Alvvays on “Antisocialites” - The Full Q&A Interview

The Luxury of No One Caring

Sep 06, 2017 Photography by Arden Wray Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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It's time-honored wisdom that sophomore albums are more difficult to record than a band's debut and this certainly appears to be the case for the Toronto-based band Alvvays and their sophomore album Antisocialites. We spoke with singer Molly Rankin about the differences between it and their 2014-released self-titled debut, as well as touching upon why there was a three-year wait between albums, Rankin's experiences playing with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub (who appears on the new album), singing with The Jesus and Mary Chain at a festival in Australia, and her lack of desire to conform to expectations. Rankin grew up on the remote Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton before forming Alvvays in Toronto in 2011 alongside guitarist Alec O'Hanley, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, and bassist Brian Murphy. The band's sound has been described as jangle-pop and Rankin's vocals often compared to Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell, but fans of late '80s British indie will recognize groups from that era such as The Primitives as a formative influence on the group as well. [Note: This is the full Q&A of our interview with Rankin, including quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Alvvays.]

Matthew Berlyant (Under the Radar): The Undertones sang "it's not so easy knowing we'll be heard" and "a lot less time, but a lot more care" on "More Songs About Chocolate and Girls," the opening track of their second album Hypnotised when talking about the difference between writing and recording their debut as opposed to their sophomore album. Was it similar for you in terms of writing and recording Antisocialites as opposed to your debut?

Molly Rankin: When we made our first record, you do have that luxury of no one caring, but it's also a problem. We didn't have very much support. I think I had two jobs, maybe a third job, when we were recording and mastering that record. With this record, we have three labels, the Canadian privilege of being eligible of government funding, and so I guess that it's like a new painting whereas we've done something before and that previous painting is always gonna be on the wall staring at you. That seems to be something in my mind that has never left in terms of how to move forward without alienating the first piece of music we put out. The first record, we had to scrape 10K off of, we hit the tape too hard and there's a lot of digital distortion. Thus, it sounds like you're listening to our band through a pillow and this one is a little more clear and the veil has been slightly lifted. At some point I had to stop saying that I'm a singer out of necessity. When people are coming to see you and buying tickets, I had to admit to myself that I'm a singer. I still like vocal effects and they're fun to play with, but I say that I'm less self-conscious about bearing my voice. We had a lot of fun making the record, but it took a lot of time to give the songs the best possible sonic documents and sometimes we had to go back through our demos to see what was charming and what worked. In some cases, it was taking things out of the demos and popping them into files to make it feel right. The sound of a forming thought can be quite magical. I'm not afraid of demo chasing. I think we fully embrace it. That's why I can listen to the record and feel good about it. We didn't go down many rabbit holes to try to find what works well for us. That was a long spiel. Maybe the first single ["In Undertow"] isn't the best representation of the vocals sounding dry and hot. They're swimming around in a lot of different things. I feel a lot better about it. I don't have anything to hide. When you tour for three years and board mixes are just popped into the Internet for the end of time, you just have to live with the way your voice sounds without that stuff. Maybe that's part of the growing process, to be comfortable with not having those details covered because people will just record you on your phone at a concert and behind the monitor. Whoa (a beautiful Siberian husky puppy just walked by me)! A lot of that stuff is out of your hands, so I'm not gonna use that as an excuse anymore. You sort of have to own it.

I know that Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub is on your new record. I know he's lived in Toronto for a while now and I'm wondering how that came about and if he's a fan of yours?

We're huge Teenage Fanclub fans as well. I don't know how we were introduced to him. I think it was through email, which isn't the most romantic way to meet someone, but he came to one of our shows. We sang [Teenage Fanclub's] "Alcoholiday" with him and played with him and that was sort of a foggy dream that I didn't think would ever occur. He's just so kind and I think we were maybe talking about doing a 7-inch since he's into recording other artists and collaborating and he came down to our basement one day and laid down some vocals on that single that you heard. He's obviously got a beautiful voice, so we're grateful that he's not a recluse or anything like that.

Hardly as he's played with Joe Pernice in The New Mendicants and then Teenage Fanclub played here last year and he had another band called Jonny. Can you tell me what the inspiration behind "Plimsoll Punks" was? It's my favorite song on the record.

