It’s been a pretty eventful autumn for Canadian rock band Alvvays. In early September, they released one of the year’s best albums, “Antisocialites,” a brisk collection of music made up of dream-pop anthems and head-bobbing jangle rock songs that has been received with near universal acclaim. That same month, the band struck out on a sprawling tour that included dozens of headlining dates across North America and Europe. And they cap it all later this December with a series of four shows in their adopted hometown of Toronto.
Alvvays recently played two sold-out shows at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. opbmusic’s Jerad Walker caught up with lead singer Molly Rankin and guitarist Alec O’Hanley before one of those performances for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on their deep love of Nova Scotian rock music (hint: Sloan), the band’s “fairly particular studio habits,” and a recent incident of sexual harassment on the road.
Listen to the full interview and read excerpts below.
Q&A with Alvvays
Jerad Walker: You’re based in Toronto but most of the band is originally from the Canadian Maritime provinces, right?
Alec O’Hanley: Yeah, Molly and Kerri [MacLellan] are from the isle of Cape Breton which is in Nova Scotia. And Brian [Murphy], the bass player, and I are from an adjacent island in a different province called Prince Edward Island. It’s kind of an outpost of an outpost.
Molly Rankin: They’re both beautiful places to grow up. Obviously a little different than Portland, but it’s nice to see some trees and mountains on this [tour] run.
Jerad Walker: They are really isolated and beautiful places. And they’re knowm for their music traditions but most of it is folk. There’s a great Cape Breton dancing and fiddling tradition. There’s Acadian music from that region, but not a lot of rock n roll. So, how did you find this music as youths?
Molly Rankin: I feel like the 90s was really good for Nova Scotian music and I think that filters down into Prince Edward Island as well. I know that bands like Sloan, Thrush Hermit, and Super Friendz were exciting things to come out of Halifax and I feel like that just sort of started [to] fertilize the soil of people starting bands and touring and going to Toronto and playing shows.
Alec O’Hanley: They were the ones we looked up to. The first music videos we really remember resonating in a huge way were from bands like Sloan, who were kind of local heroes for us in the Martimes. Our manager was regaling us the other night when were in LA. We were at the same hotel where he signed Sloan 25 years ago with Geffen [Records]. So, there is a bit of a pop continuum there, and we like feeling that we’re a part of some river like that.
Jerad Walker: Molly, your background is especially unique for that region because you grew up playing music in a pretty well-known folk group, The Rankin Family. Did you grow up listening to rock music or were you mostly on a traditional music diet only?
Molly Rankin: I listened to a lot of Scottish traditional music growing up, but also a lot of folk and some Gaelic folk as well. I feel like those are all sort of rooted in pop because a lot of those melodies in traditional songs are recycled for long periods of time. And so if they can still remain, they must be catchy.
Jerad Walker: You worked with a fellow Canadian, Chad VanGaalen, who produced your debut album. This time around, you brought in producer John Congleton who has worked with bands like Spoon, St. Vincent, and The War On Drugs. How did you hook up with him?
Molly Rankin: I think he actually just reached out to us. I think he was the only one who did. And then we just did it. We went to Los Angeles [and] did a bunch of recording—probably about two weeks that we stayed in his house that he had not yet moved into. Then we got home to Toronto and listened to everything and felt like we still had a lot to do. So, the record did go down a road of [us] taking it to the place that we wanted it to be. I’m not sure about his, um— I don’t know if he’s even heard it. I hope so! I wonder if he likes it. [Laughter]
Jerad Walker: Did it become a co-production essentially?
Alec O’Hanley: It was a bit of a co-pro situation. Yeah, we don’t necessarily need someone to tell us ‘Oh, you should repeat that chorus.’ or ‘Do this or do that.’ He mentioned that much when we came through the door that most bands he works with say ‘What do I do? Tell us what to do.’ But we’re fairly particular. He also told us that. We know how to stick a mic in front of an amp and do that stuff, so we did that, as Molly alluded to, for a few months after we got back from LA. At least a third of the record was tracked in our basement [in Toronto]. But John’s got a great ear. He comes from that [Steve] Albini/Chicago school of sort of detached production. He’s a good guy.
Jerad Walker: Did you maybe find out that you are your best producer?
Alec O’Hanley: Yeah. All you can ask is that the guy or girl that you’re working with is invested and responds to the songs. And he certainly did that. We’re taking DIY as far as we can possibly stretch it. Unless we find someone who can do what we do better, we usually end up doing it ourselves.
Jerad Walker: You’ve said that the songs on this record follow a ‘fantasy breakup arc’ in the album’s publicity material. Molly, I’m sure you’ve actually written a truly autobiographical breakup song before. But did you find this easier to write. Not to be cold or anything—but were the songs a more effective payoff because you wrote them in the third person as story songs?
Molly Rankin: I think it’s nice to just escape the mundane reality that sometimes I live in and investigate other realms of other people’s lives, fictional characters, going to a different planet. It’s an escape thing for me. It’s fun and it’s kind of a puzzle in a way. If I were to focus on my life it would be boring. There would be a lot of walking through Toronto.
Jerad Walker: Speaking of real life, you recently had a situation in Antwerp, Belgium with a fan that got a little bit out of control. What exactly happened there?
Molly Rankin: We were playing the final song of our set. We had finished all of the singing portion of the song. I think we were just on the outro, and he hopped up on stage in what I think was an attempt to kiss me. It happened so fast actually that I don’t know what he wanted to do. I was certainly focused on playing music. And then he just sort of eventually left peacefully. But he did touch me and it was terrifying and weird. There was a period of time where I didn’t know what he intended to do. And I’m glad that doesn’t happen very often… You can only control so many variables. I don’t think because I write personal romantic narratives that I invite unwanted advances, and to make that connection is very unfair and pretty selfish.
Jerad Walker: How often does stuff like this happen on the road? I know there was another well-documented incident recently where Harry Styles was groped while performing on stage in LA. Is this a problem in rock music that just isn’t well-publicized?
Molly Rankin: It’s mostly men in my experience, and it’s probably not in Harry Styles’ experience or a One Direction experience. But a lot of the time I feel like it has something to do with entitlement — like a random man is entitled to come into our dressing room and stay there until we coerce him to leave. And that’s not on video tape. And I think that the only difference between that incident in Antwerp and many other nights is that someone was videotaping it. And I didn’t really hear anything about it until several days later.
Jerad Walker: Obviously not being a creep is rule number one at shows. But what else can fans do to help prevent stuff like this from happening?
Molly Rankin: I think complacency is always a thing. If you’re just not complacent with people’s inappropriate behavior and you act on something or say something — if you see something going on in a crowd that you feel is wrong, if you stick up against that kind of behavior I think you’re doing something really great. It’s easy just to look the other way, and I think that as these stories keep revealing themselves I feel like a lot of people have been looking the other way for a lot of years. Maybe the glimmer of hope is that people will stop doing that.