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An Interview with Alvvays

6 April 2015

Photo by Shervin Lainez

By Chris Zakorchemny

For Alvvays, the summer of 2015 holds festival dates, a headlining tour across the world, all preceded by a spring warm-up tour opening music halls for The Decemberists. If this seems like a quick rise in the pecking order, it is. Their debut album Alvvays came out last July, and they could now headline for just about anyone they opened for last year…in a bigger venue. That’s quite a feat for what redditers say “isn’t anything special,” and that YouTube music reviewer guy says is ”not terrible, not awful music.”

Writing a great pop song rarely requires doing anything unconventional, and sometimes recalls the best of what has already been done. The trick is making it sound new again. The beauty of a song like “Marry Me, Archie,” is that by the time the last chorus comes in, you’re humming the words. For a band that gets a lot of references to the sounds of C-86, it’s worth noting that much of that music is a reaction to the sickeningly sweet Britpop of the ‘80s (as far as the compilation goes as a reference, it’s one they disagree with, but a compilation they enjoy). Lead singer Molly Rankin once said that she almost mistakenly wrote a Lady Gaga song when trying to write new music for Alvvays. Perhaps a subtle nod to the aesthetics of the C-86 era, Alvvays enjoys a good hook while taking lyrical digs at some personal, quiet tragedies of the status quo.

In interviews, members of the band talk fondly about Dolly Mixture and The Primitives, two British bands that have a sound so worth imitating, it rarely happens; it’s no small trick to have someone humming the chorus before a song is done. Alvvays may be the medium between Dolly Mixture’s obsession with vocal harmonies and gritty production values, and The Primitives’ head on guitar blast with a vocal confidence that runs even louder.

Typically, a band has one or two people who do the bulk of their media interviews, leaving out a lot of opportunities to learn what informs a collaborative musical effort. I was able to coax most of Alvvays into doing an interview over some vegan food in Philadelphia. When I arrived at the venue to meet them, their tour manager told me they had gone through a day of rigorous interviews, so I decided to approach my time with them in a less serious, but perhaps even more informative manner.

What makes you happy?

ALEC O’HANLEY: Food…didn’t someone ask you this? Not in an interview, but just some regular dude.

KERRI MACLELLAN: Oh, I think I said something about food. A burrito. …Days off are happy, like today.

MOLLY RANKIN: Waking up in the city that you play in.

PHIL MACISAAC: Yeah, you don’t have to go anywhere. You can just have a morning, or an afternoon. Any day not in the van is source of happiness.

I feel like you’re saying “Any day on the outside…is a good day.”

PHIL: (laughs) Basically. Our traveling jail.

MOLLY: Or when a Yelp interview checks out.

I wasn’t sure about bringing you guys here because recent Yelp reviews say the service has gone downhill.

ALEC: That’s fine. We’re used to shit service in Toronto, like, “It’s cool to be a dick.”

What makes you angry?

KERRI: Shit service. (laughs)

MOLLY: Ostentatious anti-vegetarian people.

ALEC: Yeah, they’ll be eating meat right in your face and describing how tasty it is.

MOLLY: Well, people who think it’s hilarious. It’s like, this weird wave of ironic… “I eat all the parts of meat. I eat meat on meat on meat. Fuck vegetarians!” You know; that kind of attitude. All that energy – I don’t like it.

KERRI: Vegetarians can be like that too.

ALEC: Yeah, but they have the environment on their side. We have like 900 days to save the environment – until 2017 – and you’re gorging yourself on turducken and saying how good it is. That would make one angry.

Is that true, about 900 days?

ALEC: Yeah, until the two degree temperature change point.

PHIL: Like the tipping point?

ALEC: Yep. We have to change the way we do everything in two years or it’s totally fireball fucked, like it’s going to go up six degrees.

KERRI: I think we’re going to do a good job.

PHIL: (laughs) Yeah, humans are really capable of banding together to accomplish things.

ALEC: It’s like how in Shanghai, kids wear breathing-masks with cartoon characters on them. That’s how ingrained it is to accept that.

When I was living in China, I got a chance to visit Beijing. On the days that I was there, the pollution was like fog; it was that close to the ground. You could not see a block ahead of you.

ALEC: How is that acceptable?

It was very common to see people wearing industrial-grade breathing masks, likes ones you might have for a job that dealt with chemical fumes all day.

ALEC: And kids have ones that make them look like elephants, or manga characters. Mind you, if Chinese people lived like Canadians, it’d be three times as bad.

MOLLY: I heard that Canadians waste more water than anyone on Earth.

ALEC: We are so wasteful. We are the pigs of the Earth.

