Royal Trux just might be the most misunderstood band in indie rock. But their influence can be seen in contemporary bands like Liars, the Kills, Sleigh Bells, MGMT, Primal Scream, of Montreal, and others. On the surface, they’ve never been the easiest to digest upon first listen, from Jennifer Herrema’s gravely grunts and growls, to Neil Hagerty’s decidedly un-indie guitar workouts and snarling backing vocals. In a world where experimenting and taking chances with music often takes a backseat to image and playing it safe, Royal Trux flipped the script and did the opposite; because they could, and because, for them, it was always, and only, about keeping themselves interested and happy with the music. Their goal from the outset was to deconstruct rock ‘n’ roll and put it back together as they saw fit, with their own artistic vision. It wasn’t always pretty, but good art often isn’t. What is true is that their music has stood the test of time and sounds just as, if not more, relevant today than it did when conceived.
Hagerty and Herrema met in Washington, D.C. when Hagerty was in his early 20s and Herrema her late teens. They soon coupled-up and began Royal Trux, seemingly around the same time, circa 1987. For the first few years, the band would serve as more of a side project of sorts to Hagerty’s main gig as a member of the Jon Spencer- and Julia Cafritz-led Pussy Galore (whom Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins once accurately described as “industrial rockabilly”). All parties relocated to New York City in the mid-to-late ’80s, and in 1988, Royal Trux released their self-titled debut. Not long after, their Pussy Galore connections got the attention of Chicagoans Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn, who were starting a record label (to be called Drag City) and asked the band for music. The band handed in the first Drag City release, the “Hero/Zero” 7″, and shortly thereafter, the seminal double-LP Twin Infinitives. Thus sprang Royal Trux.
Hagerty and Herrema have always exuded and oozed coolness and individuality. Herrema was usually decked out in skin-tight jeans, boots, tons of jewelry — often with duct tape wrapped around her wrists and/or legs, hiding behind her long blonde hair and aviator shades. Hagerty, certainly the yin to Herrema’s yang, was shy, quiet, socially awkward, and usually let his playing doing the talking.
Unfortunately, for the entirety of their career, the stereotype of the “junkie couple” followed them. At times they didn’t do much to evade it, having famously squandered a rather large recording advance early in their career from Matador Records on illicit substances and then deciding not to record for the label. Herrema becoming the first model for Calvin Klein’s “Heroin Chic” campaign in the mid-’90s may not have helped this stereotype either. The downside, of course, is that it took attention away from the music and likely lost them fans. Case in point, while playing the side stage at the 1993 Lollapalooza, Herrema even had to endure “Axl Rose!” heckles from the crowd. Whether it was their reputation, appearance, music, or all of the above, Royal Trux spent the bulk of their career being misunderstood.
Aside from her post-Trux musical projects (detailed below), Herrema has gone on to create a line of jeans for Volcom, designed jewelry and art, and has given talks on Southern rock at places like Princeton University, among other artistic ventures, while Hagerty has painted, as well as written two books, one of which was a science fiction novel (Victory Chimp) about a chimp investigator who exists in the “multiverse,” using wrestling as a metaphor to tell the story. Their intelligence and abilities, while often hidden behind socially awkward, introverted personalities, were certainly not lost on those they worked with (as bandmates or in the role as producers). In a retrospective article about the reissue of Veterans Of Disorder by Ian Svenonius, David Pajo (of Slint, Tortoise, and Stereolab fame, among others) discussed a conversation with guitarist David Grubbs, regarding Hagerty and Herrema’s production work on an early Palace Brothers single (“Come In/Trudy Dies”), in which they both realized the level of genius they were dealing with. And, after all, junkies don’t usually shrewdly write a dream major label contract, shop it around, and walk away winners, laughing all the way to the bank. There was a lot going on underneath their outward appearance, they just didn’t care if you found out, and it was all on the albums as evidence for anyone to hear anyway. Hagerty and Herrema stated many times that they couldn’t care less if they lost an audience and gained a new one after each album.
In fact, it could be argued that this complete disregard for what audiences thought of them freed them up to focus only on the music. And that they did! One reason why all of their records have a much different feel than their predecessors was because they conceived of each album as a distinct project and gave the process certain guidelines, rules, and parameters. Furthermore, the band approached touring differently than most. Especially in the early days, it wasn’t unusual to hire players whom they hadn’t even met, based simply on word of mouth.
Often, the lineup they took on tour was not the same as the one that recorded the album, and the songs might sound quite different live. For example, the traditional rock band setup that recorded Sweet Sixteen was replaced with a keyboardist and minimal drum kit for the tour. At the conclusion of that tour, that lineup/set up recorded Accelerator, but the touring band for that album included David Pajo on bass and future Mars Volta drum wunderkind Jon Theodore (who would then work on Veterans Of Disorder, but not its tour). Live, song arrangements were often changed, sped up, slowed down, sometimes night after night. This approach was likely not lost on Will Oldham, who, first as Palace Brothers/Music/Songs/etc. and now as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has made this a regular practice throughout his career. (Fans of Oldham might also notice that he dedicated the first Palace Songs singles collection, Lost Blues And Other Songs, to Royal Trux).
But it wasn’t just their own music that they focused on; Hagerty and Herrema were solid and respected producers. After having put their golden touch on the aforementioned Palace single, Hagerty and Herrema (or Adam and Eve, as they were known when producing), produced records by the Make-Up, Edith Frost, and others. On his own, Hagerty has produced albums by the likes of Daniel Blumberg (of Yuck) and Bill Callahan. Hagerty and Herrema also frequently championed new artists. For example, they were involved in convincing Drag City to sign Will Oldham (as Palace Brothers) and took Bill Callahan (as Smog) on his first tour, co-headlining with them, in 1992.
Like most couples who have written and recorded together, when the relationship ends, so does the band, and Royal Trux is no exception. Having gone their separate ways in 2001, both have been incredibly prolific. Hagerty released a few solo albums before working under the Howling Hex name and releasing several albums since, along with this year’s collaboration (Qalgebra) with Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth, as the Hagerty-Toth band. Herrema released several albums with her post-Trux band mates as RTX, before changing the name to Black Bananas. The most recent Black Bananas release, Electric Brick Wall features two tracks that Herrema and Hagerty co-wrote, which perhaps is one of the reasons for their one scheduled reunion show (however shocking) at the Berserktown II festival in Los Angeles this August. What fans can expect is anyone’s guess, especially after years of Hagerty vowing repeatedly not to work with Herrema, whose somewhat unexpected reaction and relapses as a response to her father’s death led to the dissolution of the band on the Pound For Pound tour back in 2000. But the collaboration does signal good vibes, which will hopefully transmit during their show and lead to more in the future.
In at late ’90s interview, Hagerty said, “You have to really like music to like our band.” While that’s true, if you look past the image and approach Royal Trux with an open mind, it’s quite possible to enjoy their records regardless of one’s musical experience as a listener or player. With a catalogue that spans 10 full-length albums, one compilation, and two EPs, with as many stylistic changes and approaches, there’s a lot to sink one’s musical teeth into. But it’s well worth the trip.
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