Alvvays: “We wanted to pull the veil back a little bit more”

It’s a cold, wet and windy day in Amsterdam when we sit down with Alvvays’ Molly Rankin and Alec O’Hanley. The pair are mere hours removed from the final date of their fully sold-out European tour, which sees a curtain call at the intimate Bitterzoet in the heart of Amsterdam. It’s been a busy period for the Canadian indie pop outfit, whose sophomore record Antisocialites has been received just as well as their self-titled debut, an album which presented the world with serene indie anthems (Archie, Marry Me) and upbeat-yet-dreamy bangers (Adult Diversion). We sat down with Rankin and O’Hanley in the comfortable lobby of a nearby hotel to discuss new music, visual identity and more.

Hey guys. How are you doing?
Rankin: Pretty good, thanks!

O’Hanley: Very well. Just wondering what the word Bitterzoet means.

It means bittersweet!
O’Hanley: Oh!

Rankin: I knew that!

O’Hanley: You did?

How has the tour been?
O’Hanley: Tour’s been great! The entire European tour has sold out, and Germany was a real blast. We took a two hour digression to get some vinyl, finally. We’ve been sold out of all our vinyl and CDs for the last five shows, so it was good.

Rankin: Utrekt, or was it Utregt?

Utrecht! With a harsh G.
Rankin: Haha, yes! Utrecht was amazing.

O’Hanley: We were nearly weeping as we walked around, so many cobblestones.

Rankin: *sobbing* Where are we? Why doesn’t this exist elsewhere? Haha

O’Hanley: It just throws the rest of the world into stark relief.

It’s such a beautiful little city.
Rankin: Also – the crowd were dancing? It was a very young crowd.

Let’s talk Antisocialites. Could you outline for me the period between finishing up your debut album and getting to work on this one?
Rankin: We didn’t completely stop touring after the first album, to be honest. There were dates spread out sporadically throughout so that everyone was still into the whole groove. We had a bunch of songs, and then we collectively realised that we wanted more. I went to an island by myself and stayed in an old classroom while writing a bunch of songs, and then I came back and worked them up with the band. It took six months or so.

You worked with John Congleton on the record. What did he bring to the table from a production perspective?
O’Hanley: He was more involved in the engineering and recording side as opposed to just overt production, to be honest. We don’t really need anyone to tell us that we have to add things to our songs; we tend to have pretty clear ideas about our songs when we head into the studio. He was really twiddling his production thumbs at certain points, haha.

Rankin: He had a really good reference brain. If you mentioned that you wanted a guitar line to sound like something in particular, he could pretty much tell you the pedal combination and guitar that you’d need to use to achieve that desired result. That was a neat skill to have; he was good for finding the sound that you want.

O’Hanley: He was a human encyclopedia.

For the lyrics, you said that you’d spent some time on an island. Where did you draw your inspiration from during that isolated period?
Rankin: A lot of it is just escapism and separating myself from people. I think I’m very much inspired by nature and weather, and that’s the way I’ve always been. My mood Is deponent on the lighting in a room, haha. It’s kind of a strange way to be, but artistically it’s good to have things readily available from which you can draw inspiration.

Since your debut came out three years ago, a lot has changed in the world. Do you think that any of this has had any impact on the way you approached aspects of Antisocialites?
Rankin: I think that a lot of the major events took place after our record was recorded, to be honest.

O’Hanley: Yeah, although we were still tracking things in our basement as of December last year and January this year. In terms of a narrative, 2016 really was a shit year and we were acutely aware of that at the time. Part of the record asks if we can still truly shut off despite what’s going on. Part of that pursuit was us being loners and not going out every time we were asked to. We’re pretty political animals for sure, but we’re not exactly soapbox people. I don’t think our fans are yearning for us to discuss fascism.

And do you think there are any key traits on Antisocialites which enable it to stand out compared to your debut?
O’Hanley: We wanted them to be sister records, so that they could sit alongside each other figuratively and literally on a shelf. Some of our favourite bands release second records which are practically mirror images of their first, but for us Antisocialites is more of a companion piece. We’re really into answer songs, which is where we pick up on loose strands from a previous record. We like sequences and stuff like that; long-term and medium-term arcs. Sonically we still don’t know what we’re doing, but we knew even less the first time around. We just had to make some wild decisions in order to make the record work and feel reasonable to us. That made our first record sound like it was behind a veil or pillow, and we wanted to pull it back a little bit more. Not completely, but just reveal a little more charm and narrative.

Alec O'Hanley, live in Amsterdam. (c) Jack Parker
Alec O’Hanley, live in Amsterdam. (c) Jack Parker

Are there any specific connections you can think of which bridge the gap between both records?
Rankin: I think that the writing on our first record was aimed a lot at trying to be a part of something, whereas the second one is about getting away from it all. It’s about leaving things behind and not looking back.

O’Hanley: There might be more yang than there is yin on this record, but there are just little threads. I hear hints of Archie, Marry Me throughout In Undertow for example. I’m not sure it’s something that we acutely, actively or explicitly register until well after the fact, but it just mutates that way.

Did you have a specific visual or artistic idea whilst you were working on Antisocialites?
O’Hanley: All we have is our taste, and we reconcile whatever we spitball and throw down on paper with that. There is a Venn diagram intersection where Molly and I’d ideas and tastes both intersect. We tend to gravitate towards the handmade and certain palettes which we gush over from time to time. The album art came together quite last minute; we were doing more research than we’d care to admit in library stacks, and we’d found something which reflected the songs and resonated with what we did.

