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Neil smokes Marlboros and Jennifer smokes Newports. Cigarettes certainly are a tamer substance than those they’ve experienced in previous years, but the duo is no less potent with their music. Royal Trux takes its fame by always walking the fine line between pure bliss and total self-destruction, constantly exploring the boundaries of what we know as the underground. They are “rock stars” in the truest sense, almost mythical characters that the general public will never entirely understand. The band consists of Neil Hagerty (guitar/vocals/instruments), Jennifer Herrema (vocals/more instruments), and whatever secondary musicians they happen to pick up, whether it be extra guitars, bass, percussion, or synthesizers. RTX draws on familiar rock but warp it, twist it, and screw it around so much as to create the most frustrated, lonesome, and engrossing “music” found anywhere. It ranges from the hazy blues of their past two releases to the paranoia of the double LP Twin Infinitives. If you’ve heard it you know what I’m talking about. If not, you’re really missing out.
The two met in Washington, DC, in the mid-eighties while Jennifer was still in high school. She saw Neil’s band at the time, they hung out, eventually moved in together, and started writing songs together informally as Royal Trux. Neil joined the notorious trash-blues outfit Pussy Galore and moved to New York City with Jennifer, sharing a cramped apartment with Jon Spencer and Cristina (both now in Boss Hog). Their rented rehearsal space became their home, where the duo could be found during the entire day, only to return to the apartment to sleep. Neil continued with Pussy Galore while Jennifer studied studio recording. Songs were finished up and RTX began recording their first album.
Much has happened since then: Royal Trux has consistently put out music on tiny independent label Drag City and received a major boost from the dark pit of obscurity while opening up for Sonic Youth in the fall of 1992, catching both the band and music listeners alike rubbing their eyes in this new light. Cats and Dogs is their most recent release.
We caught up with the band in late September at Gainesville’s Covered Dish. Jennifer Herrema spoke with us—from beneath her wall of blonde bangs—following the sound check.
Is Neil going to roll in anytime?
I doubt it. He doesn’t like to do interviews too much.
On the latest album and the live show you guys have a full band. How did you start getting other musicians? Were they friends who were hanging out?
No, we actually met the guitar player right here in this club last year. He just showed up: “Hey, what’s going on, what’s going on.” We had a day off the next day and he lives in Daytona Beach: “Hey man, come stay at my house.” So we stayed there and so he’s in his bedroom playing guitar. We weren’t really thinking about it too much. But I was playing guitar last time we were here because we just kicked out our bass player a few days before, so I was taking on the guitar and I don’t like to play and sing at the same time. Then we played in Orlando and he showed up in Orlando, said “In the future if you need anybody, y’know, I’ll do it.” At that point, I was not happy doing two things at once and said “Well, if you can do it right now….” He was in school and said, “I don’t know….” By the end of the night he said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” He quit school and then took a bus up to West Virginia and met us up there.
Did he play any of that tour?
Yeah, he played the whole rest of that tour. We met him here and three days later we played with him for the first time up in West Virginia. He played on the new record and we had him up to the beginning of this tour. We decided we didn’t want a second guitar player—at least for now.
What do you have going on out there, the two other guys?
Drums, we got a full drum kit and a guy who plays second percussion and keyboards.
How was Lollapalooza’s second stage? That wasn’t an RTX audience.
It was cool. It was always a whole bunch of people that were totally into it and then there were always people that were just not into it. Positive and negative, y’know, each time. Certain shows the positive was a lot more detectable. We played in Toronto—it was crazy. We never played a show before where people were going crazy: slam dancing all over the place and flying over the bodyguards’ heads and landing onstage, and throwing gifts on stage, and freaking out. And that was the first Lollapalooza show we did, so I’m like, “All right, man.” We did the other ones and it was never that crazy again.
What’d they throw on stage?
At this Lollapalooza thing there was a little shopping mall. They had certain areas on the weekend where they have flea markets, a little mall. You could buy anything. People would throw up keychains and necklaces, rings, candy, weird shit. Not really weird shit, just strange things just to be throwing up, y’know. I was expecting letters….
Lollapalooza was big. What’s it like playing a very small show? Last year when you played here I was one of thirty people in the audience.
Oh, man, it’s been weirder than that. We played one time in Chattanooga, in the National Guard Armory. This guy had rented out the whole National Guard Armory, hired all these walkie-talkie dudes, like real pro, right? And there were fifteen bands and we were sixth or seventh on the fifteen-band bill in the National Guard Armory, seats five thousand, and there were six people there, six fucking people. It was insane. There was literally one guy on the floor with his video camera and the whole huge space. And then there were about four or five people, one here in the bleachers, one there, one there. It was surreal, it was real psychedelic. But we’ve played lots of shows that were not six people, but twenty people, ten people.
