresh perspectives.
They began writing material for the record in the fall of 2019 but were interrupted by the pandemic briefly, and instead pivoted to writing songs at home and sending each other voice notes as each song progressed — not that you can hear it, as the band sound like a united front on every charming track.
Exclaim! sat down with lead vocalist Max Kerman, bassist Nick Dika and producer Derek Hoffman in the studio to listen to the new album. We all sat reasonably distanced and masked up, and everybody was bopping their heads. Kerman occasionally air drummed along to the songs, and between tracks, he played some chords on a keyboard to demonstrate the songwriting process. It's the best record they've written yet, and they know it.
Here's the story of every song on Blink Once.
Max Kerman: We're always throwing around different ideas of other artists we're trying to rip off – like, what if we went for this kind of sonic landscape? We were thinking of a Paul Simon song for this one, and I don't know if that comes through – like the chord patterns.
Derek Hoffman: Yeah, it's the chords and the commitment to harmony, and commitment to cramming all the words you can get in there.
Kerman: And then the chorus, a three-parter that's just a one-worder … Sometimes those references hit home for the listener, and sometimes it's a completely other thing.
From his iPhone, Kerman plays a voice note of the "Liberation" demo. It's in a different key than the final version, and it features him over a bare-bones drumbeat.
Kerman: We started with this drum machine that Anthony [Carone, Arkells keyboardist] worked on. I kinda like that, as an opening track, there's a lot of tension building. We deliberately left the drums out for the first minute and a half 'cause, once they come in, the song explodes. We're thinking about the live show too — when it opens the stage will be dark and vibe-y, and somewhat mysterious, and when the drums come in, it grows really powerful. Lyrically, this song, "Strong" and "Arm in Arm" all are touching on the same feelings of loss. This is about that idea of going on a final trip when you know you're going to die and just this idea of finding moments of serenity and peace while you've been in the eye of the storm for a long time. This song has a kind of road trip feel with it.
2. "You Can Get It" (feat. K. Flay)
Kerman: This is the first time we've ever had a proper feature on a song. The first time we ever met K. Flay, we were recording "Knocking at the Door" in 2017. After we met there, we kept in touch. We asked her if she wanted to come by the studio. We basically had a semblance of the song together, and she wrote her verse within two hours. When the band came back from going for lunch, she laid down the vocals right there. She comes from more of a hip-hop background, so she's able to produce quickly — lyrically, at least. It felt like a really elevated experience for us to have somebody else's voice prominently on our track.
Exclaim!: What made you decide that "You Can Get It" was the song that needed guest vocals?
Kerman: Because it has this classic Kanye production to it, it feels like having a different voice on a different verse was appropriate. I was also kind of tired of myself, to a degree, and the way we were going about writing music, so I think the whole band was open to handing the reins over and being more collaborative in ways that we weren't before. Each time we make an album we want to do something a little different, which includes new voices, new songwriters and new energy.
3. "All Roads"
Kerman: The funny thing about this one is the vocal effect — I think it's kind of like a Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel effect, but apparently it really offended some people. In the comments [of the music video], people were like "Why does it sound like he's singing in a tunnel right now?"
I always like how pop or hip-hop music can fuck with the vocal and do all sorts of autotune and pitch shift stuff, and I'm just jealous of all that. I'm always saying to Derek when we work together, "Just make it weird!"
I was asking the band if anyone had any ideas or references, to just send over music and I could hear it and see if anything comes to mind. And this was the bed track that Mike [DeAngelis, guitarist] made at home one day and sent over.
He plays the recording from his phone — it starts off ethereal and could be something out of a sci-fi movie soundtrack. The track isn't recognizable until Kerman comes in with the lyrics and sings over it in the studio live.
Nick Dika: When you work on a song, a lot of times, you can get attached to it, and if anything sounds different, you're like, "Oh, I don't know"' I remember thinking with this one that we should just stick with the original.
Kerman: But now that we've heard the finished song, it's pretty good.
Kerman: This one is about our friend who we went to school with [Dr. Barbara Tatham]. We don't have many songs that are stripped back, and it's actually harder to make decisions for songs like these. We went through three or four piano arrangements. One was a very simple chord pattern that even I could play, then there was another that was more indie, stark and disjointed. And then there was one that had more of an Adele treatment that Tony [Carone] had put together. It's easy when you're throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, to say, "Okay, let's throw in some harmonies here, then some guitar parts," but restraint is something we never really had to exercise. The challenge here was, "What can we not do?"
When it comes to our concerts, this will be the moment in our set that's more reflective and it's something I look forward to doing. Having a moment to breathe will be different than a lot of our upbeat singalongs. This is one of the great things about the band — we can go wherever we want without fans complaining, "That's not the Arkells sound!"
Dika: It's more of a journey when you listen to our record or go to our live shows, to have some ups and downs.
5. "Little Moments (Interlude)"
Kerman: We recorded the interlude at home. There's lyrics from "Liberation" and also Barbara's voice from a talk she gave. She was a doctor, and, before she died, she led these talks with physicians about what it's like to be on the other side and to be a patient in end-of-life care. I liked this little snippet where she mentions how there's moments when you can make a difference in someone's life. We shared the idea of using Barbara's voice in the interlude with her sisters, and they really liked it.
Exclaim!: This is the first time you've added interludes to your albums. What made you decide you wanted to add these little tidbits to this album?
Dika: We were thinking of different ways to connect music, and to connect themes. And we all like rap a lot.
Kerman: There's a lot of interludes on hip-hop records. Sometimes interludes can be annoying, but as a record experience, it feels like it's connecting one thing to the next. Also, to get out of a song like "Strong," going right back to "Let's fucking party!" felt funny, so we needed a way to ease our way out of it.
