The Rural Alberta Advantage Regroup

The Rural Alberta Advantage have had quite the shakeup recently. As founding member Amy Cole left the band, they found new life with Robin Hatch, setting them on an interesting new course. Having to sort out their new lineup and dynamics on the road, they've managed to their new album The Wild out in a surprisingly short amount of time. We caught up with Paul Banwatt ahead of the band's show at the Bronson Centre on October 24 to talk about their new line up, going lo-fi and writing.  

Ottawa Life: With all the line up changes in the past year, how was the writing process going into this latest record?

Paul Banwatt: We lost Amy Cole who had been in the band for ten years, and there from the beginning. She was a massive part of our sound so it was definitely a shift. When Amy was in the band, you could definitely feel her contributions so we were worried about that. We had to reset and rethink how we go about making music. So we went back to basics, like when we were just playing open mic nights. We got back to that for a while but not long, because once we reached out to Robin Hatch, who's an old friend of ours from the Toronto music scene, she started jamming with us and it was a good fit right away. We started incorporating her in the writing process and I think it's a large part of why we took some new risks on the record. She's a great musician but also has a good ear and is very creative too.

Having this lineup switch was there anything unexpected coming out of the recording process?

When we're talking in the space and writing music, it's hard to write about it without a point of reference. One thing we'll frequently do to get ideas across is to play music, not necessarily to copy it but the energy of something to show what we want to capture. When Robin came in, the references were going to places we'd never considered or explored. The first time she came in she was playing Paul Simon for reference was really different but it really worked. We've been a band for a long time, and some of our ideas were a little part that was really good but wasn't a whole song. "Brother" had the verses for a long time but it never went anywhere. We had a writing session with Robin that brought the chorus to that song and it really gave a life to that song.

I also understand you were showcasing a lot of this new material on the road and working out the kinks as you did this?

The reason we like doing that is because that's where every band starts. Back in the day you weren't usually just going to the studio and making a record, you were working stuff out at little shows to get songs out. Throwing Robin into that mix was great because she got to put her stamp on the new material and play it live. It meant she wasn't just playing our old stuff but part of the creation process with this new stuff. It made her a part of the band a lot quicker too.

I've always thought there's something amazingly raw to your more gritty material, but where did the utter lo-fi sound you brought this time come from?

In the studio when we recorded it, where we would record the scratch track to lay down the base of the song, and then we'd end up using it. The first performance in the studio where we weren't trying to make this polished thing ended up being the best one. There are significant parts of the record where things we didn't intend to be the final part of the record ended up being the final version.

I heard you tried bringing in some outside people on this record, so what made you decide against it in the end?

Nils and I are old dogs, and it's harder and harder to get us out of our set ways of doing things. It's been a good thing with Robin because she pushes us to do things differently. We'd always just written things ourselves. There'd been the odd time in the past where someone came in to try to help us with something and inevitably we'd throw it all out, that happened again too. It always feels the most legit when the music comes from us. That's not to say it doesn't work for other musicians but it doesn't really fit us.

I read once that you feel all your songs can be distilled down to a folk song like when you started at open mic nights, what do you think this brings to your sound?

It's a really important thing for us. We use it as a test for whether a song is good or not. Regardless of how it came about. Some songs really just come out of noodling on and acoustic. But if Nils can't play it on his guitar around a campfire and make it sound good, it's probably not a good song. The artists that inspire us are Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, Gordon Lightfoot, it has that folk power to it, and we want that in every song we make.

Over a decade later, what keeps you excited in this band?

Going out on tour is always a blast, playing new music is super exciting. I honestly try to check in with my high school self and put myself in perspective, thinking what would high school me think of putting out a record and having songs on the radio. It's very easy to feel grateful and excited when you think about things that way. We would play music regardless so to have people want to hear it is really rewarding.