Follow the winners

Royal Trux is a raw band that churns out music that sounds like Sonic Youth playing at a truck stop on Mars. They are seriously dedicated to their brand of apocalyptic boogie music, which is charred, sassy, nasty, and infinitely strange and interesting. It's love-it-or-hate-it music. Many have loved it during the 10 years the band has been together, though it's probably safe to say that no one has stuck with the band through all its changes. Those changes run the gamut from Royal Trux's days as a heroin-addled Pussy Galore offspring to its brief stint as a cleaned-up major-label "success" and its current position as back-to-indie rockers with even more of a badass attitude and a tighter, harder, raunchier sound.

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.

"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.

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Sara Scribner