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But sound isn't everything. With their late-'60s-early-'70s Easy Rider-in-purgatory style, it's easy to understand why the indie press clearly relishes writing about Royal Trux -- which is made up of partners in life and musical crime Neil Hagerty (who was in Jon Spencer's earlier experiment, Pussy Galore) and Jennifer Herrema (whose rough good looks were captured in billboard and TV ads for Calvin Klein), plus an ever-shifting cast of characters. The 'zine Bust, for instance, calls Royal Trux the "unofficial terminal rock band for these millennial times." Fellow 'zine The Big Takeover labeled Hagerty and Herrema "wastoids cruisin' on the vapors of Exile-era Stones." Trouser Press said they were a "narcoleptic Sonny and Cher." And Time Out chimed in: "If there ever was a seedily glamorous couple that deserved the rock-royalty crowns of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg, circa 1969 to '72, it's Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema." In this antiheroic, post-rock world, it's hard not to be a little smitten.
Or a lot. Even though they want to be loved by the masses, they seem simply incapable of "selling out," as evidenced by their 1995 breakout (not breakthrough) Thank You -- one of the last albums recorded by late Neil Young producer David Briggs. It might be considered the last gasp of truly ill alternative rock before electronic music took over. The record's title was as gracious as its more accessible sonic choogle. And after the more straight-ahead albeit lyrically warped action of their 1998 first post-Virgin release, Accelerator, it seemed that the Trux had finally found the perfect balance between twisted and tight. They were back home again, and they seemed relieved and pleased about it. Of course, it's not that easy.
Little Grizzly and The Falcon Project open
"We like those other records," Hagerty says of their 1996 and '97 Virgin releases, Thank You and Sweet Sixteen. Hagerty is talking from a Pennsylvania recording studio, where he and Herrema are overseeing the production of The Delta 72's next album. He's thoughtful and soft-spoken, speaking with the slightly stoned scrape of a college burnout. "The major-label thing is so uptight, and we just wanted to absorb that and reflect that [in the music]. That didn't appeal to our earlier fans. They thought we were being too rigid."
You probably wouldn't place Royal Trux as champions of the little guy, and you probably wouldn't mistake Hagerty (sports-loving, book-smart, stubborn) and Herrema (tough, independent, serious) as players. But they're probably the most mythologized fucked-up band that ever rode a record company as hard as the label rode them. What's more, they survived and thrived.
After being courted by other labels, they signed to Virgin for $1.5 million and stuck to winning every detail on their wish list, even as their lawyer was pleading with them to relent on points.
"The only tangible thing we could summon was cash," says Herrema. "Nothing was going to change about us, and we knew that straight-up. The only question was whether their P.R. and marketing machine could actually turn us into cartoon characters or not. What happened was pretty predictable after a certain point. It was exactly what I expected, and that's why we sewed up such a great contract."
After signing with the label, Herrema and Hagerty turned in Sweet Sixteen, a difficult and unusual collection for an indie, let alone a mainstream major label known for thrusting the Spice Girls upon us. Not surprisingly, the label turned up its nose and decided not to bother even pushing it. "We gave them a record they hated," says Hagerty. "They declined to do the third record, but they still had to pay us anyway."
Using the Virgin money, the couple bought a house in rural Virginia, built a home recording studio, bought a car, went back to their longtime indie home at Chicago's Drag City Records, and set about purging themselves of their past. The thing that still seems to bother them, however, is the company's original promises -- according to Hagerty, a Japanese head of Virgin told him at one point, "We have one Rolling Stones; we need a new Rolling Stones" -- not to mention the way the label tried to pair them up with clueless producers and package them in unimaginative ways. One marketing technique was to portray the couple as trailer trash, for example.
"I'd have this stained tank top T-shirt on and a beer in my hand," remembers Hagerty. "And Jennifer would have curlers in her hair and smokin' a big menthol. No."
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.
"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."