(Photo by Nine Gouveia, courtesy of Drag City)
Legendary skuzz rock duo Royal Trux are getting back together, if only for a moment. The former bandmates are set to play at Webster Hall on December 19 for the second time since their one-show reunion back in August. Until then, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, once a power couple in romance and rock n’ roll, hadn’t seen each other in 13 years. “But when he walked in the door it was like everything was the same,” Herrema told us. “It all just went back to the same thing — the chemistry, everything. It was as if no time had passed.”
We caught up with the perpetually-imitated, never-repeated Jennifer Herrema– who’s been based in LA for a while now– about what precipitated the reunion part deux, and how Royal Trux may be broken up, but a new fan seems to be born every day.
If things in the music world were not as they are now– where acquiring music takes no more than a click and a drag, and maybe a split second of finger drumming to pass the time– and the past wasn’t so readily accessible, nostalgia not so easy to come by, then after the Royal Trux reunion show at LA’s Beserktown II festival last August, we might have assumed it was a one-off affair.
But in reality, high-profile reunions have become the big-draw bread and butter of music festivals — the more unlikely, the better. The more checkered romantic subplots, the better, better. Add in Royal Trux’s impenetrable aura of rebellion and cool and their impressive influence (see: bands like PC Worship) and there’s bound to be someone out there willing to get down on their knees to bring it all together.
But then again, us fans had more than once been given high hopes of a Royal Trux reunion (or, at the very least a Jennifer-Neil collaboration) to little avail. But in hindsight, things were building.
In 2012, Hagerty played the whole of Royal Trux’ Twin Infinitives at Saint Vitus, the 1990 record he described to a fanzine, Bananafish (1988-1984), as “a reflection of the American style.” He went ahead and did this without Herrema’s participation (Brooklyn Vegan seemed to jab at herwith, “Meanwhile Jennifer Herrema […] participated in a store window installation called She’s Crafty at New Museum.”) Setting aside Hagerty’s shruggy articulation of the album, that show was certainly not the result of a whim. This album was legit hard to recreate, and Neil had to recruit a bunch of people do help him do it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just give it a whirl: it’s complex, multi-layered, multi-instrumental, and incomparable without layer and layers of pedals and effects and noise.
The second hint came from Herrema in 2013, when Pitchfork she made a Facebook announcement regarding her forthcoming LP with her band Black Bananas, revealing that it would “include 2 new songs co-written with Neil Hagerty.” Electric Brick Wall dropped with two songs, “Powder” and “Eve’s Child,” that Hagerty and Herrema had written together.
But the official Royal Trux reconciliation came in anticipation of the Berserktown show. “We only rehearsed like one day,” Jennifer told me over the phone. “I’d never met the drummer Pete, and Neil had never met the bass player — we came together and rehearsed and then we played the show and it was so much fun.”
So what was the final push? “Coming together for that first show was really kind of, you know, the planetary alignment,” Jennifer recalled. “It was a strange occurrence, like everything about how it happened was kind of freaky — right down to the fact that the show we played was in a suburb, like, five blocks away from the studio I’d had in Costa Mesa for, like 10 years. A lot about it was really weird, like it was definitely meant to be.”
Royal Trux live in August 2015 (Photo by Amanda Millius, courtesy of Drag City)
As for whose idea it was to get back together, Jennifer attributed it to the promoter, “this guy Graham,” who approached Neil. “He really wanted it to happen and just put everything out there to make it happen and he got Neil’s attention, and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ and I was fine with it, I’m a lot easier going than Neil is,” she laughed. “So honestly, it really had to be Neil who brought it to the table.”
It’s hard to imagine, but even after all these years things felt pretty much the same. “It just seemed pretty natural,” Herrema said. “I guess when you know somebody that well, even though we hadn’t spoken in so long — you know, I spent 20 years of my life with him– I knew it would be good, it wasn’t gonna be fucked up.”
And the good came with the bad, of course. “It was exactly the same, all the way down to the arguing, which is part of the process — like, talking about tempos,” she recalled. “He wanted faster, and I wanted slower. We just got in a big fight, and then it got resolved, and then we moved on. I mean, that was par for the course as well.”
But for all parties involved, it seemed like that was gonna be it. “We were like, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ But we weren’t like, ‘Oh we gotta go book more shows,’ or anything,” Jennifer remembered. Lucky for us, Webster Hall approached Herrema and Hagerty to see if they’d give it another go. “We just had a really good time at the August show so it was really easy to say yes,” Herrema explained. (According to the band’s page on Drag City, Royal Trux are playing a show in Austin in Spring 2016.)
The New York City show will be relatively similar to the last in its emphasis on the stripped-down version of Royal Trux. “It’s just based on vocals and guitar,” she said. “It’s gonna be going in and performing the songs in their most simplistic manner.” In a way, we’ll be transported back in time to the very beginning.
