Aaron Riches looks out the window of a Toronto doughnut shop at the season’s first snowfall and smiles. In a few hours, his band, Royal City, is to play a CD release party for their second album, Alone At The Microphone, and while another artist might be concerned the foul weather will discourage a big crowd, he’s unconcerned.
“It is a snowy night, and that feels right,” he proclaims. “Everybody wants the weather to be all right, but it just seems normal to have a snowstorm.”
Later that night, Riches’ faith is rewarded. The venue is packed and the response is enthusiastic to the hushed, downbeat brand of music featured on Alone At The Microphone (released on Three Gut Records in Canada, Carrot Top in the United States). The sound is the most rudimentary brand of country: trebly guitars, banjo, shuffled rhythms, campfire harmonies. The lyrical theme, of “being spooked by The Light and The Fiend at the same time,” according to Riches, is as old as the hills, even if there is an abundance of references to bodily fluids (one song is even called “Blood And Faeces”).
It’s fair to say that the spiritual questing of country music’s forebears was never played out on the level attempted by Royal City. In discussing the new album, Riches references T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, Neil Young’s On The Beach, Dante’s Divine Comedy, St. John of the Cross’ The Ascent Of Mount Carmel, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and, as an example of postmodernism’s moral dead-end, filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl.
“[Royal City] goes to dark places, but with a purpose…a catharsis, a ritualistic cleaning away of the muck and filth in order to let light shine,” Riches declares. “There is a lot of disaffection on the record. Visions of death and emptiness and decay. There are visions of hope, too.”
Riches embroiders his songs with threads from his own life as well as works of literature. There’s a number on Alone At The Microphone called “My Brother Is The Meatman” (“but I belong to the band,” goes the reply lyric), and it is true that Riches’ brother Jacob works in the butcher department at a grocery store. But the song alludes to Cain and Abel, and the band in question is God’s heavenly ensemble. “All narratives move around the one true narrative. The only true narrative is love, moving towards it or away from it,” he says.
Royal City’s narrative begins in the Southern Ontario university town of Guelph, home to Riches and bandmates Simon Osbourne, Nathan Lawr and Jim Guthrie. What became Royal City started out as a Riches solo project. The band’s 2000 release At Rush Hour The Cars was a modest, lo-fi gem, but Alone At The Microphone represents a great leap forward in both sound and songwriting. That’s at least partly due to the group’s restless U.S. touring schedule, which helped them congeal into a proper group.
Their sparse, under-rehearsed sound is an extension of Riches’ acceptance of his own ephemeral existence. “We are so afraid of death, we don’t want any decay. We want all our records to sound like they were recorded in doctors’ offices,” he says.
“Music is like that. It is just this little band sitting in this room and hitting bum notes. We are afraid of how sloppy and haphazard the perfection of life is. The divine symmetry doesn’t always look symmetrical to our eyes and ears. But that is our problem.”
Royal City has already partially recorded a new album with noted producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. But Lawr is relocating to Vancouver, which could result in the group pushing forward as a drumless trio. Typically, Riches is tantalized by the unanticipated lineup change. “This is a crack in this thing we always expected to be,” he says. “We are excited to see what will be.”