(Raises glass of water to toast)

Let’s drink to that…

What was your favorite band in high school?

MOLLY: Oasis.

KERRI: Oasis, Weezer

PHIL: Radiohead was a favorite, too. In the ladder half of high school, I was into The Strokes, The Hives

MOLLY: All I know is I liked Our Lady Peace.

There we go. That’s the embarrassing stuff I want to hear.

ALEC: Junior high was a little more embarrassing.

MOLLY: I have embarrassing college music I liked…

Well, what were the first alternative bands you liked that led you into the music you’re into now?

ALEC: Neutral Milk Hotel would be a gateway band. Pavement, I started listening to in grade 10. Built to Spill

MOLLY: Alanis Morissette

ALEC: We listened to Jagged Little Pill yesterday.

PHIL: It went down very smooth.

MOLLY: Pretty weird listen.

KERRI: Yeah. Amazing, but…

PHIL: “Head Over Feet” still kicks balls.

KERRI: What really impressed me was the a capella at the end.

I think my answers would be more embarrassing. My favorite band in high school was Jimmy Eat World.

MOLLY: That’s not embarrassing!

ALEC: “The Middle?” Still Great.

Then I started to get into emo.

ALEC: Like Saves the Day, and Dashboard Confessional?

PHIL: Reggie and the Full Effect, Me First and the Gimme Gimmies, No Use for a Name

MOLLY: Emo was huge, it’s just a certain group of people would say it’s not cool.

I guess you’re right. There’s been a resurgence of interest in the genre in the past few years.

ALEC: Our label, Polyvinyl, just re-released the American Football record. That was playing when we got to the venue tonight – The Boot and Saddle – it sounded good. Brian was having a real nostalgic trip.

PHIL: It’s weird to see him get excited.

I remember three or four years ago, I was interviewing The Vivian Girls and I was a little confused they had gotten signed to what I had thought was a label just known for putting out emo records.

KERRI: Does Polyvinyl really have the reputation, though?

They used to. Like, that American Football record was really important. They had other important emo bands like Rainer Maria, and Pele, although I guess they’d always been interested in off-beat indie rock.

ALEC: They have Of Montreal, and Deerhoof just came out with a new one.

KERRI: (old person voice) “They just came out with a new one!” (everyone laughs)

Do you really call Canadian money “Loonies?”

MOLLY: And toonies. Toonies is the latest edition. That’s a bad idea.

ALEC: What’s wrong with loonies?

Somebody told me that and I couldn’t believe it!

KERRI: Oh, there’s no other word for it. It’s not even slang.

ALEC: You wouldn’t even call it a one-dollar coin.

Now I know that you can officially call Canadian money crazy. I’m interested to know: What do you think is the best thing about America?

KERRI: Whole Foods.

PHIL: Spacious Hotels.

ALEC: The best thing is…

MOLLY: Obama!

ALEC: He gets shit on a lot. He’s fighting the good fight.

MOLLY: Except for the drones.

ALEC: Except for the drones.

What’s the w…

MOLLY: Flaming hot! Ah! The best thing about America: flaming hot Cheetos.

ALEC: They’re slightly better than Obama. (laughs) They’re radioactive.

KERRI: They’re insane.

What’s the worst thing about America?

ALEC: Mitch McConnell.

MOLLY: A lot of political things, like guns. They’re out of control.

Okay, I have one semi-serious question. It seems like your band’s sound gets attached to the C-86 compilation, and I don’t think that’s completely accurate. Maybe you have something in common with British indie-pop, but I don’t think people actually know what bands on C-86 sound like.

ALEC: We kind of sound like the first band on C-86 but most of the compilation is pretty scatter-shot.

I would say the sound isn’t as loud and fast as C-86 bands, but maybe more like Labrador or Shelflife Records’ Swedish pop bands: something more romantic.

MOLLY: Yeah.

ALEC: It’s true. You can’t really set what people are going to latch onto. A lot of people will be like “It’s like Best Coast mixed with Camera Obscura.” I read that like 400 times.

KERRI: That’s even more the case than the C-86 thing.

Another thing I see a lot in interviews with Molly, is people asking about her family’s band (The Rankin Family Band). Is that something you grow tired of talking about?

MOLLY: I don’t care. I can’t care. There’s no point, because I don’t want to be a brat about it.

My thought was that if you’ve answered questions about your family’s music once, why do you have to again and again?

MOLLY: Old people ask me more than young people. I prefer to do not too many interviews with old people.

ALEC: Old Canadian people. How are the veggie wings?

MOLLY: So hot. How was your veggie cheesesteak?

ALEC: It was good.

KERRI: We did the right thing.

