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Music Alvvays, a band defined by distance, finds fans far from home with sophomore album

In embracing the spaces between, Alvvays has grown into something immutable.

Arden Wray/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes truths reveal themselves not in the moments you expect, but in the spaces between. The 9 p.m. crowd to see a headliner at Berlin's Musik & Frieden has a much different tone than a Canadian might expect from, say, a midnight Horseshoe Tavern set in Toronto. When Alvvays play the German venue in September, as each song's applause recedes, instead of a room full of erratic chatter, there is … respectful silence.

It feels strange. When each song's applause finishes, the audience actually waits with bated breath. This might happen back home for a solo singer-songwriter, yeah – but a five-piece pop-rock band? At a sold-out bar?

After a couple of songs, front woman Molly Rankin breaks the quiet. "We're Alvvays, and we're from Canada." It prompts cheers, and then … silence again. "It's true!" she says. More applause, then more silence. She looks around. "Can you smoke in this room?" A handful of dejected No's fly from the crowd. The quiet returns.

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Guitarist Alec O'Hanley tries his hand at banter and he, too, fails to get a rise from the fans. So they shut up and play a hit. It's In Undertow – the room-flooding lead single from the Toronto band's second album, Antisocialites, which dropped six days before this concert. Here, finally, the audience finally finds a voice, half the room singing along for the chorus. This, with the earlier silence, tells a story: Here, as far as they are from home, their music matters just as much.

The crowd's voices come and go – along with the songs, never brushing against them – rising, even, for references to Toronto's Lippincott Street and to setting sail from Atlantic Canada, both thousands of kilometres away. Alvvays has reached a turning point, three years after their debut record. Much of this European tour was sold out, as were many of their North American dates this fall. So, too, is their five-night December residency at the Mod Club in Toronto.

Alvvays is in many ways defined by distance. Their music casts a careful eye on how people spread apart. They're a ragtag band of mostly Maritimers who left home for Toronto. And those songs, often describing those places, are being gobbled up by more far-flung fans by the day. Here in Berlin, the crowd chanting In Undertow's chorus – a repeated "There's no turning back" – might not realize how intentionally apropos it's become. In embracing the spaces between, Alvvays has grown into something immutable.

"I think that the first record was about trying to be closer to something, and this one is more about distancing the characters – they're distancing themselves from their subject," Rankin says in the venue's green room a few hours before the show.

The green room is literally green; pulling out a laptop, bassist Brian Murphy determines it's Pantone 3275 C, before he and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan wander away, and drummer Sheridan Riley steps out to jump rope. Antisocialites has just come out worldwide – on Royal Mountain Records in Canada, Polyvinyl in the United States and Transgressive Records here in Europe – and, as Rankin says, is filled with characters untangling themselves from complicated relationships.

Its wall-of-sound pop songs have bona-fide bite: "What's left for you and me? / I ask that question rhetorically," she sings on In Undertow. Saved by a Waif mocks a self-reinvention with perfect confidence and a sharp hook. Others, such as Already Gone, translate long-gone love through a shrug and a sluggish tempo: "I don't think I could find it / I don't know how to find it again."

British tastemakers caught on to Alvvays's sound before they'd even released their debut album, on the strength of early singles and shows. "I think we're anglophilic in our tastes," says O'Hanley, who freely namechecks the likes of the Smiths and Teenage Fanclub.

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O'Hanley says the friend who introduced him to the latter band, through the 1991 album Bandwagonesque, "did so with some reluctance, because he was like, 'Alec, I think you're gonna like this record too much.'" O'Hanley certainly did. British fans bought into this influence; it's that early British fan base that helped them garner an audience throughout Europe, they say, including here in Berlin. And Alvvays's rise has fostered an intriguing creative reciprocity: Teenage Fanclub member and recent Ontarian Norman Blake appears, slyly, on the new record.

Both O'Hanley and Rankin have logged past tours of duty with the East Coast as home base: he with "my high-school band" – Prince Edward Island indie-rock troupe Two Hours Traffic – and she with "my family," which would be Cape Breton's Rankin Family; she is the daughter of the late musician John Morris Rankin. Being from the Maritimes – and leaving the Maritimes – helped imprint a sense of distance, across both time and space, in their identity.

"When I think about the ocean or where I used to live, it's always this thing that'll never quite be the same, no matter how many times you go back," Rankin says. "It's like a sense of loss. I went to Cape Breton this summer and it was incredible – but there's always this part that isn't quite where you were when you were a child."

The night before the Berlin show, something happened to O'Hanley that made him realize how far he'd come. He was in Hamburg, walking back to his hotel after a concert there, when he saw a venue he'd once played in with Two Hours Traffic. "It was a dilapidated little hole in the wall," O'Hanley says. "It was a nice apples-to-oranges moment relative to the show we had just played. It was night and day."

Rock 'n' roll rarely leads to a life of riches, however. There's always further to go. Just before we spoke, during sound check, he had to crack open MacLellan's keyboard to examine its wiring and perform some "synth surgery."

"We're not white-gloving it, by any means," he says.

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Alvvays plays Toronto's Mod Club Dec. 12-16 and will tour Western Canada in March and April (alvvays.com).

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