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Guided Tour: Alvvays takes us track-by-track through their breakthrough debut

Andrea Warner

This was first published in December 2014.

There are always plenty of fights and long, tiring discussions around CBC Music’s year-end list. There weren’t any tears this year, but it did get heated, and if you’ve ever tried to fight via Google hangout and conference call, well, you might even feel a little sympathy for us. But choosing Alvvays's self-titled debut album as our favourite record of 2014 was a summer lovin’, easy breezy accord. After all, you’d have to be dead inside to not love Alvvays a little, at least.

With just nine tracks, the band (which evolved from Molly Rankin’s — yes, those Rankins — solo project) landed with a splash. The album — which you can listen to above in its entirety for one week only and is available for purchase here — is a sweet bit of surf-pop perfection that also contains hidden depths. Bright and sunny-sounding tunes lure listeners in and suddenly, upon closer listen, it’s all murky, deep-sea depths, lyrics and themes like sea creatures — mysterious, beautiful, dark, dangerous — at every turn.

Rankin and bandmate Alec O’Hanley met up with CBC Music at a coffee shop in Vancouver in early December. It is Alvvays's first show in the city, and the rest of the band — Kerri MacLellan, Phil MacIsaac, Brian Murphy — is unloading and unwinding after the drive from Seattle. Rankin and O’Hanley are tired but engaging. They can’t quite make sense of the year either. It’s been a three- or four-year journey to this point, but, as is always the case, it seems like overnight success. The buzz has been building for months, and Alvvays has found a place on plenty of critically acclaimed year-end lists, including Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Exclaim! and CBC Radio 3’s 103 best songs of 2014.

It’s high praise, indeed, particularly considering that Alvvays was pretty much an accident.

“Things changed from Molly Rankin to Alvvays but it was a very sneaky thing,” Rankin says with a laugh. “The songs that I was writing were different, more band-oriented, the tones were different, more electric guitar, I put the acoustic guitar to rest for a while. Then we went to Calgary to record the songs and I think Chad [VanGaalen] was the one who realized before we did that we were more of a band than a solo project.”

Over the phone from his Calgary home, VanGaalen, who produced Alvvays, recalls how he thought he had signed up to produce a Molly Rankin folk record. When she and O’Hanley arrived in Calgary to work in his studio, he quickly identified that Rankin was no longer a solo artist and broke the news: you guys are a band. Get a name. And a drummer.

“That was a bit of a surprise,” VanGaalen admits with a laugh. “We were like, OK, holy shit, what do we do now?”

VanGaalen says he, Rankin and O’Hanley “muscled through,” and he is hilariously — and typically — self-deprecating about his role in everything.

“They’re pretty clinical; I feel like their vision is very solidified as far as what they want the sound to be, and I’m not — like, they’re picking out stuff that I couldn’t even hear for the most part,” he says. “I feel like we were both kind of forced to learn stuff about how to do it, you know what I mean? To tell you the truth, it took a long time for them to kind of coax what they wanted to out of the record, so I was kind of worried about that, but it totally turned out. It’s a great-sounding record, so I’m pretty pleased.  

“I’m also really super grumpy and how I work is like, yeah, it’s a f--king miracle that we’re working on magnetic tape, that’s like magic, you know? F--king sorcery, black magic! [Laughs] They’re talking about toms flamming and all these minute details and I’m like, ‘It’s a f--king miracle that sound even happens.’ So they had to put up with working with a grandpa, grumpy grandpa, Saggy Butts McGriff. I’m glad it turned out. I feel like people, a lot of the times, feel like I know how to do stuff, so they were under that impression, that I was a professional. And they came here and they were like, 'Whoa, OK, what’s going on?'”

But the foundation, VanGaalen says, was always there, even when it was just Rankin on her own.

“[Molly’s] songs were super solid. The demos she sent me, in my mind, and I told her, those demos sound better than how it’s going to sound out of my studio. That’s always a good sign. The songs they came out with as Alvvays though were just glorious. I can see why she made that choice. And she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a singer-songwriter, which I can totally understand, too. As much transition as she was going through at that time, she just made all the right decisions.”