Neil Hagerty was playing in Pussy Galore, an NYC-based garage band when he decided to put all his chips in with Jennifer Herrema, his girlfriend from D.C., and their band, Royal Trux. He left the somewhat traditional constraints of loose, but still relatively formulaic rock, to dive headfirst into the chaotic, broken-glass-bits world of noise, psych, rock n’ roll disintegration, and sludgy, sonic nihilism. The blow of all these sharp-edged sounds was softened by an untouchable cool. When they met, the year was 1987. Herrema was just 15 years old, and Neil still just a teenager too.
They made the perfect pair: Neil’s brooding vibe, admirable guitar skills, and heavenly wail complimented Herrema’s scratchy, deep croak (the kind that could only be won by thousands of insomniac cigarettes). In photos, she always had hunched shoulders, a lanky body that folded in on itself, and a thick, uneven fringe that obscured nearly all of her face, but especially her eyes. Together, Herrema’s “look” (it was totally a look) and her sound evoked a shaggy-haired desert bird who’s seen it all.
We may assume Royal Trux was aloof, from our own comfortable distance of now, but in reality (as former band members have recalled) they were exceedingly cool, and everyone thought so — as evidenced in their TV appearances and Herrema’s modeling gig for the notorious Calvin Klein “heroin chic” campaign. (Jennifer would continue with fashion: dabbling in jewelry design and partnering up with Volcolm‘s denim line.)
The band was always just the two of them, even if they had some help. On various releases and a variety of tours they had help from rhythm sections, synth players, even an upright bass plucker at one point. Though awash in fuzz, their sound was actually sort of eclectic. “We’ve always had a really diverse, really eclectic audience as it were,” Jennifer explained. “We didn’t really belong to any particular scene, or genre, or group or whatever. We were pretty rogue from the get-go. It’s not like all the goths would show up, or all the hipsters would show up, or all the b-boys. It was really all the outcasts and loners, it seemed that was our audience: real independent humans.”
The Trux were an indie rock band, back when “indie rock” meant something wildly different. “Back then, ‘indie rock’ was literal — we wereliterally a rock band on an independent label, we were not part of an indie rock genre so to speak,” Jennifer pointed out. Today, there seems to be some confusion in aligning Royal Trux within the indie rock genre , something Jennifer scoffed at (and I agreed with). “Once that genre became somewhat solidified by the mid-’90s, it stood for a particular type of sound that we absolutely never had anything in common with.”
They self-released their first record in 1988, and in 1990 their 7″ single Hero Zero / Love Is… became the first ever release for Chicago-based independent record label Drag City (where both of them stayed with their respective projects after breaking up Trux).
They flew a bit closer to the sun with their foray into major label territory, signing briefly with Virgin records and releasing Thank You in 1995, and two years later, Sweet Sixteen. (As Hagerty told the Chicago Reader in June of this year, “We planned very early, 1985, at the beginning, something like: we’ll be fucked up for about ten years, roll with it, get signed, and grab the money. Then we had enough money to do what we wanted to, tour on a decent level…”)
Dabbling in the majors aside, the vast majority of Royal Trux output is about the farthest thing from pop you can get while still maintaining ties to rock n’ roll. And as opposed to following the traditional trajectory of weird, to palatable, to pop, to stadium rock, for each step the Trux took toward that radio end, they fell back ten times.
(Photo by Patsy Desmond , courtesy of Drag City)
Untitled (1992, Drag City) shows the band at maybe their most Rolling Stones-esque, complete with Jagger vocals (from both Herrema and Hagerty) and rock n’ roll structure. But even when they reigned things in, relatively speaking, their music was (and manages to remain) unabashedly weird, avant-garde — a messy, messy amalgamation of feedback, dissonance, and harsh sounds.
There are plenty of sources that indicate the duo were not just partners in music and love, but in heroin addiction, including a 1992 interview with Neil for a zine called Rollerderby — which, you know, admittedly isn’t the most reliable, air-tight, fact-checked source for information (though Lisa Carver, the zine’s founder and the one who interviewed Neil, did go on to become a “professional writer” and we have no reason to believe she made anything up.) But the image, the attitude, the sound — the Trux didn’t have to be that public about their drug use.
See: songs like “Junkie Nurse,” and the mythology behind 1990’s Twin Infinitives — a scratchy, psyched-out odyssey through clanky noise and intoxicating whispers and moans which, as the story goes, was “realized and recorded when the duo were in the throes of heavy drug addiction,” and living in Brooklyn, then the Lower East Side. More than 20 years later, Hagerty described that time period to the Village Voice as one of “teen angst.” Then there’s the difficult-to-verify story of the couple blowing their Matador advance (some say on dope) before they could make their third record for the then-new label. (Drag City, which is apparently boundlessly loyal, released the band’s third record.)
