Neil Michael Hagerty has made a long and contentious career out of doing exactly as he pleases. His stint with Pussy Galore opposite Jon Spencer led to some truly chaotic moments both onstage and off, while his long-standing gig with Jennifer Herrema as Royal Trux evolved from a guerrilla noise-pop outfit to a wonderfully lo-tech classic rock homage. As Hagerty gets ready to embark on tour in support of his eponymous first solo album, it's perfectly clear that he's not about to start compromising now. Take the unconventional lineup for the impending tour, for example.
"Right now, I'm going to have two drummers, because I really like that, and two bass players," says Hagerty via phone from his farm in Virginia. "One acoustic bass and one electric bass. The acoustic bass would basically be like the second lead guy, because the registers are so different. One rhythm bass and one lead bass."
As for the album that's the subject of the tour, Hagerty knows that he's strayed far from the path that he'd previously established with Royal Trux. While he admits he doesn't like "spin-off things," he says he's not concerned about alienating Trux fans with Neil Michael Hagerty, an album that stitches together an amazing array of styles and executions, suggesting old-time rock acts such as Pink Floyd ("The Menace") or the Doors ("Oh to Be Wicked Once Again"). NMH is the sound of Hagerty very deliberately trying to avoid any overt Royal Trux references--which is no mean feat, considering that he was fully half of the creative output of Royal Trux and is the sole songwriter for the NMH album. It's a creative wirewalk that, he says, took some getting used to in the beginning.
"It's like trying to step away from Royal Trux but take with me whatever was me," says Hagerty. "I've been so absorbed in it. It is me, and it's my band. I was 100 percent committed to it, and my whole life revolved around it. So every time I would start doing something that might be the way that Royal Trux would have done something, I stopped and would leave it for a couple of days.
"It's weird, because part of it was just being myself," he continues. "That was the big thing about Royal Trux, which is that we were never necessarily ourselves. It was all calculated, like a giant con game. That's a part of me, but to step out this way and to want to be vulnerable and not hide behind anything. That's why I use my full name. None of this would have been where Royal Trux was going, but you can't say that it's not related to it a little bit, because it's me. But it's not a reaction to Royal Trux. That's why I cut it back from every song being 20 minutes, because then it was too much like a therapy record."
Originally, Hagerty had very different plans for his solo album. "At first, it was going to be a double record, and the songs were going to be really long, because they were just going on and on," he says. "I cut it back, because I didn't want it to be too indulgent."
When Royal Trux imploded last year, it had just started a tour that would have kept it on the road until the end of the year. But Herrema's alcoholic escapades and prescription-drug addiction proved too much for Hagerty, who, despite rumors to the contrary, says he's been clean and sober for more than a decade. Three weeks into the tour, Hagerty announced he'd had enough and was taking the van back home. And just like that, Royal Trux was no more.
"I quit, basically," he says. "The rest of the guys realized what was going on. It was a huge thing, because we had decided to have a band with the four people that played on [the last Trux album] Pound for Pound, and we were going to split everything four ways and start writing songs as a group. We were going to convert Royal Trux into a real band."
Hagerty and Herrema's substance abuse had been a problem in the past--they reportedly spent one advance entirely on drugs--and although it was a variation on that scenario that precipitated the end of the band, Hagerty insists he's remained on the wagon since going through rehab in 1990.
"The guys in the band would drink a little or smoke a little weed," he says. "But they wouldn't, as a consequence of that, sell their cars. They weren't alcoholics, basically. But it's totally different for Jennifer and me. If I had a beer right now, I'd be on the street in a month, easily, with all my stuff gone--that is, if I wasn't arrested or some bullshit. I know that. I went through it enough times to know that I'm one of those people that's not allowed."
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For his first solo tour, Hagerty has decided to make a clean break with the past. For the time being, he and the band will concentrate solely on the new album and not revisit any Royal Trux material, instead relying on the potential of each song to be turned into a jam in order to fill the set.
"It's going to be every song on the album," Hagerty says. "There won't be any time to do anything else. That gives me the best chance to not have to pose and posture."
Like every other year, Hagerty has more on his plate than just his own recording and touring. He continues to do a lot of production, including the first new album in four years from King Kong, and he's involved in Drag City Supersession, a collective that includes indie rock musicians such as Edith Frost, Bill Callahan, Jim O'Rourke and Tara Key. In addition, a comic book that Hagerty wrote, depicting a semifictional account of Royal Trux's last year, will be out soon, joining his straight narrative novel Victory Chimp. While he enjoys his writing endeavors, Hagerty harbors no illusions about the quality of what he produces.
"I make no claim to be a writer on any level," he says. "I figured if I could do a book that was a little bit better than the T. Rex/Marc Bolan Middle Earth poetry books, then I'd be satisfied. I think it's better than [Bob Dylan's] Tarantula, but that's about it. What I do is write records."