With Blue Rev, Alvvays are back and stronger than ever
Making an album is a journey. On a select few projects, the journey is relatively easy. The vision is clear, the conditions are just right and the final record comes to life quickly. As nice as that sounds, the reality is most album cycles present hurdles for the artists. Finding inspiration, picking the right collaborators and putting pen to paper and music to tape are all incredibly difficult, and that’s before life throws wrenches into the best laid plans. Toronto five-piece Alvvays know this better than most. In a tumultuous five years since their last record, the Canadian band have incorporated new members while also dealing with theft, weather-based disasters and the uncertainty of a pandemic. While difficult, these obstacles brought them closer together and produced growth and clarity, all of which they poured into Blue Rev, their most ambitious and moving record yet.
When frontwoman Molly Rankin gets on the phone with AltPress in early September, she’s enjoying a well-earned moment of peace in her garden amid the final push of the album release. “I'm really happy that it actually happened, and I feel like it's a miracle,” she says, adding with a laugh that she promises it’s actually coming out. She explains the band — guitarist Alec O’Hanley, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Abbey Blackwell — take their time in the best of circumstances, referencing the three-year wait between their self-titled debut album in 2014 and sophomore LP Antisocialites in 2017.
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At the simplest level, that dedication to deliberately taking time to write (something Rankin and O’Hanley have done together from the beginning) and craft didn’t waver this time around. “We just kept working and revising and writing and adding things and polishing things up,” Rankin says. Eventually, the band set deadlines to finalize masters and order vinyl pressings and went “beast mode” to get Blue Rev to the finish line. “It's not super romantic,” Rankin admits. But given the extended time frame and the circumstances of the last few years, it was necessary in order to not have the release date move further into the future. Early returns show the long layover has been well worth it, with tracks like “Easy On Your Own?” and “Pharmacist” showcasing an even more dynamic sound from the group, with driving percussion and contemplative lyrics.
The layover was extended by two deeply personal incidents for Rankin. The first was a burglar entering her apartment and stealing electronics, including some containing Alvvays music. “It was really unsettling to have that intimate audio taken and to never really have any closure about where it is,” Rankin recalls. She adds that what’s especially frustrating for her about the theft is that because the material was so early and was mostly musical ideas and experimentation, it holds no monetary or sentimental value for anyone but the band, making its taking especially senseless and hurtful. If that wasn’t bad enough, the very next day Rankin’s basement flooded, and she remembers friends who were already there to comfort her in the wake of the break-in now grabbing towels to save the band’s gear. “It was kinda like Jumanji,” she says with a laugh now that the incidents are behind her.
Of the many hurdles Alvvays had to endure during the making of Blue Rev, the most universal was of course the COVID-19 pandemic. Rankin recalls that even before the pandemic, the band had nearly enough material to comprise a full album and had booked studio time to work on it while staying in Seattle amid supporting the Strokes on tour, where they were also incorporating bassist Blackwell into the band after Brian Murphy left. Rankin says they were preparing to go into what she calls “pre-preproduction” on the record when things went sideways. “The NBA season got canceled, and then the NHL season got canceled. Then basically Live Nation told all bands to go home,” she remembers. For most of the band, that meant getting on a plane back to Toronto, but Blackwell and Riley — who joined the band in 2017 after the recording of Antisocialites and the departure of Phil MacIsaac — stayed in America and wouldn't see the rest of the band for over a year during the initial wave of shutdowns.
During the extended time sitting at home, Rankin and O’Hanley had plenty of time to tinker. “The extra time and reflections and perspective enabled us to experiment more. There was a little less pressure because it's like, 'We're not going to be able to even leave the house for a really long time, so we might as well just try a bunch of new things and explore,'” she says. She further explains her barometer for songs comes down to a couple of simple questions: “Is there an emotional lift in the song? Am I moved?”
[Photo by Norman Wong]
Rankin drew from a recent love of heavier guitar-based music to craft rifts, and O’Hanley to experiment with what Rankin describes as his “eclectic” taste in music. Keyboardist MacLellan — the third original member of the band — also took on an expanded position in the creation of the album, with Rankin explaining “her role has grown over the years, especially because during the downtime during the pandemic, we leaned on each other to get through that period of our lives. She was involved in a lot of decisions this time around and was in the mix more.” Rankin also points out they’re all a decade older than when Alvvays started, which comes with new life experiences and perspectives to draw from.
On Blue Rev especially, those new perspectives materialize as characters. From the annoying reply guy of “Very Online Guy” (a track Rankin built after amusing herself with the lines “He's a very online guy/He likes to hit reply” and pulling on that thread until a full song emerged) to a mother trying to find her way on the determined “Belinda Says” to a song named after and using many of the guitar techniques pioneered by legendary writer and guitarist Tom Verlaine, Rankin presents the world through the eyes of many different people. She explains she’s always been naturally drawn to viewing the world through other's eyes, saying, “It allows a variety of perspectives and is just fun for me to do.” This method also helps her in the writing process to come up with a wider variety of melodic ideas to match each new viewpoint.
Another added perspective on the new record was that of producer and fellow Canadian Shawn Everett, who has worked with artists as varied as Alabama Shakes to the Killers and has six Grammys to his name. Besides bringing years of knowledge and insight, Everett also encouraged Alvvays to record full takes of the album straight through. This is something that the band had never done before in the recording process, instead opting to tinker and piece records together more methodically. “It was a total roller coaster playing everything in such a short time span. I think a lot of that is in there, and you can feel it in certain songs,” Rankin says.
She points to the driving percussion and rhythm of Blue Rev as elements that approach brought forward, and also credits it with allowing the band to get out of their own heads. “That can sometimes happen in the studio, where you rehearse something for years, and then you get into a little booth and you have headphones on and you're ready to do it, and suddenly it's just not happening. So just throwing all of that out the window and diving into playing songs was really helpful for everyone,” she says.
Looking forward, Alvvays are looking forward to returning to the road this fall, taking as many precautions as they can to be safe. “I'm sure there will be several curveballs. But I think we're just excited to be together. This group of people now that we call Alvvays is very inspiring and exciting to be around,” Rankin says, and laughs while stressing that the band are used to dealing with curveballs after the last five years. Rankin also says the collaboration with Everett has inspired the band to stay on the lookout for more of those opportunities, and especially benefited her and O’Hanley’s writing process.
The five years between albums were not always easy for Alvvays. Through crises both global and personal, through finding new members of the band and through growing up, each component of the group was tested. Alvvays survived it all, and has come out the other side stronger, as cohesive as ever, and with their minds set on not only continuing to grow but to enjoy the process for what it is. “Positivity is so important, especially when you're trying to thread the needle of being in music. There are so many different reasons that people don't do it,” Rankin ruminates. “And if the timing is right, and everyone is around and willing, it's a beautiful thing.”