Rock Star Treatment
The first time The Rural Alberta Advantage lay their eyes on the Central Presbyterian Church is the instant they emerge from backstage to play the biggest gig of their lives. No sound check. No run-through. It’s a trial by fire.
The church is a musician’s dream. The wooden archways of the ceilings might as well be a hundred feet off the ground. Frozen in a collection of color and light, the surrounding stained-glassed windows reflect thousands of years of history directly onto the band’s profile.
Among the crowd are various members of the mainstream press, scribbling ink across paper, filling their notepads with heavy-handed, make-or-break language. The rest of the audience — most of whom haven’t heard a single note from the band’s record — remain calm and seemingly open in their uncertainty.
The show is the band’s first ever at the South By Southwest Festival, and the brevity of the situation isn’t lost on them. Here they are, three small-town Canadians, auditioning for their future in the heart of central Texas.
One set. Forty-five minutes. Three years of hard work laid out on the line.
Ostensibly, The Rural Alberta Advantage’s road to SXSW has been slightly unusual. The group hasn’t signed a record deal, and their debut album Hometowns has yet to receive a widespread release. When compared to the other indie rock heavy weights featured on the marquee — Grizzly Bear, for example — The RAA are an unknown commodity.
Yet to diehard fans, the surprise wasn’t that The RAA was included in the eMusic Showcase, but rather that they weren’t headlining it. Largely empowered by a blitzkrieg of digital downloads from eMusic.com, The RAA have managed to stir an odd, mostly unprecedented buzz around an album that, technically speaking, has yet to be distributed in hard copy form.
“People hear [Hometowns], they can’t believe it, then they want to do everything they can to help,” said keyboardist/percussionist Amy Cole. “They champion the record, they write nice things about it, they tell their friends.”
The first subject fans tend to broach with the band stems from the disbelief that Hometowns has yet to garner much attention from the mainstream press. “People express surprise that we aren’t signed or aren’t bigger than we are, but to be honest, to us, it feels like things keep getting bigger every day,” said drummer Paul Banwatt. “Things keep snowballing and we like to look at it like a continuous progression. It’s not surprising to us.”
To Banwatt’s credit, it’s not as though The RAA haven’t made remarkable strides over the last year. Hometowns has become the most successful eMusic Selects album of all time, and the group has already lined up a series of initial U.S. tour dates for 2009.
Even so, the band does remain unsigned.
While singer/songwriter Nils Edenloff admits to occasionally rebuffing potential publishers, the fact that Hometowns has yet to see a major release is more indicative of a conflicted mindset than a group taking any definitive stand against corporatizing their music. “It’s not that we’ve really been avoiding record labels,” he said. “I think we’ve always just been proud of what we’ve created and there hasn’t really been the right fit yet.”
Emerging from the ashes of what Cole describes as the worst open-mic night ever, there was a time when The Rural Alberta Advantage were more concerned about filling a club than obtaining a record contract. Hosting a call-to-arms in a chantey area of Toronto circa 2005, Edenloff and Banwatt were forced to come up with hours of content when no one else showed up to play. Shifting through temporary line-ups, the group began to hammer out cover songs for their weekly display, before eventually moving on to some of the tracks that would ultimately comprise Hometowns.
“The sound we’ve got right now basically came directly from those days,” Edenloff said.
As he began the songwriting process for the album, the sparsely populated shows in Toronto weighed heavily on Edenloff’s mind. The frontman was in a constant battle with the incongruous leanings of progression and nostalgia, finding himself perpetually torn between the exhilaration of the unknown and the sobering memories of home. Having grown up near the oil fields of rural Canada, the harsh realities of the big city provided a stark contrast to his comparatively quiet upbringing.
“When I first started writing some of the songs, I was in a place where I had moved away from Alberta and I was really trying to find myself,” Edenloff said. “It wasn’t like I was a lost soul or anything, but leaving home made me miss it. I realized that as I figured out who I was, whether or I wanted to stay there or not, growing up [in Alberta] shaped who I am.”
The prose that streamed from the singer’s conflictions was endearingly straightforward. The songster’s natural writing voice avoided the type of cryptic pretension that upstart bands often use to establish a cavernous facade — instead relying on an earnest pragmatism to get his message across. He explored love and relationships from the broadest sense down to the most intimate, penning songs about everything from summer relationships to a community’s ability to forge together during tragedy.
Even his band mates were a bit taken back by how candid Hometowns turned out.
“The first time I listened to [Hometowns], I told Nils, ‘My favorite part about this record is that I completely believe in what you’re saying,’” Cole reminisced. “It’s so authentic to me. That’s something that you don’t always find on a first record.”
Sitting on what a few music bloggers are already touting as an underground pop masterpiece, The Rural Alberta Advantage find themselves in a wholly unique position. As they wait for the perfect label to come along, the band’s foresight has more or less left them in control of their fate. Their online sales continue to surge, leaving them free to invoke proper discretion.
“It was almost deliberate,” Banwatt said. “We wanted to keep [the album] mostly contained until we could find the right way to release it properly. I think that was our plan.”
And when that time comes, the group is more than ready to share their blood and sweat with the larger masses. In the meantime, they’re happy to make do with what they have.
“It’s something that we are talking about right now. If we don’t [sign a deal] it would be because that’s the direction we’re going to choose to go in,” Cole said. “We can go either way and probably be successful.”
The Rural Alberta Advantage end the biggest set of their lives by staying true to their roots. Stripped down to a single acoustic guitar, the band leaves the stage and walks down the center aisle of the church where they stop abruptly to lead the crowd in a rendition of their traditional closer — the aptly titled “Goodnight”.
Edenloff, Banwatt and Cole, surrounded by 600 attentive strangers, reveal themselves in a manner true to their message. If Hometowns is a record about the intrinsic link between a home and the souls of its inhabitants, then Alberta is laid out bare in the heart of the Central Presbyterian Church.
The crowd remains quiet until song’s end, when they immediately burst into applause. The cadence between the pin drop silence and the courteous accolades is almost poetic, marking the band’s success in a tempered but ardent rhythm.
The next morning, The RAA awake to rave mainstream reviews of their first SXSW performance. Words like “breakthrough” and “arrival” are stamped to the band’s moniker. Critics and fans revel in what’s already being deemed a “coming out” party for the band.
The future bodes well for The Rural Alberta Advantage.
By Daniel Crown