Molly Rankin On How Teenage Fanclub, Fantasy Basketball, Stardew Valley, & More Shaped Alvvays’ Adventurous New Album Blue Rev
Ostensibly, it’s not unusual for bands to take a few years between albums. But for Toronto indie-pop standouts Alvvays, the years between releases feel like actual decades. So when the group (in an updated formation comprising singer Molly Rankin, guitarist Alec O’Hanley, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, drummer Sheridan Riley, and bassist Abbey Blackwell) announced their long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s Juno-winning Antisocialites, fans exploded onto the internet with excitement. At last, Alvvays — who formed in 2011 but have only released two LPs, 2014’s self-titled and the aforementioned Antisocialites — were coming back.
Not that Rankin pays much attention to the brouhaha surrounding her band. “I can never tell if people like our records, if we’re taken seriously, if we matter,” Rankin says over the phone from her home in Toronto. “But it feels nice when you put something out and people are excited. Sometimes I wonder when we’re away for a long time if people will still want to hear my voice for 40 minutes, or however long the records are. It feels good to be able to come back and have people still interested.”
She’s being modest. Alvvays’ latest project, the distortion-heavy jangle whirlwind Blue Rev, has all kinds of hype surrounding its release later this week, and deservedly so. Produced by Shawn Everett (Kacey Musgraves, The War On Drugs), Blue Rev both embraces and builds on Alvvays’ starry-eyed dream-pop, with singles like “Easy On Your Own?,” “Pharmacist,” and “Belinda Says” capturing the group’s 12-string shimmer while layering on wall-of-sound feedback, dizzy synth effects, and cymbal-soaked drumming. Every track sounds like it’s rushing towards you, but nothing sounds rushed.
Given the long-tail hype emanating from both Alvvays and Antisocialites, has Rankin ever felt under pressure to produce? Not so much, she says. “One thing I have been conscious about doing is just never mentioning any date or existence of anything,” she laughs. “And then people don’t expect anything from you. I do feel like every record is a tiny miracle that I was able to write the songs and we could record them and we could make them sound as good as we wanted them to, or as bad as we wanted them to.”
Below, Rankin dives into the myriad influences that make up Blue Rev, from college-rock favorites like Teenage Fanclub and Yo La Tengo to Freaks And Geeks to Stardew Valley, planting tomatoes, and more.
Jangly Guitar Bands
RANKIN: Kerri listens to a lot of guitar-heavy music, and so do I. She was the one who played [Sonic Youth’s] Goo for me when I was 19 or 18 or something. Alec has been such a big part of our sound, and I’m addicted to that squall. Anything that has relentless guitars in it, I tried to channel into what I was writing, because I just love that dynamic between pop melodies and guitar sounds.
Teenage Fanclub will always come to mind. I listen to “Everything Flows” and just that consistent drone that happens through the whole entire song – I feel like it parts the clouds for me every time I flip it on. I appreciate the earnest nature of their writing, too. I think it’s really brave and beautiful. I have been combing through their discography for a long time and it still brings me joy. Whether it’s “Everything Flows” or “Don’t Look Back” or “Sparky’s Dream,” “What You Do To Me,” that kind of stuff. I love all of those songs. They’re part of our ideology at this point.
I know Al has a lot of love for Yo La Tengo, as do I. I’ve seen them performing in many formations. They do a lot of different styles of sets, and I think they’re so versatile as a three-piece. I feel like Yo La Tengo has really informed Alec’s influence, as well. And the dB’s. They have a bunch of songs that I haven’t heard before, but a great song they have is called “Black And White.” If you have any time, you might like it.
RANKIN: I love her and I love the Go-Go’s. I love Jane Wiedlin and her solo stuff, too. To me, “Belinda Says” was a vision of someone escaping a situation, flipping on the radio… It just creates this beautiful image of a joyous exodus.
A thing that I think is really beautiful is hearkening back to a day where the radio is your friend. At least I felt that way when I was little. I would throw on the local station that was playing all the current hits, like Natalie Imbruglia or something. You feel like they’re keeping you company. To embody the view of “Belinda Says” — it’s like, “If Belinda Says this, then it must be true.”
Freaks And Geeks
RANKIN: We all love Freaks And Geeks. That’s what I was watching when I first met Alec. Kerri was watching it, too. It has aged pretty well. It’s crazy that it was canceled. I love the little boys, they’re so cute. I know they’re supposed to be an afterthought, but I feel like they’re the whole point of the show, just their little adventures together and going through horrific elementary school, pre-high school situations. It doesn’t have the maturities of some of what Lindsay Weir is going through, but it’s still just as important and crucial.
