Link Wray, Duane Eddy, The Ventures — these giants of instrumental rock from days gone by conjure images of dusty old 45s spinning as vibrato blasts out of vintage speakers. Old-timers will tell you they don’t make ’em like that any more. They’d be wrong.
Calgary’s own Ramblin’ Ambassadors are part of a devoted group of riff-savvy musicians with an ear for the past. Their sophomore Mint records release proves they do make ’em like they used to, almost. Vista Cruiser Country Squire may not have been recorded on massive two-inch reel to reels, but the end result is no less authentic. “This is the first tapeless album I ever made,” explains lead guitarist Brent Cooper. “That was a bit of a leap of faith.”
After a tenure in such legendary local bands as The Will and Huevos Rancheros, Cooper is no stranger to the studio. This time, he and his fellow Ambassadors moved into the digital age with acclaimed producer and friend Russ Broom. The goal was to make a record they all enjoyed and have a fun time doing it. They set up shop in the Ambassadors’ jam space, swapped stories, beer and pizza and cranked out the 12 instro gems that make up Vista Cruiser Country Squire. Cooper’s biggest concern was that going digital almost led to Broom making the band seem too talented.
“Russ could go in and completely adjust every note you play to make it right if you wanted to,” says Cooper. “Let’s drag a good note from another part of the song and put it in there…. And this is why so many albums sound too good…. Some of that rock ’n’ rollness is just erased.”
That’s not to say that Cooper had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of zeroes and ones. Some analogue snobs are hell bent on living in the past, but that’s not his game. “I find if you are too much a slave to the retro then you can never surpass the songs from those days,” he explains. “Not that we want to say we’re better than The Ventures, but you are stuck. You’re only as good as your haircut and you’re only as good as the amplifier you play. We just play it. We do have an ear for the retro, but it’s not our reason for being. We just want to make fun instrumental music that we like.”
Every one of the dozen tracks on Vista Cruiser Country Squire tastefully acknowledge the past without sounding dated. They offer sizzling covers of The Bel-Airs’ “Kamikaze” and two discrete takes on “Cecilia Ann” by The Surftones, but the real magic on Vista Cruiser Country Squire is the originals. The soaring solos of “Speed Wobble,” the easy charm of “Lonesome Rambler” or the frantic blowout of “Cupcakes di Milo” all work as well as any classic surf track. Even stronger than their debut Avanti, this record is the product of a band working together more than ever before.
“The instrumental thing is kind of my thing, and it has become our thing,” says Cooper. “We’re at a point where we’re a band. It’s not so much a Brent Cooper thing. It’s a Ramblin’ Ambassadors thing.”
And that thing — despite having a long history — still confuses those outside the fold. It sounds like a joke, but there have been people in the crowd in front of Cooper as he plays who felt bad for the band because their singer didn’t show up. In some people’s minds, playing without vocals has its limitations. Cooper agrees, but he says that’s what makes it work.
“Instrumental rock ’n’ roll is a genre,” he says. “In any genre, there are restraints that make it a genre. I think that gives you the freedom to play around within that. We understand the rules and constraints of making instrumental music, but we get to do our own thing within that.”
Cooper admits that someday he’d love to play in a band with a singer, but for now he’s more than happy to keep Ramblin’. “I think the songs are good enough that they speak for themselves. They don’t need a singer.”