Can’t Get It Out of My Head:
Bobby Moore Has ALVVAYS on His Mind
Toronto indie-pop quintet Alvvays’ ascension to the top of the U.S. college radio chart last year, and the equally desirable opening spot they have on the Decemberists’ current tour, seemed to land in their laps overnight. But considering singer and guitarist Molly Rankin’s family ties, her longstanding collaboration with high school friends Kerri MacLellan (keyboards, vocals) and Alec O’Hanley (guitar), and the two-year wait for their debut album to be released, the band’s wistful and clever take on pop perfection, and recent success, took shape via time and effort.
Rankin’s last name carried some weight in Canadian music before Alvvays’ emergence thanks to award-winning, multi-platinum Celtic, country and folk outfit the Rankin Family. The group featured Molly’s father, John Morris Rankin, and his siblings and found some chart success in the ‘90s. Rankin was not alone growing up around traditional Scottish music in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, as she learned when she met MacLellan at a young age. “Both Kerri and I have a childhood full of Celtic music which is symptomatic of growing up in Cape Breton,” she said. “Instead of meeting boys at parties, we were going to Scottish square dances with old people. We are in a very different place now, but the old Celtic instincts are hard to kick.”
As the story often goes, small town kids in Rankin, MacLellan and O’Hanley left the old-fashioned behind for the big city and forged their own musical legacy, moving to Toronto in 2011 and connecting there with like-minded musicians. Before forming in 2012, the members of Alvvays’ creative pursuits were different from the music from their childhoods or the indie rock that would soon set them apart from their peers. “Alec and Phil (MacIsaac, drums) played in Strokesy powerpop projects, Brian (Murphy, bass) was putting his jazz degree to use in Toronto and I was trying to channel Roy Orbison and Paul Simon,” Rankin said. “Kerri was likely painting something when we started bothering her to play with us.” This Roy Orbison emulation can be heard on Rankin’s 2010 solo E.P., She.
With a five-piece lineup in place, the band ironed out its own brand of indie-pop. Neither cheery twee music nor overly sad and introspective, Alvvays’ sound is beautiful without taking itself too seriously and tongue in cheek without being a self-loathing joke. While they do not fit a specific indie-pop mode, it is not hard to imagine Slumberland or Sarah Records loyalists gravitating toward this band.
These and other observations about the band’s sound are shrugged off by Rankin. “I’ve never seen the point of hyper-hyphenated subgenre categorization,” she explained. “You get people putting the words ‘doom’ and ‘sludge’ and all sorts of silly descriptors in front of their base genre. It’s all a bit foolish.”
How then does Rankin categorize her band’s sound, which surely is never compared to the guttural sounds of “doom” and “sludge”? “We value the irreverent and avoid posturing,” she said. “We’ve absolutely listened to our fair share of Teenage Fanclub and our taste frequently hovers around mid-80s and early ’90s, with some American college rock and UK guitar pop. Our record sounds like pop recorded to tape.”
That capturing of fleeting pop moments, with only loose ties to preexisting genre tropes, was issued last year by Polyvinyl Records. The release of the album, paired with two music videos, cued the hype the band still enjoys nearly a year later. “Things started to pick up after we released our video for ‘Adult Diversion’,” Rankin said. “People around us had been bugging us to release the record because Toronto had already heard it, but we were patient. ‘Archie’ came out the week the record dropped and blew the doors off our expectations.”
Aside from some buzz created by live footage on YouTube of “Archie, Marry Me,” the band was a relative unknown outside of Toronto before its self-titled debut dropped last July. While the album, recorded in 2012 and shelved until it had a label to call home, was hardly new to the band, it would be both a fresh and rewarding listen for critics and fans alike. The immediate success in the United States that followed culminated with the top spot on the CMJ 200 list on August 5. “I’m unable to explain why we hit number one on the US charts but not in our own country,” Rankin said. “It’s nice to know that college kids still like to listen to pop songs with words in them.”’
Honors on the home front have come pouring in after Alvvays’ breakout year, including nominations for JUNO awards in the “Breakthrough Group of the Year” and “Alternative Group of the Year” categories. The band failed to win in either category, losing at the March 15 awards show to major label backed Magic! and Toronto peers July Talk, respectively. Despite the losses, being nominated for the Canadian equivalent of Grammys was quite an honor, considering that a year prior the band were relative unknowns.
Despite the success of the two lead singles, perhaps the best example of Alvvays’ sound is “Party Police.” It’s no surprise that this near solid example of Rankin’s pop storytelling talent is based on a true story which, despite the band’s polite Canadian exterior, is about corrupt cops. “I was listening to a fair amount of Sparklehorse at the time and feeling claustrophobic about where I was living,” she said. “The story played out like a bit of a high school love narrative, but the song was originally fueled by a violent encounter with some Cape Breton cops. The officers fibbed about a lot of things that happened that night in their statements to justify what they did to Alec and I, and that was a really painful, eye-opening experience for me.”
Album success has led to constant touring and a special place in the Toronto scene. But before the hype, the band struggled to get noticed in their hometown. “Our manager is a real go-getter, but we started without a leg in the door,” Rankin explained. “I do come from a successful folk family, but that holds little weight in our current realm. We showed up cliqueless in Toronto without any who’s-who connections. We weren’t comfortable promoting our own shows, so we were a tough sell for promoters. Gradually, we found some sort of presence on our own terms, partly due to radio play. I think that’s why we get to travel around to nice places with creative people.”
After touring consistently to promote an already popular album, including a stint in Europe late last year with Real Estate and Foxygen, the band got an opportunity to go on a high-profile tour with the Decemberists. With their tour mates making their first trek across the States since 2011, promoting their own hyped album, tour dates include stops at large venues. The tour ends with a two-night stand at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, April 10-11. It’ll be a different experience from the band’s last Atlanta show at the tiny Drunken Unicorn, but Rankin sees the benefit in playing venues of different types and sizes. “We had a great time at the Drunken Unicorn because people brought the boogie,” she said. “The crowd in attendance is usually more of a deciding factor than the actual venue. We’ve never played for seated people, so the Decemberists tour will be a new challenge. Playing bars has its benefits – if the crowd has beer ears we can get away with more Replacementsesque sloppiness. All-ages shows require a little more orchestration, but they are generally the most fun nights.”
High-profile tours in other countries leave little time to write and record new songs. Still, Alvvays is not resting on its debut album laurels. “It’ll be exciting to start recording new songs when not in this perma-touring state of disarray,” Rankin explained, “A couple of demos have been documented, and we’ve been guinea pigging a few live.”
Regardless of what new music follows, Alvvays’ first album was worth a two-year wait and justifies the rewards the band has reaped since last summer. And if this follow-up set of songs keeps the band on course, then opening for the Decemberists’ current curtain jerkers on future tours may become a new hype band measuring stick.
Photo by Gavin Keen.