Earlier this year at Virgin Festival Toronto ’09 I caught up with The Rural Alberta Advantage. I was extremely enthused to meet the RAA, who are one of my favourite bands of 2009. I had also downed a few beers earlier in the day which only added to my exuberance but thankfully Nils, Amy and Paul were in an equally chatty mood.
We all sat down around in the boardwalk area around the back of the Molson Ampitheatre, where we talked for almost half an hour straight. I had intended to publish this interview as an mp3 podcast for your listening pleasure, but unfortunately it was so windy where we spoke that the recording of this interview turned out rather muffled and actually took quite a while to transcribe. It was a pleasure to meet with The Rural Alberta Advance, who were friendly, engaging, and open and enthusiast with their answers.
So I’m here In Toronto with the quite fantastically named – and it’s a bit of a tongue-twister! – The Rural Alberta Advantage. So you guys come from Alberta…
Nils – Actually, I am the lone Albertan in the band.
Oh, false advertising!
Nils – Well initially there were more Albertans in the band but now we’ve paired it down to just the three of us, we’ve found that the three of us is what makes it work I guess… without trying to insult the other two!
Does that mean that you are the main songwriter then Nils?
Nils – Yeah a lot of the lyrical content is from Alberta, so that’s stuff that I handle.
So you two guys are just locals or…?
Amy – I guess, yeah!
Paul – Yeah yeah, plain old Toronto…
Yeah yeah, who cares right!? So, Nils, how long have you been in Toronto yourself?
Nils – I moved here in January of 2002, so seven and a half years now… it’s been a while.
I bought your album only yesterday in HMV and it was an awesome experience. It’s the kind of album that you want to buy in HMV, it’s a conversation starter, firstly because the girl had to type it in the computer five times before she gets it correct – “the rural who?” But there is a little bit of buzz about you guys, the people who know about you are excited about your music. I’ve had time to listen to your record twice, and aside from all the Alberta themed songs there’s also a lot of love and anti-love songs. I want to start by talking about Don’t Haunt This Place – I found that song particularly striking… for me it was the stand-out track…
Nils – Thank you.
It seems to be a song about heartbreak, right?
Nils – Yeah. I was living with a girl, we had an apartment… Dealing with the break-up, maybe at the time it was hard – “this is all wrong!” – but later on down the road it kind of makes sense of itself for the better. In a way a lot of the songs on the album embrace that break-up, you know, leaving one home for another, in a way is a little bit of a break-up with that hometown. I think those sorts of themes are really prominent through-out the album.
Definitely. I was on the train to Toronto this morning from Hamilton, and I was writing down names of songs on my arms as I listened to your album… “In The Summer Time”, “Frank, AB”…
Nils – Oh those aren’t tattoos on your arm?
Nils – I thought they were crazy-amazing tattoos towards us – that would be flattering!!
Indeed! Those two songs are brilliant, and again I want to mention Don’t Haunt This Place – it really hit home for me personally. I had been sharing a place with the most amazing girl, a girl who I’d been with for three years and someone who has made a huge impact in my life. Then suddenly one day she was gone and out of my life. It’s weird how a song can sometimes feel so personal and I fully understand the heartbreak of that song, and what you mentioned earlier about dealing with a break-up… I can’t remember a song hitting home with me so personally.
Nils – Actually I meant to say, the song was about you!
Amy – Yeah we did it about you!
Nils – It’s kind of weird how this worked out this way!!
Nils – Yeah but I totally identify with that, when your listening to a song and it really hits home, on such a personal level. Those sort of moments I live for when I’m listening to new music, there’s certain times when your just wrapped up listening to music because it speaks to you so much. Hopefully some of our songs are reaching other people in the same way too – I think that’s what we are striving for.
I’ve wrote some more words here on my arm – the word “raw” the word “pure” and I think that says “ity”….rawity, purity. And it’s that kind of raw and pure soul and emotion is being demonstrated through so many of Canadian bands coming through right now, particularly in the indie scene. How are you guys channeling that emotion?… I mean where does this come from…what is your songwriting process?
