A Long Journey to Overnight Success

Photo by Shervin Lainez

BY Sarah GreenePublished Dec 2, 2014

It is day two of Alvvays' first-ever headlining North American tour and the band are riding several months of critical acclaim, growing audiences and global buzz. They're confident enough to tweet at former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who's also on tour: "Hey, wanna get veg philly cheesesteaks with us today?" The Toronto surf-garage dream pop crew, which evolved out of Molly Rankin's solo project, are on quite a high. They've just returned from a European tour with Real Estate and Foxygen that saw them spend their day off lounging on a beach in Barcelona and, in Birmingham, hanging out with St. Vincent's Annie Clark, soliciting her advice on documenting song ideas on the road.

Alvvays' pristine eponymous debut has topped the U.S. college radio charts and was recently named Canadian album of the year by CBC Music. Yet the album — which they recorded with Chad VanGaalen in Calgary more that two-and-a-half years ago, in March 2012 — didn't even find a record label home until earlier this year.

"We sent our record out to a bunch of labels and no one really bit," says guitarist Alec O'Hanley, formerly of Two Hours Traffic. "So we took that as, 'Well, we just have to step up the sound a little more, and took it from lo-fi to maybe mid-fi or something." (The band mixed with John Agnello in Brooklyn and did tracking with Holy Fuck's Graham Walsh in Toronto.) "We just didn't want to offer up those sacrificial songs again — they were better than that."

"We spent a lot of time trying to fix the record, so we were really stubborn about how it was going to be thrust into the world," says Rankin. "But it's still just as skronky."

Rankin and O'Hanley have been partners for a long time. "Writing partners," clarifies Rankin (they are also a couple, but prefer not to talk about it). He hails from PEI and she from the tiny community of Judique, Cape Breton, where she grew up playing violin as the daughter of the late John Morris Rankin, of Juno-winning Celtic group the Rankin Family.

The two met at a Two Hours Traffic show and began collaborating after Rankin played O'Hanley "Mistake" on an acoustic guitar, a song that wound up on her 2010 Roy Orbison-inflected poppy folk solo She EP, to which O'Hanley also contributed.

"I was pretty moved by it," says O'Hanley. "This was one of those sympathetic nervous system responses where you get all tingly — she had a very interesting thing going on and I wanted to supplement and complement it."

"It's so funny that people can still buy the EP," deflects Rankin, who says they threw it together and printed 500 copies, all of which are gone. "I don't even think I have one. My mom has one. People in Barcelona were asking, 'Where can I get the solo EP? And I said, 'Don't get it, don't worry about it!'"

When they toured the EP with Peter Bjorn and John in 2011, Rankin's band was comprised of herself and O'Hanley, plus bassist Brian Murphy and drummer Phil MacIsaac, both from PEI; "primordial Alvvays," O'Hanley calls it. (The lineup was completed by Rankin's childhood friend Kerri MacLellan on keys in 2012; the band were already "guinea-pigging" songs like "Party Police" and "Archie, Marry Me," that would later make the album.)

After O'Hanley departed Two Hours Traffic, Alvvays relocated to Toronto in 2011 and made tentative steps into a new music community. "There wasn't a whole lot tying us to Prince Edward Island at that point," O'Hanley says. "And almost immediately things started to click a little more."

Yet to an outsider, Alvvays tiptoed onto the scene rather than leapt — the group didn't even have a name until they took their two-thirds-written album to VanGaalen's Yoko Eno studio and the producer told them they no longer sounded like a solo project, and should find a name for themselves.

After a couple of low profile gigs under various monikers (including one as Logos), the group settled on Always before switching to the more SEO-friendly current spelling after discovering a dream pop band called Always in the UK.

Alvvays did a small tape run in 2013 to have something to sell at shows (and because having physical copies of something was a prerequisite to playing Sappyfest). That backfired a bit when a store in Charlottetown began bootlegging the album. "We didn't actually care," laughs Rankin. "But they weren't helping us."

As the band's sound evolved from strummed acoustics to considerably heavier fuzzed-out electric guitars and synths over drums and drum machines, Rankin's lyrics became sharper — more deadpan, humorously ominous and at times slightly sinister, conveying jaded tales of matrimonial hesitancy, drowned boyfriends and comfort in debauchery via infectious and sweetly delivered melodies.

The band's "steady snowball" of momentum picked up speed after their Super 8 video for "Adult Diversion," — a love song written from the perspective of a drunk stalker — made a surprising splash.

"I'm pretty into graphic novels," says Rankin, explaining her sometimes dark inspiration. "And the ones that I like are usually about solitary characters: sad but pathetic, humorous situations. They are often a little bit creepy." (She cites Daniel Clowes, Kate Beaton and Chris Ware as examples of graphic novelists she admires; album closer "Red Planet" was inspired by one of Ware's Acme Novelty Library books.)

Following the video for "Adult Diversion," Alvvays did an East coast tour with Yuck during the "snowpocalypse," but it wasn't until this year's SXSW that things really took off — and it's been such a heady eight months since then that initially O'Hanley forgets that that was this year. "We met some amazing people and Polyvinyl ended up putting the record out," he says. "It's really nice that we finally get to get a shot."

Part of what makes Alvvays' delayed yet triumphant debut such a pleasure to listen to are aural nuggets that flash in and out momentarily — shimmering guitar hooks you hear only once, and fleeting vocal harmonies.

"We're by and large pop formalists," says O'Hanley. "I love chopping songs up and seeing how you can work within the pop form. I think it's kind of cool that that's where the avant-garde is in 2014, of all places, when electro-infected R&B or R&B-inflected electro seem to be the dominant genres."

Those thirsting for a sophomore record of melancholic dream pop will have to wait. "We still have a lot of touring to do, so right now we don't have time," says Rankin. "But we have a bunch of new songs."

"Next year," promises O'Hanley. "We've already started the sketches."

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