A wide-ranging interview with Neil Michael Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux

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Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty
  • Patsy Desmond
  • Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty

Despite its best efforts to be out of step with its era, Royal Trux couldn't help but define it. After establishing a reputation for chaos and art-damaged, deconstructed rock, the duo did a mid-90s about-face and signed with Virgin for the David Briggs-produced, Stones-y Thank You (1995). Fresh from a split with the major label after the visually repulsive/aurally adventurous Sweet Sixteen (1997), the duo moved to Virginia and settled into a period of prolific experimentation, releasing a loose trilogy with Accelerator, Veterans of Disorder, and Pound for Pound on Drag City between 1998 and 2000. Drag City has been reissuing Trux records regularly, and the cycle was completed with Pound for Pound on October 21, 2014. The album is ripe for reevaluation.

Overloaded with glorious boogie-rock riffs and distinguished by alternating and simultaneous vocals from singers Neil Michael Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, Pound for Pound maintains a precarious balance—its weirdness and pop experimentation is counterweighted by a pro rhythm foundation courtesy of Dan Brown on bass and Chris Pyle as well as Kenny Nasta on drums. It would be Trux's last album as a live touring entity before the band split in 2001. Today, Herrema carries on in Black Bananas; Hagerty as a solo act and with Howling Hex and Dan'l Boonehe plays a free show under his own name tonight at the Owl. However, on May 13 Drag City issued a statement announcing that Royal Trux would be reuniting for one show: August 16 at the Berserktown II festival in Los Angeles. Whether they will play more shows or release more music under the Royal Trux moniker is unclear, though the Drag City statement suggestively poses the question: "And beyond that? Man, the future is UNKNOWABLE."

I e-mailed Hagerty and Herrema to get some thoughts on Pound for Pound, the Virginia years, and burning questions of the day such as online streaming services. [Editor's note: These interviews were conducted separately and edited together for clarity and continuity.]

John Dugan: Which city do most fans generally associated Royal Trux with? Not D.C. usually, right?

Jennifer Herrema: Yeah, [definitely] not D.C. Mostly NYC or Chicago [because] we lived in NYC when we put out the first Royal Trux record and our record label is in Chicago. Not really sure where lots of the inaccurate info comes from, but it is by far more prevalent than ever. Fact-checking and accountability are almost nonexistent on the Internet.

As a D.C. punk outsider, what's your opinion of the D.C. punk documentaries coming out and D.C. punk reunion shows?

Neil Hagerty: They were always pretty antiracist, so it's good. Maybe a young person will see or hear it and set themselves on a different path.

Herrema: It's kinda the same as always: no-wave docs/reunions, alternative-rock docs/reunions, grunge, metal, et cetera. It's no different from all the other "genres" revisiting the past, although it seems a bit weirder . . . perhaps ironic for "punks" to be so cognizant of the mainstream capitalist opportunities. I have not watched any of the docs or seen any reunion shows.

There was a brief period when Royal Trux, Golden, Trans Am (and even the Make-Up according to Neil) seemed to comprise a kind of boogie-rock-influenced scene. Were you conscious of that at the time?

Herrema: Not really. We "proclaimed" ourselves "the world's greatest boogie band" in a 1995 video commercial. At that time we could afford to surround ourselves with the instruments and musicians that we had dreamed about utilizing in a big-band way. Mega percussion and up-front bass, music to move to. It was very uncool at the time, so I assumed we were the only ones, although, I guess I knew that Golden had the groove 'cause that's what I was hearing when I found them playing in a record-fair parking lot. I brought all of them into the Trux fold for a bit but Jon Theodore was the only one that we have on record and toured extensively with.

As I understand it, after signing to Virgin Royal Trux guys moved to Virginia and bought a house to make music in. What was the plan with that exactly? Where were you in Virginia? And what drew you back to Virginia?

Hagerty: We had spent a lot of our time together in D.C. so it was natural and we wanted to have a place that was just far enough away from NYC but still close—a place where we could work without interruption and go back to after tours.The area outside D.C. was still relatively cheap so we looked around and happened to find this big house out in Washington, Virginia, which was rural but still close enough to the city and far enough away from most of southern Virginia. I suppose we could have looked in upstate New York or in Connecticut, but we were familiar with northern Virginia and D.C. so it was a little easier.

Herrema: Neil and I bought a big house with acres of farmland in Rappahannock County way out in the country. The plan was to build a studio on the property and record our second record for Virgin there with David Briggs. David flew out and checked the space for bass traps. We had the ceiling removed to allow for cathedral height PZM [microphone] placements. But David died before we started recording. We stuck to the plan anyway though without a "name" producer. We sold the place seven years later and I've never been back.

How did having your own studio shape where things went with the band?

