VETERANS OF DISORDER:
Royal Trux Reunites
“Now you know I’m ready,” Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty snarl in the opening seconds of Royal Trux’s 1998 album Accelerator. Warped through some busted-up, crackling processor, their voices mash into and over each other—you’re never quite sure who’s singing what, or, as the song opens up into noisier and noisier stacks of static feedback, what they’re even saying at all. Ready for what? What the hell are they telling us they’re ready for already? No answer, just noise. Two songs later, Herrema spits this squabble into the listener’s face. “Is that a question?” she yells again and again over Hagerty’s whimsical, bouncy refrain on “The Banana Question.” “Is that a fucking QUESTION?”
This sound of destructive changeability, of questions circling back onto themselves, of music without any center, made Royal Trux one of the most singularly confounding and constantly refreshing bands of the 1990s. From 1990’s “Hero Zero”—the single that created the now-famous indie label Drag City—through 2000’s Pound for Pound, the group single-handedly dismantled and then reconstructed the rock ’n’ roll vocabulary, each album an equally stupefying take on free improvisation, Southern boogie, ’80s hip-hop, arena rock, and blues. From the beginning (which stretched back to the early ’80s in and around D.C.) the music registered less as a genre or an approach than an assault, each album’s smashing of the traditional classic rock rules opening up wider musical possibilities of what a “rock” band could get away with.
According to Hagerty in a 2011 interview with BOMB magazine, “Trux was built on a plan [he and Herrema] came up with in long conversations [… ]about what the point of being in a band was, how the traditional ways bands went about things were bullshit, et cetera.” Surprisingly, though, these conversations didn’t produce an above-it-all response to the trappings of rock-star culture, but rather a willingness to go further into that culture than others, to extend rock logic into areas only previously hinted at before. Many critics have viewed Royal Trux’s ’90s experiments in genre and appropriation as postmodern parody, but this misses their decidedly open-hearted embrace and reconfiguration of all the tried-and-true narratives of the rockin’ way of life. This involved both self-releasing their records and signing to major labels, blowing cash on heroin and building home studios in rural Virginia, modeling in Calvin Klein ads and interviewing the Rolling Stones, and blasting out Allman Brothers-type guitar solos over deconstructed noise riffs. Always threatening to explode, Royal Trux was also built to last. “It was gonna be a ‘royal trux,’ a long haul,” Hagerty says. “We figured we were going to have to do a bunch of fucked-up stuff and act like assholes for a few years. You know, get a bunch of money and then continue on with a little power to do what we wanted, rather than being at the mercy of 1980s trends and tastemakers.” Royal Trux did exactly that, signing to Virgin Records for a three-record deal and then accepting a large amount of severance to leave the label when they wrought their signature chaos on a major-label scale.
When the long haul finally ran out of gas in 2001, Herrema and Hagerty left behind a story and sound unlike any other indie band of the 1990s. As many of their 1990s Drag City peers have reformed and reunited in recent years, the promise of a Royal Trux reunion has endured among fans and critics, especially after Drag City spent the last five years reissuing its discography. Still, when the band announced one single reunion show set for this past August at the Berserktown II festival in L.A., the idea of a Royal Trux reunion sounded stranger and more unimaginable than any other recent ’90s reunion, from Pavement to Sleater-Kinney. For one, Hagerty and Herrema hadn’t been in the same room together in over thirteen years until a few weeks before the show. They’d emailed to settle on a set list, they said, but not much else.
More than anything, the reunion posed the question of how a band known for deconstructing rock’s norms and proprieties would tackle that inevitable, symbolic final encore of the reunion show. Would they relish all of these new chances to subvert their own now safely canonized histories? Or would they put their noses to the ground and deliver a classic, crowd-pleasing set? The consensus among those at the show seems to fall somewhere between the two. The songs sampled from every era of the band’s recorded history, including cult classics like “The Spectre,” “Morphic Resident,” and even “The Banana Question.” Yet they still managed to bewilder, often trailing off at the ends of songs without fanfare or announcement. “Royal Trux?” reported Ben Ratliff of the New York Times. “They were confounding, as usual […] They are still hiding some essential truth from us.” Whatever this essential truth may be, it’s now buried back in the occult textbook from which it sprang: the band played its one show, and there are no plans for more.
While the reunion show refused to answer any questions about the history of Royal Trux, it does provide a new frame through which to understand the fourteen years between the band’s breakup and today. Both Hagerty and Herrema’s work outside of Royal Trux remains under-documented and under-considered, and their newfound Royal Trux reunion offers a chance to document all the ground they’ve covered since 2001. Since the Royal Trux breakup, both Herrema and Hagerty have continued on to make consistently challenging and confusing music.