If there’s one trait Rankin and O’Hanley have in common with VanGaalen, it’s a penchant for self-deprecation. As we discuss their whiplash year, their craziest moments of 2014 spill out, but it's tempered by the time limits they impose on taking pleasure from their own joy as well as their strategies for dealing with the haters.

Molly Rankin: We have haters. I love our haters. I favourite everything they say. On Twitter anyway.

Alec O’Hanley: What do you want out of a pop record? What don’t you like? It’s pretty unimpeachable. We’re humble people and we spent a lot of time on it. Shove it. [Laughs]

Rankin: Positivity! Kill them with kindness. I love your profile pic, thanks for hating us. Yes, I know we’re not Sonic Youth.

O'Hanley: It’s such small potatoes. It really doesn’t matter. Like, Roosevelt, he had a lot of detractors when he was putting the New Deal through and he was like, I welcome their hate. I eat it up. We sustain ourselves on that stuff, too.

Rankin: YouTube is also — I mean, the internet in general is the most fertile soil for lurking, negative comments.

But, the flipside, is kind of amazing, even if Alvvays refuse to believe their own hype.

Rankin: We were in L.A. for the first time and it was sold out and Bethany [Cosentino] from Best Coast came and we all hung out and that was surreal, because I remember giving her my EP when she played in Toronto as a little fangirl. To me it was crazy just to hang out with her. Little things like that. We don’t travel in a tour bus or anything, we’re still very bare bones.

O'Hanley: It’s nice to get feedback and love from people you love. We’re not namedroppers by means, so we’re reluctant to even talk about this stuff. People are like, "Hey, you got a shoutout from blah, blah, blah, and we’re like ‘oh yeah, you saw that?" [Rankin laughs] But, you know, Stuart Murdoch, when he’s posting your lyrics and your video, it’s like, you’re happy for 10 minutes and that’s great.

Rankin: It’s always cool when you go to a weird town or a city that you’ve never been and people show up. That’s the coolest thing for me.

O'Hanley: Also, the craziest thing, I think, was when we were in London and it was our first or second trip over, and we found out that we’d gone to number one on college U.S. campus radio. That’s a point when we were happy for another 10 minutes. That didn’t seem real, that seemed weird.

Rankin: We were all very confused. Everyone was confused, even the person who pulled it up on their phone was like, "I don’t understand."

O'Hanley: Yeah, it seemed like a weird prank. A not cool prank.

Rankin: And then we were like, "How long does this last? Oh, when does the Spoon record come out?"

O'Hanley: Oh, next week? OK, we’re done.... We should probably spend more time on the self back pats.

Rankin: But then we’d miss an exit or something and we’re back to rock bottom.

But there are plenty of people poised to help pick them back up. When asked for a comment about Alvvays’s remarkable year, Rolling Stone senior editor Simon Vozick-Levinson was happy to oblige.

“No band in years has done classic indie-pop quite as well as Alvvays, to my ears," he says. "Their melodies have a rare kind of bittersweet beauty, and their lyrics are even better — sharp, subtle portraits in miniature. Songs like 'Archie, Marry Me' and 'Party Police' manage to be incredibly romantic at the same time as shrewdly satirizing the conventions of romance. With just one album, they've won a place in my heart next to beloved bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, and I can't wait to see where they go from here.”

But before we see where Alvvays is headed, let’s savour the moment and delve a little deeper inside these nine remarkable tracks that have launched yet another Canadian band into the international spotlight. Rankin and O’Hanley present a guided tour through the surprising origins of Alvvays’s debut, including arrests, pepper spray, comic books and lessons in adult diversion.

'Adult Diversion'

Rankin: That song changed a lot from the demo. It was mainly about a stalker, a stalking creature, sort of a solitary character following somebody around. But it’s probably one of the most fun songs to play that we have.

O'Hanley: It was nice, it came together pretty quickly. We usually do a slow version of a song and then a quicker version, and for whatever reason, the quicker, surfier tempo stuck. It’s nice. That one I get some sort of Morissey feeling from it, and it is a creepy song at its core. But it’s also — you feel for the protagonist, I think, one of those pathetic leads.

Rankin: Unsuccessful stalking? [Laughs] I don’t know how many people notice the song is about stalking someone. Maybe we should omit this portion.

