Hands buried deep inside pockets. Arms crossed and brow furrowed. Left arm folded, right arm dangling. Check out the clientele of the average Royal City concert and you're bound to encounter these and other poses of presumed indifference. Yet when you dabble in the brand of delicate, country-tinged indie rock that Royal City does, you're not exactly expecting a sea of raised fists and teased hairdos.
"It's really hard looking out from the stage and trying to guess whether people are getting into the show or not," confirms bassist Simon Osborne by phone from his Toronto apartment. He has just enjoyed a pasta dinner prior to our conversation and is busy digesting not only the hearty foodstuffs but also fan reactions to Royal City's recently-released third album, Little Heart's Ease.
"When you play really chilled out music like we do, people in the audience don't know what to do with themselves. They don't know what they should do with their hands, and whether they should look at you or look away. It's really quite funny at times."
Led by vocalist Aaron Riches and rounded out by guitarist Jim Guthrie and drummer Lonnie James, Royal City was originally formed as an outlet for Riches' solo meanderings but quickly melded into a fully-bondable recording and touring unit.
"When the first Royal City album [2000's At Rush Hour The Cars] was recorded, it was a essentially blank slate because Aaron had written all these songs and didn't know what to do with them," says Osborne. "Jim was the first guy he approach about recording, who in turn made a few calls to finish it out."
The band's sophomore effort, 2001's stunning Alone at the Microphone, was a instant critical smash and helped the band net a distribution deal with Rough Trade, the fabled UK indie label that boasts The Strokes, Belle and Sebastian and Toronto's own Hidden Cameras amid its eclectic roster. The notoriety and support provided by the label in turn allowed Royal City to launch Little Heart's Ease with a massive European tour, just days after the album's domestic release date this June.
"Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Holland and then several shows in England—we were all over the place," says Osborne.
With a grueling 29 shows in 30 days, the tour did much to clear up some prejudices that Osborne had about European topography.
"I had a lot of preconceptions about Europe that got dashed right away. The main one was about the distances between cities. I had assumed that being Europe, driving from show to show would be no problem. Y'know, I figured the drives would be a breeze and we'd have time to be tourists for the hours before soundcheck. I was way off; the drives were just brutal."
You wouldn't think that distance would be an issue with a band like Royal City, considering the duress under which the band has been operating the last year. Riches took a bride in the fall of 2003 and subsequently moved to Charlottesville, West Virginia where he's pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Virginia. Combining rock and roll and academia is a bit like mixing battery acid with a flesh wound but it's a situation Osborne and his fellow Toronto-centric bandmates are willing to live with for the time being.
"Honesty, it gets very discouraging sometimes but we try to soldier on. We always talked about this idea where Aaron would send us tapes in the mail and we'd make backing tracks. There were always high hopes about being able to work that way but when we actually gave it a shot, it was the most obtrusive and awkward way to work. It just really hard—there's no substitute for being in the same room at the same time."
There have been bands that have been able to make the long distance concept work (latter day Pavement comes to mind) but ultimately, Royal City thrives on dynamics and immediacy. For these reasons, the stake driven between Riches and the rest of Royal City will be a definite obstacle to overcome.
"My personal opinion is that good bands practice and good bands play a lot and good bands know each other musically on a very intimate level," says Osborne. "It's really hard to be a good band when you don't have the luxury of being able to do those things. Still, every time we have a conversation about the distance issue, somebody will speak up and say, 'I don't want to stop playing.' None of us do, which is why we try to make the best of the situation. That's what holds Royal City together."
Writer: Cameron Gordon