But, in the end, none of this really matters. The music is the music, and, sure, many artists and writers and thinkers throughout history have utilized drugs during, before, and after their creative processes, but there have been far more examples of people taking drugs and having not made anything of lasting influence, value, or genius. Which is to say, drugs in this context should be less relevant to the story. There’s far too may cause-and-effect heroin myths out there and this is just another one. During our conversation, it seemed the Jennifer tended to agree. She hinted, but didn’t confirm or deny anything, only explaining that she and Neil were not out to glorify anything. Instead it seems like heroin has been the easier narrative to fall back on for a good rock n’ roll story, or at least one that people can easily understand.
Royal Trux split up in 2001, a year after they release Pound for Pound. Herrema revealed details of the last time she recalled seeing Neil in person: “I’m trying to remember, but I’m pretty sure we were in Virginia at my dad’s. My dad had been really sick, before he died. We were both over at my dad’s place, and we just kind of said ‘Goodbye,’ like ‘OK… cool.’ Things were kind of messed up. I figured that we would talk again, but then we never did.”
Neil went on to form The Howling Hex and, more recently, Dan’l Boone. At first, Jennifer seemed like she’d be heading on a different path altogether. I didn’t wanna play music, I was finished,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Fuck this shit’ — I didn’t even want to do music at all and I realized that it was easy to say that in my head, and then the next thing you know, half a year later, I’ve got a whole notebook of songs. It was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m still writing.’”
(Flyer via Webster Hall)
Jennifer went on to form RTX, a broadly talented, ’60s revival psych outfit before Black Bananas, where she’s front and center, finally emerging from a cloudy haze and brushing back her bangs (figuratively, if not so much literally). “I guess I wasn’t done,” she laughed.
Much is said about the power of duos and groups in music, and there are plenty of examples of separation that resulted in comparatively lackluster output to follow (from both or all parties). This doesn’t seem to be the case with Jennifer or Neil. Though, she does admit that recreating that same Royal Trux concoction would be like un-baking a cake.
“[Collaborations have been] different, but nothing as powerful and nothing that’s the same,” she explained. “Chemistry is a weird thing. You can’t recreate it. There was always chemistry between myself and Neil and what we brought to the table and how it all kind of congealed together to become Royal Trux. It was so effortless, I dunno… it was obviously meant to be. I’ve worked with a ton of other people and had very satisfying work relationships and stuff, but it’s never on that same, unspoken level. I guess I met him when I was 15 years old. When you spend your formative years, basically the first 20 years of your adult like with somebody, you just kind of live and learn through each other and there’s just that commonality and bond that can’t be broken and can’t be duplicated.”
So what, if anything has changed about her approach to music? “The one thing that I wanted to do, when I did decide to actually record those songs [I had put away in a notebook], is I wanted to work with somebody who was the antithesis of myself, like coming from a totally different place, a totally different mindset, and that was antithetical to the past,” Herrema explained. “Neil and I had so much in common, we’re so similar. I think that was the only difference. My philosophy as it were, my methodology, none of that changed. But the choices I made, as far as who and what type of person I wanted to work with, was entirely different.”
Drag City has been periodically reissuing Royal Trux records for years at this point. And while the band may have been broken up for well over a decade, they’re still acquiring new fans. “Absolutely there are always new people who are introduced to our music, whether it be by a band that has clearly been influenced by what we might have done, or an aesthetic we might have set forth, or just being curious and digging through things on their own,” Herrema explained.
In fact, the Webster Hall show was originally set to be an adult-only show– “18 and up, or 21 and up, or something,” Herrema said. “But people who were under 18 wrote in and said they were devastated, they wanted to see the show. So the venue changed it to 16 and up. Those people weren’t even alive when we made our first records.” It’s pretty wild to think about, but Herrema was only 15 at the time — she and Neil, though they started in the late ’80s, are now only in their 40s.
While Herrema said she’s still recording “all the time,” and that her involvement in other projects, would make “not that easy to just kind of drop a lot of stuff and dedicate myself just to Royal Trux, like I had in the past,” she added a hopeful note. “But you never know,” she said. “Me and Neil have been working together through the internet. We recorded the live show in August, so we’ve been going back and forth, working on mixes, I think we might put out an EP or something. We’ve been working together, I guess is what I’m getting at. And it’s been really good and easy. I mean, yeah we haven’t spoken of actually creating new tracks, material or anything like that. I don’t know, who knows.”
Royal Trux plays at Webster Hall, 8 pm Saturday Dec. 19th, with Blues Control, IUD, Lexie Mountain, tickets: $25- $30