O'Hanley: It’s a fine line between stalking and longing. We tread that, tiptoe, tightrope carefully.

'Archie, Marry Me'

Rankin: "Archie" was the one song — that’s why we were so stubborn. We were like, we have to hold on to "Archie" and release it at the most opportune time because we had both felt it was special.

O'Hanley: Yeah, like a little brother, we had to make sure he found his feet and went to a good school [laughs] and didn’t get in trouble. We had recorded that once before in New York and just ditched that. It came out sounding a little too commercial? Mall rock, maybe?

Rankin: We’ve ditched a lot of things.

O'Hanley: Yeah, it’s our second favourite activity probably.

Rankin: You learn how to say no and then you say it all the time.

O'Hanley: You get addicted to no. [Laughs] But yeah, "Archie" was the emotional centrepiece of what we were trying to do and it was kind of the anthem we hitched our apple cart to.

Rankin: I was very obsessed with the song "Everything Flows" by Teenage Fanclub and I sent Alec the demo when he was living in Australia, it’s probably about 15 seconds long. We should dig that up, it’s very cute and sad.

O'Hanley: Yeah! it blew my mind and I still love it.

'Ones Who Love You'

Rankin: This is the first one we sent Chad, the first demo. We had written it on a Poly[phonic] Ensemble synth and I was listening to a lot of John Mouse at the time. That was the first one we felt was worthwhile in sending around and then I think things just kind of grew from there. There’s not a concrete story on this song, besides it just beginning in the basement.

O'Hanley: It reminds me of that Replacements sentiment — I forget the line exactly. I’m going to look it up.

Rankin: It’s sort of about not appreciating the people who are constants in your life. Though I have a really hard time not sounding really cliché when I describe origins of songs.

O'Hanley: That Replacements sentiment was: "The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest/ And visit their graves on holidays at best/ The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please." That’s the theme, it’s sort of a Westerberg homage, maybe unwittingly.

Rankin: I guess so. [O'Hanley laughs]You have to be good to your mom, you know. Also, it’s the only song on our record that has a cuss word.

O'Hanley: Yeah, and we often sneak it in, because that’s what you can do when you have a syrup-y sweet sound.

Rankin: [sings sweetly] F--king!

O'Hanley: And you can roll the "k" ... sneaking in swears with Alvvays.

'Next of Kin'

O'Hanley: It has this Pretenders thing. I don’t know if we were huge on the Pretenders at the time, we sort of like that band, some of their hits. But melodically and rhythmically, I guess it was kind of an R.E.M. thing for me.

Rankin: I believe that song began in a bedroom with a classical guitar and I think I brought it downstairs and you came up with the [hums a snippet of the song] and that was cool. That happened in like, five seconds, that was cool. That was exciting for me, when he does most of the work [laughs].

O'Hanley: It’s nice when the lightning flashes. They don’t often. It’s pretty poppy, kind of Magnetic Fields. I don’t think there’s a minor cord in the whole song, is there?

Rankin: I don’t know, but for the record, I don’t think I ever intended to drown my own boyfriend in that song.

O'Hanley: [Laughs] I think a lot of people have that singer/narrator confusion. It’s crucial that you make that divide, that distinction.

Rankin: We had a lot of people assume that I was desperate for marriage after "Archie" came out, which isn’t the truth. It’s just not true.

O'Hanley: We had a lot of people say, "Who’s Archie? You gotta ring up, bro." I heard that a few times at least.

'Party Police'

Rankin: We worked on it in Alec’s parents' basement in Charlottetown. I had thought that the riff was something that Joel Plaskett would be able to play. I still struggle with playing that riff. But I had it in my head for a long time and then the song just went from there. We had an instance where we were both in trouble with law enforcement, so this is the F-you kind of situation.

O'Hanley: Yeah, we went through some stuff at the ECMAs in 2010 [in Sydney, N.S.] and it involved getting busted in our hotel room and Molly getting pepper sprayed and stuff.

Rankin: I wish it was as glamorous as it sounds. It was just so sad and tame.

O'Hanley: Pretty pathetic. We were all up there just putting chocolate bars on the toilet seat and just having fun.

Rankin: It was very immature. We’ve moved on.

