Max Kerman won’t soon forget the night of March 11, 2020, and neither will most of North America.
It was the night much of the continent was confronted with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. When a society consumed with sports saw one of its most popular leagues — the NBA — screech to a halt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus after a star player, Rudy Gobert, tested positive.
And Kerman, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band the Arkells, was close to the epicentre of the jaw-dropping announcement.
Having recently forged a friendship with Nick Nurse, after inviting him to perform on stage at their concert last summer, Kerman and the band were surrounded by NBA brass at the launch of the Toronto Raptors coach’s charitable foundation. The Hamilton-based rock group were all set to play with Nurse once again as part of the festivities when the news started coming in.
“It was the weirdest night ever,” Kerman told Sportsnet in a phone interview earlier this week.
“I’ll never forget the night. We were looking forward to (it), Nick came to practice with us and we were doing a Prince song and we were doing some Stevie Wonder together. And the room was, Matt Devlin hosted it, we met Serge (Ibaka) and Marc (Gasol) and Freddy (VanVleet) was there — there was a lot of bigwigs in the house. And then just before we went on, we were on Twitter like, ‘Tom Hanks has it. OK, Rudy Gobert has it. OK, oh, the Raptors were there two days ago … the league postponed the season 10 minutes before we went on stage.
So really it was an interesting night. Everybody was aware that after this we’re all going home probably for a little while.”
It was definitely “one for the books,” Kerman reflected.
But being stuck at home hasn’t held Kerman, a self-described busybody, back. The 33-year-old has been recording new music with his Juno Award-winning band and hosting daily “Flatten The Curve” music classes.
In a wide-ranging interview, Kerman discussed his FTC project, his love for sports and his bonds with fellow “keeners” Nurse and Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Sportsnet: How have your FTC music classes gone and why did you want to start doing this in the first place?
Max Kerman: Yeah, we had no sense how long we’d be here. I thought it’d be like maybe a week of classes, I didn’t think I’d been signing up for what, like Day 38 now or something like that. But at first, it was just something to keep myself busy — truly.
There’s been a lot of Arkell fans over the years that ask how to play certain songs, and there’s a lot of people that cover our songs. We’ll get like Instagram DMs of people singing around the campfire … at a talent show, bar bands playing them at a pub, and so we knew there’s an audience out there that would be interested to learn how to play the songs, and I’m really a believer that if you learn five or six chords you can play like 90 per cent of pop music. I’m not a particularly good guitar player, but I am a believer that it’s not rocket science, if I can do it, you can do it. And there’s a lot of people that are at home right now that maybe have been neglecting that guitar in their closet and now’s the time to pick up and learn it.
SN: The Arkells are obviously this huge Canadian band now and as a person who’s in a position of privilege but wants to use their platform for good, how do you navigate that line of reaching out but also avoiding attempts like that “Imagine” viral video fiasco?
MK: Yeah, I think we’re pretty good at like running a temperature check pretty quickly on any idea to shine a light on another cause and how will that appeal to the audience out there. And I think it’s easier for us because we’re a community of musicians — and I think Canadian musicians are pretty like hardworking, humble people to begin with, but also most of the people … that I’m in touch with that are my friends and family are teachers, nurses, social workers, you know, people that have really important jobs.
My mom was teacher and my dad’s a social worker, so that’s really the place that I come from and it’s the community that I probably interact with most. And it actually always makes my job feel very frivolous — and it is a frivolous job. I think like we’re seeing it right now, like nobody’s able to do anything if people aren’t healthy, if our communities aren’t taken care. All the frivolous, fun entertainment stuff that media provides it just doesn’t really exist in the same way if we’re not allowed to go outside.
… it’s not like I feel disconnected … I think that’s when people roll their eyes at the Hollywood elite, it’s because literally they are in bubbles. They are living in the very nice neighbourhood in L.A., the only people they probably interact with are people in that industry and of that kind of wealth. …
SN: You’re obviously a huge sports fan, I’ve read your first email was email@example.com in honour of Vince Carter. Tell me about your love of sports and how that was cultivated in you.
MK: I mean, my dad … he grew up in New York City — he grew up on the Upper West Side and his favourite player was Willie Mays — and my dad he loves to this day basketball and baseball, especially — so yeah, so we were playing catch in the laneway behind our house from a very early age. The neighbourhood kids all played baseball in the park. And when I was six and seven, the Jays won back-to-back World Series, so you can imagine how important … that was for a six- and seven-year-old whose dad loved baseball. You know what I mean? Like this was a really exciting time to live in Toronto. I grew up at like College and Spadina, so we were like a quick, streetcar ride away from the Skydome, we’ve been to lots of games.
