Progress Report: Jennifer Herrema
Name: Black Bananas
Progress Report: Jennifer Herrema talks about her new project, Black Bananas, and all kinds of other rad shit.
There are few humans that embody the notion of “bad ass” quite as thoroughly as Jennifer Herrema. As one half of Royal Trux, Herrema made druggy scuzz rock that would suitably inspire and terrify an entire generation of indie-rock lovers. These days she is busy with Black Bananas, a somewhat more schizophrenic but still suitably rocking new band. She’s also designing things, styling things, and smoking things. I shared an early morning beer with her to find out what’s up.
STEREOGUM: Where are you from originally?
JH: Southeast DC.
STEREOGUM: Do you go back there much?
JH: No, I do not like DC. I guess a lot of people feel that way about where they came from or where they grew up. Other people have a lot of fond memories but my sister and I, we grew up in the Southeast, and it was the projects. There were no white people. My dad bought this old burnt out building at an auction — burned out from the riots, and it was right near Anacostia, but he bought the building and we moved in there when we were little kids and he was building it back up while we were growing up. But we couldn’t go to the public school there — we’d been asked not to because we would be the only two white kids so the … city council or whatever but we got a stipend to go to school uptown up by National Cathedral and DuPont Circle. So I went to a tiny school, it was in a house. There was like 15 people in my graduating class.
STEREOGUM: My graduating class had 14 people in it but it was because I lived in a farm town in Oklahoma.
JH: Yeah. This was like, a progressive school. And it’s weird, I got a phone call from In Touch, like one of those tabloid magazines because in my graduating class was Spike Jonze and Justin Theroux. They called me about Justin Theroux because I’m friends with his ex and they wanted me to talk about how great a guy he was and I was like “I can’t talk about this.”
STEREOGUM: That’s so bizarre.
JH: Yeah, it was this tiny school.
STEREOGUM: So, between the last RTX record and this record, what happened? What was the process between that record and this one?
JH: The process was kind of the same; you know there’s no rush to get anything done, like you just start. Some of the songs, like “TV Trouble,” I wrote that three and a half years ago when I was sitting around watching TV so I scribbled that down then we came up with a riff and it sat around for a year and then we started putting that together, with the same people. But over a period of time I just wanted to introduce more sounds, and we’d all been together so long that we intuitively can speak each other’s own language without words at a certain point. I got Brian hooked up to Ableton and we just started playing around some more. So it was basically just like RTX but we had a little more money, we bought a little more things, we added a little of this and little of that until it had its own personality. It’s still — I think you can still tell that it’s us, the same group of people, and it’s not like turning its back on all the stuff we did. I think it’s just expanding, I think we just added to it … and I just wanted to give it its own identity. Because with RTX, I feel like people thought that they already knew what it was or what it was gonna sound like or what it was supposed to be.
STEREOGUM: Did it feel weird introducing those new electronic elements into the mix?
JH: Ah, no. I played around with samples and such in Royal Trux … they weren’t new elements to me but new elements to us as a unit. It was just fun … and then, it wasn’t like “Oh, now we’re Black Bananas, now we’re gonna make this record.” It was like we made this record, like RTX record, whatever, whatever, but then towards the end I started talking to everyone and we were like, “Fuck, fuck…” And I was like “Well maybe we should change names again.” And so we sat there thinking about it and I was like “What?” and he said “Oh, Black Bananas” and I said, “OK.” And that’s how easy it was. It’s one of my favorite songs on Ratx.
STEREOGUM: How is it playing this music live?
JH: It’s a little more exciting … well, it’s a little bit easier for me in a way because the beats and stuff kind of propel me, where I’m not like, sometimes, I would have to find my spot with it. Because of where my vocals lie, in this mid-range area, and because all the guitars and everything are in there, whenever we’d play live my voice was just like another instrument. You couldn’t hear it well, it was just sort of in there. Now I feel like with the bottom end and some of the beats, it just propels me forward and I approach it differently. It’s easier for me live, now.
JH: For now it is.
STEREOGUM: I guess when you’re using those kind of sounds there’s more specificity. When you are using beats and stuff, you can’t be quite as loose with things.
JH: Yeah it’s more structured. You don’t have to be like “Oh I need to call some inspiration tonight to make it into something more than just a rock song.” I guess it’s one of the first times where I have been 100% different … in the past, I’ve always been “I don’t want to play the songs the way they are on the record verbatim, I want to mix it up, I want everybody to go with the flow, I want to move, you need to be able to hear me” … I wanted it to be very wide open. And we got to the point where that was working. Now I’ve flipped the script mostly. Now let’s do it exact, to the best of our abilities.
STEREOGUM: That’s a different kind of practice. It demands a different kind of focus.
JH: Different headspace, too. It’s fresh.
STEREOGUM: Where was the record made?
JH: Our studio, same place where all the RTX records were made. In Costa Mesa, it’s like 15 minutes south of where I live.
STEREOGUM: That’s kind of great, having a studio space to work out of at your whim.