O'Hanley: Yeah, we had to go through a process called Adult Diversion to get out of that, which involves various fines and stuff and saying you’re sorry to law enforcement, so, you know, we’re in the clear, but for a while there it was pretty testy.... [Laughs] It’s pretty cute in retrospect, but that the time it was quite horrific.

Rankin: It was very scary, but, like I said, we’ve moved on. We’re more observant of our surroundings now. I’m more aware of where I am when I’m misbehaving.

O'Hanley: [Laughs] Yeah, even your hotel room isn’t safe.

Rankin: It’s a little framed certificate on my wall, you have completed the Adult Diversion Program, your record will be destroyed in five years.... They ask me when I cross the border if I’ve been arrested and I say, yes, assault, and they laugh.

O'Hanley: And then they say, "You’re not going to assault me, right?" ... it’s up next year, 2015’s going to be a big year. [Laughs]

'The Agency Group'

O'Hanley: It kind of came out of the song that was just playing [in the coffee shop], “Sunday Morning” by Velvet Underground. That kind of groove. It was originally faster, and sort of the New Order tempo. Thematically it’s only incidentally related to the booking agency of the same name. It’s more of a setting thing than any sort of comment on the musical booking agency. We had that one for a while. I had the chorus done and Molly finally came around and wrote a really nice verse for it. It’s another nice sort of Teenage Fanclub rip.

Rankin: The verse sort of spawned out of my love for the band Women from Calgary. That, I guess, would the closest reference to Women on our record, even though I was completely enamoured with Public Strain. I don’t want anyone to ever think that I think it sounds like Women, but I was trying to channel Pat Flegel.

O'Hanley: You’ve said a few times that’s sort of your favourite. I know you have a rolling list going.

Rankin: It’s my favourite song. I think it was the best recording on the record. [They exchange glances.]

O'Hanley: We have no idea. We’re not entitled to an opinion. We’re not the sober second thought like the Senate; we don’t have an objective opinion on what’s good.

Rankin: I hate all the songs, I don’t even know why we’re doing this. [O'Hanley laughs]


O'Hanley: That was a super quick write. I’d bought this weird sort-of church organ from Value Village with a drum machine on it in Charlottetown and I hauled it up the apartment stairs and Molly said, "What the hell is this?" and I just kept luggin’ it and we were mucking around on it. We just started playing a ridiculous progression and Molly started singing like Celine Dion and that was basically the song. It’s kind of an interesting loop in the bridge. I dig it, I don’t know.

Rankin: The bridge was really hard for me to track on guitar. I couldn’t really wrap my mind around it.

O'Hanley: It’s our prog bridge. It’s as proggy as we get. It was one of those Winter Bay, Prince Edward Island-informed songs. Pretty bleak. But ultimately sort of churchy. It feels pure and sort of sacred, almost. It’s one of the purer songs on the record and it definitely benefitted from Chad’s two cents. He really dug into some of the sparser, minimalist tunes. It came out pretty quickly and intact, and it’s nice when a song gets to the magic zone that quickly. You don’t really have to pull teeth like you usually do.

'Atop a Cake'

Rankin: That song was sort of about being in Montreal in minus 30 weather, searching for a non-existent taco shack. Do you have any comment on that?

O'Hanley: No, I liked it. It’s kind of a Trudeau nod, the elder, RIP, keeping the state out of people’s bedrooms. It weaves a few disparate strands. I don’t know why you handed me the mic when I have my mouth full.

Rankin: It is a wedding reference. I think I was a bit obsessed with weddings, which is something that we all struggle with in our late 20s when all our friends get married and become very boring.

O'Hanley: We were chopping up Life magazines and so much of those ads are rooted in the typical imagery of white and black, bride and groom, and all the disgusting pineapple cakes and stuff from that era.

'Red Planet'

Rankin: I was a bit obsessed with Chris Ware at the time. This song was written on a tiny keyboard, that’s a cliché, with a little funny beat underneath it. It was Acme Novelty Library No. 19, I think, about Mars, that was surrealism and I didn’t really get it but I thought I got it. Chris Ware, if you’re out there, this song is for you. Please hang out with us.

Click here to purchase Alvvays.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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