Retro-chic is all the rage right now. Saturday morning cartoons like GI Joe and Dragon Ball Z are being remade into live-action movies, often more for the adults than their kids. Brands like American Apparel are exploiting all those once-horrendous fashions from the '80s for the 20-somethings who barely lived through the decade. It's more than a little ridiculous.
With everyone steeping themselves in all the trappings of the past in an attempt to be "cool," it's good to see the Ramblin' Ambassadors are not following this trend. Even though the old-school pedigree of the band--the Ambassadors' lead guitarist is Brent Cooper, who also plays for seminal Calgary band Huevos Rancheros--would make it easy for them to rest on their laurels, the group takes that classic surf rock sound that everyone knows and adds to it, making it all their own. Since it's all a bit cliche, Cooper doesn't find much value in a straight-up retro sound.
"My problem with the retro stuff is that it's just that--there's nothing new," explains Cooper over the phone from his Calgary abode. "We try to combine all of those music traditions into our own sound. Some of it is retro, but it's not entirely retro. There's a little bit of a soundtrack quality to it, with a surf and psychobilly tinge to it as well."
The band's newest album, Vista Cruiser Country Squire, was recorded off the floor in the band's Calgary rehearsal space for a bit of an extra kick. While each track manages to have those smooth and silky sonics that Cooper's groups are known for, there's an added energy that would otherwise be missing from a normal studio recording. Critics and fans alike are digging on the album, much to Cooper's delight.
"The reaction to the CD has been totally positive," says Cooper. "It's rewarding to make an album that we're happy with. Mint [Records] has always stood by the band and they're totally supportive of us."
Mint, which put out most of the Rancheros records, is one of Canada's best kept secrets. Located in Vancouver, the label has often been on the cutting edge of Canadian independent music. Past acts on their docket include Neko Case and the New Pornographers--even that obnoxious rascal Nardwuar the Human Serviette has his band on the label. With the past working relationship, Cooper had a great in for his new band's distribution.
"I called up Mint and said, 'Hey, I have new band. You guys want to put it out?' and they said okay," laughs Cooper. "It was sort of a handshake over the phone. They're still a tiny company with only three or four paid employees. It's nice, because they're definitely doing it for the music."
All those years ago when the Rancheros were starting out, they'd say they were in it for the beer. Now that Cooper is, as he says, on the wrong side of 40, he has a dreaded "real job" in addition to his music career. He teaches elementary school.
"You're not allowed to drink beer when you're teaching," jokes Cooper. "There are similarities [to playing in a band and teaching]. You have to be 'on,' in a sense. When you're playing in front of an audience, or trying to keep a bunch of grade threes in line, you always have to be on your toes."
With Cooper teaching tykes, it's not the easiest thing in the world to go touring. Many say it's the best part of the experience--especially the copious amount of free beer that bands can acquire in the process. Luckily for the Ambassadors, they get the occasional opportunity to ramble around Canada, with the occasional stopover in Europe as well.
"In September, we snuck off to Spain," laughs Cooper. "It's more like [we tour] when we can sneak it in. Last weekend we bombed all along the coast. We had some CD release parties in Victoria, Vancouver and Kelowna with Mint Records there."
With the sunny summer rays shining down on our heads, listening to the Ramblin' Ambassadors is like going back to those carefree summers spent innocently on the beach. Unlike other groups with one foot in the past trying to cash in on nostalgia, the Ambassadors are not in it to make a buck. Instead, these guys play music for themselves and the occasional pitcher of Pil.