What’s the progression between albums? Each album has a distinct, totally different sound. Is that planned or does it just happen?
It just happens. I think we would probably just make ourselves crazier to try to think “this is the way it’s like.” You try to make it this way and then it’s never the way you think about it in your head and you get all fucked up. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’d drive myself wacko. It’s been seven years, y’know, like evolution and time … you start…. I don’t mean to sound all esoteric. It kinda happens that way.
How do you guys feel about recently being compared to the Rolling Stones?
When I first heard it: “Cool. Totally cool.” And then it kept happening. At first I thought it was that somebody had picked up on this subtle thing, and then it splashes the pages and it doesn’t even make sense anymore. And then I started thinking about the job of a writer. See, this can drive you crazy, too. I do these brief moments of thinking about it. The conclusion I’ve drawn is that the writers have this strange job and unless they’re really prosaic or great fiction writers and not just straight reviewers, what they’re gonna end up doing is comparing it to something that’s real popular, something the general public can get grasp on. Therefore I conclude that if it wasn’t the Rolling Stones it was gonna be something else. There have been more accurate comparisons done, but they’re not real mainstream comparisons, so a lot of people might end up scratching their heads about it anyway.
[Neil Hagerty walks in the dressing room and starts rummaging through the refrigerator.]
Since you’ve been together for seven years, there was an overlap period of Pussy Galore and Royal Trux. What was it like when you first started out? Was there enough time for both?
We were writing songs together when Neil was still playing for that band.
[Neil shouts “Before!” and leaves.]
Yeah, well, when he was still in that band. Before Pussy Galore even started, they all lived in DC and Neil and I lived together for a while and were writing songs then and continued on while he was playing in Pussy Galore. They just picked him up, y’know, like people telling them that Neil was the guitar player for them, and he just did his thing. We just kept working on our songs. We rehearsed four times a week, even when he was in Pussy Galore. He wrote songs for them and stuff, and did his thing.
Was Neil more into what you were doing on a personal level than Pussy Galore?
This [Royal Trux] is the thing he wanted to be doing. We were gradually working out the song, figuring stuff out. I think he got what he could out of it and that’s when he quit. It did in fact take up a lot of his time, but in the interim, this is what he was doing.
When you record and write songs, who does what instrumentation and who writes the lyrics?
I play the piano. I played the Moog when we had the Moog. I played a lot of guitar. As far as writing the lyrics, the lyrics are a mishmash. There was only one song I can think of ever that we sat down and said “Hey, we’ve got this song. Let’s write a ‘song.’” Other than that, I write, he writes, and then on occasion, like once a week, once a month, I’ll pick up his book, he’ll pick up mine. It kinda comes together. I’ll pick some lines, he’ll pick some lines, figure out the context. That’s pretty much the way it is for songs.
What was that one song?
This is kind of a silly question, but those baseball jerseys that you guys wear … are they sort of a uniform? In pictures I see of you guys, somebody’s wearing a Minnesota Twins, California Angels….
I think we can go way back. I think it all started in grade school. I played soccer for years and I had the best goalie’s shirt. I had my number one, Herrema [on the back] goalie shirt. You couldn’t get it off my back. I wore it everyday, religiously, to school. I was always wearing shirts like that; they’ve been around in our drawers and closets. It’s not like a “thing.” I don’t have one on now.
How long was it from the point where you first started playing in the warehouse [in New York] to when you started thinking about recording your first album?
Time periods and stuff I get hazy about. It seems really quick. The first album came out when we were in New York, the songs were all written and recorded there, but it took a long time. See, we wrote the songs, took a long time to get them together, and then we recorded them. We recorded in three different studios. Actually by the end, four different studios. The first record took a longtime and we got really crazy about it. We made ourselves insane. Everything had to be so fucking perfect. It’s the most anal record.
Did you intentionally make it so the drums are off from the guitar?
Everything on that record was completely purposeful. It took us godknowsfuckinghowlong to get it [right].
Has Royal Trux gotten any interest from major labels?
We’re dealing with Drag City as far as we know, as far as I’m concerned. Dan [Koretzky] is our manager; he’s like a buffer from all sorts of things. So everybody calls and contacts him if they’ve got anything to say. Major labels have called him and talked Royal Trux, they’ve just talked. Until the day somebody walks up and just hands me the contract of my dreams, which rarely happens to any of these bands … until that day I’m not even thinking about it. We could get all sorts of offers. It’s gotta be the way we need it to be. A lot of it’s about money, but a lot of it is not about money. I think we’d be really wacko and anal about any kind of contract that we would ever sign in our lives. That’s why Drag City is so cool ‘cause whatever we wanna do Dan is into, and it’s good and he gives us good money. I mean, there’s really nothing else we could ask for.