If there’s a difference between pop and indie pop—and to be sure, in 2017, that difference is quickly eliding if it ever existed—it’s one of temperament. Pop songs are big, brawny, and brash, announcing their intent with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Indie pop songs aren’t as forthcoming.
Neither are Molly Rankin and Alec O’Hanley, core members of the Canadian—and decidedly indie—pop outfit Alvvays. The pair are as warm and immediate as the music they make, tempered by the same thoughtfulness and curiosity that accompanies wide-eyed wonder. I suspect that the difference between hanging out with Taylor Swift’s #squad and with Molly and Alec on tour is the difference between throwing a rager into the night’s wee hours, and nestling in some nook for a cup of tea on a rainy day.
Alvvays have a new record out September 8 called Antisocialites, the follow-up to their debut album, whose melodic sweetness and lo-fi buzz was met with critical buzz of its own. Like its sibling, Antisocialites is achingly winsome, brimming with tight pop songs. This time around, however, there’s something more unabashed to the record’s sound. It’s clearer but dreamier, comfortable in its imagined worlds colored in with evocative imagery. “Hold a brush to your white toothpaste / Does the mirror look a little strange,” Rankin sings on “Hey,” “Should we pull the parachute? / I will land on my feet but I probably won’t leave the house for awhile.”
The joy of listening to Alvvays, both in person and on record, comes from teasing out the vitality of the inner life. On a sultry afternoon in August, I had the opportunity to speak with Rankin and O’Hanley about unintentional feminism, the fraught usage of the word “twee,” and spending time within yourself.
Brooklyn Magazine: I’d like to start us off by asking how the recording and production of this latest album differed from your debut?
Alec O’Hanley: In some ways, the new record was more hi-fi, and in some ways it was more lo-fi. We recorded it at a studio in LA called Kingsized. It was a pretty cool spot. There was a nice little chihuahua there to keep us company. Rob Schnapf [Elliott Smith’s producer] had a place next door and we’d borrow gear from him or even play Smith’s acoustics. Also, we would track at home for months in our basement and use the same four track that Bob Pollard was using in Guided By Voices, which gave us some crunchy stuff. In some ways, the spectrum on this recording is a little broader. We like the sound of our first record, so we were trying to build on that, and try to draw a few more people in at the same time.
Molly Rankin: We were hoping the two albums could sit side-by-side together, but still have a slight fidelity leap.
AO: Thinking about the arc of a band, the second album is usually the studio album. We just wanted to do a similar thing to what we did on the first record, but hopefully refine and improve it.
Did you feel the pressure that comes with of studio production and the narrative of the sophomore slump?
MR: No, because we just don’t care. There’s no point.
AO: Yeah, you can drive yourself nuts thinking that way.
MR: We just make it as meaningful and as good as we could possibly make it.
AO: All we can hope for is that songs resonate with us, and make our embittered selves feel something. [laughs]
MR: The thing is, nothing really happened to us overnight. It took a long time for us to chip away at whatever it is we’ve tapped into currently. We’ve been able to operate without the kind of pressure that comes with a lot of attention. Even if a few more people are watching this time around, I don’t expect the critical pearly gates to swing open with this record either.
AO: Who’s the critical indie rock St. Peter?
MR: Good question—I don’t know who baptizes you into critical acclaim.
AO: We’re mixing biblical metaphors here. [laughs]
I guess Robert Christgau is too old now.
MR: Yeah, he just does his little haikus now! Ours was quite racy. He referenced something about me having sex with someone.
AO: He picked up something on “Party Police” that was about debauchery.
MR: You surrender yourself to objectification when you put yourself out there, as a woman in a band with press photos and all.
I’d imagine so. Can I pull on that thread a little? Do you think there’s a political element to the new record?
MR: There’s a theme of escapism going on, but we’re not necessarily all that overt about our political views in the songs.
AO: If any of that creeps in, it’s more on the social level than the overtly partisan. We have our Canadian convictions like anyone, but the mere act of trying to make non-commercial pop art is a political act, however minute. You’re trying to buck back against crass corporate culture and for us, that’s a noble effort worth pursuing. It’s not charity work, but it’s something we strive to do.
Seems like you’re achieving it.
MR: This is a silly way of putting it, but I read somewhere that you can also wear your politics, and I feel like Kerri [MacLellan, the band’s keyboardist] and I are pretty frumpy, and that’s by choice. That’s always the way we’ve been, and obviously we respect any woman’s right to dress however they want, but that’s the way we present ourselves—very lackluster. [laughs]
AO: Put the sweatpants on, you know…
The mere act of trying to make non-commercial pop art is a political act, however minute.
I mean, I’d attend a Lounge Pants Tour. [laughs] Now, a word with maybe ignominious connotations that I’ve heard bandied about in describing your music is “twee.” I’m wondering what your relationship to that word is, or if you see it as an accusation….
MR: Twee is becoming a bit of a slur.
AO: Some people use it as a pejorative, but for us it’s trickier. We like a lot of classic twee music and that’s not an insult to us
MR: I don’t care about genre labels, either. I feel like in the beginning I was protective against getting pigeonholed into some label, but learned that people will do it anyway. Pop rock! Twee! Whatever!
AO: We love Belle and Sebastian. Twee is a-okay.
I think the urge to label you as twee comes from the wist and melancholy to the lyrics that’s balanced out by a peppy melody and bright synths.
AO: Totally. And the thing with twee is, it’s one of those nebulous monikers, so you can sound a lot of different ways. You can have a sensitive, emotive, ethereal song or you can play a punk song. You can get away with a lot more under the header of twee.
MR: I also think that twee can be associated with the word “earnest.”
AO: Yeah, and for me, it encapsulates irreverence too.
