Nov. 19 2014 03:40 PM

Toronto quintet stay true to DIY and C86

From left: Alec O’Hanley, Brian Murphy, Phil MacIsaac, Kerri Maclellan and Molly Rankin

It all started with a cassette.

In the summer of 2013, Canadian indie rockers Alvvays (pronounced “always”) were rounding out two years of living in Toronto after relocating from Nova Scotia and had slowly amassed an album’s worth of studio recordings. The group had yet to sign to a label and was still relatively new to recording, but Alvvays were set on securing a performing slot at SappyFest, a New Brunswick music festival famed for having surprise headliners like Arcade Fire, who once played there under the name Shark Attack.

In the process of getting booked at the festival, the quintet learned that one requirement of playing SappyFest is that each band must have music they can sell at their merch table. As a means of getting their nine songs out as quickly and as inexpensively as possible, Alvvays arrived at the festival armed with boxes full of tapes.

“We had this record we were scrambling to mix and track and re-track until we were 100 percent ready to put out into the world,” guitarist Alec O’Hanlon says in a phone interview between tour dates. “So, we had these tapes—it existed in the real world but not in the dominant, digital one for a while. It was just a pragmatic necessity more than anything.”

In a year’s time, that tape went from being a practical merch-table item into the group’s official debut album. The road to get there wasn’t without speed bumps; O’Hanley says the band sent the tape to “every label in America that a band would want to be on,” and each one passed on signing them. A chance meeting at South by Southwest in March eventually led to the band to Polyvinyl Records, and in July, the Champaign, Illinois, label released Alvvays’ self-titled first album on CD and vinyl—as well as a light-blue cassette reissue.

The album is a fuzzy and warm indie-pop record, the likes of which you might have heard on college radio in the late ’80s or early ’90s. The band—comprising O’Hanley, vocalist Molly Rankin, keyboardist Kerri Maclellan, bassist Brian Murphy and drummer Phil MacIsaac—cites influences like Teenage Fanclub, and on gorgeously jangly songs like “Atop a Cake,” it shows. The album’s leadoff track and first single, “Adult Diversion,” is a harmonious blend of shimmering guitar chords, distorted bass and Rankin’s reverb-heavy vocals. And the infectious “Archie, Marry Me” is a bighearted and big-sounding girl-meets-boy-then-proposes anthem that might have been a courtship-mixtape staple if only Alvvays had existed in the time before Spotify.

In a sense, the sound of Alvvays’ music is founded on an entirely different cassette, namely the influential C86 compilation released by NME in 1986—the makeup of which (The Wedding Present, The Pastels) is an oft-cited reference point in reviews of the band’s new album.

“We love Primal Scream; the first song on C86, ‘Velocity Girl,’ is sort of our bread-and-butter,” O’Hanley says. “The Pastels were sweet; we love those guys. C86 was also kind of a… blueprint for some of those Britpop bands that came later. Molly was Cape Breton’s No. 1 Oasis fan for a while. She had the gold records on her bedroom wall.” 

Alvvays play Nov. 25 at Soda Bar 

Before Alvvays established themselves in Toronto, they began playing and writing music together in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island—a decidedly less advantageous locale for a rock band to make noise or build up much of a following. But while O’Hanley says that Alvvays had to leave the island in or der to survive, starting out in a humbler and less populated part of the country motivated them to take more risks.

“It’s like any other small town,” he says. “You can use the boredom to your advantage and do that loner thing and make some beautiful music. We probably wrote a quarter of the record in Charlottetown. You’d go to Value Village or a thrift shop and find a church organ with a drum machine. I brought this home and Molly was, like, ‘What the hell is this?’ We ended up writing what became ‘Dives’ on that organ.”

The hard work and do-it-yourself ethic that Alvvays have maintained has found them in an enviable position, now enjoying the kind of critical acclaim and label backing that every young band hopes to find after investing the time and money to get its music into audiences’ ears. From a distance, they might seem more comfortable, but O’Hanley says they’re still not totally ready to let go of their DIY approach. They paid to record their first album with money out of their own pockets—and they’ll put out their own tapes again if they have to.

“We would, you know, make a plan and work until we had enough money to go out to Calgary and record with Chad VanGaalen, and we’d get home and we’d be broke, so we’d work some more so we could do more tracking,” O’Hanley says. “It’s always been on our shoulders, and still is—no one’s gonna care about your shit as much as you will. DIY’s been a necessary reaction to quality control.

“You can’t delegate stuff, or it’s no longer really your band.”

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff