An Oral History of Three Gut Records Aaron Riches, ROYAL CITY

Thoughts? Memories? I wouldn't trade the first two years of touring with Royal City for the world. That was the best experience of my life. Our first two American tours, and going to Whitehorse and stuff like that. What was good about it too was that I feel I had that sense at the time. I had played in bands before, and I felt like I hadn't seized the day. I had taken for granted what it was. With Royal City, I knew when it was happening that this won't last for very long. You really gotta savour this. And I did. We all did. It was a pretty great time. I supposed that some kind of conclusion is no surprise, least of all to you than anyone else. Especially being removed now for so many years. [Since 2002 Aaron has been focusing mainly on academic pursuits, including his doctorate in theology.] Yeah. I think Lisa could have kept it going for as long as she wanted. I don't think it would have lost its steam. It would have had a different one. In some ways, there are a whole bunch of different Three Gut Records. The first year of the label it was a weird conspiracy of people, hanging up these envelopes on clotheslines that Tyler made us do. Lisa calling us every day from tour. That's been over for a long time, and it's been a different thing. The label ending is really Lisa's decision to not reinvent it in a different way. Which she could have if she wanted to, but she's at a different stage in her life. I don't think the label had to end. I do think that anything that special and unique, there's really a limited time frame for that to happen. For me, I've been away from Toronto four years now. I'm quite removed from it. The part that I remember so fondly is obviously already four years old. For me there was an ending. Personally. There have been a lot of different kinds of endings. We'll all be friends for a long, long time. I talk to Lisa more on the phone now, even though we don't have any business to talk about anymore. Four years ago! That seems hard to believe. I lived in Guelph for a year with my parents [2001-2002], then Montreal for a few months, and then New York for six or eight months, then here in Charlottesville for two years, and I'm leaving in six weeks. There is talk of some document you drew up at the first meeting. What do you remember about that? I kinda do. I think we all drew it up, though. It was supposed to be a crazy anarchist collective. We were all going to have a say in everything, and everything would be decided by consensus. We all had to be naked at the meetings. And Jim would wear the Three Gut crown. The stipulation to all that was that we all had to do shit work, but of course, no one did the shit work except Tyler and Lisa, so they got to keep the whole package. I don't know what Reg was doing - maybe he was still in Guelph, driving that minivan around getting lost. Me and Jim and Simon were probably drunk somewhere, smoking cigarettes. And Lisa and Tyler were doing all the work, so they got to keep the label. But yeah, for the first 15 minutes, it was totally a communal thing! Within half an hour all that was gone! The other thing is that no one else did any work. It would have been one of those nothing things if it hadn't been for Tyler and Lisa. Something else that strikes me is that even though I always gave Tyler and Lisa the majority of the credit, a lot of people speak of what a galvanizing force you were. People were attracted to the label because of you and what you had done before and your high-falutin ideas. Bry Webb said the reason they were drawn to Three Gut at all was because of you and your history with Minnow. I wouldn't want to really take any credit. Whatever credit due to me would be a credit that was more of a surface thing. I really think the label did what it did because of Tyler and Lisa. I wouldn't take any credit for the label. But I'm thinking of where you came from and how much you accomplished early on and how that inspired the label itself, particularly things like going to America and just doing things and doing it from the DIY no-rules school as opposed to a more formal business idea of how labels should run. I've always described it this way. The first year of the label was a conspiracy. Nothing less than that. No one gave a shit about any of the bands on the label at that point, in terms of making money. If it was a conspiracy mainly between me and my punk rock ideas from the past, it was also that Tyler had this quacky, crazy art thing, and Lisa had this unbelievable fidelity to the people she had worked with and to making music happen, a practical mind. Then Jim had this whole home rock thing and "home is where the rock is." It was a combination of all those things that gave it a spirit. It was a conspiracy. We went down to the United States, and no one in Toronto at the time was touring in the States. The dirty secret is that we played 30 shows and probably only played to 60 people