Royal City: S/T
In October of 2000, a little band changed my life. The rock-tinged folk (or folk-tinged rock-it was never clear) four-piece in question called themselves Royal City, after their Canadian hometown of Guelph, and I accompanied them on their first-ever U.S. tour, their road manager by default. While Royal City’s greatest artistic achievements were yet to come (please pause to go listen to Alone at the Microphone), over those three weeks I saw the band find their feet and create a lasting chemistry. When I listen to this collection of unreleased songs, I’m taken back to that formative tour where much of this material-and Royal City itself-took shape.
For a generation of Guelph music fans, Royal City was something akin to a supergroup. From his early teens Aaron Riches had been a figurehead of the city’s hardcore punk scene, fronting numerous politically charged punk bands and promoting DIY gigs (including one of Fugazi’s first Canadian shows). Tracing punk’s spiritual heritage back to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Aaron found himself drawn to the acoustic guitar and began writing softly strummed songs about streetlights and Shakespeare and dogs and broken hearts, all sung in his creaky, distinctive voice.
Time spent away at university, however, disconnected Aaron from Guelph’s supercharged late 1990s music scene. While the Constantines were still gestating, the Jim Guthrie Quintet was a go. A local lo-fi recording guru, Jim had assembled a hot-shit band, which included James Ogilvie, Evan Gordon (who was the first to accompany Riches at live shows), and the in-demand duo of bassist Simon Osborne and drummer Nathan Lawr to play his experimental pop epics. In 1999 or so, Aaron returned to Guelph and sought out Jim to help him make a new record at Jim’s home studio, the Roc Sak. The Quintet was brought in to fill out the sound. Fans like me saw shades of Dylan’s poaching of the Band, but Aaron might have simply said, “Home is where the rock is.”
The product of this union and the first Royal City record, At Rush Hour the Cars, launched an auspicious period of activity for the band, now based in Toronto, and for the musicians and artists surrounding them. Three Gut Records and the label’s first few acts-the Constantines, Jim Guthrie, Gentleman Reg-emerged out of this collective to spark a joyful rejuvenation of Toronto’s music scene. Royal City shared stages and flourished along with the Hidden Cameras and Broken Social Scene, eventually catching the ear of Geoff Travis of Rough Trade, who released 2001’s Juno Award–nominated Alone at the Microphone and 2004’s underrated Little Heart’s Ease on the storied UK label.
The band solidified around Aaron, Jim, Simon and Nathan, with a loose open-door policy that welcomed Leslie Feist, Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) and Bobby Wiseman of Blue Rodeo fame into the lineup for short stints. Even after Nathan left the band and new drummer Lonnie James (formerly of Superfriendz) stepped in for Little Heart’s Ease, Royal City always made room for distinct musical personalities to make a wonderful, unified noise. Their final tour, a jaunt around Europe with Herman Düne, found them polishing off old chestnuts from all over their catalogue on a nightly basis.
Still, it was during that first U.S. that the chestnuts were planted, so to speak. Their inspiring ride around the States helped unlock their potential, and you can hear a great band emerging in the songs Royal City wrote and performed during this period, many of which are gathered here. They simply turned a corner with “Postcards,” born in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky. Its plaintive angst and rhythmic groove are striking, with Aaron sounding confident and loose, and his increasingly limber band pushing him as a composer. Invention also fuelled the transformation of “Bad Luck” into its best-known, “Give Peace a Chance” rhythm, but it was a powerful live highlight in the original version found here. It meshes well with the band’s ferocious cover of Iggy Pop’s “Success,” which some folks in Nashville must still recall the scruffy strangers belting out at 12th and Porter one wild night.
Then there are beautifully rendered sketches like “I Called But You Were Sleeping,” “Can’t You” and “They Came Down,” which bask in their stark, hazy ambience. Royal City had a lighter side, too, that can be felt throughout “A Feast,” “The Nations Will Sing,” and the band’s theme song/anthem (which, on a rough night, became “Royal Shitty”). Their cheeky, 3/4 time take on “Is This It?”, recorded in the UK with the legendary Edwyn Collins, breathes considerable warmth into the Strokes original. The songs are so diverse, recorded years apart by different lineups, but it all hangs together surprisingly well-I could almost believe it was a lost Royal City record.
This collection reconnects me with the fledgling band I saw emerge on tour, feeling out the road beneath them. Yet I can also see the way that road brought them to the maturity of the last work they did together. Some of these songs came and went from their repertoire, others were revisited again and again, but each was necessary to the whole. Royal City was always a package deal, a real band that grew ever tighter together, and these songs encapsulate their wondrous progress from beginning to end.
Vish Khanna is an assistant editor for Exclaim!, Canada’s definitive music publication, and contributes to CBC Radio 3, Eye Weekly, Signal to Noise, and aol.ca. He is also the co-host of a morning radio show on CFRU 93.3 FM.