With my heart seized in the prairies, held captive by songs of mining disasters, summertime in the Rockies, and romance in wheat fields, I found the answer to my fixations with the Rural Alberta Advantage. Celebrating the release of their debut album Hometowns on Saddle Creek Records, the band brought the beauty of the country’s wild rose, tales of the oil boom, and accounts of frozen winters on the farm to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on July 30, 2009. Paul Banwatt, Amy Cole and Nils Edenloff greeted the crowd before the show with welcoming smiles, a light-hearted air, and free vegetarian samosas. The charming trio nestled backstage with guitars blaring and drums booming from opening acts The Wilderness of Manitoba and Hooded Fang to speak about their newly formed label, provincial ties, and Monty Python ska covers. For more on the Rural Alberta Advantage, read their Spotlight, and for photographs from their record release party at The Horseshoe Tavern, explore Flickr.
Jan: There was this huge fuss about The Rural Alberta Advantage being Canada’s best-unsigned band so how does it feel getting it sorted out now that you are on Saddle Creek?
Nils Edenloff: We signed ourselves in Canada, we remain Canada’s – I don’t even want to say it.
Paul Banwatt: Self-signed band.
Nils: Yeah, we’re now trying to vie for that title. We’re signed to Saddle Creek in the United States, but we’re releasing the album ourselves in Canada.
Jan: Is all the distribution and management in Canada under your control?
Paul: Yeah, we have our own label started up. It’s called John, Dear [Laughs].
Jan: And thus far, Rural Alberta Advantage is the only one on the label?
Paul: Yeah, it’s pretty busy right now – considering we’re the only people running it.
Amy Cole: Once we take a break from touring it’s definitely something we would like to make our own and sign other artists, I’m not saying it’s going to be soon but it’s definitely in the plan.
Jan: What do you three do when you are not on tour and have free time, as hard as that can be to imagine.
Amy: We hang out more – we go to breakfast.
Nils: We do, there’s stuff that we all go to and enjoy together, we have a lot of friends in common, we’re part of the same scene – we’re friends is what I’m trying to say.
Paul: We’re friends not specifically because of the band; we were friends before we started The Rural Alberta Advantage.
Nils: I guess the difference is that because we see each other so much due to the band we don’t make as many efforts to hang out with each other specifically anymore. We still see each other and go to all the same stuff, but we no longer have to be like, “Okay we haven’t seen each other in a few weeks what do you want to do together?”
Paul: [Laughs] Hey guys, let’s get a beer with other people!
Jan: Do you have any ties to viewing yourself as an Albertan-band or an Ontarian-band?
Nils: We’re definitely Toronto-based but thematically we consider ourselves an Albertan band.
Jan: What about how you started musically. Was there every any formal background?
Amy: I took piano and theory when I was eight – that lasted ten years. When I was eighteen I just thought that I would never play music again, I hated it because it was all classical so I stopped until a friend of mine decided he wanted to start a band and needed a female vocalist. I thought I could do that and that’s how I got started back in the Toronto music community. I had never been in a band before.
Paul: I was the high school band drummer.
Nils: I always had music appreciation; my parents enrolled me before I was in school, so I did stuff like the piano lessons for the longest time. I never really achieved anything, I played by ear and accomplished embarrassingly little. Then I did high school jam bands.
Amy: You have to tell him that story.
Nils: Oh no, that was horrible.
Jan: What happened?
Nils: When I was studying engineering in university, they had this Engineering League with a whole bunch of events and one of them was a battle of the bands, and I thought that was pretty cool. I was in computer engineering so I was one of the top-notch cool kids [Laughs]. Anyway, I go to this meeting in September, five months in advance and they had a plan for what their theme would be for the Engineering Week battle of the bands. They were like, “Okay, we like Monty Python and ska music, so we’re going to do Monty Python ska covers dressed up as lumberjacks.” I was just like, “Oh man, I have a heavy semester guys, I don’t know if I can commit to your vision here.” That was the end of it. [Laughs]
Jan: Was it one of those brilliant ideas at the time type things or it felt bad from the start?
