On Growing Up and How Shoegaze Became the New Mainstream with Alvvays
Approaching their gig for Joyland Festival Jakarta 2023, we chatted with Molly Rankin on her “leading” Alvvays to where they are today, the band’s abrasive sounds, and the close-knit, wholesome dynamics within the band.
Words by Whiteboard Journal
Words: Garrin Faturrahman
Photo: Alvvays/TBA Agency
Alvvays can be dismissed as your “regular indie pop group”—which severely undermines their crafts—but lending a bigger ear brings out immaculate, purposeful, yet intricate songwriting that is hidden in plain sight. Blink once and you’ll miss out on all the great details and technicalities put together seamlessly.
Approaching their upcoming gig on the 26th of November for Joyland Festival Jakarta 2023, we had the time to chat with Molly Rankin, their singer/guitarist/songwriter, around her progress in “leading” Alvvays to where they are today, how the band’s abrasive sounds are really an expression of themselves as individuals, and the close-knit, wholesome dynamics within the band.
Your sound has evolved since your first album. Can you talk about the creative process behind this evolution and the influences that shaped your newer sounds?
I think I just got a little bit older—and Alec has too—and I think it just happened very naturally: the way that we were channeling the things that we wanted to hear into the songs. I don’t actually ever have a plan on what the album should sound like, but I do, really, wanted a lot of loud guitars and still pay tribute to the melodic sense of what I’ve tried to do, and have everything still be in a semi-pop format. But yeah, I think that me, Kerri (keys), Alec (guitar), Sheridan (drums), and Abbey (bass), we really like a lot of guitar music and that’s what I wanted to emphasize.
Like 80s guitar pop: New Jersey jangle, and like early MBV, The Lillies, The Phillies, stuff like that.
Indie pop, dream pop, and shoegaze have become increasingly popular among young listeners. How do you see your band’s role in shaping or contributing to these genres’ growth?
Haha. I don’t actually know if that’s for me to say. But it’s cool to see, you know? I really don’t know where we fit, but I feel like we played with a lot of different bands that I grew up listening to. And I met a lot of heroes, like, I’ve gotten to meet people like Norman Blake, or played with bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain—really incredible moments like that, and I don’t know where we’ll end up in the zeitgeist, but I feel like as long as I tried to make every song a good song, then maybe we’ll have a shot at taking a ramp?
Okay, so can you say that it’s almost a tribute?
Um, I don’t know… I never really tried to sound like anything that specific, or even if I tried to, it ends up just sort of sounding like our band.
So, I don’t actually know if we’re paying tributes to these things but I don’t know where we fit in that. I can’t answer that, I think that might be like, that might be a little too um, like, I’m not a prophet! Hahaha.
Haha! Okay. Molly, can you please share some insights into how the band has grown and developed over the years, both musically and personally?
Yeah! I mean, a couple of people have come and gone, but you know, we started out just as like, “early twenties”: we all had restaurant jobs, and the band was pretty much whoever could get work off that weekend. I never intended for anything to take off the way that it did, and so everyone, you know, all these different moving pieces and things changed as we got busier, and it became a bigger part of everyone’s time, and so it’s been really nice to have Abbey and Sheridan around—Sheridan’s been around for a while now—but it’s cool to feel their energy in a room.
It was really, really neat to have Sheridan play drums on this album, and… I don’t know, like, seeing the development of Kerri even as, um, it was so nice to just have Kerri around for mixing and for the whole process. I feel like she’s really grown as a performer and as an artist as well. The way she communicates her opinion, it was so helpful to have someone like that. But, yeah, we’re a little older, a little wiser.
You, as a lead vocalist, is often seen as an iconic figure for the band. How do you feel about this perception? Does it affect the band’s dynamics and identity?
I feel like, if I could do this without being the “main person” or being “out there” in that way, I definitely would. But then I guess I would have to play shows behind a curtain or something. Haha.
But I guess like all of the songs that do come from my brain—well most of them anyway—I’ve had to do a lot of work to try and step into that role over the years of just being comfortable of being… a leader? Which is, um, I feel like I’m more of a friend (hopefully). But yeah, I’m better at making decisions than I used to be.
But, I mean, both Alec and I are pretty intense people, so… I’m lucky to have a collaborator and a person who has really strong opinions in that way.
I don’t think it affects much? Everyone is just so sweet and understanding just because, like, the band’s dynamic is a little bit different because I write the majority of the songs. There’s sort of this “amount of control” that I have. Whereas in a band that was completely democratic in that realm was writing songs… that’s a whole different ball game. So, there is sort of this really nice mutual respect that we all have for each other.
Your lyrics often delve into themes of youth, love, and nostalgia. How do you think your approach to songwriting has evolved as you’ve grown older?