Herrema: The studio was our laboratory . . . we could do whatever we wanted however we wanted . . . [we] experimented with all sorts of sounds and gear and it enabled us to have people from different parts of the country come out and stay without logistical and budgetary concerns.

Did being in Virginia have anything to do with exploring southern rock and boogie in your songwriting?

Hagerty: Not really. The big thing about it was the isolation so we could get a lot of work done. We had already heard a lot of southern rock growing up . . . if anything it made me miss the city more and that had a lot of influence on the songwriting.

What did you learn from the Virgin experience and making Thank You and Sweet Sixteen? How did that chart the course for the band?

Hagerty: 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 . . .

Returning to Drag City from Virgin, you made three albums in a row. Did this feel like you were in a creative rhythm, making an album a year?

Hagerty: Yeah, people bought the records so we worked on doing one a year and touring on it.

Herrema: We didn't really have to concern ourselves with much other than recording and playing and with no distractions we were sailing at quite a clip for a while.

My understanding is that you like to make records at the end of a tour with a band? What's the advantage of that?

Hagerty: We did that a number of times, maybe not always. It's just that you get into another level of sympathy with the band members on a tour—tighter, faster and intuitive playing—and I liked to capture that and use that rawness to balance out the conceptual elements of the record so the music didn't get trapped in a cerebral void.

Earlier Royal Trux records could be said to be taking rock apart, but Pound for Pound is a fully realized rock record. What might have you been listening to around that time?

Hagerty: For that one it is hard to say. I listened to the same stuff as usual—old stuff I liked and things that were popular at the time. Definitely U-Roy was a big influence on this for me.

Herrema: Blue Oyster Cult, Incredible String Band, Steely Dan, Edgar Winter, Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Peter Green, Betty Davis, Charles Mingus, the Roches, Skynyrd, U-Roy, Augustus Pablo . . . all sorts of old stuff but we were really into the radio, too. TLC was huge for me and I was a big Britney fan.

Tell me about the writing and recording process for Pound for Pound. There are a lot of overlapping vocals on this album, on "Sunshine and Grease" for example. How did you come up with those?

Hagerty: What we did was write a set of songs that were like generic pop-rock songs as if we were writing them for another band. We recorded those straight, even hired an outside vocalist for some of the lead vocals. Then over those mixes we wrote these spoken/chanting parts that kinda mocked the original song, or twisted the lyrics into funny phrases. Then we mixed up the versions and played them with our touring band for a couple months and they evolved more into a heavier sound—the way we played live in those days. Then at the end of a short tour we went into the studio and recorded them. All of our records had some kind of process that we worked through. I always like to do things that way.

Herrema: We didn't want to wear multiple hats in the final studio recording so we got off tour and went straight to Sound of Music studio in Richmond and had Brian Paulson engineer and record while we focused on the live-band dynamic. I think it took three days to record and mix, in and out, but the process had begun about a half a year prior.

It's really a guitar record . . . there are licks here that could be widely appealing to rock fans. Do you think the album deserved a wider audience?

Hagerty: I think it was fine for the time. Drag City did OK with it and Domino did the UK for us. We were ramping up again to sign to another major too, so we felt bigger sales could come with the next release. But then the band broke up.

Does it hold any special significance being Trux's last record as an active touring band?

Hagerty: I really like the record—probably Twin Infinitives and Pound for Pound are my favorites—so it's significant to me because I feel like we ended on a high note, so to speak.

Did you ever feel like it was harder for people to understand Royal Trux when it blossomed into this competent and sincere rock band?

Hagerty: Definitely, it was yet another way for people to safely ignore us. There were always complaints about whatever we were doing wrong at the time, but that's the way it goes.

Herrema: I'm not sure. We were always competent and sincere, but with a great sense of humor and disdain for the mundane. Many people were incensed that we were afforded such rad opportunities and used that to remind us that we were never meant to appeal to anyone other than the uninclusive underground. Why should we not be "allowed" to be part of a bigger picture? Why would we be relegated to the exclusive record collections of the disaffected? Inclusivity was our life, what formed our sound—we were not disaffected. We circumvented authority to a large degree but understood it's existence as a necessity and without hostility.

What do you think of streaming services such as Spotify, RDIO and the like? I know the Drag City albums aren't on those, which doesn't surprise me, but neither are the Virgin albums.

Hagerty: They're fine, it seems just like radio really, and bands never got paid for U.S. radio—in fact, they'd pay tons of money to get played on the radio. How much must one pay these days to get tracks pushed into people's streams?

Herrema: I don't use them so I'm not really familiar with those services and platforms. They keep coming up with new ones. I'm kinda lazy about that shit. if you wanna hear us you totally can, anytime, but you might have to know what you wanna hear.

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