Featherless Ideas We Would Hand Back and Forth to Each Other

On September 3, 2017, Mike Mills emailed Matt Berninger to introduce himself and in very short order, the most ambitious project of The National’s nearly 20-year career was born and plans for a hard-earned vacation died. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker was coming off his third feature, 20th Century Women, and was interested in working with the band on... something. A video maybe. Berninger, already a fan of Mills’ films, not only agreed to collaborate, he essentially handed over the keys to the band’s creative process.

The result is I Am Easy to Find, a 24-minute film by Mills starring Alicia Vikander, and I Am Easy to Find, a 68-minute album by The National. The former is not the video for the latter; the latter is not the soundtrack to the former. The two projects are, as Mills calls them, “Playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other” -- they share music and words and DNA and impulses and a vision about what it means to be human in 2019, but don’t necessarily need one another. The movie was composed like a piece of music; the music was assembled like a film, by a film director. The front-man and natural focal point was deliberately and dramatically side-staged in favor of a variety of female voices, nearly all of whom have long been in the group’s orbit. It is unlike anything either artist has ever attempted and also totally in line with how they’ve created for much of their careers. It’s complicated. And also kind of not.

“The National is not five dudes,” Berninger says, putting the lie to the photograph accompanying this press kit. “That's kind of been the core, but the truth is, very quickly with Boxer, Carin started writing. Kyle and Ben, who are our brass section, they became very much creative partners, and then Thomas Bartlett, Sufjan Stevens -- the doors have been wide open in terms of people coming in. It’s a big community.”

Carin is Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife, who saw her lyric-writing duties increase, but the most drastic change this time was that, for the first time, an outside collaborator has been credited as a creative producer for an entire project. “What felt new was to have an outsider in the middle of the creative process, giving a lot of feedback,” says songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Aaron Dessner. Traditionally he would be the band member charged with assembling a National album’s sundry pieces, and Long Pond, his studio in upstate New York, had become the de facto home base for a band whose members are now scattered across New York, Ohio, California, and France. “He wasn't producing in a traditional sense, it's more like he's been an interrupter -- a subversive force in the middle of everything, and kind of questioning and suggesting and subverting our normal process.”

When Mills first reached out to Berninger, The National’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, was just coming out, and the band was embarking on a long stint of touring and headlining festivals. “So we talk on the phone, and I was expecting to do a video, and Matt's like, ‘Well we've got all these songs, why don't we do an album, like a film for all the songs,’” Mills recalls. “From the get-go he was like, ‘You can do anything you want,’ which was super generous but very daunting. I don't know shit about music, so it was really interesting that they were so game.”

Berninger gave Mills a handful of tracks from the Sleep Well Beast sessions, including what would become “Light Years,” “The Pull of You, and “Quiet Light,” as well as “Rylan,” which dated back a decade. There were no conditions as to what Mills could or not do with the tracks, and he quickly landed on an idea that would be perfect for Vikander and wrote a script with her in mind. The film, which was shot in March 2018, is nothing more and nothing less than an intimate look at one person’s life from birth to (spoiler alert) death, a picaresque succession of subtitled snapshots and fleeting moments big and small that add up to a life -- existential bullet points.

“I often play around with condensing a huge thing into a small thing, playing out a telescoping of time,” Mills says. “My favorite art pieces do that. So why not a portrait of someone’s whole life, and Alicia’s so good she could play the whole thing without any aging prosthetics. I grew up with very powerful sisters and a mom, and a gay dad -- I grew up in a matriarchy. I'm used to trying to figure out women, so it's much easier for me to write a female character than a male character.”

Alvvays are two women, three men, a crate of cassette tapes and a love of jingle-jangle. Molly Rankin and Kerri MacLellan grew up as next-door neighbours in Cape Breton, lifting fiddles and folk-songs. Heartbreaks of different shades soon entered their lives, as did the music of Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian. Similar noisy melancholy drifted over to Prince Edward Island, finding Alec O'Hanley, Brian Murphy and Philip MacIsaac.

Convening in Toronto, the group has been making music since dusk or maybe dawn, when stars were appearing or fading. As a result, their internationally acclaimed, debut, self-titled album is both sun-splashed and twilit. Nine songs concealing drunkenness, defeat and death in tungsten-tinted pop that glitters like sea glass. And, the world has become besotted with it. The needlepoint melody and verse of Rankin and O'Hanley's songs were recorded with Chad VanGaalen at his Yoko Eno studio. It was mixed by Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck) and John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile.

Released on July 22, of 2014 on Royal Mountain Records (Canada), Polyvinyl Records (USA) and Transgressive Records (Europe) it achieved "Best Album Of Year" status from the likes of Rolling Stone, Paste, NME, Gorilla vs Bear, CBC and more, and claimed cover stories at Exclaim and NOW Magazine. Votes for "Best Song of The Year" flooded in from Pitchfork, NPR, Fader, CBC, Drowned in Sound and Consequence of Sound. The album's debut at #1 at College Radio in the U.S. was the first time a debut album from any artist has achieved that feat.

"Rankin possesses the sort of radiant but deceptively deadpan voice that lets her infuse these lovelorn
laments with sly, sometimes sinister wit," noted Pitchfork.
"Millennial social anxiety, it turns out, is a wildcard genius pairing with breezy, effortlessly cool surf-rock, and the combination is irresistible," chimed NPR.

"It's a rare treat to discover a band like Alvvays. Whether you're looking to fall in love this summer or pine away unrequited, you won't find a better soundtrack than this," said Rolling Stone.

"Alvvays Make Sunny Guitar-Pop Gold on Self-Titled Debut," read the review headline from TIME, and the NME raved, "Summer jams meet jangly melancholy on the Toronto band's impressive debut."

"It's scary to think what Rankin and the rest might achieve in the future when they've burst out of the gate with songs as smartly conceived and effortlessly listenable as "Adult Diversion," "Party Police" and the devastatingly achy "Ones Who Love You," said The Toronto Star upon album release.

Alvvays has toured alongside Real Estate (in the UK) and The Decemberists (within North America) in addition to a prominent collection of headline shows around the world. The quintet will feature at major festivals this summer and fall including Reading and Leeds, FYF, WayHome, Outside Lands and Osheaga in addition to a host of continued global tour demands. Alvvays is loud and clear and true. Flood your ears.


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