Q&A: Arkells Frontman Max Kerman Puts Himself in the Shoes of Refugees

By Aaron Brophy 3/19/18 | www.samaritanmag.com

Arkells promo shot — courtesy of Universal Music Canada.

Canadian rock act Arkells have become one of the country's biggest bands since forming a dozen years ago. So big, in fact, they've created their own music festival at a stadium in their hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, just outside Toronto, with some of the proceeds benefitting the thousand Syrian refugees the city has settled recently.

Taking place June 23 at Tim Hortons Field. The Rally, as it's being called, will feature the Arkells, American band Cold War Kids, English singer Bishop Briggs and local act Ellevator. Sales are going so well it was recently announced the promoters are opening up the open-air stadium's upper deck to allow the sale of more tickets.

As a way of supporting these new residents, Arkells —  lead singer Max Kerman, guitarists Mike DeAngelis and Anthoy Carone, bassist Nick Dika and drummer Tim Oxford — teamed up with the Arcade Fire-associated charity service Plus 1 to earmark one dollar from every ticket sold from the festival to benefit the Refugee Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health.

Established in 2011, Refuge Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health's mission is to provide quality healthcare services to the area's newcomer population. A wide range of services are provided at the centre, from routine physical exams and immunization services to things like family contraceptive planning, mental health counseling and nutrition assessment and counseling.

If Kerman has his way, The Rally will be a massive community-building exercise, hoping to incorporate the local Art Crawl vendors, local Sobi bike share users and nearby bars and restaurants.

Fresh off a performance in South Korea to support the Canadian Olympic Team, Kerman talked to Samaritanmag about The Rally, as well as the importance of helping refugees and their specific needs.

Before we start on The Rally  you recently went on an adventure to the Olympics. What was that like?

Max Kerman: It was pretty amazing. It was very surreal. It all happened very quickly. Whenever we get exciting news, whether it's getting to play a festival or open for a band, usually we have six months to sit on it and think about it and then the day arrives. But with the Olympics, I tweeted at them on a Saturday and by the Thursday we

Arkells with Team Canada in South Korea — photo credit: Deb Ransom.
were on a plane to Korea. I had never been to Asia before; it was my first time crossing the Pacific. It was awesome. They weren't planning on having any entertainment at the Canada House, so the stage itself was only five feet deep. We managed to get a bunch of gear in Korea from a backline company; the drums were set up on stage and the rest of us were playing on the ground like a good old-fashioned house show or something. We played a bunch of Arkells songs, but we also learned a couple extra Canadian songs because we thought it was appropriate. So we played "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette, and "Summer of '69" [Bryan Adams] and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" [The Band] and "Harvest Moon" [Neil Young]. So we tried to keep the spirit of Canada happening over in Korea.

You're soundtracking a party to a room full of the fittest people in the world, who have been singularly focused on a thing for four or eight years. How big a cathartic blowout was that party?

I've been comparing it to the end of exams where if you go to school everyone's really stressed out at the beginning of exam period, but each day towards the end somebody is finished exams and really wants to party. So this is like that times a thousand because these people have been really focused, not just for a couple weeks, but for four years. We were there for the last three days of the Olympics, so by the time we arrived a lot of athletes had finished their events so they were ready to go. We ended up going to karaoke bar until five in the morning a couple nights with the Olympians and everyone was just super... cathartic is the best way to put it.

Let's switch gears now. What do you know about the Refugee Hamilton Centre For Newcomer Health?

Our last tour we partnered up with the Canadian Council For Refugees, which is a national organization. And we got to learn a little bit about what they do and how they help refugees come into Canada and the services they provide for newcomers. We thought that was really important work. As a touring band who spends most of our time thinking about the next show, or the next song we write, I'm always very appreciative of people who have actual hard jobs and are actually serving other people. So for the Hamilton show, we wanted to see if there was something a little more local because Hamilton has taken on a lot of Syrian refugees. There's just a real need for these public services available for people who could use it.


Hamilton has taken in more than a thousand people. Finding everything for a thousand people, that's no small task.

I know. It's like when you think about the logistics of setting up Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, that's annoying enough. So to have a thousand people who are new to the country, maybe don't speak the language, and are often coming from traumatic experiences, it's a lot of work. But it's important work. It needs to be done.

Do you have any sense of what a newly arrived refugee in Hamilton needs?