JH: It’s awesome. Because when I sold the farm in Virginia we had a full on recording studio built in there. Neil took a lot of gear, and I took a lot of gear. But I didn’t really want to deal with it. And so, two of the guys — well Bryan and Nadav, Nadav doesn’t play in the band but he’s the engineer, and structural dude, but … It’s like here, have this gear, so Bryan and Nadav were paying the rent on this space. And it was like “here, you can have the gear, let’s set it up, I can’t pay the rent because I just bought a house.” Anyway, we’ve just had it like that from the time I moved down there. So we have like a 24-track studio. We have a 24-track board and analog feeds we can go through. We’ve recorded a few other people there too. It’s not like a studio for hire — it’s not like we’re trying to solicit business — but we have recorded other bands like people we know. Kurt works for Volcom, the record label, and he set up this vinyl thing where they do 7 inch vinyl. And so like Earth recorded there. We recorded a few of the 7 inches with them and he put together a live 12 inch of stuff we recorded with them. And Kurt Vile — we did the Kurt Vile song there, and they’re coming back to record there again sometime soon.
STEREOGUM: How did you meet him?
JH: He just asked us to open a few shows — this is all within the past half year — and so we played with him in LA and San Francisco and he was a total convert, huge fan. The day after the San Francisco show, he called me and was like “I really want to record this Stones song with you, let’s do it, I’ll be back out there,” and I was like “Totally.” So that was all him.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take you to make the Black Bananas record?
JH: Well, we were working at it when we finished the last RTX thing … and that was like three years ago. I think that was three years ago in October. So we’re like always working on stuff. It’s not like “OK, now we’re starting a record.” And we don’t go in nine to five. I go in every day, Bryan’s in there every day, Kurt comes by there every day after work, so some days we don’t get anything done, we just play video games and just fuckin’ get stoned, and other days we get shit done.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you play many times over the years in different bands, but the first time I saw Royal Trux play was in Oklahoma and you were opening for Pavement. I just remember that people in the audience were totally freaked out by it. My friends were like, “What the fuck is going on?”
JH: Especially being with Pavement. Steve liked to think we had so much in common but I think we frightened a lot of their audience, Basically we had Pavement’s dressing room to ourselves every night because they were so freaked out over what we might be doing. I was like “Yeah, just stay on the bus.”
STEREOGUM: Thinking back about all the different projects you’ve worked on, was there ever a point when you thought you would not do music anymore?
JH: Yeah, totally. When I broke up with Neil and just wanted to make everything go away, I was like “Oh no, I just don’t wanna do music at all anymore,” but that only lasted for, like, three months. And then I was like “Oh shit” and started writing. But it all fell into place. I know it sounds kind of hippy-dippy, whatever, but when I kind of go about doing things in a sound mind … where I’m just concentrating and going about things in a natural way, not pushing too much energy or being too reclusive or whatever, just “cool shit, let it happen,” like … things just fall into place.
STEREOGUM: Another thing that’s interesting — and I’m sure you’re probably cognizant of this — but how often your name comes up as a reference point for style. I write for a lot of magazines and it’s not uncommon for someone to describe something or someone as having a very “Jennifer Herrema look “or vibe. Have you been surprised by that?
JH: The thing is … well, I guess I’m surprised that it did end up becoming a thing. I could see mainstream press attributing style to someone else other than me but the way I’ve dressed over the years has kind of maintained, so it’s not that weird. In the past I thought “Oh that’s cool.” You know, see chicks with cool shit on and think, “Damn, I’d wear that.” It’s an honor that they decided to go ahead and reference me as the touchstone ‘cause that is the right thing to do … but they usually don’t do the right thing. But yeah, I think it’s also a little bit more because I started doing the clothing line with Volcom and Volcom is very mainstream and then I started doing the styling with Playboy with Lizzie Jagger, so mainstream stuff is part of my styling realm and I think that also made it like they’re allowed to talk about me now.
STEREOGUM: What will 2012 be like for you? Will you be playing some shows?
JH: We’re setting up a tour now for May in the United States, and then September, Europe, and I’ve got another denim line coming out through Volcom for next year and I have this jewelry collaboration with Pamela Love through Volcom, so that’s all happening. And my friend the photographer Sasha Eisenman signed this contract with Playboy but I’m in it, ‘cause I’m his stylist. So lots more styling stuff for them.
STEREOGUM: That’s a lot of stuff to be working on, aside from putting out a new record and going on tour.
JH: Yeah it’s a fuck ton, ‘cause I like to do as little as possible.
STEREOGUM: The jewelry thing must be fun. I assume you must have an amazing collection.
JH: Yeah, I do, I kinda wear them all the time. This is so fucked up. [Points to bracelet on her hand] This is a piece I did a long time ago that I cast. This is one of my early casts. Look at the hand that I drew, I had to carve it into clay — it’s so retarded — but … I cast it, but then I was sick of it, so I had this concha soldered on but it came off so I put a bunch of Gorilla Glue on it and shit for the trip but of course it fell off. Still, this is one of my favorites.
STEREOGUM: What’s your favorite thing? Is there one particular thing you collect?
JH: I collect turquoise, Native American, mostly Zuni. I collect old quilts.
STEREOGUM: So do I! I’m basically an old lady.
JH: Yeah? I collected when I lived in Virginia, that was such amazing shit…
STEREOGUM: My grandmother and great-grandmother were quilters so I have their stuff.
JH: Oh, nice, nice. Yeah I started with the crazy quilts, which I adore, and I got some more Quaker, some more structured stuff. I won’t spend tons of money on them. I just search ‘til I find real dope ones. I’m always looking for dope shit.
Black Bananas’ album Red Times Xpress IV is out now on Drag City.