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Altameda’s Classic Rock Values Secure Their Greatest Victory Yet 

Folk-rock underdogs craft a cathartic opus on the human condition in Born Losers.

by Yasmine Shemesh

Photo by Colin Medley

Altameda’s Troy Snaterse had been looking for an all-white suit, something like the one he’d seen footage of Bob Dylan wearing at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. One day, during a tour stop in Denver, Colorado, Snaterse wandered into a vintage shop and there it was. It fit him perfectly, too. He wore it onstage and it felt good. It felt like fate. Naturally, Snaterse started thinking about the suit, how it ended up in the shop and how he ended up with it. His contemplations became the inspiration behind “Dead Man’s Suit,” the opening track to Altameda’s new album, Born Losers. “Got me thinking about impermanence, how everything dies with age,” Snaterse sings gently over soft keys that swell into a symphony. 

These kinds of profound mediations about the human condition are an overarching theme on Born Losers. The songs are time capsules of the past few years, vignettes of the many changes that occurred in the lives of Snaterse and drummer Erik Grice during that time. There has been a pandemic, of course. But the tides had been turning long before that—a handful of songs were written years beforehand. Since their last project, not only did the rock band decide to move from their Edmonton hometown and set down roots in Toronto, but their hard-touring four-piece became a duo. Most upsettingly, Snaterse nearly lost his father to a stroke, only to lose his 18-year-old step-brother in a tragic motor vehicle accident soon after.

“It just really had me considering the fairness of life—why certain people are given a second chance and other people aren’t and what sort of existential purpose that has,” Snaterse says, speaking over Zoom. He and Grice are at their respective homes in Toronto when RANGE sits down with the band. “It had me considering all of that stuff a lot more deeply, and my own mortality. And to not take anything for granted, ever.” 

Snaterse wrote the gospel-tinged ballad “Just Me & You” and the hard-rocking blues jam “Everybody’s Gotta Bleed” in 2018 while on tour and coming to terms with everything that was happening with his family. You can hear it all soaked into the songs: the emotional upheaval, the tender cherishing of relationships, the rumble of the road, and what Grice describes as a screaming-into-the void kind of hopelessness that shifts into the gratitude one can sometimes gain from loss. “I think as we recorded those, there was sort of a catharsis,” Grice adds.

It’s a reflection of the poignant emotional arc that moves through Born Losers, a hallmark of Altameda’s music in general. “The goal has always been to be the type of project where people can put on different songs for different moments for them,” Snaterse says. “We really tried to capture that on this one, for sure.” 

While the band’s previous work, like 2016’s critically acclaimed debut Dirty Rain, carved out that arc with a robust blend of folk, country, and rock anchored by Snaterse’s profound songwriting, Born Losers creates an emotional experience with the spaces between, through the melancholy of songs like “In Time, They Say,” the cinematic reverie of “Sweet Susie,” and the nihilism of “Nightmare Town,” a rollicking track doubly shaped by Bruce Springsteen and Terrence Malick’s 1973 neo-noir flick Badlands. Produced by Thomas D’Arcy (Neko Case, The Sheepdogs) and mixed by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, R.E.M.), the album reinforces Altameda’s classic rock values with a bright edge that harkens back to standards of Americana and folk while feeling entirely vibrant and new.

Sonically, especially with its lush and layered musical landscape, Born Losers was heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s production—specifically on Dion’s 1975 album Born To Be With You. That album was on heavy rotation in Altameda’s tour van in 2018, and the band loved it so much they recorded a cover of “Your Own Back Yard” and released it as a stand-alone single in 2020. “One of the songs on that record was the song my wife came down the aisle to at our wedding,” Grice says. “And so I think there’s a lot of personal stuff wrapped around us discovering that album in particular, being influenced by it.”

Jackson Browne’s mariachi-inspired “Linda Paloma” was another record that Altameda fell in love with while on the road, this one planting the seeds for their song “Ramona Retreat.” Grice wrote the music and Snaterse wrote the accompanying love story. “Ramona Retreat” also features Spanish guitar from Jim Bowskill, who plays with The Sheepdogs and Blue Rodeo. “I think that whole song was done on one classical guitar that Troy borrowed from someone—like a $20 thrift shop classical guitar that doesn’t even belong to any of us, but it literally just got passed around on that song,” Grice recalls.

Altameda was originally set to record Born Losers in March 2020 in Portland. When the pandemic pressed pause on everything, it inadvertently allowed the band more time to reflect and write. “I think it ended up rounding out the record in an interesting way that it wouldn’t have otherwise,” Snaterse says. For example, “Dead Man’s Suit,” Grice adds, “was originally conceptualized as a short little acoustic song plot in between two bigger songs that we just kind of filled out, and then it turned into this whole other thing.”

And then there was the relocation to Toronto, with Snaterse arriving six months before Grice. They sent each other demos recorded on their iPhones in the meantime, with Snaterse setting up a microphone in his living room and bathroom, and Grice back at their makeshift studio space in Edmonton. “Wheel of Love,” a country-rock song that finds warmth in memories of friendship, was one of the tracks that emerged from those sessions. 

Altogether, it refined Altameda’s creative process. Snaterse has always been the primary lyricist—Altameda started out as his solo project—but when the band was a four-piece, they didn’t do much in the way of demos. Working as a duo reconfigured the way Snaterse and Grice approached arranging in particular. “This time around, Erik and I made a really conscious effort to demo every song, and make sure every melody or even just the instrumentation was all really well thought out before we went into the studio,” Snaterse says. “I feel like that was a really helpful process, because then we had a pretty firm idea going into the record of what we wanted to do sonically. It just sort of made everything a lot more streamlined and left more room for experimentation on the fly in that way.” 

The glimmering “Neon (& That’s Why),” which dreams of escaping to someplace new to become who you’re maybe meant to be, is the song Grice says felt like an “a-ha” moment. “It was a completely different thing that was demoed and recorded, and then completely revisited and turned around into this whole other thing. And it seems like everything fits just right,” he says. “And so as a template of something that we’re capable of, it feels really good to look at a song like that and see the beauty in its simplicity. It has elaborate keyboard lines and also very profound lyrics, but it is also about the hook. And, for us, it was a light bulb kind of moment. If all else fails, we can look at something like that and think, like, OK, well, this has kind of all of the elements that feel correct for like three and a half minutes, you know?” 

Born Loser’s ebullient title track had a similar transformation, moving from a Rod Stewart “Young Turks” vibe into an “Instant Karma” John Lennon post-Beatles swing. Altameda reworked it when Grice was finally able to join Snaterse in Toronto. The song, especially with its playfully contrasting chorus tag-line—“born losers, bound to win”— felt like the right representation for the body of work and everything they’ve gone through in its creation. 

It encapsulates, Grice says, “that feeling of being beat down by things, but knowing not necessarily that the grass is always greener, but that change, as hard as it is, is possible and can be incredibly positive. I think it kind of is the cherry on top of what all of those emotions really are: that no matter how shitty it gets, there’s always that sunrise the next day.”