And then when I was 10, the Raptors came to town and, again my dad was a big basketball fan … so naturally, we had a basketball hoop in the backyard. I loved Damon Stoudamire. I still have drawings of Mighty Mouse that I drew in Grade 4, or whatever, and then after a few years changed to drawing pictures of Vince Carter. I played for my elementary school volleyball, basketball, baseball teams at Landsdowne Public School in Toronto.
Another fun moment-connection is my basketball coach in Grade 4 at Landsdowne, his name is Bruce Nicholson, and he said, ‘I have a nephew who is going to be a star, he plays at Eastern Commerce, he’s almost seven-feet tall and you’re going to hear his name — his name is Jamaal Magloire — you should check him out.’ And so my dad and I for the next few years would go see those Eastern Commerce teams play in the Jarvis Winter Classic — Christmas Classic — basketball tournaments teams and four of the five guys on that Eastern Commerce team went to D1 schools and, of course, Jamaal went to Kentucky, and played in the NBA and now coaches for the Raptors. So my dad and I loved, loved, loved going to see high school basketball — there was a message board called HooptownGTA that we used to go on all the time — so I was like very obsessed with high school basketball. I played on my high school team at (Harbord Collegiate Institute) pretty low level like B or C division basketball, so we would’ve never have played against Eastern Commerce, but just a really big fan of that culture.
And yeah, I played baseball at Christie Pits, I played on like the rep team there … like a city-wide league that played against the other rec centres like Trinity Bellwoods, Regent Park, Moss Park, teams around the city and also played on the triple-A team Toronto Playground.
… (And) in Grade 8, I had to do a project on somebody in my community that had like a job that I thought was cool, that was the assignment. And I called up the Toronto Raptors’ office and I said, ‘Can I please speak to Glen Grunwald?’ and they put me right through to his secretary, which is a hilarious thing to think about, and Glen was, obviously, the general manager of the Raps, and I did an assignment … I asked what his job is like … (laughs), which is funny because I actually got in touch with a teacher from that time — like from Grade 7 and 8 — and he was telling me what I was like, and I have not changed one bit. He was like, ‘Max, you just like came into my office and asked to be involved in some assembly or you liked being involved with stuff,’ and I was like, ‘God damn, nothing’s changed.’ So anyway, Glen invited my dad and I down to take a tour of the (Air Canada Centre) and he showed us the Raptors dressing room and we have pictures.
So it’s funny cause Glen, obviously, went onto to work with the Knicks, he’s actually since come back, and McMaster Athletics, where I went — I had graduated by then — but he’s married to a lawyer in Hamilton and now he runs Canada Basketball. So fast-forward to last summer, Nick Nurse joins us on a stage at (Budweiser Stage) … and we’re talking after the show, I mentioned my Grunwald connection and he said, ‘That’s crazy. Glen is the reason, basically, I’m here because back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, he let me kind of — when I was coaching in the U.K. — bum around with the Raptors in the off-season and I got to learn the ropes of an NBA team. And the guy who brought me in and now he’s my boss with Canada Basketball.’ So this is a funny, lovely thing to see come full circle 15 years later.
SN: Let’s say the NBA season is cancelled. How heartbreaking would that be for you as a Raptors fan to not see them have a chance to repeat?
MK: Yeah, I mean, if it’s cancelled, I don’t know, I feel like any of these sort of massive shifts it would indicate that there’s probably much bigger fish to fry. I don’t think I’d be like heartbroken or anything, it would just like an added bummer to the bummers we’ve already encountered.
… There’s a bunch of other s— going on that’s already gravely more important. You’re missing those moments of comfort in your daily life because that’s what sports is. It’s not even about defending the championship — I don’t even really care that much about it — It’s more just the daily comfort you get from watching a game and then reading about it on Twitter the next day and talking about it with your friends. Like all my friends love the NBA and the NHL, especially, so just not having that in our life is a sad thing more so than actually defending the championship.
SN: So some of your friends you mentioned are NBA and NHL fans and some of them also are in the NBA and NHL. Do you mind telling me how you’ve bonded with Kyle Dubas? I know you guys are swapping books, podcasts and articles daily.
MK: Yeah, the group chat with Kyle is pretty active (laughs). So Kyle and I met five, six years ago when his wife, I think fiancee at the time, Shannon, organized a little birthday surprise for him to come visit us in the studio when we were recording Morning Report and they came by — this is when I think he was the assistant GM of the Leafs — and we just kind of hit it off. He honestly just reminds me of somebody that I would have met at McMaster (University), like we’re kind of the same age, I think he’s a year older than me, and we have the same interests. And he’s very, obviously, into sports, but really into politics and we follow a lot of same writers.
