Royal City with Cuff the Duke and Gentlemen Reg at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (May 28). $12-$15. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
As blunders go, accidentally calling your interview subject by the wrong name is way up there. When I phone up Aaron Riches and ask to speak to "Aidan," confusion ensues. On the one hand, Riches, Royal City's songwriter and spiritual centre, doesn't know who the hell I am; on the other, I don't realize I've made the mistake.
Fortunately, Riches is a forgiving sort.
"Don't worry about it. I do the same thing all the time," he says lightly after we sort it out. "I'm just glad you're not a telemarketer - your phone line isn't yours here."
"Here" is Charlottesville, West Virginia, where Riches is plodding away at his doctorate in theological philosophy. Much has been made of his fascination with biblical themes, and Royal City have often been lumped in with the burgeoning Christian-inspired indie rock trend - think holy rockers like the Danielson Famile (with whom Riches is friendly) or Sufjan Stevens.
It's hard to tell exactly how vested Riches is in the specific tenor of his faith-rock. Songs like Bring My Father A Gift, Jerusalem and O Beauty certainly owe a debt to spirituals. But he seems more interested in the sentiment than the doctrine.
Before West Virginia, he spent a year in New York City, a move he made shortly after getting married.
Both seem a world away from his hometown of Guelph and his friends in Royal City (Lonnie James, Jim Guthrie and Simon Osborne). But with the pressures of academia and the impending release of Royal City's third album, Little Heart's Ease, geographical distance is just one of many concerns Riches has to balance.
"Academia and rock music are both very self-absorbed things to be involved in," Riches admits. "It's easy to forget about one while engaged in the other. And forgetting to live is a danger with either of them. Maybe doing both means you don't limit yourself to one way of thinking, but you have to be extra-careful not to let life flow past you in the meantime.
"We're all strange and multi-faceted people with odd and different interests," he continues. "If rock 'n' roll or philosophy, even both, could sum up your life, that would be a very narrow way to live."
It seems highly unlikely that Riches could be accused of living a narrow life. In conversation and songwriting, he displays surprising sensitivity and insight.
In his songs, the insights emerge casually, with a folksy, storytelling sort of ease. The themes aren't obvious - the subjects appear to be life and love, but they're woven together with some complex ideas.
On Little Heart's Ease, the parallels between romantic and spiritual devotion are framed in metaphorical language that draws from the elegant idiom of religious texts. On their breakout sophomore disc, At Rush Hour The Cars, Royal City embedded near-mythological narratives into beautiful countrified indie rock - the Odyssean search for home as sweetly optimistic ballads.
Telling modern folk tales is Riches's driving ambition.
"That's the dilemma art faces today," he explains. "We have no historicity. There are so few stories left that are a collective resource, we're completely separated from our own traditions and inclined not to see them. To say something, you have to find tradition in a non-traditional society.
"I see that in love. But I'm not talking about romantic love, not selfish love. Love isn't what I get so much as the disposition with which I gaze at something. Just that can make a huge difference."
It's hard not to be fazed by the weight of Riches's intellect. He's able to distill his thoughts in simple songs just as he hides complicated ideas inside his own easily digested homilies.
"Most people don't want to read or listen to things that are alien to them," he observes. "They want things that are comfortable to them, things that are comfortable with them. That's the most important thing. You have to be comfortable with what you're doing, or why would people listen? Or, if you're anxious, you have to be comfortable with that anxiety.
"And let's not forget we're only talking about rock music here," he laughs. "There's only so much you can do with that."