A decade ago, the Rural Alberta Advantage formed as a way for singer-guitarist Nils Edenloff and drummer Paul Banwatt to fill time at an underattended open-mike night they were hosting in Toronto. And while the project has grown in scope since then, Banwatt points out that the crux of the music remains the same.
“You could take any of these songs, no matter how they end up, and distill them down to a beautiful folk song,” the drummer observes, answering the Georgia Straight’s phone call at his home in Toronto.
Once Banwatt and keyboardist Amy Cole get hold of Edenloff’s tunes, however, they turn them into something very different. Plenty of evidence of this can be found on the trio’s third full-length, 2014’s Mended With Gold, which abounds with hard-hitting rock muscle and dizzying drum syncopations.
“I wanted to make sure that there were no wasted moments on the record,” Banwatt says of the full-throttle sound. “As proud as I am of [2011’s] Departing—because I am proud of it—I don’t know that, 100 percent of the way through that album, I was making sure that every single moment mattered. Sometimes I have these pangs of regret where I wish I could go back. I didn’t want to feel that.”
True to Banwatt’s wishes, Mended With Gold is a roller coaster of a record in which the band makes the most of its minimal three-piece setup. Edenloff sings with an emotive howl reminiscent of Billy Corgan or Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, while Cole adds atmospheric keyboards. The unquestioned MVP of the record is Banwatt, who juxtaposes the folksiness of Edenloff’s songwriting against thundering grooves and towering climaxes.
“On the Rocks” is a particularly striking example of the timekeeper’s talent: while Edenloff’s tale of romantic longing is sombre and reflective, Banwatt anchors the arrangement with a danceable pulse before capping it off with an extended blitz of explosive fills. Elsewhere on the LP, he ups the excitement of “This City” by bursting into lightning-fast double-time, while “The Build” takes its name from Banwatt’s white-knuckle drum crescendo.
The latter tune, the percussionist notes, has been kicking around since the outfit’s early days. He explains, “The song is about Nils moving to Toronto just before the three of us met, and it kind of felt nice to tie everything together in that way and reach really far back.”
Other cuts on Mended With Gold trace back to a rustic writing retreat on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. “It was pretty terrifying,” Banwatt remembers of the remote locale. “It was the kind of place where you look out the window and it’s a horror-movie field. You just figure that someone’s going to pop up.”
Fans can expect some of the songs penned during that retreat to pop up in the set list when the Rural Alberta Advantage appear on the main stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival. Something that attendees definitely won’t hear, however, is a drum solo from the technically masterful Banwatt.
“I love watching them [drum solos], but I will never play one,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I think I get enough attention as it is, so I don’t really need to go there.”
The Rural Alberta Advantage plays the Squamish Valley Music Festival next Saturday (August 8).