From Canada to Oxford, they Alvvays impress

Life

It’s one of the coldest days of the year in Oxford so far and I’m shivering as I climb the steps of the O2 Academy with Alvvays’s Tour Manager. Inside, I find Molly Rankin, the band’s guitarist and singer, and Alec O’Hanley, lead guitarist and activator of drum machines, relaxing in loose summery clothes. The depths of the Oxford winter are clearly nothing compared to the plummeting temperatures of their home city of Toronto. Rankin smiles and offers me a bottle of water as I unwrap my layers upon layers and fumble with recording equipment.

She seems to embody the band’s music perfectly: incredibly friendly and cheerful but also with a slightly melancholy and very clever edge. Compared to his bandmate, O’Hanley is less extroverted and chipper but as the interview goes on it becomes clear how well they work together; his Canadian drawl and attitude reflects the self-awareness and concealed grit of their music. Despite their general critical acclaim and position on various best of 2014 lists (‘Archie, Marry Me’ was a fairly popular pick amongst some music blogs as the best song of 2014), they’re not without their criticism, as nothing is in our post-internet age, something that O’Hanley acknowledges:

“I think as a pop band, as a guitar pop band, you’re automatically at a structural disadvantage in some critical venues, which is fine; that’s just the climate in 2015 I think. I dunno, we’ve been bowled over and overwhelmed by fans and don’t really try to pay too much heed to critics – you never know what they ate for breakfast that morning.” Rankin also seems to follow that golden rule of ‘Don’t Read the Comments’, saying,
“We’ve been pretty lucky. We haven’t had any really rotten reviews, like not too many, although we kind of just stopped reading pretty much everything.” O’Hanley backs this up again,
“Yeah, there are a few trolls living under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn that kind of pick on us but part from that it’s been cool for a while.”

They have a lot to say about Toronto and its music scene, which is flourishing at the moment. It’s somewhat the centre of Canadian music nowadays, “We’re from the East coast of Canada but we all moved to Toronto – we moved there because we were travelling way too much to get to Toronto!” Rankin admits. O’Hanley likewise sings its praises:
“It’s the best scene in Canada probably right now, I would say. It’s not as romanticised as Montreal, for instance, but it’s also not as cliquey as in Montreal, you know. It’s more diverse and there are less barriers; we can go on tour with Hardcore bands called Fucked Up and nobody really bats an eye and we hop off and play with soft pop rockers Real Estate the next week – no one’s too precious about genre”
It looks like Hardcore stalwarts Fucked Up are like the fairy godparents of Toronto at the moment, as Rankin continues talking about their touring together,

“Ben Cooke and Mike Haliechuk in Fucked Up work a lot with young bands in Toronto and so I think Mike just asked us”, to which O’Hanley agrees, “Yeah, they’re pretty eclectic and we made pot cookies with Sandy, she’s the bassist, she’s really nice. It’s fun, they’re kind of a microcosm of the whole Toronto thing – they’re super super dysfunctional but, y’know, they make great songs.”

One of the most obvious things about the pair is how immersed they are in the music, partially helped through the Toronto scene, Rankin has a lot to recommend,
“There’s a band called Team Anger that are really cool in Toronto, Graze too, and a band that we toured with called Absolutely Free.” Their range of influences is massive, from obscure British post-punk to old-fashioned surf pop (“we’re as big a Beach Boys fans as anyone”). Rankin’s usual joy at the world grows more when I mention the contrast in their poppy melodies and dark lyrics:
“Who do I love? I love Stephen Merritt from the Magnetic Fields; he’s a genius. I don’ t know, I love Belle and Sebastian, anything with thoughtful lyrics, it’s always been important to me.”
The surf pop influence came up when we talked about the band’s imagery, which, in their music videos especially, seems focused around water, and it’s where their background really shows through, as Rankin says,
“It’s what separates Canada – coastal regions versus like plains and farm, and that’s very much part of our identity: growing up near bodies of water and it being, y’know, immensely shitty due to altitude and the water – it just gets so much colder.” It’s all these things that add up to their specific breed of secretly dark pop, although a lot of it seems to be almost subconscious:
“Yeah, it’s funny when people mention aesthetic. It’s not a huge part of what we think about by any means we’re really just trying to… I was gonna say stay afloat.”

Halfway through the interview Kerri MacLellan, the keyboardist in the band, wanders into the room and swiftly leaves again when she sees I’m here. “She’s shy,” says Rankin, with a tone in her voice that develops from being the more outgoing of a pair of long-term friends,
“Kerri and I went all through like primary to grade 12 together then she went to art school and I went to theatre university, then I moved to the island that [Alec] lived on and we were all shivering in wintertime. Then, again, we thought it was time to leave our respective cities so we moved at the same time and then the following summer, we were in South by South West and she was supposed to come on vacation and ended up playing keys with us and that sounds really stupid like ‘that’s just how it happens’, but it really is.”
They acknowledge the dire state the music industry is in at the moment, and O’Hanley talks about their experience with the smaller, more indie venues that they started off on. “Where we’re from it’s hard to find all ages venues for instance, which we’re strong supporters of, so yeah, of course that’s a no brainer – we’re on board for helping people like that. You wanna have places to play, you want places for kids to hang out that aren’t dark, needle-strewn alleys… Some of those venues are under attack too y’know by gentrification and condo-ication. The Silver Dollar in Toronto, for instance, it recently got a heritage designation and that can be a valuable tool for small venues like that to save them from the wrecking ball.”

One of the problems with these small venues closing down especially means that smaller bands who are just starting up don’t have somewhere to get used to shows; Rankin talks nostalgically about their early days:
“We came from a backpass situation too where we played like to a handful of people like, I dunno, fifteen times in Toronto at tiny places that made no money, we made no money, and we’re fine with it. And that was like sort of how we gradually built relationships with people, with other people in bands, I think it’s so important to also have that time of growth like where people, you’re not in front of 500 people immediately who are judging you and you like, you have a chance to grow without like a blog criticising you or something, you know?”
Obviously, with the internet, things have definitely changed, and while they say that they’re fairly traditionalist, Rankin does talk about this new era of making music:
“I guess you do have to be creative, I don’t know if we’ve necessarily figured out how to, I don’t know if anyone’s figured out how to do it right now, but I think it’s cool that people are finding new ways of sharing music and finding ways of making work cause it certainly doesn’t with like 90% of artists”

While she’s largely optimistic, O’Hanley takes a more sceptical eye to it, crowdfunding especially. “It is a direct link with the people who want to see your record and feel like they have a stake in it, theoretically it’s a good thing. I don’t know about the whole Amanda Palmer thing, part of that seems a bit gimmicky and exploitative and a bit of a shtick so… using it in that manner kind of repels us a little bit.”

Alvvays seem about as authentic a band as they come. They’re a bunch of good friends making great music inspired by whomever they like, right in the middle of one of the most fertile music scenes around today, and I’ve never laughed more in an interview. After we officially finish, O’Hanley offers me a beer and we chat for a bit longer about drum machines, Cowley Road and student journalism. Then, as they trek off in search of a cheap dinner, I’m left with a distinctly Canadian warmth in my heart, and an overwhelming desire to move to Toronto.

PHOTO/ Gavin Keen

 

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