ALEC: Yeah, you never think like “Oh, that salad in Philly was so unbelievable.”

PHIL: A salad I had in Brooklyn was unbelievable. A golden beet salad.

MOLLY: I dare you… (pushes her veggie wings to the middle of the table)

ALEC: Oh my dear Lord! Ha, sorry…

What kind of questions would you like to never be asked again?

MOLLY: I don’t like “So, how long has it been since you started recording the record?”

KERRI: Yeah, there’s a big expectation to have another record.

MOLLY: The week we put out the record, people were like “So, any new stuff coming out?”

ALEC: No band wants to talk about their name, because they’re usually meaningless, but it’s inevitable.

I learned about your name pretty quickly. I used to call you “all-vuh-vays” at first.

KERRI: It’s fine.

ALEC: Now you’re in the club. The club of people that know how to say it. It’s easier than !!! (chk chk chk). …Oh my god, this is so hot! (coughs, starts blowing his nose)

The wings are that hot?

MOLLY: Kerri, do it.

KERRI: It’s too scary.

(Everyone but Kerri leaves to grab more napkins)

The venue you played last time, Johnny Brenda’s, is probably my favorite venue in Philly.

KERRI: That was a really good show. Not that we played really amazing but the vibes were really amazing there.

The intimacy and sound quality is great there.

KERRI: It has a really interesting shape, too. What is Boot & Saddle like?

Still really good sound. In a way, it’s maybe even more intimate because the stage is lower to the ground and there’s no barrier between the stage and audience.

MOLLY: Oh my god, dividers are funny. At the Real Estate shows we played, there were barriers like six feet from the stage.

Did the venue know what Real Estate sound like?

KERRI: Yeah, like, Real Estate: chillest band ever.

I want to try an activity where you all come up with a playlist on the spot. The way it will work is, we’ll start with one person, and you’ll name a song, and then onto the next person who names a song, and so on. Eventually, by the end of this, we’ll have some idea of what music each member of Alvvays enjoys listening to.

ALEC: Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”

MOLLY: Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry – “Johnny & Mary”

PHIL: The Notwist – “One with the Freaks”

(Kerri looks through her iPod for some music…it’s taking a while…)

Did you have fun in Europe, or was it just a trek through?

MOLLY: We had some fun times. We rented a car when we got to Ireland and drove up the coast, and it was amazing. We found cute dogs. We found a huge beach. It was very beautiful.

PHIL: What’s your pick?

KERRI: Yo La Tengo – “Nowhere Near”

(points to Molly)

MOLLY: “Johnny & Mary!”

It’s the second round!

KERRI: The loser has to eat the last veggie wing.

MOLLY: Is it too soon to pick a Sun Kil Moon song?

KERRI: Yeah, they’re banned.

You know, I love Mark Kozalek, but it’s really hard to like him right now with him hating on The War on Drugs.

KERRI: We talk about that sometimes.

MOLLY: What’s that song…(sings in a twangy country tone) “Sorry that I could never love you back…”

ALEC: Carry Me, Ohio?

MOLLY: That’s the one.

MOLLY: Sun Kil Moon – “Carry Me, Ohio”

PHIL: Chad VanGaalen – “Willow Tree”

ALEC: You’re gonna be eating that wing…

ALEC: Cleaners from Venus – “Only a Shadow”

(KERRI looks for music on the iPod again)

KERRI: Alvvays? (laughs)

MOLLY: One time Alec’s parents had a party for us. We were playing a show at PEI (Prince Edward Island) for the first time in a really long time, and we came home one day in the summer and they had all the parents over, a pool, and nice food, and when we got there after soundcheck, they were playing our record outside the pool area and inside, and it was mortifying.

PHIL: It sucked.

MOLLY: We were like “What the hell!?” And Alec’s dad was like “What?! It’s great!”

Are you ever surprised by how far your music has traveled? Like, the fact that there are people in Japan who know who you are.

ALEC: Yeah, we have a label in Japan. P-Vine.

What?! How do you spell that?

ALEC: P-dash-vine.

KERRI: Oh, I thought you said “T.”

ALEC: No, “P.”

KERRI: “T?” (laughs)

ALEC: Yeah, T-Vine. (laughs)

KERRI: Women – “Eyesore”

Final playlist:
ALEC: Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”

MOLLY: Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry – “Johnny & Mary”

PHIL: The Notwist – “One with the Freaks”

KERRI: Yo La Tengo – “Nowhere Near”

MOLLY: Sun Kil Moon – “Carry Me, Ohio”

PHIL: Chad VanGaalen – “Willow Tree”

ALEC: Cleaners from Venus – “Only a Shadow”

KERRI: Women – “Eyesore”