I think housing is a really important one. A good friend of mine works in a shelter and it's a temporary shelter with the goal of finding housing for people. I guess that's the first thing, making sure there's a safe place to live that has amenities nearby. Even stuff like language barriers. My friend was telling me, it's even simple things. One fella didn't know how to use the oven. It was new experience for him and he was afraid to ask. So there are things that we take for granted as Canadians that are very second nature to us but for someone who hasn't grown up here they just don't have experience with. So I think showing them the ropes and answering questions is a really important service.

Max Kerman holds vinyl for latest album, 2016's Morning Report — photo credit: Arkells Facebook.
If, for example, you're from a rural community and you end up in a different country where you don't speak the language, if you're told to get on a specific bus to get somewhere, you're not going to know how to navigate modern city transit.

This is it. I think the other reason why Refugee Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health really struck a chord with me is you hear about these really brutal situations that some of these people are coming from and you put yourself in their shoes for a second — I could hardly survive on a Canadian Olympic Team-sponsored trip to Korea. I had a hard time paying my bill at a restaurant — and so you put yourself in the shoes of someone who's been through so much more and the only answer is "I've got to help these people because if I were in their shoes I'd be so much less adept at surviving."

Do you know what sort of services the Hamilton Centre provides?

Their website's awesome, by the way. I don't want to repeat what the website says, but just finding health care and finding the resources, that's a chore. Sometimes just finding the resources itself can be an incredibly difficult task for someone in a brand new country who doesn't speak the language. Also just letting people that are from Hamilton know that these are new Hamiltonians and they are now part of the community and let's celebrate the diversity and culture that they bring to our city. I think there's some advocacy happening too with the Refugee Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health. Because sometimes there's unfair stigmas around refugees coming into a new place and I think it's important to break down those stigmas.

Do you know if any of these new Canadians and new refugees are going to be able to attend The Rally?

I hope so. We've told the organization that if anyone wants to come we'd love it if they were guests of the show. I've always appreciated the YMCA model. I'm a member of the YMCA. And they're like, "We want you to be a member, here is the monthly rate. And if you can't pay that just come talk to us and we'll figure it out." And I told that to [Hamilton] ward 3 councillor Matt Green, I said, "If someone really wants to come to the show and they can't afford it, we'll figure it out." Because I think it's more important for people to experience things together and to recognize we're one community. So I'm hoping we get some guest list requests.

How much are you hoping to raise from this?

A couple years ago we met Marika Shaw who used to play in Arcade Fire and now she runs Plus 1, and the premise is very simple — you put a dollar on top of every ticket sale and that goes to a charity of a band's choice. They've really built up that organization in an incredible way and the roster of bands that are participating keeps growing. So right now we're at almost 17,000 tickets sold, so right now we've raised $17,000.

What was the genesis of The Rally?

We've had a lot of different experiences in our band, headlining our own shows, playing festivals, or opening for other bands, and we're always trying to learn from the things we enjoyed the most. Last summer we played the Budweiser stage [in Toronto] and it was incredible and it felt like a local, hometown kind of show. So this year we thought that we should do it in Hamilton because that's where the band was born. And the more control we can have over the day and the lineup and what it looks like and what it feels like, the more we'll enjoy it. It's been really fun organizing and thinking about it. Cold War Kids have been one of our favourite bands since we started and the fact they're coming up to Hamilton to play is amazing. Ellevator is a great young local band from Hamilton that's opening the show, and Bishop Briggs is a friend of ours who we met at Coachella last year who we stayed in touch with. So the lineup is really well-rounded and our hope is that there's programming throughout the day and the weekend in Hamilton — bars and restaurants — where we can shine a light on all those places.

One of the biggest successes in Hamilton in the last five or six years is Art Crawl, which is one Friday every month. And I want that to happen around the stadium because there's a beautiful plaza outside of Tim Hortons Field. We're working on having vendors being able to sell their art before the concert and I think it's really important for us to let the people on the ground, in the community, own it. SoBi, which is Social Bicycles, the bike share in Hamilton which I use all the time, is one of the best public services Hamilton has to offer. Maybe we can do a ride to the show and the band can meet up with people who are going? We could do a ride from McMaster [University] all across the city to Tim Hortons Field. That'd be fun.

It was just announced that the upper deck will be opened for the show. How do you hope The Rally upper deck experience compares to a Ti-Cats [CFL football team] upper deck experience?

I hope it's just as rowdy. That's the dream. That's it's just as rowdy as a Ti-Cats upper deck experience. Whether it's a Ti-Cats game or if you go to the 'Dome [now Rogers Centre] to see the Jays [Toronto Blue Jays baseball team] and you're sitting up in the 500s, you got a party up there. So the hope is that people want to put the party hats on and have a great time together.

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* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.