Nils: It would be forgivable if it were in hindsight, a great idea at the time but then terrible. In my mind, and I’m not saying I’m the smartest guy in the room – It was a bad idea from the get go.
Jan: On to good ideas – Hometowns. With the songs on Hometowns being polished versions of your EP released three years ago, how long has the album been in the works?
Nils: It’s somewhat deceptive since the EP came out in 2006 then we started working on Hometowns in 2007 shortly after the EP was out. Using the same songs felt reasonable at the time, since we were still playing and they were fresh. The album took a long time to record since we were in a commercial studio and only had the chance to record a few hours a day, one day a week, it ended up spanning eight months. That took us until 2008 when we started selling the album at shows.
Paul: The stuff on the EP was new for us at the time.
Amy: I learned the ‘Deathbridge’ keyboard part that day as we recorded the EP, so it’s been a process.
Nils: We had a demo that we recorded when we weren’t really a band so we have some songs floating around that didn’t represent what we were doing so when the three of us got together there was a flurry of activity. There was a bunch of songs that were very different from what we were working on, so we had to get something out there for people to know what we were doing. We just did the EP live off the floor in a day; all those songs were less than a month old, when we got to the studio that was the start of the recording process. We never planned to make an EP. We had the songs and had to put something up on MySpace so we could apply to shows and festivals. We had a few CD-Rs and defaulted to offer them for pay-what-you-can at shows.
Paul: It didn’t even have a name. It was like here’s a bunch of songs we recorded. That was it.
Nils: I think we were starting to play ‘Ballad’ then and I had always wanted it to start with Ballad. That’s why I’m glad we did it that way, even though Hometowns was the first real step forward.
Jan: What does the idea of home mean to you?
Amy: Just being here tonight, since we were on tour for a month playing different shows and audiences that were really foreign to us, even though the crowd had heard of us or knew of us, it’s nothing compared to being here playing with our friends and family to celebrate the release of the record. Home is super appropriate for tonight.
Paul: It means many things, that’s why it’s called Hometowns. It means different things for different people.
Nils: I’ve been in Toronto for seven years and it definitely feels like home being here. There is also that aspect where I know where I came from, and realizing how important it was to leave at the same time. I think I will always consider Alberta home, even though I have other homes as well. Different homes are for different chapters of your life. A large portion of my life has been in Alberta, this is my chapter two.
Jan: Do you have a venue that feels like home?
Nils: The Edmonton show we played a couple of weeks ago was our first time ever playing in Edmonton. All my family was there. Being born there, going to University there and playing songs that have references to the city, it felt amazing seeing the response thrown back at us. The pride they felt in the songs, it caught us off guard. It can be personal for people when they relate – it’s like, this is what I feel, I know these things.
Jan: What about the best compliment you’ve received?
Amy: Someone wrote to us and said a month before our July 9th show in San Francisco, that it was going to be his wedding anniversary when we played the show and that his wife and he really loved the song ‘In the Summertime’. He went lyric by lyric explaining how each line was in reference to their relationship. Like in the summertime she wears this dress I really like, I do love her like a renegade. He asked if we could dedicate ‘In the Summertime’ to them. That meant a lot to us.
Paul: He had played this song for her when they were to be engaged or some point and she had cried.
Amy: It was crazy we met them after the show, and she said, “I cried, it happened.”
Paul: They bought a show poster that night and framed it.
Jan: One of the big aspects of Hometowns is that you can really believe it. The stories are genuine and humble they all have meaning. What expressions are important to you when you write?
Nils: Personally, I’ll bring skeletons of songs and we’ll be practicing and working things out. It seems like many of the songs on the album – when I get to the point where there’s that welling up of emotion in me – that I believe it, when it’s personal to me, there’s that conviction in it. Maybe if there wasn’t that feeling to it, it wouldn’t connect with people as much. There’s a certain amount of real heartfelt honesty in what we’re doing, whether it’s in the words or the music that all three of us are coming up with together. There’s a real strong honesty to it. There’s this song that we get to play if it’s quiet enough, and I just remember writing it, I had different versions of it but it was once it got to the point where it is now that things just clicked in a weird way. It was sort of like this huge weight was lifted. No matter how many times we play the songs, it always feels that we’re trying to bring that effort in.
