Alvvays Escape Normal Life on 'Antisocialites' and We Can Too

Molly Rankin and Alec O'Hanley of the Toronto dream pop band talk about how isolation and fantasy became the heart of their sophomore record.

by Sarah MacDonald
Sep 6 2017, 4:16pm

Photo by Arden Wray

When Alvvays teased their long-awaited sophomore record, Antisocialites, with an illustrative gif and sound snippet, among the collected images, which look a lot like a mood board, was the Hermit tarot card. The ninth card in the major arcana depicts a lonely-looking figure, holding a lamp, representing introspection and solitude. Molly Rankin— along with Alec O'Hanley—on the phone from the UK, where the band is currently on tour, tells me that this theme is the heart of the album. This sense of isolation—of escapism and separation—on Antisocialites is decidedly opposite from their debut. "I was very much trying to be a part of something [on the first record.] I think it's a little more rooted in desperation," Rankin says. "[Antisocialites] is more like ripping off a band aid. Trying to preserve yourself, your health, and your state of mind."

The Toronto dream pop band found a wild amount of success with their self-titled debut from 2014. "Archie, Marry Me" became bigger than they had thought it could be and had co-signs by other prominent bands (Ben Gibbard's cover of the track, comes to mind, as well as Stars' cover at Riot Fest in 2014, to name a couple.) Antisocialites, out this week on Royal Mountain Records, is sonically very much in the band's wheelhouse. It's a gorgeous piece of hazy pop music with simultaneously (often surprising) prickly and aching lyrics. The group scoured the University of Toronto's secluded jazz music library (the program bassist Brian Murphy was once part of) this time, spending hours disconnected from the world going through periodicals and books, eventually landing on a book of U.K. indie chart hits from 1980-1989, says Hanley, for inspiration.

Solitude and separation for the self seems to begin with Rankin's semi-seclusion on Toronto Island last summer. She spent some time at Artscape—participating in a creative residency program—literally getting out of the city to cerebrally extend herself. She says she "sort of loaded everything that could possibly fit on this strange little wheelbarrow or trolley: a monitor, speaker, and a microphone, a keyboard and my guitar and a little mixer so I could get the vocal sounds that I wanted." From there, she spent her days walking around the island, getting pecked at by ducklings, says O'Hanley, and humming melodies in a voice recorder. In the evenings, she mucked around and wrote songs (in-between watching the NBA playoffs because Rankin, like any truly good Torontonian, is a Raptors fan.) Rankin says, laughingly, that her day-to-day life is fairly quiet and old lady like (her phrasing) so she put herself into a whole different realm and imaginative space when it came to writing this record. "When you're surrounded by people all the time and working out how to get from Point A to Point A, sometimes I transport myself into a different universe. I get to play different roles," she says. After her two weeks were up, she dropped a pile of new material on O'Hanley to shift through.

Antisocialites, from a distance, could sound despondent. That the band, by extension, are a bit crestfallen too, but that's an easy and lazy assumption to make. They've crafted this low mood with a purpose in mind. It is more fictional than at first glance. Each track is a vignette; a story unto itself, slotted into the larger theme of the record. The band has described Antisocialites as a "fantasy breakup arc." "Dreams Tonite" gives us a longing; a yearning even, for a person, a connection, that one knows deep down isn't going to last. "Not Your Baby" echoes that, perhaps a bit more biting with lyrics like "used to make noise now I much prefer silence." On "Already Gone," Rankin sighs, meaningfully, after singing "a place to decompress" over a solemn guitar strum. As much as the songs' characters seem to detach themselves, they are still, in a sense, trying to find some kind of connection—but with trepidation and on their own terms.

Rankin truly doesn't subscribe to any sort of mystical thought (as one can hear on "In Undertow" when she sings about not buying into astrology, the one recognizable autobiographical moment on the record). But that doesn't necessarily mean she—and the band, too—isn't a lot like the Hermit tarot card, framed in its positive aspects. Solitude served Alvvays well; taking time off (three years between debut and sophomore) to excavate their creative spaces. On Twitter, a part of being in a modern rock band that Alvvays isn't super into it, when they shared their illustration back in June, the copy read "exeunt cavern." Leaving the cavern (finally!), their figurative place of seclusion, isn't really all that antisocial anyway.

Sarah still reads tarot cards. Follow her on Twitter.