I don’t know if things have changed that much. One thing that I really tried to do recently, and specifically with this most recent record is to try and take something down an unexpected road, and to twist things into a different way than I would be comfortable doing, while still trying to keep things as “poppy” as I can. Because, at the end of the day, I just love hooks and choruses and pop songs. That’s my favorite type of music to listen to whether that’s a big radio hit, or a really great fuzzy-sounding guitar ballad from the 90s, you know?
Okay. So how has touring and playing live shows influenced your music and stage presence over the years?
I actually don’t know if playing live has influenced us that much. I would say that we’ve typically been, um, a louder band live than people would normally think if they had just listened to the recordings. So, I don’t know if, for this most recent album, we channeled that successfully a little bit more? Because we do tend to be a fairly abrasive guitar band in moments of the set. We always have been that way. But I think maybe recently that is finding its way into the recordings a bit more.
Your band has been known to experiment with different production techniques. What notable experiments have you taken in the studio, and how have they influenced your sound?
We’ve done a lot of really funny things with different songs, like every song on all of our records, but especially this one has had so many different versions and lives.
So, for instance, like “Easy On Your Own”, we pitched that down to the point where it sounded like I was like a male singer, and we almost used that version, haha! And that was a really interesting thing to try, like a puzzle that we try to solve.
But, I think Shawn Everett, who was producing the album with us, had a really neat idea where we just played the whole record front-to-back, I think two times with 15 seconds in-between songs, so no one had any time to be nervous or stressed. And a big part of when you’re recording in a big fancy studio (which is not something we’ve done much of), you sit down in this room all by yourself and you hear what’s coming, what people are saying to you in the headphones. And you might have been playing a guitar part for two years before you get into that room, but when you sit down to do it in front of people who are sitting in a control room, it’s like… it’s really foreign and alien.
I think his idea is just playing the songs without thinking very much about it added this really lively element to a lot of the drums, to Alec’s guitars, and stuff like that. So, that was a really cool idea because we’re all fairly nervous, neurotic people.
That’s actually insightful.
Haha. Yeah, I actually think he did it because we didn’t have a lot of time with Sheridan and Abbey. Like they had to go in a few days, so… In my mind I thought it was really perceptive, like he knew that we’re all really weird people and we’re stressed out about it, but it’s actually just logistical. Haha.
So, there’s this element of spontaneity?
Yeah! There’s a lot of really fun moments in hearing the tapes back. We’re all laughing at it—but in awe. There’s certain drum fills that Sheridan did that I can’t really believe they did, and even like weird guitar mistakes that I made that when you take it out of the mix it doesn’t sound as good?
I think I might take personal notes.
Hahaha. Make mistakes?
Haha, no! Let’s not look at it as a mistake, but as just… adding a human touch to making music, I guess?
Sometimes those little mistakes are more exciting than the habits that you honed over the years.
Yeah, I mean, sometimes those little mistakes are more exciting than the habits that you honed over the years.
How do you navigate the balance between the DIY indie scene and the broader music industry while staying true to your artistic vision?
We’re always looking at bands and artists that we admire over the years. Not, like, in a really calculated way, but there are mixes of songs that are cut down to the wire we were deliberating between, and sometimes I would… we’d be sitting in the car trying to decide how loud the hi hats should be or something and we would be like “what would Yo La Tengo do?” Haha.
But we always tried to do things that we felt really good, and what made us happy, and something that sounds cool and looks cool. Like, whether that’s a show poster, or an album cover.
Any time that you tried to transcend whatever scene or world that you exist in, I find it detectable to me, like, I can smell that off of people who try to break to some other, like, try to go viral, trying to be something or big thing. You can almost feel the forced nature of that. We’ve always stayed true to what we’re all about. We just try to make something beautiful, and not feel icky about the marketing aspect of all that.
How do you approach the challenge of making music that is both accessible and artistically fulfilling, especially in the indie music scene?
Well, I don’t know if I can make an ambient record if I tried. I think I’ll always write something that has hooks and choruses and a lot of melodic elements weaving through it, and that’s something that’s almost like a limitation for me. And I don’t see myself doing anything that isn’t completely rooted in melody, and that, in itself, I think it makes us sound like a pop band sometimes and… I don’t think that’s ever really going to fade.
But is it actually artistically fulfilling? From you, personally.
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s nothing more satisfying than coming up with a line or a lyric or a hook that you can’t find or that’s been done before. You know like, you come up with an idea and most of the time I’m always afraid that it already existed in the world.
But to me, everyone has their own definition of artistic fulfillment. Sometimes that’s a big loud distorted guitar solo—which I also loved—but a lot of the time it’s coming from something that feels anthemic.
But to me, everyone has their own definition of artistic fulfillment. Sometimes that’s a big loud distorted guitar solo—which I also loved—but a lot of the time it’s coming from something that feels anthemic. Because that’s the stuff that I grew up with, and the stuff that I truly love at the end of the day.
That should be all of my questions for you.
We did it!