6. "One Thing I Know"
Kerman: I was at a party a couple years ago with [CBC host] Tom Power and our friend Jeremy White, who are both from Newfoundland. I love when Newfoundlanders talk to each other cause you really hear their native tongue. I was like, "Why don't you guys talk like that to me, I love this!" And they were like, "Oh, you know, when you come to Toronto, you don't wanna talk like you're from a small town." I thought that was kind of a bummer that you could feel embarrassed about where you're from.
And, unrelated — but maybe under the same umbrella — I was talking to some friends who had a hard time coming out to their family, and I always think that's such a sad idea that you feel ashamed of who you are to the point that you can't even tell your parents about who you are. The song is about the idea of how to deal with shame, and I like to think that the way you deal with it is by being your truest self and that's the way you're set free.
Sometimes in our songs you can jump around, and each verse can be its own scene, but it's still talking about the same thing. There's a connection there that makes it feel universal. I think everybody has some version of that in their life where they're dealing with something that is out of their control and the song is about trying to overcome that. Musically, we were trying to go for "Freedom" by George Michael.
Dika: We were literally going to California to record, and Max sent this demo off the day before. We had one show [at a TIFF event] before we left, and I remember playing this at soundcheck and we jammed it out. It came together pretty quickly, and we recorded it a few days later.
Kerman: We started recording this album in fall 2019 to record a few songs in LA, then went back in February 2020 to record more stuff, thinking that it was kind of getting there. Then when March rolled around, it was the pandemic. We were like, "We need to finish this record — Derek, help us!" While we were at home, we wanted to stay busy and keep working. We ended up doing a bunch with Derek that will be coming out later, as well as "Pub Crawl" and "A Little More" on [2020 acoustic album] Campfire Chords, but we thought this song would fit right in with the upcoming album.
Dika: I remember we didn't have a bridge for this, so that's when we consulted Derek.
Hoffman: Basically, as a producer, you always need to discover where the line is on how involved the artist wants you to be. This song was a good test to try new stuff, add instrumentation, and to see how much appreciation [the band had] for outside collaboration. This song was just so up my alley in terms of the emotions and textures of it.
Kerman shares another early demo and plays it aloud on his phone. The chorus is completely different and it's piano-driven, which ends up taking a backseat in the final version that's layered with synths, saxophone and a steady drumbeat.
Kerman: [The demo version] is kinda boring.
Dika: I remember the reference for this version of the song was Tom Petty.
8. "Nobody Gets Me Like You Do"
Kerman: I really like that song by Lykke Li, "I Follow Rivers," and there's a remix to the song in the movie Blue Is the Warmest Color, and I wanted a song that was summery and dance-y, like a 'best friends' song.
Tony is a great musical director for us. Usually, we'll all talk and decide if there's a section that needs a piano or guitar solo, or if it'll be strings or horns. Tony's able to write the parts and mock them up, and then we'll bring in the Northern Soul Horns to play it.
9. "Swing Swing Swing"
Kerman: This song is one we did entirely remotely.
Dika: I think we wrote this one during the darkest COVID days.
The first voice note Kerman shares for the song is a stripped-down track where he sings "Swing Swing Swing" of the chorus very clearly, then mumbles the rest of the melody that didn't have lyrics yet. The next version has a bit more instrumentation and finished lyrics.
Kerman: Between the band and the producers, there's a lot of voice notes being thrown around.
10. "No Regrets"
Dika: This was one of the first ones we wrote for the album.
Kerman: I was really into that Dua Lipa and Silk City song, "Electricity." The bridge [in "No Regrets"] reminds me of Electric Circus, '90s dance music. [Bandmate] Tim [Oxford]'s such a powerhouse drummer on this record, there's something more aggressive about it on this record that makes us sound big.
11. "Years in the Making"
Kerman: There was a bit of a debate whether or not to even put it on the record or to have it as a stand-alone single. I'm really glad we have it on the record. I think it's gonna be a big part of the touring that will come. By the time we get to play at all these places we've been missing, it will have been years!
In the demo, Kerman is playing some chords on piano with gusto and crooning gibberish for a few lines until he gets to the right moment and sings "It's been years in the making" very clearly. Another version — which almost became the final cut — plays in a lower key and has a marching band-esque drumbeat rolling into the chorus with some background horns.
Kerman: We liked the song, but we thought it needed some more Arkells swagger in there, so we re-recorded it.
Dika: This song was done remotely, too.
Kerman: It's great to be in the room with a band and work through ideas that way, but sometimes it's nice to do things on your own schedule without someone breathing down your neck. Whether it's working on a guitar part or a bassline, sometimes it's nice to get to work on it for eight hours without anyone bothering you.
12. "What the Feeling Was Like (Interlude)"
Kerman: Our friends Mike and Greg Veerman lost their dad recently from a heart attack. On the podcast I do with Mike, [Mike on Much], we did an episode to remember their dad. This interlude is a clip of Mike and Greg talking about what that period of time was for them.
13. "Arm in Arm"
Kerman: "Arm in Arm" is about going home and dealing with that situation and finding comfort in your friends and hanging out at a bar and singing along to some songs. That was their [Mike and Greg's] dad's favourite thing, having a Coors Light at the bar with his sons and singing to "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. That's the scene I had in mind for this song.
14. "Last Night I Heard 'Em Sing (Outro)"
Kerman: For the outro, we wanted to reference those Beatles albums that ended with weird little symphony ditties that felt like a closing title sequence where you could put the list of everyone who worked on the project.
Exclaim!: In the outro, you say something about "blink twice," but the album title is Blink Once. What's up with that?
Kerman: We were messing around with the idea of "blink once, blink twice," and shoehorn it in there like a "what's next?" kind of thing.
Dika: And we really like that popular meme of that guy…