Luck Brings Arcade Fire’s Brilliance to the Rural Alberta Advantage
Unlike many musicians who attend a concert of a beloved fellow musician, the live show that most influenced singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff of the Rural Alberta Advantage happened by chance.
“I’ll be honest: It was pure luck that we were there,” Edenloff says about Arcade Fire’s performance opening for Jim Guthrie at the El Mocambo in Toronto in January 2003. “It was freezing out, and we didn’t feel like hanging out at the bar next door to the venue, so we happened to be at the El Mo early that night.
“I think there were 20 people there, maybe 30 tops, for their set. Win (Butler) started playing acoustic at the back of the room behind the audience without a mic and then sang while walking up to the stage. The set was very different from a pre-Funeral show (Funeral was Arcade Fire’s debut album) when I saw them a year later. However, it was clear that the ideas they were working on, and what made Funeral such a powerful record, were all there from the very beginning.
“It was probably the first time in my life that I saw a band, let alone an opening band, so completely captivate and emotionally touch an entire crowd from start to end,” says Edenloff, who will head to Germany and the United Kingdom to play seven shows with the Rural Alberta Advantage next month. “I remember walking away thinking that they stuck a perfect balance between earnest and emotional music, which was definitely inspiring.”
Two less-known Canadian bands, though, performed at the live show Edenloff considers the best concert he has seen. It was at the Rebar in Edmonton in summer 1997, and Halifax-based indie rock bands Thrush Hermit and the Super Friendz were co-headliners.
“I’m sure that I’m looking back on it with rose-colored glasses, but this was the first show I saw in a bar and one of the first shows I traveled out of town to see,” Edenloff recalls. “So it’s definitely got a special spot in my heart.
“A friend and I drove five hours from Fort McMurray to Edmonton to see the show. We were fans of both bands, so we couldn’t miss their co-headline tour across the country. I was under the impression that Thush Hermit would headline one night, and the Super Friendz would headline the next night. For the Edmonton show, Thrush headlined, and the Super Friendz opened.
“I was just learning and starting to play in a band, so I there were so many moments within the show that blew my mind. The Super Friendz guitarist Drew Yamada broke a string mid-song and managed to replace it in time for a critical end-of-song solo. My young mind was blown. I remember thinking there was no way he’d be able to pull it off. The next day, I picked up a Blues Driver pedal, because I saw that’s what the guys in the Super Friendz were using.
“Thrush Hermit toured with a ‘Rock and Rock’ sign behind them. At the time, I just thought Rebar had a badass sign for all the shows they put on. At the end of the set, bassist Ian McGettigan wrapped a towel around the top of his bass, lit it on fire, sucked back a bottle of something and blew a massive fireball into the air. This was, obviously, years before the Great White fire (a pyrotechnic display that went awry, killing 100 people in a Rhode Island club). I remember walking away from the show thinking that it was about 1,000 times cooler than it needed to be, but exactly what I wanted from my first bar show.”
As the Rural Alberta Advantage gets ready for its seventh trip to Europe, the indie folk rock is undoubtedly considered cool by many fans across the pond.
“We’ve actually been to the UK and Europe several times, but it’ll be our first time playing shows in the UK and Germany since (keyboardist, backup vocalist) Robin (Hatch) joined the band this past summer,” Edenloff says. “I really enjoy playing shows in Europe, but it is a very different experience from touring in Canada or the States. To be honest, the first couple of tours felt a bit like Groundhog Day. Every day there is a new city where you don’t know the language, the electrical plugs are always changing and you never feel like you have a chance to get your bearings.
“That being said, these tours always come with the best stories. (Drummer) Paul (Banwatt) and I walked strange neighborhoods in the early mornings to try to find where our rental van had been towed. We stayed in accommodations like French communes where we all slept huddled in one room around a bunch of space heaters and at German reindeer farms complete with Christmas decorations that were more like obstacle courses to our rooms. We had flights and shows cancelled due to volcano eruptions and moving ash clouds and more than a few power supplies/keyboards ruined due to either voltage problems or damage during flights.”