I was listening to "Part Time Punks" [Television Personalities], which is a song I love. In a way, there's a lot of focus on authenticity in music sometimes and having the freedom to grow and reinvent yourself is part of the freedom to grow as a musician or any kind of artist. I'm just intrigued by the idea of punk and what people define it as. I think it's a really tired way of validating something depending on how people voice their opinions. I just really like to write pop songs and I don't really care what genre that is. I feel like coming from Cape Breton, I only listened to fiddle and Celtic music and whatever was on the radio and I've gone through a lot of stages of growth and change. I'm making the music I'm making now, but that might change in five years.... I think that being in a band right now where everything you do has a comments section or some sort of critical write-up or is subjected to some kind of litmus test, though we're lucky to have that kind of attention and following; that's a way for me to channel my frustration at all the scrutiny that comes with being in a band in 2017.

I read that you sang "Just Like Honey" with The Jesus and Mary Chain. I looked it up and it was at the Spectrum Now festival in Australia last year. I know that you wrote "Lollipop" and that is subtitle is "Ode to Jim," so if could you describe those experiences.

Usually they just ask bands on a given bill or bands who happen to be part of that festival to sing that specific part of that song, so that's not something I knew I'd be doing in advance. I had to run across their stage at soundcheck and do my best. I wasn't sure if it was good or bad, so I did the show. We did two shows where I did that part. It's quite surreal, even hearing the intro drum beat since it's so iconic, and they're still such a great live band. I watched both whole sets and thoroughly enjoyed their stage presence and their sound. It was a really special moment for me. I didn't talk to any of them except at the end when we said goodbye and so I didn't know what their thoughts were on anything. They were super kind and not at all what I expected, so I wrote that song in a playful way as a nod to them being so sweet to me. I'm pretty sure I came in flat both times.

Do you think that your background [she is the daughter of a fiddler in The Rankin Family, who were very famous in Canada during the '90s] has influenced how you're perceived in Canada?

It's definitely something that I've had to be very comfortable talking about. It's not something that I'm trying to escape at all, but I didn't feel like it was all that relevant to what I was doing. If people found out and made the connection, I always enjoyed that people found it to be a pleasant surprise. I didn't think it would be some kind of angle, though, but I think that's what people drew from our first round of record press. I like to be quiet about my family life, but I think it's cool that people find out after the fact and a lot of people in the U.S. don't even know who they are, but I still do feel connected to Cape Breton.

I wanted to ask you about "Archie, Marry Me." I would've chosen "Party Police" as the one to be the big breakthrough from the first record as that's my favorite song on it. Do you have a special fondness for it?

I love that song. It's a really hard song to sing. That sort of emerged as some sort of not quite a deep cut. The weird thing about the first record is that it was out for a long time and I don't think we did any proper single release. People just chose what they liked best and it found its way onto radio. Maybe I'm being ignorant about that, but I think that they sort of just emerged on their own because I feel like we didn't have anything going for a long time when it was already accessible to a lot of people, or at least I felt that way. It's very much a sleeper hit and of course the word "hit" is an overstatement, but yeah I think the singles in a strange way chose themselves. I guess at a certain point the videos you make sort of dictate that in the view of the Internet. Things like that have to be so much more planned, so they're different now. This is a new thing for us.

Why was there a three-year gap between albums? I assume it's because of all the touring you did for the first album. Or were there other reasons?

I'm not the most prolific writer. I don't really force it, but we did tour for too long on that record and we could've toured longer. No one will tell you to stop touring. You just have to start refusing to do shows so you'll have time to make something new and we kind of learned that the hard way. It also takes us a long time to record. We're quite particular. It may not sound that way, but it takes a lot of time for us to get to the point where we're comfortable with how it sounds. We did a large chunk of recording in Los Angeles and that went well. When we got home, we realized that we had a lot more to do. I don't really like to rush just because people are looking at their watches. I also needed some time alone, which is what I did. I went to Toronto Island right off of Lake Ontario and took some time for myself to write. That's mainly how I get inspired [being isolated], which when you're touring for a long time, it's the opposite of isolation.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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