MR: It’s irreverence along with earnestness, and that’s an approach I prefer to irony. Irony is so strange, like a forcefield that prevents you from saying anything.
AO: Irony can be used as a crutch, much like reverb, but it can be effective if you’re, like, Pavement.
I feel like in the beginning I was protective against getting pigeonholed into some label, but learned that people will do it anyway. Pop rock! Twee! Whatever!
The reason I asked about politics is that a lot of twee bands brought new perspectives and personalities to the fore—I’m thinking Tracyanne Campbell in Camera Obscura and Isobel Campbell in Belle and Sebastian.
MR: I listen to a ton of female-fronted acts. I think that’s probably what I exclusively listen to.
AO: I do too. I love Broadcast and Stereolab particularly, and ABBA and Fleetwood Mac. We’ll listen to the Beach Boys and The Clash too, but for so long rock has been dominated by dudes and it’s nice to be in a band that’s dominated by dudettes.
MR: The whole composition of the band was very natural and not some sort of plotted orchestration.
AO: We’re very wary of tokenism and seek to avoid that at all costs. It’s nice we’re a pro-feminine band and to offer a measured feminine voice is, I think, refreshing.
I really like the name of the new album, Antisocialites. It’s a clever play on words. Does it have a meaning for you beyond the pun?
AO: I think we’re introverts by nature. I do this band thing with a large degree of reluctance. We love talking and meeting new people, but being the person up on stage with the mic isn’t the most natural hat for us to wear.
MR: I think people have grown to accept my anti-socialism, because I do a large portion of the talking, but I don’t think people expect me to come out with devil horns and start yelling “who’s drinking tequila tonight!” [laughs] Our crowd is very nurturing. It’s quite nice!
AO: The name Antisocialites is in context of the song “Dreams Tonite” which is this idealization of the mall rat, the bored kid with nothing to do, like us in our very provincial hometowns of Judique, Nova Scotia and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. That’s always been a nugget at the core of our personalities. That’s our comfort zone.
MR: We like to shield ourselves a lot of the time. A lot of the time, you’re expected to give more in music and art, you’re pushed to share so much of yourself and I’m not sure what remains beyond that point. We’re reluctant to be a part of that.
AO: The age of constant content isn’t the era we envisioned for ourselves.
MR: But we get by! We have all the stuff you’re supposed to have on the internet…it’s just a little bit more sparse. [laughs]
AO: I would say too that the connotation of “anti-socialites” shouldn’t be nihilism, because we’re anti-nihilists by nature.
An important disclaimer!
AO: Yeah, we’ve gotta defuse that connotation.
There’s a lyric in the song “Your Type,” off the new album, that goes “Gambling with your working visa / You’ve got something to prove / Take a photo of the Mona Lisa / Get thrown out of the Louvre / And with vomit on your feet / Clamoring bon appetit.” Call me crazy, but that sounds a little too specific to be entirely fictional— is there any basis in truth to it?
AO: We haven’t actually puked in any museums recently.
MR: We don’t have any great puking stories, beyond getting food poisoning at South by Southwest.
AO: Most puking experiences aren’t great, by definition.
MR: Yeah, but this one is sort of cinematic. I did go to the Louvre when I was 18, but this character is someone I conjured out of my imagination, a crass someone with too much to drink and who crosses the line. Though you actually are allowed to take a photo of the Mona Lisa, so the lyric is crap. Just something I’ve been grappling with. [laughs]
You might quibble, but I would describe “Archie, Marry Me” as your signature song. Has it proved a boon or a burden on tour at all?
MR: You know, that song is brought up a lot in interviews, like “how do you deal with the song?”
AO: It’s been more boon than burden for sure. It’s our baby, a special one that came out of our love for Teenage Fanclub.
MR: Not too often will people yell at us to play that song early in the set, which can be off-putting. Obviously, we’re going to play the song. We still enjoy playing the song, and there are other songs on our records that people get just as excited about when we play, so it’s okay.
AOl: We’ll never put that boy out on the porch.
So it’s not your “Creep.”
MR: No, not at all. It’s good that it’s not associated with a shitty brand or a part in a movie. People just liked it.
Can I ask about geography? Molly, you said you came up with a lot of the songs on Toronto Island, in an abandoned schoolhouse. I’m curious how that influenced the sound of the album.
MR: It’s nice to hear waves as you sleep, every night. But the place where I was writing the melodies is actually now washed away. We were back a few weeks ago and it’s now underwater, which is really sad. I think being by myself is a big part of how I’m used to writing songs, but on tour I didn’t really get alone time. We got really busy—unexpectedly so—and I forgot that being alone is how I think of ideas and inspiration and people. So I went to Toronto Island, and just being there, isolated, was really beneficial to the whole process of sculpting this record.
It’s good that it’s not associated with a shitty brand or a part in a movie. People just liked it.
Being an anti-socialite, maybe.
MR: Yes, totally! [laughs] It’s really great for creativity, even if it’s not something your friends always understand. But work is important.
AO: You’ve got to shut a lot of switches off to get that kind of work done, which isn’t easy when you’re in a major metropolis. Luckily, there’s this island you can bike down to in Toronto, and we just loaded up the wheelbarrow with gear and dropped Molly off.
MR: It was cool! We got a whole miniature PA on the dolly, with our favorite synth and a little mixing board, so I had a concert going on in my weird room in the school house every night. Actually, someone I randomly knew was walking by when I was recording and knocked on the door and it scared the crap out of me.
On the island? Woah.
MR: Yeah! He had a partner who was working on Toronto Island as well. He actually ended up doing drums with us later on the record! It was kind of spooky.
The second record from Alvvays, Antisocialites, is out tomorrow via Polyvinyl
Photos by Arden Wray