Bobby Gillespie once called Royal Trux “the last great rock ’n’ roll band,” as quoted by Kitty Empire in New Musical Express. The primitive, yet futuristic band became infamous throughout the underground music world for deconstructing 1970s-era rock—the Rolling Stones, MC5, and others—and redelivering it warped and jumbled, capping each song with scraggly, menacing vocals. They have been dismantling rock and roll into blunt basics for well over a decade, overcoming drug addictions to enjoy a brief, yet important stint with Virgin Records, for whom they played relatively straightforward and accessible songs, before returning to the independent music scene and their original label, Drag City Records. Throughout their career, Royal Trux have drawn enthusiasm from fans and critics alike for their genre-defying music and impenetrable mystery.
Until the mid-1990s, Royal Trux consisted of a revolving cast of musicians orbiting around two imaginative songwriters: Neil Hagerty, a vocalist and guitarist, and junkie-priestess, one- time Calvin Klein model Jennifer Herrema, a vocalist as well who, early in the duo’s career, also played a variety of thrift store instruments for the band. The seeds for what was to become Royal
Members include Robbie Armstrong (joined band in 1994, left band in 1995), drums; Dan Brown (joined band in 1994), bass; Neil Hagerty (former member of Pussy Galore with Jon Spencer), vocals, guitar; Jennifer Herrema, vocals; Ken Nasta (joined band in 1995 as Armstrong’s replacement), drums; Chris Pyle (joined band in 1994; son of Artimus Pyle, a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd), drums.
Hagerty and Herrema officially formed Royal Trux in Chicago, released self-titled debut, 1988; released epic double-album Twin Infinitives, 1990; signed with Virgin Records, 1994; released major-label debut Thank You, 1995; returned to Drag City label, released pop classic album Accelerator, 1998; released rock, Latin, and jazz-influenced album Veterans of Disorder, 1999; released Pound for Pound, 2000.
Trux were planted around 1984, when a 16-year-old Hagerty, a United States Army brat who grew up in cities around the world, met Herrema, then just 15 years old. At the time, Hagerty was still playing guitar with his former band, the now-defunct Pussy Galore, a garage, hardcore punk band led by the much-admired rock guitarist Jon Spencer.
In fact, Pussy Galore’s 1987 album Right Now lists Royal Trux as a fifth band member, and rumor has it that it was Hagerty’s idea for Pussy Galore to cover, in its entirety, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The two band’s coexisted until Hagerty and Herrema left in order to concentrate on their new project, and the supposed animosity between Royal Trux and Spencer became legendary. However, Hagerty finally set the record straight about his relationship with his old bandmate Jon Spencer. “There ain’t ever been any animosity,” Hagerty told Empire. “We never see each other. It means less than nothing to me. One year I’ll just refuse to answer questions about it, and then the next year, I’ll just deny that I was in Pussy Galore. Having feuds is always good. It’s something for interviewers to write about.”
Christening Royal Trux as an official group in 1988 in Chicago, Hagerty and Herrema started out performing as an odd, lo-fidelity “art” project. The pair’s intent was to produce a union of free-form rock discord and garbled, science fiction-like imagery. “The duo’s earliest work presented them as sort of a narcoleptic Sonny and Cher,” wrote David Sprague in the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, “disseminating the doctrine of ’better’ living through chemistry on a scale that would earn a twenty-one-gun salute from [Beat writer] Bill [William S.] Burroughs.” The results of Royal Trux’s early intentions saw light on their 1988 debut, Royal Trux, a disjointed album that declared their goal of tracing the noise-rock scene back to its primal roots. Uncertain about whether the duo were trying to capture a musical form by tearing apart creativity and letting the pieces reassemble where they may, or just making an elaborate joke, the music press used words like “garage psychobilly punk” to define the Royal Trux sound.
After releasing a few 45-only records, Royal Trux relocated to San Francisco and recorded the epic, double LP Twin Infinitives. The sprawling album was released in 1990 on Chicago’s newly founded Drag City Records and included such songs as the 15-minute “(Edge of the) Ape Oven” and “Yin Jim Versus the Vomit Creature.” Lyrically based on the works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, Twin Infinitives musically included guitar riffs reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and AC/DC, bands that had inspired Hagerty and Herrema growing up. Immediately, the album, recorded in three months in a deserted warehouse, drew comparisons with other uncompromising avant-garde rock artists, namely Captain Beefheart and early Frank Zappa.
