By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With Accelerator, Hagerty and Herrema used the tight self-restraint they felt they had to develop at Virgin to maintain control over their work. The determination fueled their record, making it taut and driving. With their latest, Veterans of Disorder, they've tossed all that away and loosened their restrictions, even chucking much of the work until it felt totally unfettered. Because of that, the album has an undone, infectious, and fun feel that's probably going to alienate many Accelerator fans. If those fans have some patience, though, they'll be able to appreciate the letting-it-all-hang-out vibe of the album. The first song, "Waterpark," falls right into Accelerator's '70s-ish, muscle-car mode, but "Stop" dips and dives, using a square-dance call ("Change partners and dance / You don't stand a chance") around sweetly melodic keyboard noodling and a futuristic, spaced-out aura. Herrema really digs in and commits to the "Second Skin," and "Lunch Money" lurches gloriously with its strange tangle of percussion (banging, knocking, tapping) and whistles.
It's a surprising record, disjointed yet coherent, and it takes sharp turns in a manner that Royal Trux has never done before. Both Herrema and Hagerty say that the record is like a collection of singles. They never envisioned it as a thematic, concept sort of album, though Hagerty says that after making three albums within an unbending conceptual framework, they had a lot of unlearning to do.
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"After having done that for four years, we had to decompress. It took a long time," he says. "We'd just do things like, 'Oh, whatever. How 'bout we try this?' And whenever we started thinking about it too much, we'd just throw that out and start again. It was like unlearning that scheming and that political mind-set. We were just trying to be ourselves again."
On Virgin, Royal Trux didn't have a chance of becoming the next Rolling Stones, though they did have a stab at becoming the next "cartoon" rock band, much like what happened to Hole and Nirvana. ("Ultimately that's what happens to any band that sells a million records," says Herrema.) Now, on Drag City, they can at least control the cartoon. The cover of the band's press packet is a cartoonish sketch of two figures that look like Herrema and Hagerty crouched over someone lying on the ground with one of his (or her) shoes missing. The picture seems like a tongue-in-cheek joke -- and also a reference to part of the band dying. But it seems like a part that they could do without.
Herrema first met Hagerty at a show he was playing with a group called Jet Boys DC Northwest when she was 16. Together, they've done their best to mess with preconceptions. They've stuck together despite a rocky band life, addiction and withdrawal, and a stab at major success. They're seemingly dangerous and druggy, but at the same time they're considerate, pensive, and surprisingly well-read. They've seemed ensconced in an insular haze while being intensely curious about the world around them. (Hagerty likes to keep up with the New York Review of Books, for instance.)
"We definitely do things on our own terms, but we are definitely not in our own little world," Hagerty says. "That's probably one of the only things that makes us mad -- when people write that about us. We travel and see a lot of stuff. Our comments are addressed to people living at this time, and we're not making a style. Our musical groundings are things that are really American, like old blues artists. We try to avoid getting into our own crazy, solipsistic little universe."
Since the band is currently away from home, they're listening to whatever people give them on the road as well as their fixed road-record collection: a Louis Armstrong box set; the Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers collection; Blue Öyster Cult's eponymous 1972 debut; Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Master of Reality records; and some obscure Ornette Coleman bootlegs. It's a selection that would probably surprise most listeners, who might expect them to be a little less musically serious, a little more ironic in their choices. But judging by the evidence, Royal Trux is as serious as hell.
Now Herrema and Hagerty are buckling down and trying to make things go their own way on Drag City, which seems more than pleased to have them back in the fold. They're also trying their hand at producing, with the Delta 72 project the last of a few producing stints, including a Palace Brothers and Brother JT record. For now, they're gearing up to tour, and it's hard to imagine how the unhinged, of-the-moment songs will play onstage, but Herrema and Hagerty aren't that concerned. They're more worried about utilizing the major-label booty -- and not walking around with fallen-rock-star attitudes and chips on their shoulders.
"When a band leaves a major, it can be very unpleasant, and that band can be very unpleasant to be around," Hagerty explains. "They have that attitude like, 'We've been there and we know everything, but it was all the record company's fault.' We've been putting that on as a defense mechanism. That's why Veterans of Disorder was kind of like behavioral therapy: In between every song, there's another song. It's like a ghost album, a twin to this one, that's all uptight and full of bitterness. But we threw that [original] out and redid everything until we felt that we 'went clear' on that." He laughs. "You know, like in Scientology -- all clear."