Nils – It’s a collaborative process. I might bring some ideas to the table but its really a team effort.
Paul – It starts with a sketch of a song – usually some words or a melody. So we just start to jam it out and break it out, and not just what the chords should be but how they should sound. It’s sometimes a really long and arduous process…
Amy – Definitely…
Paul – … Yeah a lot of songs take months and a lot of frustration. To me usually it’s all around the focal melody like we’ll know we have an amazing vocal melody but we’re not making a song around it which is as good as that vocal melody. Sometimes we’ll just agree that something’s not hot enough and reject that.
Nils – But at the same time we’ve gone back and re-evaluated certain songs. Like “yeah that’s not working, it’s gonna be a throwaway” – but it’s also in the vault so we might come back to it later and make a new take on it. Sometimes it just backfires, if we try to play an old song in a new way – we just look at each other and laugh at how terrible it is, “Wow we don’t sound anything like Paul Simon.”
Talking about looking at old songs in a new way, Hometowns started out originally as a five-song EP, but you went back and reworked some of your songs?
Amy – I think Frank, AB was one song in particular that we never really felt right about. We had to break the song, it was originally a keyboard song and now it’s guitar driven and it was completely not like that to begin with. We are sort of perfectionists in that way, we don’t like playing a song that we’re not really into, so sometimes we’ll play with it until it gets to a point where we all love the song. That makes a big difference when your playing a song live.
Well, I mentioned I’ve only had a chance to listen to the album twice so far, but the quality control does seem top notch and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of filler. So top marks on that!
I’d like to go back again and talk more about your band name and that whole Alberta theme. I’m here at V Fest Toronto with Liz, part of the Music Vice team, and she’s an Albertan – she explained to me a bit about “The Alberta Advantage”, which is some kind of government thing?
Nils – Yeah, its great that some other Albertans pick up on that. The Alberta Advantage was sort of like a government slogan to mostly promote oil, gas and industry in general. Alberta is a very industry rich province and growing up there and constantly hearing about the Alberta Advantage, I just had this idea about all that oil and industrial stuff.
It wasn’t until I was chatting with my brother through email when he said, “yeah, we’re just going to our farm, hanging out with some friends and exploring the Rural alberta advantage….”. I just like how placing that one word in front of that slogan changed ever idea i had about the alberta advantage.
Yeah, as a newcomer to Canada when I hear the Alberta Advantage it does give connotations of all that oil and sludge and big dirty machines. The industry and all it’s dirty oil money. But of course that’s very different to what your music is about…
Nils – Yeah, The Rural Alberta Advantage is completely embracing not that oil, gas and sludge but more about the beautiful experiences and places that I have of growing up there.
So this is your first time at V Fest. What did you thing about the last-minute decision to move the festival – originally it was going to be in a field up north about 100km, up near Barrie, but now instead we’re in downtown Toronto.
Paul – Well this is more convenient!
Amy – Well we just came home from our tour in the States yesterday, so this is a much easier commute. We’re happy to be here in Toronto. It would have been fun to be up there at a camping festival but this is awesome too. This is a venue, the Molson Ampitheatre, I’ve seen so many concerts here that have shaped what I’ve thought about music so to be playing here is amazing. It’s really ridiculous, it’s really awesome…
So who have you seen here Amy?
Amy – Oh man… Well actually the headliner today is Ben Harper and I’ve actually seen him here before a couple of years ago. It was super good. I don’t know if I’ll get to see him again because we’re playing after the Pixies over on the second stage, so we might miss some of Harper. But this is just a big venue – Pearl Jam has played here before and I’ve loved Pearl for most of my life, so the fact that we’re here is really cool.
Totally. But as you mentioned, Ben Harper is the headliner… do you agree with that? In my opinion and from what I’ve been hearing from everyone else, it should be the Pixies on top of the bill for tonight…
Nils – Oh totally, yeah.