The tour that followed to promote the record saw the duo confronting members of the audience, physically as well as with words. In truth, as the duo later revealed, during this time both were heavily dependent on heroin. Their next album, also entitled Royal Trux, arrived in 1992. While a more disciplined attempt to create fully realized songs and to utilize more traditional music patterns, the pair’s third album not surprisingly took a scary journey down a trail of narcotics-induced blues. According to Hagerty and Herrema, their great appetite for drugs was so large at one point that a fledging Matador Records advanced them $3,000 to produce an album and never heard a note of music. Instead, the duo, while residing in San Francisco, spent all the money on heroin. “Supporting our habit was a full-time job,” Hagerty admitted to Empire. “They were really cool about it, and let us out of the whole thing.”
In order to stop using, Royal Trux, by now living in New York City, decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., where heroin seemed less rampant. In 1993, the duo even decided not to play in New York because they felt the reality of being able to find heroin easily and at cheap prices would prove too tempting. After moving to a country home in Virginia, they recorded with session musicians that year’s Cats and Dogs, an album that reined in the band’s discordant guitar and primal yowling sound somewhat in favor of pure rock and roll. Their arsenal of blues-pop songs, injected with layers of noise, feedback, multi-layered guitar tracks, and Hagerty and Herrema’s off-kilter vocals brought the duo major-label recognition. And in 1994, Royal Trux accepted an offer to sign with Virgin Records.
In a sense, Royal Trux underwent a rebirth of sorts that year, recruiting three new full-time members to serve as a rhythm section: bassist Dan Brown and drummers Chris Pyle, whose father Artimus Pyle was a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Robbie Armstrong, who left the Royal Trux after appearing on just one album and was replaced by Ken Nasta. The new lineup, with the help of producer David Briggs, celebrated for his partnership with Neil Young, then began work on their 1995 Virgin debut entitled Thank You. Their most accessible album up to that time, Thank You included the single “Map of the City,” as well as confident rhythm and blues and rock numbers such as “Shadow of the Wasp” and “Night to Remember.” Another credible album, Sweet Sixteen, arrived in 1997, though the record’s questionable subject matter led Virgin to release Royal Trux from their contract.
Unscathed by their short-lived major-label career and financially sound after earning a more comfortable income, Royal Trux returned to indie life at Drag City. “Our whole interest was just to get a bunch of money,” Hagerty explained to Washington Post writer Mark Jenkins, regarding the band’s time spent with a big-name label. “We were able to get transportation, a place to live, musical instruments, that kind of thing. And we were able to pay the people who play with us; that’s one thing that was really cool. We did put a little away in IRAs. And we were able to acquire the services of an accountant.”
“We’re just lucky that we didn’t spend it on drugs,” he added. “The timing of our big score was good, because we weren’t using drugs anymore.” The extra income also allowed Hagerty and Herrema to build a new studio at their Virginia home, where they recorded the pop classic Accelerator released in 1998 and Veterans of Disorder released in 1999, both of which were considered masterpieces by the music press and critics. The latter album opened with straight rockers and the Latin-influenced track “!Yo Se!,” then veered into a looser, jazz-inspired direction. Royal Trux’s latest record, Pound for Pound, was released in June of 2000.
Hagerty and Herrema continue to live in rural Virginia, and in addition to music, Hagerty published a book entitled Victory Chimp. “I think of it just as a comic book,” he clarified to Empire. “I had a box full of stuff that I collected for ten years that I turned into a novel—stuff that I wrote, that other people wrote too. It just goes against all the rules of writing. It’s just knitted together… It’s about people’s cognitive accumulation over time, when you go from being a teenager to being an adult. It kinda captures that period, like the Stones did with their records.”
Royal Trux, (1st LP), Royal, 1988, reissued, Drag City, 1993.
Royal Trux, (EP7), Vertical, 1990.
Twin Infinitives, Drag City, 1990.
Royal Trux, (3rd LP), Drag City, 1992.
Cats and Dogs, Drag City, 1993.
Dogs of Love, (EP), Domino, 1993.
Thank You, Virgin, 1995.
Sweet Sixteen, Virgin, 1997.
Singles Live Unreleased, Drag City, 1997.
Three Song, (EP), Drag City, 1998.
Accelerator, Drag City, 1998.
Veterans of Disorder, Drag City, 1999.
Radio Video, (EP), Drag City, 2000.
Pound for Pound, Drag City, 2000.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Guitar Player, August 1998.
Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1995.
Melody Maker, May 23, 1998; September 12, 1998; September 4 1999.
New Musical Express, February 12, 2000, p. 24.
Rolling Stone, September 2, 1993; June 15, 1995; June 29, 1995; December 28, 1995; April 3, 1997.
Washington Post, April 17, 1998; February 4, 2000.
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (June 2, 2000).
Royal Trux at Virgin Records, http://www.virginrecords.com (June 2, 2000).