Another show that I was watching during the pandemic was called The Thick Of It. I think it’s what Veep was based on. It was on BBC. I know that some of the writers, maybe the main writer [Jesse Armstrong], went on to create Succession. The Thick Of It is about British government and spin doctors trying to get all of these local politicians to play ball and be on the same page. There’s this guy, Malcolm Tucker, who is the lead, like the sheep herder. He keeps everyone in line and he’s terrifying and a menace. I think it’s supposed to be loosely based on real-life politicians and people who work for them, but I’m somehow rooting for him. He’s my favorite part of the show. He’s just a beast.
Haruki Murakami’s After The Quake
RANKIN: For one of the songs on the album, “After The Earthquake,” the approach was based on this Murakami short story collection called After The Quake. In this book, the common thread between all the stories is that it takes place during or after this historic earthquake. To me, it’s not really what the book is about or the stories themselves. The earthquake itself can trigger little epiphanies and make people realize that life is short and [people] make important decisions based on these natural disasters. I thought that it would be interesting to write a song about how there is this earthquake, there are all these different chaotic, really traumatic life events, but the thing that’s actually at the front and center of the song is what is happening with this deteriorating relationship. That’s what the character is most focused on, having just gone through all of these really wild twists and turns in life.
Very Online Guys
RANKIN: It’s interesting to see where people have taken their thoughts based on the song “Very Online Guy,” but really it’s not supposed to be much of a commentary on the internet or even people’s behavior. I know that’s played out, and I don’t really want to judge or impose my views on anyone on how they live their lives. But I like the idea of this dreamboat thriving online, needing everyone to know what’s cool and what’s new. It develops into this longing opus of, “If I alter myself in a specific way, will I appeal to them then?” And just the dialogue of that back and forth.
RANKIN: One thing that I really got into when we had some downtime was, I had never really read many short story collections. I did mention the Murakami one, but I fell in love with Alice Munro. She has this very unique skill of saying more with less and leaving things out and somehow manages to knock the wind out of you in a very short period of time. I find it such a unique skill. As a songwriter, if one could ever achieve that, that would be probably the ultimate goal.
There’s a specific story that she has on Dear Life, it’s called “Amundsen.” It’s just the most tragic love story in a rural place where it’s just cold and punishing in the winter. This woman really feels like she has found love in the future and it’s just pulled from out under her. It affected me in such a profound way that I think I was yelling after I had read it. But I just love her skill of saying so much with so little and doing it many, many times in an anthology.
RANKIN: Kerri and I both got really into Stardew Valley. I think that’s a pretty common hobby for people. It’s just so good and you can disappear into another universe. Maybe we’re subconsciously looking to live on farms and don’t even know it, because I have so many friends who dove headfirst into Stardew Valley. It’s so adorable and oddly fulfilling, to grow crops and raise farm animals and interact with the village folk.
It’s also very simple. It’s very deep, but it’s pretty user-friendly. I’m not much of a gamer, but I think I actually had to replace a joystick because of Stardew Valley. That’s how much I was playing. So, if you ever need someone to install a new joystick on your Nintendo Switch, I can do that for you.
RANKIN: I really dove into planting vegetables and flowers and having that tangible result of your labor. It’s so fulfilling. I feel like I am morphing into an old lady. I would go back into the garden behind my apartment and just weed everything and watch all of it grow, and then go inside and paint for a while. That’s basically how I coped with all of my extra time during the last couple of years.
I’ve grown so many things now. I started as a beginner without any knowledge of what I was doing — it seems like such a beginner-friendly hobby that I feel like is meaningful in many ways. I’ve grown a lot of different types of flowers. Tomatoes are my favorite thing to grow because they take so much time. When they’re ready, you just throw them on the windowsill and they ripen into a beautiful thing that’s hard to find in a grocery store scenario. They take on a whole new life and seem like an entirely different species when you grow them yourself.
What else? I’ve had a lot of failures, too. Some things just grow worse than others at different years, different humidities. Sorry, that’s pretty boring. I actually grew raspberries this year and I got about eight of them, so that was very exciting.
RANKIN: This is such a normie [thing], but maybe it’s time to embrace the normie aspects of my life. I got really into fantasy basketball. I joined the league of a bunch of people, men I did not know, and they welcomed me in and they were super nice to me and gave me little tips. Then I became a monster. I was walking around streaming players all week, yelling when someone would throw a ball up at halftime. I became very competitive and obsessed with it. And then we had one more day of recording left and the draft was that day, and I had to text the person who let me in the league and ask if I could opt out for the season. I was so upset. It was one of the biggest sacrifices I’ve ever made.
Blue Rev is out 10/7 via Polyvinyl.