in the whole tour. I shouldn't say that, we had great experiences. We played on porches for five people, we played in cafés, opened up for some bands and had bigger shows. But it was not a money-making venture by any stretch. If my parents hadn't loaned us their van, we wouldn't have been able to do it. The funny thing was, I'd always say to them, "People in Canadian music are so fucking stupid that if we just go down to the States, they'll think we're doing something." And it's kinda true! That got us a certain kind of street cred in Toronto. We didn't even bother with Canada. Canada is such a stupid country to tour in. There are only three-day drives between major cities. And gas was so cheap in the States too. Once we got over the border, the gas was cheaper and the towns were closer together. I was thinking of what Toronto was in '99 and what it is now and how drastically different it is now. Back then, a lot of people seemed scared and stuck on Queen Street. Stalled. Three Gut was one of several things that helped open that up. Wavelength had a huge role as well. They both started the same year. Watching the trajectory of the city over that time is really interesting. And thinking of what audiences made of Royal City at the time, and you barking on stage. Yeah. It was funny. I guess you're quite removed from Toronto now. The only thing that's sad about everything is that so quickly everything is so commodified. Even the way that Royal City did things. There's something so shitty that's so good about our early shows. We were just this stupid band playing gigs and eating canned beans. I remember being in Indianapolis and we had no money and had to eat dinner and we just bought a bunch of canned beans and ate them out of the can. Those experiences of touring were so much more rich because they were so outside of being commodified. That's one thing that's too bad. As things get more and more attention, it becomes harder to resist that. Then it makes it harder to be a real event with integrity. But that's all bullshit too, who knows. I had a great time at the beginning, and I had a great time up to the end. But at the beginning anything could happen. Everything has really changed in the last six years. You and I have watched our friends go from playing to 10 people to 100 people to suddenly thousands, within months of their record coming out. When Royal City first toured the States, even though we were playing to nobody, I remember thinking, "We're doing it - and none of our friends are doing it." On that first tour we met Sufjan. We played in his living room. It's so funny because by the end of it all of our friends were way bigger than us, whether it was the Constantines, or the Hidden Cameras, or Sufjan, the Arcade Fire, or Feist! Feist played guitar on the first Royal City tour. [She was in the band for about six months.] It's so funny with all of our friends who weren't touring at the time, and if we played shows with them now, we'd be on the bill at like three o'clock in the afternoon! All of our friends are actually making money off music - what the fuck were we doing?! I forgot that Feist was on one of those American tours. I remember her playing with you locally. I'd also forgotten that she played the envelope show. [In Toronto, an infamous early Royal City/Feist show was promoted with wax-sealed envelopes with an "invitation" to the show that were hung with clothespegs on twine strung outside record stores and MuchMusic.] I hate to say it, but our whole first tour was an envelope show. On our first tour we hung those fucking envelopes every single night of the first American tour. We had four boxes of envelopes, twine, and clothespegs in the back of the van. Tyler made us promise that we would hang them up before every show. And did you? Oh, you better believe it! I was dating Tyler at the time, and I couldn't let her down. The one thing I couldn't do is not hang these things up. [Royal City bassist] Simon [Osborne] was really gracious because Simon did it with me almost every night. He did it because he knew that I wouldn't not do it, and I did it because I couldn't let Tyler down. We took photos of them all. It became kind of a joke. Would they be outside record stores? Outside the club? Both. Everywhere. She wanted us to show up in every town at around… Noon? Try six in the morning. And do the whole city. She wanted them up where people would be. What do you think were particular turning points or early victories for the label? I think there's a few things. The first Royal City tour. It worked. We actually did it. Not the first one, but the first real one, when we went for a month. All four of us came back really excited to be playing music. That whole thing was a real shot in the arm for the label and for the band. At that time, at the beginning, the label and Royal City was a weird organism. The next real big shot in the arm was when the Cons - who we had played with in their basement, they opened