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A & E | Hometown Heroes

Hometown Heroes

Two local bands are hitting the big time — and it's more by accident than actual design.

By James Tennant

  • Arkells

The pop chart is no great indicator of cultural progress. Most top 40 radio playlists consist of cookiecutter club pop, with its many invitations to "put your drinks up," despite a largely underage audience. The rest is comprised of third-generation grunge, Katy Perry singles, Lady GaGa anthems, some R&B and the occasional Adele song. This isn't a judgment call, as much of today's pop music does what it should: It succeeds as pop music to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. The problem is, there's so much calculation involved. So much of it is painstakingly engineered and market-tested for optimum performance.

Music found on college radio, in local clubs, or the Internet isn't necessarily better or worse than what's on the charts, it's just different. Call it what you will — underground, alternative, indie or, God forbid, hipster — they're all meaningless labels that don't actually describe the sound — but this music often comes from a more honest place. At the very least it isn't co-designed by producers, labels and a team of songwriters.

Sometimes, interestingly, an artist from second camp winds up on the pop charts. For the sake of argument, let's call these artists "mainstream alternative" — two meaningless terms in one. You can tell the difference between a mainstream act and a "mainstream alternative" act. LMFAO and Kelly Clarkson are clearly mainstream. Foster the People and The Black Keys, however, are kind of…mainstreamish. Their music is out-of-step with current trends, and yet they're too popular to be called "indie." What propels a college radio-type artist into the mainstream, especially when other, similar artists never have such a breakthrough? Even the artists who've done it can't explain it.

Arkells take their name from a street in Westdale. Their first album, entitled Jackson Square, won them Best New Artist at the 2010 Juno Awards. On April 1st, they were awarded a second Juno in the Group of the Year category — beating out enormously popular bands such as Hedley, Nickelback and one of singer Max Kerman's inspirations, Sam Roberts. They are the most successful Hamilton group in recent memory, and they're plainly good; Kerman and the band deftly combine gritty rock energy with killer melodic hooks. Yet when asked why they've done so well while other, similar bands have not, Kerman is stumped.

"I'm sort of on the inside as to how this stuff works," he says, "but it still confuses me. The Constantines (a critically lauded indie band from Guelph) never got any radio play, but we got a lot of radio play for 'The Boss Is Coming' — which is arguably a good rip-off of the Constantines."

Arkells don't fit in with the mainstream sound, yet the Canadian mainstream embraces them. Hipsters like them, but so does your 17-year-old daughter on the volleyball team. Critics approve, but so do thirtysomething car mechanics. Arkells are a straightforward pop/ rock band, fans of new music but also of Springsteen and The Tragically Hip; their sound is familiar enough not to intimidate yet not contrived for maximum mass appeal. Similarly, they're not pandering to one audience over the other.

"Our priority is to play for people," Kerman says. "Whether it's a bunch of cool city kids or a bunch of people from Stratford, we don't care. Some bands aren't as comfortable playing in front of certain audiences — I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just not what they are comfortable with."

Indeed, there have been artists who became uncomfortable with the fans they garnered as they grew in popularity, so they shifted gears in order to stay in their comfort zone. It sounds crazy, but think about it — if your music appealed to country fans, but you truly loathed country music fans, you might pause a second, too.

Like Arkells, San Sebastian are willing to play in front of any audience. In fact, they once had to — they shot to fame on MuchMusic's "DisBand." Being on a reality TV show immediately qualified them as "mainstream," but they were unlike other DisBand stars like Stereos or These Kids Wear Crowns. These groups suffer from hyperslick production values, committee songwriting and an "everything but the kitchen sink" aesthetic, poppy but rudderless. When San Sebastian finished filming the show, they sounded like San Sebastian – energetic guitar-driven rock in the vein of The Strokes (another hugely popular yet "underground" band). Then, the record label tried to tweak the sound as well. "It was non-stop," says bassist Greg Veerman. "It's like, 'This is good, but we're going to get you to go write with Gavin Brown! He can really turn this into a crossover radio smash!' And we're like, okay, let's try anything, but then it just turns into something that is nothing like you want it to be."

Willing to play in front of any audience, yes. Willing to change the music in order to increase that audience, not as much. Obviously that works for them — they succeeded on the show, and have opened big tours for Hedley and AWOLNATION. Admittedly, they've yet to "break" radio, but that's largely because they're not considered rock enough for rock radio nor pop enough for pop radio.

"Our music falls between the pop and rock," muses guitarist Greg Dawson, "but I've heard much poppier stuff played on rock radio. I've heard way rockier stuff on pop radio." Radio play and popularity aren't even an indicator in the digital age — Arcade Fire won a Grammy, and most Americans didn't even know who they were. So how does this happen? Ultimately there's no answer, and in the end, there doesn't need to be one. "The stars just align sometimes for certain bands at certain times," says Kerman, and he's right — but it's helpful if you appeal to both the hipster and the 17-year-old volleyball player. There's no such thing as "mainstream alternative," anyway. There's only music with wide appeal. Sometimes that's designed by committee, and sometimes, as with Arkells or San Sebastian, that's authentic.

What You Need To Know

Band: Arkells
Members: Max Kerman (vocals, guitar), Mike DeAngelis (guitar), Nick Dika (bass), Tim Oxford (drums) Anthony Corone (keys), Dan Griffin (keys; temporarily on hiatus)
Hometown: Hamilton, via McMaster, by way of various southern Ontario cities.
How It Happened: Kerman, DeAngelis and Dika met during Welcome Week at McMaster. The rest of the band gravitated together through common interests.
Albums: Jackson Square (2008), Michigan Left (2011)
Songs to Check Out: "Oh, The Boss Is Coming," the breakout single, like a meatier version of indie darlings The Constantines; "Where U Goin," which points to a newer, slightly poppier direction (with a nod to Hall & Oates).
First Gig: January 3rd, 2007 at the El Mocambo in Toronto. Says Kerman: "Nobody was there."
Biggest Local Moment: Being written about in the McMaster Silhouette. Says Kerman: "Or first playing the Casbah, the Studio Theatre, the Sound of Music fest…there's a bunch of different ones over the years."

Band: San Sebastian
Members: Mike Veerman (vocals), Greg Veerman (bass), Brodie Dawson (guitar), Sean Dawson (guitar), Ted Paterson (drums)
Hometown: Hamilton
How It Happened: Playing in separate local bands, the five continually met and performed on the same bill. Says Dawson: "We got along socially so we figured we might as well form a band together. It was a way of facilitating getting together for drinks."
Albums: Relations (2011)
Songs to Check Out: "Young Youth," with a post-dance-punk bounce and evidence of a Strokes influence; "Baby," which takes the former sound, filters it through sides A and B of Exile on Main Street and then adds an extra dose of Stones rock swagger.
First Gig: June 2008, Club Absinthe in Hamilton.
Biggest Career Moment: There have been many but Dawson recalls the first time they played a stadium show and heard "go lights — go sound." Says Dawson: "That's when they cut the lights and everyone cheers. That was pretty crazy…and a week earlier we were playing a Greek restaurant. And it wasn't even a big one."