“I think we’ve definitely gotten better at knowing how to tour Europe over the years, and the venues there tend to remind me of the spots we played back home when we were first starting out — small, intimate shows in friends’ basements or grubby bars. One of our first shows in the UK was a small festival in Manchester before we had an agent or anyone onboard overseas to help out. We were shocked to show up to a packed room filled with folks that knew all the words to our songs from Hometowns (2008’s full-length debut album). They shouted along with us the entire time. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do with these upcoming dates right: Get in front of some of our most memorably supportive audiences in packed little rooms to try out new material. It’s always helped us in the past to work out new songs on the road and get a feeling for what is, or isn’t, working before finalizing something in the studio.”
Edenloff, the Rural Alberta Advantage’s group’s lead vocalist and guitarist, joined with Banwatt and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole to release a self-titled debut EP in 2006 and the full-length Hometowns two years later. Departing followed in 2011, and the group was nominated for two JUNO awards in 2012. Cole announced an amicable departure from the group and was replaced by Hatch three months ago.
“While they were two separate releases, I’ve always seen Hometowns and Departing as part of one connected release,” Edenloff says. “When Paul and I first started playing together, there was this initial explosion of creativity which I think is pretty common for most bands. You don’t know what you don’t know, everything is the best song you’ve ever written and it’s always exciting. A lot of the music we were writing in the beginning definitely makes up both albums.
“At the time, I had a vision of making a series of interrelated EPs connected by artwork with the first one starting with the track ‘The Ballad of the RAA’ and ending the final one with ‘Goodnight.’ Ultimately, we decided we had enough songs to make a full record, so we scrapped the idea. But that original concept is still there for the two records. The Canadian pressings of the albums also reference that initial connected-artwork idea with each album having half a map of Alberta included with the lyrics.
“On Mended with Gold, we were trying to create a more dynamic record — something that would attempt to capture the energy of our live shows. I think we’ve always been more of a live band. It’s how we started out, and we try to put everything we can into those live shows. One thing we kept hearing after Departing is that the first two records don’t seem to capture the same energy from our shows, so, with Mended, we made a conscious effort to try to do that. We brought our live sound engineer from touring into the studio to help out. We’re still learning how to be a band in the studio, but I think that Mended definitely comes closer to capturing more of the elements of our live sound and the band overall.”
What’s next in the recording studio?
“I’ve never been good about focusing on a theme or having a specific plan at the outset of a new record,” Edenloff explains. “For me, writing music tends to be more of a constantly evolving process, like following one strange trail after another until a song has come to its general conclusion.
“This time around, we’re following that natural writing process more and inviting the fans to come along those trails with us. The band is getting small batches of songs ready to perform, doing some recording in advance of the intimate shows and will refine the ideas at the shows. Then we’ll come back home to finish off the songs in the studio. We’ve always felt that the audience plays a large role in the shaping of music as it’s being written, and their immediate feedback of the new stuff they’re hearing is incredibly helpful and a lot of fun.
“We just finished the first run of road-testing dates with pairs of shows in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Europe will be next, and the final run of road-testing dates on the West Coast of the USA and Canada will be announced soon. Our goal is to release music along the way to keep things fresh and engaging for everyone on both sides of the stage. It’s so hard to put so much of your life into a record and then have it sit on a shelf for months before it actually comes out. It was really exciting to finish up ‘White Lights’ (a new song playable on the band’s website), play it live on tour and then be able to release it a couple of weeks later. You’ll soon hear ‘Beacon Hill,’ the second track that came of out those shows.”
The Rural Alberta Advantage was in Brooklyn the week the great Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen died last month.
“I’ve always been drawn to more of the singer-songwriter musicians,” Edenloff says. “I won’t lie — it was tough to get the news about Leonard Cohen’s passing just before our last show in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago. Leonard Cohen is definitely one of the musicians who left an indelible impression on me in my early adult years.”
Another big influence, Gord Downie, the lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, is very well known in Canada but relatively unknown in the USA.
“Gord Downie’s first solo record, Coke Machine Glow, had a major influence on me when I was first moved to Toronto,” Edenloff recalls. “It came out the year before I left Edmonton, and I always loved it. But it wasn’t until I was living in Ontario that I began picking up on all of the references to places and locations sprinkled throughout the record — the loft pines motel, the black flies, etc.
“The Toronto music scene was booming in the early 2000s, and I remember feeling super intimidated by everything that was going on as I struggled trying to find my place. At the end of the day, I guess I realized that the best thing to do was to dig deep and try to share the stories that I’d been collecting from my time growing up in Alberta. A lot of the songs from Hometowns especially came from those stories and places.”