Rankin: Alec has things he likes, and I have things I like; we just had to kill those darlings and start from scratch by finding something we’d both like and not resent the other for. We did this the day before the album art was actually due.

O’Hanley: That process of something looking good in a vacuum extends well to the sound realm. Our unreleased B-sides are fairly strong, but they just didn’t fit within the overall arc of the record for one reason or another. Similarly, we had album covers which would’ve worked for a different record, but not this one.

Some of your promo shots for this record feature just four, not five, members. What happened to your drummer, Phil?
Rankin: Phil’s gone back to school. He’s very busy studying now, but he’s still our friend and it was great to have him around while it lasted. We have a new drummer now, Sheridan from Seattle, and she’s up for touring and is just great.

O’Hanley: Sheridan is astoundingly good and just very, very human. Our drummer situation isn’t quite cut and dry. We had the same drummer on both records, and his name is Chris Dadge. He’s from Calgary, and we’ve only ever played one show with him. He’s a buddy as well.

Rankin: Yeah, we started as a drum machine band. We’ve always wrestled with the idea of a live drummer, haha.

You’ve also got ALASKALASKA out with you on this tour. Is there anything you’ve listened to lately which you’ve enjoyed?
O’Hanley: They certainly cut though the chaff. We tend to love our openers, such as Nap Eyes who we’ll be having out with us in the United States. They’re from Halifax, Nova Scotia which is also where the girls in the band are from. They’re pretty cool, in a kind of Robin Hitchcock kind of way. We’re also really into the new Ariel Pink record, and we loved the one before it too.

Bands these days often have a tough time managing to make ends meet. How do you juggle playing in Alvvays with making a sufficient living?
Rankin: Touring was about that, I think. We can’t afford to stop touring, that would be very stupid for a band like us.

O’Hanley: No one sells records anymore. We just do it by continuing to work and busting our butts. We pour as much of ourselves as we can into working on this stuff, and I think people definitely notice that. We just made a poster for next spring’s UK tour in the van this morning, and most of the artwork we put out is also produced by us. It’s often done by Molly and myself; it’s okay to treat being a musician as a proper job, something you can just work on. That includes writing, too; we really learnt that this time around. The most important thing about songwriting is simply just sitting down to, y’know, write.

I reached out to your fan community on Reddit, and I asked them to send in a few questions.
O’Hanley: You fan-sourced questions?

Yes! The questions I’m about to put to you were submitted by some of your most dedicated fans.
O’Hanley: Cool!

The first question sent in reads: Jim Guthrie and Dave Fridmann are both thanked in the liner notes. How did they contribute to the record?
O’Hanley: They were both great advisors on a mixing level. We ended up mixing half of the record by ourselves, but we really didn’t know what we were doing. Eventually we turned to people who did know what they were doing, and Jim was particularly helpful in keyboard sounds and that sort of thing. He’s more into the videogame soundtracking world these days.

Rankin: Jim is very honest. He was there with us in the basement when he straight-up told us that he felt it was 75% done.

O’Hanley: We really appreciated that level of candour. A lot of people would just tell us it sounded great, but Jim just told it as it is. Dave was able to really quickly pinpoint some technical issues with what we we were hearing and why we were hearing it. For instance, there was a mix on Not My Baby which had issues, and he would turn to us and say, “take it down to sixty hertz, this song has a real sixty hertz vibe”. It just immediately made the songs sound better, and the heavens thus really opened for us, figuratively speaking. We spent a week with Dave down at a studio between Toronto and New York City.

Rankin: He did a really good job in bringing Lollipop (Ode to Jim) back to life!

O’Hanley: Yeah! Matt, Dave’s assistant, mixed a huge part of the record together was. His studio was great; we could sit there working from noon till midnight, and after that the engineer would go home and we’d continue to rage by ourselves practically all night long. There was a disco/mirror ball which you could fire up, and all the instruments were at your disposal.

Rankin: It was like a wonderland, really.

Nice. The second question concerns the songs that you like to cover live: what is it about these artists that you enjoy and that draws you into covering them onstage?
O’Hanley: They’re good songs.

Rankin: They tend to be songs that never really got their shine on.

O’Hanley: We have an affinity for songs that should have been hit singles in alternate dimensions, I guess. It’s nice to give songs their proper due. We used to cover a Deerhunter B-side which was the catchiest song they ever wrote. It kind of varies, we tend to prefer faster covers which allow us to get our jangle on!

The final question concerns the gear you used on the new record. Did you make a lot of changes to the instrumental itinerary this time round?
Rankin: A farfisa made its way onto the record at some point.

O’Hanley: We were listening to a lot Californian stuff like The Beach Boys, and really trying to adopt that surf-mode. We nerded out on various reverbs too, but I think the pedalboards generally stayed the same.

Rankin: I also played on this hilarious, fake Les Paul at one point too! Haha.

O’Hanley: Yeah, you got your faux-Jimmy Page on. But yeah, Molly also played a little bit of fiddle on this record in various styles. It was your Dad’s fiddle, right?

Rankin: My great grandma’s! We actually got to use the mic that I liked, which we didn’t get to do on the first album.

Thanks for your time!
Rankin: Thank you so much!

Antisocialites is out now. Stream it below.