for us, I just want to remind you of that. Remember, every one of our friends' bands who ever opened for us? Making money. They turned down Sonic Unyon to be on Three Gut. After our first American tour, we went down to the States again for a short tour, and we played in New York and met Sufjan and Melissa [Herwaldt, now Aaron's wife], who actually set the show up for us. That was really exciting. That was the best part of the whole tour. We were playing in New York, in a loft space, it was so exciting. We had them all singing "c-i-t-y-Royal City." I thought, fuck, if you can get people in New York to sing about Guelph, that's a good thing. Then when we came back for another tour of the States, we were supposed to open for Songs: Ohia, and we thought, boy, we've really made the big time now. And Songs: Ohia now, well, they'd probably be opening for most of our friends. Anyway, we got turned away from the border and when we got back we read a terrible review of our first record in Magnet, who basically said it was a piece of shit. Actually, it didn't even say that, it said "If it was eventful, it might be a piece of shit, but it's just so boring you wouldn't even want to listen to it." Then we went back down that afternoon and borrowed gear in the States and snuck across the border. We played the shows, and at one of the shows - which was a terrible show, we were opening for a metal band, who by the way are probably bigger than us now - the phone rang and it was Tyler telling us that Sarah Harmer wanted to take us on tour with her. And that was, holy shit, so exciting. That Sarah Harmer tour was really exciting, and the Cons had just been signed, and then Alone At the Microphone came out. Sometime after that I was married and living in Montreal, and thinking the band was pretty much finished. Which is when I got a call from Lisa saying, "Yeah, Rough Trade wants to put out your record." You were in Montreal in the fall of 2002? Yeah. And then Rough Trade put out our record and didn't sell a copy of it. Then Rough Trade put out our last record, didn't sell a copy of it, and got a lot of shitty reviews! That was it. How was the living/working arrangement? That was good. I was the first one there. When I moved in there, I lived with Kevan Byrne and Michael Armstrong [both of King Cobb Steelie]. The three of us. Then Kevan Byrne moved out and Kevin Lynn [also of KCS] moved in. Then Kevin Lynn moved out and Bob McCarthy [ex-CFRU in Guelph] moved in. I started living there in 1998, before the label. Then Michael and Liz [Forsberg, of the Phonemes, also played on first Royal City album] moved out, Tyler moved in. Then Tyler and I broke up and she moved out, Justin moved in. Jim moved in sometime before that. Lots of people talk about how their band or their label is a family, but this label actually did live like a family. It was really tight knit. I remember feeling like I wouldn't trust anyone who wasn't from Guelph. All these Toronto people? Who cares? I've already got my people. Guelphites are glorious snobs, aren't they? Not that, but I'd known them all for so long. Jim, Simon and I weren't really friends so much, but I'd known them since junior high. I remember the day Simon walked into our Grade 8 class, he was the new kid. He was already eating Altoids at the time, too. He was a total hip-hop kid, wasn't he? Oh yeah. He hated rock music. I think he still does, secretly. I was recalling those huge parties, and how most people who went to them didn't really know what was going on. That was all Tyler's idea. She would get us working. We would show up and we'd be building shit. I remember cursing her half the time for it, because it was too much work. I wanted to hang out and smoke cigarettes with Jim and Simon, and we had to build spaceships and shit, and then clean up afterwards! And everything with Tyler was such a crazy production, because no matter what, you worked like hell until the very last minute. If there was an extra 15 minutes, she'd get another idea for a crazy fucking thing. We worked like hell all the time. Those parties were as fun as any of the shows we ever played. Those were really good days. I remember one of the nicest shows we've ever played was when we got back from our first big American tour, and we had a gig at Graffiti's in Kensington Market. We rolled into town at five in the afternoon and we played that night at nine, and it was so exciting. It was the best time of my life. It really was. There will be others. Nothing like that, but there will be others. Yeah, I have other best times in my life. School is a wonderful thing and I love being married, but it's a totally different life. You have to be young enough to have that, you live less in the present than you do in this crazy expectation of the future. That was the biggest thing. It wasn't that the moment was so wonderful. It was the expectation that anything could happen. That's what it felt like. I think that's a great closing quote.