Amy – I’ve seen the Pixies too live, and they’re incredible…
Nils – We don’t understand the economics of a festival and what goes into that, so I don’t really think we’re qualified to say who should be headlining but it’s probably got a lot to do with ticket sales and that kind of thing. But we’re really excited to see the Pixies.
Amy – Really excited…
Nils – In terms of an act that influenced a lot of the bands that are playing today I’m sure if you asked a lot of the bands they’d say they’re really excited to see the Pixies because we’ve all just been influenced by them.
Regarding the turnout, as I’m speaking to you right now at around 6.30pm I’m still seeing a lot of empty seats. Perhaps two-thirds capacity at most…
Nils – I think as we get closer to the Pixies more people will turn up.
Amy – I will say the weather forecast all night had been it was going to be pouring rain all day, so I think that might have driven some people away but the weather is fantastic. So that’s unfortunate if the forecast had deterred people.
Paul – And again we don’t really understand how festivals work. There’s a lot more people here than we could ever drag to a show.
Nils – Yeah, we’re just happy for the experience to be playing in front of these people.
So you guys are admittedly newbies to the whole deal of touring and the industry in general, so what have you learnt so far – what’s perhaps been the most surprising thing?
Paul – It’s amazing that you can get paid to do this.
Nils – Yeah we’re still happy that we can get paid to do this. I mean the thing we all really love, you know, what we’re doing and having the chance to do it in front of people.. it’s pretty rewarding. The fact that we get paid to actually play in front of people and do what we love is pretty amazing and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.
Paul – It’s always shocking. The reception is amazing.. everywhere we go there’s people that have heard our record. Even it’s just one or two people it’s like “wow, your far away but you’re listening to our music.”
That’s the great thing about the live music scene – there’s still a real culture, and good news spreads fast. It used to be all about zines, radio and college radio, but now of course the internet has only made communication easier. For sure there is definitely a real buzz about you guys – has their been a best moment so far?
Nils – SXSW was really amazing. That whole week was incredible. It’d take an hour to explain to you everything that happened but the main thing was opening for Grizzly Bear in a church…
In a church? Hope you didn’t swear!
Nils – No… It was just unbelievable altogether. Everyday it seems like something exciting is coming up.
So, just to round things up here, the token Music Vice question we ask every band: what vices do you guys have?
Nils – I have an addiction to new music!
Boo’s from Paul and Amy.
That’s a cop out!
Nils – I don’t know, you’re putting me on the spot, I don’t know what my vice is… I have a new puppy.
Amy – What about that spray you use?
Nils – That’s so I can play shows.
Paul – Amy, what’s your vice? You quit smoking?
Amy – I know. Diet Coke! I’m addicted.
And yourself Paul?
Paul – I don’t know, I’m a pretty good guy… I would say I spend too much time on my computer…
Amy – haha, Rock ‘n roll…..!
Paul – …yeah, and possibly downloading illegal things… I feel really bad about that because I feel as a musician that is something that impacts us very directly.
What kind of stuff do you pirate?
Paul – Oh god… I don’t pirate music, I would say that at least.
So will you guys be coming back Sunday at V-Fest, Nine Inch Nails last ever show in Canada?
Nils – Well these guys are…
Paul – Nine Inch Nails man!
Nils – I’m tired, I need some downtime…
Amy – Rock ‘n roll!! (laughs)
Nils – Yeah yeah, rock ‘n roll… I’m gonna take a day to myself. A personal day, get some downtime.
So you put a personal day over seeing Trent Reznor?
Nils – Yeah pretty much. And when you guys had a personal day last night, I played a show, so I’m gonna take a personal day tomorrow.
You played solo?
Amy – Yeah Nils why don’t you brag about playing solo… (laughs)
Nils – I didn’t play solo. It was a show that was part of a compilation benefit… and that’s why I’m tired now.
Paul – Thanks Brian, you just broke up our band!
Amy and Paul throw daggers at Nils as I step away from the table.