The Great Wide Open:
Glen Sarvady Gets Acquainted with the Rural Alberta Advantage
Nils Edenloff is sitting in a Montreal hotel room, waiting for some midday food his girlfriend ordered. And he’s feeling pretty good about his band – the previous night the Rural Alberta Advantage played its first tune-up show a few weeks before hitting the road in support of Mended with Gold, the trio’s third album. “There were different things preventing us from full-scale touring,” Edenloff remarks on his band’s relatively quiet stretch since wrapping up touring on their last album, citing work commitments and drummer Paul Banwatt completing his university degree. “But we were still pretty active. It’s not like we ever broke up or anything.”
It’s been six years since the so-called overnight success of Hometowns, the Rural Alberta Advantage’s brilliant, Neutral Milk-inflected debut. And ten years since Edenloff relocated to Toronto – while the RAA’s emotional core derives from Alberta, the band itself was born in and has always been based in Toronto. Edenloff grew up in Edmonton before spending his teen years five hours north in the suddenly tropical Fort McMurray. “It’s where the oil sands are, all the pipeline stuff you read about – I can tell you all about that. My stepfather was a pipefitter.” At the same time his father had a cabin in southern Alberta where Edenloff spent a good bit of vacation time.
“I don’t know if you have state slogans down there but back home it used to be ‘The Alberta Advantage.’ Now it’s some bullshit millennial thing like ‘The Power to Achieve’ or ‘The Future to Excel,’” Edenloff continues, recounting the band name’s origin. “Not long after I moved to Toronto I was talking to my brother and he told me about how he was going to head down to the cabin to take some pictures, hang out and explore the Rural Alberta Advantage. And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s perfect!’ Being homesick at the time and writing all these [place-based] songs, just putting in that one word totally changed the whole context.”
The RAA’s earliest incarnation was as a five-piece, including two of Edenloff’s transplanted Alberta high school buddies (drummer Banwatt and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole are Ontario natives). “There was one particularly horrible show and I’m sure everyone would tell you I fired the whole band, said ‘let’s just reorganized this whole thing.’ For a month or two it went back to the roots of just Paul and I on drums and guitar, but something was definitely missing. We brought Amy back in to fill in those spaces and right from the first show there was something special happening that was just capturing people.”
When they eventually played Alberta (no small feat, given the distance involved and desolate expanse between) locals were flummoxed that they’d never met the guy. “When I was living there I only played in bands in the basement,” he shrugs.
They’re an unusually symbiotic trio. Banwatt’s crisp, kinetic drumming is an important asset for a band working with a small palette and particularly propels the trio live. While Cole spends most of her time on keyboards, she also chips in on percussion and her honeyed vocals serve as an important counterpoint to Edenloff’s open prairie tones.
Departing, the RAA’s 2011 sophomore effort, was actually so little a departure that many heard it as Hometowns 2 – a likeness that Edenloff says was intentional. “We always say Departing as a continuation from Hometowns, so we wanted them to be sonically similar.” The trio was in the midst of a nonstop wave of activity, so there was never an opportunity to press the reset button.
That’s not the case with the new Mended with Gold, which bears some of the earmarks of a difficult third album, postponing the usual pattern by a release cycle. “We treated Mended with Gold as more of its own entity,” Edenloff continues, acknowledging that in clearing the slate the trio also broke its momentum. “Writing for Mended with Gold was harder because we’d been doing it for so long. When you’re starting out everything is new and awesome, you don’t know what you don’t know. Later on you start second guessing yourself, it’s harder to stretch new muscles.” But after a brief Midwest mini-tour in early 2014 the machine began humming again and “it became clear to the three of us, ‘all right, we’re going to be making an album this year.’”
One of the goals for the new sessions was to build out a more formidable sound. “Paul says that our records on the radio always sound small compared to other stuff. On the first day of recording Matt (the band’s engineer) mentioned, ‘I was driving in and heard you on the radio – I see what you mean.’ Also, we happened to come on right after Arcade Fire. I was like, ‘Aw, fuck,’” he laughs.
The RAA has not employed a bassist since their early days as a five-piece, however Cole has incorporated a pedal organ on the road for the past three years, creating a “more beefy and huge” sound that’s now found its way into the studio. Cole’s keyboards and sustained organ chords also take on greater prominence in Gold’s mix, posing some challenges for a trio hoping to replicate the sound of the album in a live setting.
“We’re not bringing in a fourth member, we’re just making Amy’s head explode right now,” Edenloff laughs. “We’re always gonna be the band we are – with that honest, acoustic-y lean to it. But what I think people respond to is the dynamic between the three of us and the energy we bring. It’ll be an emotional representation even if not a sonic representation.”
To the comfort of longtime fans – and potential disappointment of the bandmembers – I don’t hear nearly the level of reinvention on Mended with Gold that Edenloff claims they aimed for. The RAA’s sound is immediately recognizable, and standout track “Terrified” bears close similarity to Departing’s “Stamp.” “Vulcan, AB” even hearkens back to the place-based titling convention used on several Hometowns tracks – and sure enough, it marks the completion of the germ of an older song. “Paul’s a big Star Trek fan,” Edenloff explains. “I always thought it’d be fun to do something on that theme for Paul but I could never get it past the first bit. There’s not a lot to the place – the streets are named after planets, but after Star Trek came out they bought into the whole thing, they have a replica of the Enterprise.” The song isn’t a cheap novelty – rather, the locale serves as a device to convey Edenloff’s tried and true themes of love, displacement and longing.
It also plays to Banwatt’s touring weakness. “Paul’s a last minute sort of guy. He likes obscure roadside attractions. If he sees a sign for a thing, even if none of us have ever heard of it, it suddenly becomes ‘hey – we gotta do the thing!’” Cole’s a huge baseball fan, an interest that gave the band an interesting off day on their last Atlanta stop. “She wanted to go to a game, Paul and I made noises but never thought it would happen. Then it turned out our hotel was right down the street from the ballpark, and we figured we’re stuck. We still dragged our feet, drinking at the hotel past the first pitch until Amy kind of forced the issue. All these scalpers kept hounding us and one finally said, ‘Listen, it’s the last game of the season, you’re not going to do better than these.’ Turns out they were in the front row behind first base – I’ve never had seats like that!”
After self-releasing the initial pressing of Hometowns the Rural Alberta Advantage has found long-term homes on Saddle Creek in the US and Paper Bag in Canada. Edenloff counters my suggestion that the RAA has little in common with other bands on the Saddle Creek roster, cogently pointing out, “Maybe not like the Faint, but we’re emotionally direct like a lot of Saddle Creek bands – plus I have a weird voice like Conor.
“One of my friends said, ‘A record label is like a bank – if your bank also happens to be really cool, that’s a bonus.’ You want to feel like you could relate to them, hang out with them – I think we’re on the same page.” It sounds like a description that could apply to the relationship between the Rural Alberta Advantage and their fans as well. The trio seems eminently likeable and approachable. And they deliver really cool songs – which is more than a bonus.