A sampling of the two artists’ most recent shows in New York City gives a good sense of the new kinds of shapes and forms they’ve been trafficking in: Hagerty has appeared in New York at least three times in the last three years, each time under a different name and with a different band. In December of 2012 at St. Vitus, he performed Royal Trux’s classic 1990 album Twin Infinitives live, without Herrema but with her blessing. The performance marked the first real return to Hagerty’s Truxian past, yet he insisted on expanding and modifying the original album’s deconstructed noise by reprogramming a digital drum machine and improvising heavily with a new set of musicians. This recaptured interest in noise brought Hagerty back to New York in 2014 as a member of the newly formed underground supergroup Dan’l Boone. Standing alongside underground giants Nate Young of Wolf Eyes, Charles Ballas of Formant, and Alexander Moskos of Drainolith, Hagerty ripped through forty-five minutes of swirling, chaotic electric noise. Buried in the back of the stage with his face obscured underneath a floppy bucket hat, he scowled into the microphone, sometimes shredding on a guitar and other times theatrically pulling out a clarinet from behind his amplifier. Finally, earlier this summer, Hagerty came to Baby’s All Right with his longtime post-Trux band the Howling Hex. Here, he took his Boone-ian trickster figure to a new level, speaking in between songs in the rhythms of a stand-up comedian and ending each tune with the same repeated self-pronouncement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Howling Hex!” The Howling Hex songs, though, were less straight noise than a strange kind of carnival rock: Hagerty clopped along on a distorted six-string bass while his drummer hit a xylophone in the place of a hi-hat.
Around the same time Hagerty performed Twin Infinitives, Herrema formed Black Bananas, a digital disco dance band. In the summer of 2013, the band played a noisy set at the South Street Seaport filled with all kinds of technical difficulties. When the PA system finally blew out, the sound came condensed out of the monitors and Herrema bowed down behind the band near the back of the stage. While most at the show couldn’t say things went as hoped, it still presented Herrema as a kind of fringe figure exploring new venues and musical ideas. In December 2012, Herrema participated in an artist residency series at the New Museum called “She’s Crafty.” Since these New York appearances, she has expressed in interviews a radical stance towards the current state of the culture industry. In what was perhaps designed to be a slightly bubblegum interview with L.A. Weekly about the Royal Trux reunion, Herrema offered this response as to how she would like to “educate the youth”:
Since there is so much money to be made from totally mediocre-to-horrible unoriginal/redundant tunes (content), the pursuit of commercially acceptable mediocrity has been engaged enthusiastically by a new generation of content providers in hopes of landing big money. Music marketing amongst other things has helped to create this music as content/commodity zeitgeist. Don’t get it twisted—that type of content is disposable, and the ever-growing trash heap of uninspired content is flooding and polluting the sensibilities of new and old generations alike. It’s irresponsible.
Fascinatingly, though, Herrema just announced that she will appear in a new Judd Apatow-produced Netflix original show, set for release in 2016. Many critics might throw Apatow’s name in the same category of content producers that Herrema rejects, but that’s ultimately beside the point as far as Herrema’s concerned. If Hagerty has spent the last few years going farther and farther underground, Herrema has emerged back into the mainstream, messing up and subverting the content machine and carrying on the radical large-scale antics of Royal Trux.
Hagerty and Herrema’s reunion show in L.A. marked a meeting of two of the most fascinating musicians and cultural figures at work today. As Royal Trux, the two always traveled on a weird American current, injecting messiness and disarray into the standard national pop and rock modes to make the familiar sound unknown and strange. A decade and a half later, they’ve only become more experimental. If Royal Trux’s ’90s reimagining of rock took them back through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Hagerty has spent the last several years going even further back and farther West into the American cultural landscape, emerging as a kind of backwoods frontiersman character. Lighting out first for Silver City, New Mexico and now for Denver, Hagerty’s tall-talking tactics have sighted a stranger kind of America. If Royal Trux was about constant movement, Hagerty says, the Howling Hex is something that’s “just always there, constantly howling.” The music Hagerty makes now is “about trying to isolate that power, stripping everything down to express it. It’s not an answer thing; it doesn’t satisfy you. It’s never going to go away; it’s the cause of things. It’s the sound of that.”
Herrema has taken a more urban, visible approach than Hagerty, working in many mediums, collaborating with visual artists, acting, and making forward-thinking digital music. Her America is constantly looking forward, attempting to find new forms for new times. When the two met in August, their separate takes on American culture crashed together to form a new kind of Royal Trux. Still confusing, confrontational, and chaotic, this Trux stretches further backwards and further forwards, further under and above ground than any other version of the band that has come before. What that means, and where things go from here, are questions that can’t ever be answered. Instead, Herrema and Hagerty will throw them back at us with glee, asking us over and over again if they’re even questions at all.
MICHAEL BLAIR is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Yo La Tengo cover band the Electric Tie Rack Preservation Society.