I feel like we just have like a lot in common and it’s fun to pick his brain on anything and everything. But he’s also into Springsteen, loves his Joel Plaskett, loves The Killers, likes his John Mayer and, yeah, he just reminds me of somebody that I’d be friends with if we were like in the same residence or something like that. … Sometimes I kind of forget that he’s the GM of the Leafs because we’ll be in the conversation about this or that and then I’ll be like, ‘Kyle runs the Toronto Maple Leafs, and this is a hilarious thought.’
But, Kyle, I admire him so much because he’s so disciplined, he’s such a workhorse, he really enjoys the spirit of being a part of a team, about collaborating with other people that he thinks are really smart and bright. And yeah, he’s really just your most impressive friend. You know what I mean? Like everyone has that friend that kind of does it all like the right way? I think Kyle is probably that guy.
SN: But you have a Rolodex seemingly of those impressive friends. You’ve also got Nick Nurse, too.
MK: Yeah, it’s funny I always kinda joke with some of my childhood pals — like my friend Matt, who I grew up with, coached baseball with and played baseball with — ‘Isn’t it like funny that I could text the head coach of the Toronto Raptors just knowing what a Raptors fan I am?’ But, again, one of the great things is that everybody becomes human pretty quickly once you get to know them.
And yeah, Nick, uh, I love this guy. He’s been keeping really busy, playing piano every single day. I think we text about every day and we’re sharing music and podcasts and different articles, usually more about music than anything else. I’d say that’s maybe why he gets a kick out of me is that he probably gets his basketball fix in with the rest of his coaching staff, and the Raptors’ front office and people in that profession that he’s in touch with.
But I think he enjoys talking music. So he pitched me a chunk that he wrote out for learning Knocking at the Door the other day, because he’s been practising it out (on piano).
But, yeah, once you get to know somebody, like Nick is just totally a keen guy. I think this is a reoccurring theme in my life, the people that I’m most attracted to and get along with the best are just keeners. Kyle Dubas is a f—ing keener. Nick Nurse is a f—in keener. Those guys just love to learn and to be involved and to be chatting with people and to be learning from people and I’m like that too. So I think that’s why there’s a natural kinship there, is that we can say, ‘Oh, this my kind of guy.’ So it’s been awesome to get to know Nick.
Obviously, Nick is a little older and he’s from the Midwest and so just getting to be around somebody with that disposition and that sort of Midwestern sensibility is really good. … We talked earlier about, ‘How do you stay grounded? Or have a sense of common decency with people? No one gets that better than Nick — Nick Nurse. The city of Toronto knows him as Nick f—ing Nurse, right? The head coach of the championship-winning Toronto Raptors, that’s how we conceive of him. But the way Nick conceives of himself is, ‘I was a bench player in college, I had to go to England for a decade to coach over there, made my way through the G League, playing every small town in America and riding on buses, I have to go sell tickets myself to these games.’ Nick said this is the first job he’s ever had that he didn’t have to sell tickets for — so the way he conceives of himself is a guy who’s just a hard-working dude, who’s been a grinder and takes joy in the process and takes joy in the journey because that’s what you have to do when you’re riding eight hours in rural Indiana to get from one game to the next. So I think he has a real appreciation.
I relate to that as the guy who’s spent a lot time in vans — when the band was coming up — I feel a lot more connected to that part of my life than anything glamorous that people might conceive of the Arkells. I mean, there’s a similarity between a band hacking it out on the road trying to make it, with Nick Nurse’s career trajectory as a guy riding long buses through the countryside in the U.K. and rural America to try to win the next game, but also to try to make that next head coaching gig somewhere a little grandeur.
SN: Now that you’re in these NBA circles, do you know if Gilbert Arenas ever caught wind of Agent Zero? (The song is about Arenas)
MK: You know what’s crazy is that forever I’m sure he’s never heard of the (Arkells) … which, certainly, I had no expectations, but then the other day we were doing Agent Zero as the song of the day and someone had tagged him in it. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I’ll drop him a line on Instagram.’ So I just like DMed him and I was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing a song about you, do you want to come on?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m just working out, maybe tomorrow’ … like what? So he didn’t get back to me last week. And then we were like, ‘Hey, do you want to hop on today?’ and then he didn’t get back to me. So he’s aware of the name Arkells …