The Rural Alberta Advantage (from L to R: Nils Edenloff, Amy Cole, Paul Banwatt)
They may have formed in Toronto, but The Rural Alberta Advantage’s inspiration lies in the prairies. This indie-rock threesome marries gritty vocals, energetic guitar riffs from Nils Edenloff (Canada’s answer to Jeff Mangum) and Amy Cole’s honeyed voice with punchy beats from monster drummer Paul Banwatt (also one-half of Woodhands).
The result? Deeply storied records that seamlessly string together summers in the Rockies, the oil boom, heartbreak and small-town winters. Not surprisingly, the talented trio is quickly becoming the next great Canadian band. We sat down with Edenloff this week after the band announced its fall tour with fellow folkster and Vancouver troubadour Dan Mangan.
You’ve just come off a Canada Day gig with The Tragically Hip and Death Cab for Cutie, as well as a Fort York bicentennial celebration with Sarah Harmer and Shad. What’s it like to be on par with such legendary Canadian musicians?
It was very flattering. It was nice to play a show like that and at the end of it, feel like, “Yeah, you know, we deserve to be here.” Hands down, it was one of the most intimate, enjoyable experiences for us. We got to do two songs with Gord [Downie], like “Canada Geese,” which was amazing. Coke Machine Glow is one of my favourite albums of all time, probably as much, if not more than [Neutral Milk Hotel’s] In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. To be able to play with him, and then to have him play “Stamp” with us — it was a ridiculous, “WTF” moment. Before we played, he came to our trailer and ran stuff through, and it was incredibly strange playing Gord’s song to Gord [laughs]. And then, we’re playing “Stamp” and he’s playing songs that I wrote. It was a moment where, I don’t think I’m ever going to get over that, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. He was exactly like what everyone would want him to be like.
How did growing up in Alberta influence the band?
If you rewind all the way back, Alberta’s provincial slogan used to be “The Alberta Advantage,” so when I first moved out here, I sort of ended up writing songs about growing up in Alberta, and I got an email from my brother, and he told me he was going down to our farm — or the rural Alberta Advantage. It sort of perfectly matched up with the sort of songs I was writing at the time, and it immediately changed the memories I had about that provincial slogan, because whenever I grew up hearing the Alberta Advantage, all I would think about was oil and gas and industry — I grew up in Fort McMurray, so it was tied closely to that. Putting that one word in front of it made me remember all those beautiful memories I had growing up. The two just made sense together.
It can’t just be a coincidence that you named the first record Hometowns, and the second one Departing, right?
Yeah, I always wanted to have the two albums to flow together. I had this grand vision of interconnected EPs where it would start with “The Ballad of The RAA” and it would end with “Good Night.” I feel like we achieved that with these two records — starting with Hometowns and then having it transition to, sort of a flip side, with Departing.
There’s a lot of range on the albums, from fast-paced, upbeat songs to really chilly, melancholy tunes. What’s your songwriting process like?
It’s kind of all over the place. For the most part, I think what we end up doing with 90 per cent of the songs is start with me on the acoustic guitar. And then I’ll get together with Paul to flesh out the bones of the song, because Paul’s drumming is just so intertwined with everything in the song — the melody, the words — that it’s necessary for him to be on the ground floor of what we’re doing. We don’t technically have a bass player, so there really isn’t anything rhythmic, which frees Paul up to really ingrain himself in a song. Then the three of us flesh out the instrumentation.
Does your engineering degree play a part in that?
You never know! I guess it’s hard to take that mindset out of everything you do. In a lot of the things we do, I tend to approach it with methodical calculation. Like, “How do we boil this down to the essence of what it needs to be? Let’s get rid of all the fat so it’s just the fundamentals here.” And working on that emotional punch without drowning it with a bunch of instrumentation.
You’ve been likened to Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel. How do you feel about the comparison?
That’s incredibly flattering. I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t someone that I listened to in university and to a certain degree, emulated what he was able to achieve in music. There’s a reason why In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is such a legendary album. I’ve always felt he managed to sing all the perfect notes and connect with a listener in a way that’s just untouchable. I’ve tried to make something that ultimately I believe in and that I personally connect to. Because I’ve always said that if the music doesn’t move you personally, then it’s really hard to expect that somebody, when you’re in some bar in some town on tour, is going to connect with it.
Any plans to record a third album?
We’re in the beginning stages of writing a new record. It’s always a slow process — we never want to push it too hard, but you know, this is like our lives at the same time [laughs]. In the fall, we’re hoping to tour some new stuff and then buckle down. We’re waiting to see what the music speaks to us, and then follow it from there. I just sort of fall into a path, like a lost puppy dog, you know?