Jan: What song is it?
Nils: That song specifically is not released but it’s called ‘Goodnight’, it’s all over YouTube.
Paul: [Laughs] Just go to YouTube, it’ll be on the front page somewhere.
Nils: Throughout the album there’s lots of different moments like that, the writing of it felt real.
Jan: I’ve always liked ‘Don’t Haunt This Place’. Is there a certain story behind the heartbreak?
Paul: There are different elements in the arrangement, Nils wrote the lyrics and basic melodies for that one, and it started as a guitar solo.
Nils: So much of that song is the interplay between vocals and drums. If you play that song without the drums, it would just feel empty. The song itself spawned out of break up with my girlfriend, we were together and she moved out. A lot of the songs on the album actually were written in that apartment by myself, and the practicing with these guys followed in the same place. Standard break up in a way, it is hard.
Paul: We’re trying to convince his current girlfriend to dump him so we can write another album.
Jan: On that note, what comes next for the Rural Alberta Advantage?
Paul: I mean the album just came out this month, so we have to tour it properly. There’s a long time before we worry about the next album. I mean we are writing it, but we’re not going to start recording it for a while.
Jan: As far as touring goes, are you sticking around Canada and the United States or heading over to Europe as well?
Amy: We are going to go over to Europe, I don’t know when, but Saddle Creek is going to release Hometowns in Europe as well, so around that time.
Nils: We have a few 7”s planned as well, one through Saddle Creek and one we’re going to release ourselves. The Saddle Creek one might be a song off the album, the one we’re putting out will be a remix and a reworking of a song off the album.
Paul: The remix and the reworking is for Kickstarter, you can support it for the next two days. What they do is you put forward an idea, and if people want it to happen they pledge to cover the cost of manufacturing and production.
Nils: People supported it and we reached our goal.
Jan: What has kept you self-signed in Canada?
Paul: That is really a technical answer, it has to do with the way the Canadian system supports acts coming up, stuff has to be Canadian controlled to qualify for a lot of different programs in Canada. That was our major concern, to retain control in Canada. If a Canadian band signs to a US label it loses a lot of access to programs in Canada.
Jan: Pitch one band that you have been listening to a lot, who have you enjoyed?
Nils: They were very deliberately chosen – because they are amazing.
Jan: Do you know them personally, are they old friends?
Amy: We know them now.
Paul: We toured with Hooded Fang for a few months and we actually played at the Delaware House, where The Wilderness of Manitoba are from. We played in the basement of their house.
Amy: Yeah, we wanted to have an awesome band to support that would join us on this tour, we’re really happy with how it worked out.
Jan: With all the provincial ties circling the Rural Alberta Advantage, are the three of you supporters of the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers?
Nils: The answer is so disappointing; you’re going to be mad at me. I grew up with the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, I was living in Edmonton at the time, but I was a music nerd not a hockey fan. That being said, when the Oilers made the run a couple years ago, it was hard not be excited. Like really excited.
Paul: He tried his best. Amy and I are tragic Leafs fans.
Amy: Yeah it’s pathetic though.
Paul: I think we can both agree that we’re hoping Hamilton gets a team so we can stop liking the Leafs.
Amy: We need something if for no other reason but the torture ahead.
Jan: Do you have any famous last words you want share?
Nils: [Sings] Tonight’s going to be a…
Paul: We are obsessed with that Black Eyed Peas song.
Amy: [Laughs] There we go, print it!
Paul: We were doing a lot of driving and listening to American radio so it was hard to avoid.
Jan: Which Black Eyed Peas song?
Paul: ‘I Gotta Feeling’. That song.
Amy: [Laughs] We toyed with the idea of opening with a cover of that.