Dodging traffic and tornados with The Rural Alberta Advantage

The Rural Alberta Advantage keyboard player, Amy Cole, had every reason for sounding distracted. You try riding through road-rage fueled traffic on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles in a van pulling a trailer while the rest of your band is shouting directions in the background -- the same silver 2003 Dodge Caravan, incidentally, which carried The Rural Alberta Advantage to Omaha for the first time two years ago. Now just two years later, the band was headed to Coachella to kick off the festival's outdoor stage. "It's really important to us," Cole says of Coachella. "We're excited to be on the bill with all these other artists. It's crazy to us that we're allowed to be part of it." Her modesty is somewhat out of place, especially when you consider that the band's first album, Hometowns, was lauded with an 8.0 by indie tastemaker Pitchfork, who called them "the best unsigned band in Canada before Saddle Creek snapped them up." The trio's sophomore effort, Departing, released just last month on Saddle Creek, is even more thoughtful, more tuneful, more refined than its predecessor. With the festival still a few days away at the time of the interview, something tells me the hip Coachella crowd is going to drink up their whirling-dervish-on-the-verge-of-spinning-out-of-control stage vibe. Cole said she hadn't thought much about Coachella. "We've been on tour," she says. "We'll probably talk about the set list tonight." Just the night before, the band finished the second of two sold-out nights at the 350-capacity Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, one of the bay area's most famous clubs. If there's a difference between 2009 and now, it's the number of shows The RAA now plays and the number of people turning out for them. "Everything is increasing, but it doesn't feel different," Cole says. "The energy feels the same." Just then a muffled shout of "He's standing right there" came from someone else in the van, maybe RAA frontman Nils Edenloff or drummer Paul Banwatt. Cole broke off the interview for a moment, explaining that they we're trying to pick up her boyfriend from in front of a hotel. Confused noise ensued. Doors opened and shut. And then, muted laughter. "OK, I'm back, what did you ask me?" I get the feeling I was getting in the way of a long-awaited reunion, loving hugs and much-needed catching up. Instead, here was Cole having to "deal with" some music writer in Omaha. I probably would have just hung up on me. Instead, she talked about how life on the road is the worst part of being in a band. There's no question that you're going to miss a lot when you play a couple hundred shows over the course of two years. "Being away from your friends and family is hard," she says. "You're missing out on the stuff that other people get to do, but at the same time, not everyone gets to do this. It's never 100 percent fun all the time, but we still enjoy what we're doing, playing songs for people." We abruptly switched gears. Cole told me that making the new album was in some ways similar to making their debut. Producer Roger Leavens again was along for the ride. But unlike that first album, where they had four months to record it with no set deadline and no label breathing down their necks, Cole said they had to consider getting something to Saddle Creek. "This time we did a lot more writing and recording simultaneously," she says. "Whereas Hometowns had already been written, and we'd been performing the songs for years (before entering the studio). This time people are hearing the songs for the first time." One exception is "Tornado '87." "That one we've been playing live a long time," Cole says. "It was a keyboard-driven song that we tried to record before, but it never sounded right. Then one day we tried it on guitar..." The song was inspired by a freak F5 tornado that struck Edmonton on July 31, 1987, killing 27 people and laying waste to 300 houses. Over simple acoustic guitar, Edenloff croons: "Oh Lord I lost you I held you tight / Oh I will hold onto your love in the night / And the black sky will come before our eyes / Oh I let's lay down in the basement tonight." And then Banwatt cracks out rifle-shot drums, as Cole lays on keyboards and her own wind-swept vocals. The song has RAA's trademark dust-devil sound that's garnered comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel and Deer Tick, among others. Cole says the once-dreaded song has become a favorite of hers, and is especially meaningful in places like Nebraska, which are susceptible to just such meteorological occurrences. Unlike RAA's home of Toronto. There certainly was no chance of any tornadoes striking Indio, Calif. "We rented a house and plan on spending the whole weekend at the festival," Cole says, "at least when we're not lounging around the pool. It'll be nice to stay in one place for awhile." The Rural Alberta Advantage plays with Lord Huron and Gus & Call Thursday, April 21, at Slowdown Jr. Tickets are $10 and show starts at 9 p.m. Check out theslowdown.com for more information. * * * Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at lazy-i@thereader.com.

posted at 07:17 pm
on Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

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