Still in a noticeable daze from supporting Real Estate on their final UK tour date the night before, I call Alvvays’ front woman Molly Rankin to talk about what I’d seen the previous night. Just before Real Estate finished their set, they pulled a seemingly timid man up on stage and instructed the entire audience – including themselves – to sing Happy Birthday to him. They went on to introduce this allusive character named Phil – who was apparently the drummer in Alvvays – to the crowd and said he was turning 20. Considering the success of Alvvays, I mentioned that I found it in equal parts astonishing and terrifying that Phil had only just left his teens, to which Molly hastily replied, “Really, you think 30 is young?” Turns out Real Estate are big on making jokes even if no one else is in on them. She quickly changes the subject and puts the focus on the headline show they’re playing at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. It’s the 10th anniversary of flagship indie label Transgressive, who have been responsible for pushing paramount acts like Foals and Mystery Jets to the forefront. They’re holding a showcase for their most promising new acts with a lineup of five acts split over different levels. When asked about how she felt about headlining what seemed to be a staple show of their career thus far, she simply replied with: “Yep, I think I can actually see the venue right now.” It was 11am.
Hailing from the dead-end town of Cape Breton in the vast territory that is Canada, Molly Rankin used to release music under the same moniker, with a solo EP titled She before forming Alvvays with childhood friend Kerri MacLellan (keyboard). Later, they began to play with Alec O’Hanley (guitar) in high school before eventually being joined by new members Brian Murphy (bass) and Phil MacIsaac (drums). Steadily gaining force following support tours with Peter Bjorn and John and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, they recorded their self-titled full-length album that was released in July 2014. After the widespread acclaim over single ‘Archie, Marry Me’ – a comforting, breezy anti-love summer anthem ditching the conventions of marriage – they began to see music as a serious career.
Being a descendant of Canadian super group The Rankin Family, it would be hard not to believe that her surroundings and experiences at an early age would be responsible for shaping her relationship with music – though she’s adamant that’s not the case. “I love music and I don’t really think I love music any more than anyone else in the band. Everyone has their own musical history from when they were growing up, like a ton of Celtic influence and a ton of roots folk influence,” she tells me. Despite the widespread acclaim garnered by her musical family, who were active since the 70’s, she tells me how they seem entirely unfazed by her band’s success. “They’re very sweet. My family’s gone through a lot in the last ten years just through time going on and losing a lot of people, that it was sort of a surprise.” This is understandable, as one of the founding members and her father, John Morris Rankin, was killed in a tragic road accident when she was just 12. Though this affected the group immeasurably, they continued to release music up until 2011 despite life getting in the way. “I think they’re just generally trying to live in the moment and, you know, try and stay in touch as much as they can because there’s so many of them and they live all across the world right now.”
Alvvays’ debut album has been met with general praise, but almost equally with shots of disdain for the lack of innovation in the crowded market that is lo-fi, surf-tinged noise pop. With jangly guitars, adolescent percussion, and delicate, almost cartoon-like vocals, they don’t leave you fully scratched beneath the surface, but standout tracks like ‘Party Police’ and ‘Atop A Cake’ show a diversity that will definitely come to fruition in the future. ‘Red Planet’, the album’s closer, drags you in with layered synths and then spits you out with a pseudo-chorus that makes you feel like there’s impending doom that only seems to have one gear. Despite the huge pop melodies, it sounds like there’s a wealth of wondering and ambivalence in the record expressed by Molly’s sullen, almost cheap-sounding voice. There is no clear enunciation, but it’s all delivered with endearing wit that overrides all of the pop wonder.
A notable collaboration in the making of this project was producer and fellow Canadian electro-indie wizard Chad Vangaalen. With Alvvays being worlds apart from his own releases, I was interested to see what he brought to the table and how his talent lends itself to such versatility. “Well, we didn’t really go seeking for him to transform anything into anything it wasn’t,” she snaps. His eclectic sense of percussion, guitar tones and pop influences was able to translate the meandering that’s so prevalent in his music to Alvvays, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “The songs that were less worked out before going into the studio, he was able to sink his teeth into a little bit more arrangement-wise which was for the very sparse ones. He was just more of an engineer and a buddy who would step in when necessary.” The apprehension that’s heard in the music is easily seen in all aspects of the record – namely in the cover art – which features a group of indigenous female faces. Molly mentions that her and Alec like to find old photographs and make them “new”, so they hunted down the rights to the image that was originally published in an old National Geographic and tweaked it to be more suitably formatted to be used in present day. When asked about the relation or significance it has to Alvvays, she tells me: “I mean, it’s really the female in the centre of the photo that’s so striking – she’s obviously not really meant to be there, it’s sort of an accident.”
The majority of the songs were written in a farmhouse whilst they were surrounded by seven feet of snow. Despite their sun-drenched sound, there are clear lyrical themes of coldness and isolation running throughout the music. “It’s a dark record even though it’s considered a summer record because of the instrumentation, but the subject matter is pretty dark. I was able to sort of hide that a bit, I guess, because our sound is a little bit more dreamy and optimistic.” In the bleakest winters of an obscure Canadian town, it’s easy to see that there’s no stimulation: with nothing to do besides their day jobs, it took a big toll on them – a bigger one than they thought it would. “It’s all derived from being stuck somewhere and almost in life as well, when you’re almost approaching 30 and still quite unsure of where you fit on Earth. It’s a bit daunting, but that’s something I’m over,” she tells me reassuringly. It's a beautiful sentiment that is entirely transparent in their record – the euphoric yet crushing feeling that everything is hopeless, but it won’t last forever.
A band like Alvvays is always hard to pin down on the music circuit – they’re stuck in a limbo between surf pop and shoegaze, often toeing the line between the two. Their music, in all its perplexing glory, is made for summer and winter; contentment and bleakness; falling in love and unrequited love alike. There might be a struggle to convince people of their importance, but Alvvays are going to gain the kind of momentum to break your neck.
Words by Rachel Grace Almeida