So you thought Royal Trux were a pair of strung-out rock 'n' roll junkies? Wise up. From their remote Virginia ranch, avant garage's First Couple are astutely playing the media and the stock market. Words: Louise Gray. This article originally appeared in The Wire 171 (May 1998).
Much has been written on the spectacle of rock 'n
roll, less on its spectacular couple. Sid 'n' Nancy, Kurt 'n'
Courtney, maybe (once) Neil 'n' Jennifer. The first pairing
resurrects carney voyeurism (buy your ticket, watch the show); the
second a more complex form of freakshow in which it's just possible
- especially if smack is involved - that the protagonists exist on
some finite fuse. That this may be the(ir) last time - and isn't
Undoubtably, there have been some who watched the progress of Royal Trux through the frisson haze added by such studied ghoulishness. Formed in Chicago in 1987 by vocalist Jennifer Herrema and, from the ruins of Pussy Galore, guitarist Neil Hagerty, Royal Trux's early output exuded the very finitude that makes people listen. It was lo-fi madness, drawing such approving appellations as "primitive... futuristic... an avant garde mess-thetic". The haphazard, crazed feedback and dissonances of their first self-titled album (1988,Royal Records) and its successor, Twin Infinitives (Drag City), provoked comparisons with Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and early Zappa, although it's difficult to talk about the records' musical intention in quite the same way. They contained more references to disposable culture and B-movie sci-fi than anything in The Ramones or Cramps combined, others suggested the music was a product of 'a bad trip to the pharmacy'. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. A long time ago. Herrema, speaking in London from behind a sight-impairing fringe, is impatient on this point. "That's just one little tiny piece of what makes us what we are. It's not the whole picture, but then" - a concession - "it's easy to write about."
In one sense, there is no whole picture of Royal Trux, just a
series of oscillations between positions, of spaces between points.
On a practical level, for the purposes if this interview, the whole
picture of Trux is kept in abeyance. Herrema speaks in London;
Hagerty, who is afraid of flying and will travel to Europe for the
group's forthcoming tour only by ocean liner, communicates from
their Virginia ranch via fax. But this constant motion between
points, real and abstract, is a wilful state of affairs, a point at
which their latest (and seventh) album presses home with more
subtlety than its driving rock momentum often suggests. Accelerator
revels in its rough, garage sound; it's a creation that's utterly
devoid of any concession to neatness. The boundaries to the songs
are ragged, so too the sly-eyed vocals, the feral harmonies. Apart
from the constancy afforded by its two lead characters, the
musicians are a pick-up group. At times, Accelerator is as opaque
as The Residents, as backwoods as Palace Brothers (it's probably no
coincidence that Will Oldham's younger brother Paul is a Trux
techie), is as raucous as The Stooges. Liberating stuff. It's as
close to anti-product as any marketed record can be. Small wonder
that Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema live in the wilds of
Virginia, surrounded by survivalists, where the neighbours can't
hear them. There they record their group; feed dog food to the
foxes; and play the stock market with the residue of the 1.3
million dollar pay-off Virgin Records gave them after their 1997
Sweet Sixteen album. The Royal couple do surprisingly well,
investing in casino and entertainment conglomerates such as
Harrah's. They also have a gun.
Dangerous to the point of sanity, Trux's manifesto lies in their interpretation/application of Ornette Coleman's theory of harmolodics. Defined by Trux in a short essay accompanying last year's double CD collection, Singles, Live, Unreleased, as "the possibility of relationships", harmolodics provides a potentially sophisticated device to both create situations and analyse the results. "Possibilities of relationships are not confined or defined by any one period in time or genre or work aesthetic," says Herrema. "For example, the last musicians we picked up were working on a casino gambling boat playing cover tunes. They were just hacks. One of them [drummer Ken Nasta] was on Sweet Sixteen and [keyboard player] Timothy MacClain was some guy we just found living down south and playing Bob Marley at beach clubs. That was it. We had nothing really in common with them other than the fact we all liked music and that in itself was part of the variety we were looking for in the arrangements we made. The type of people we surround ourselves with is not to be limited in any way." Hagerty adds via fax: "Harmolodics is my only social and moral framework. Everything I do is in a relationship with a billion fragmented lines through time. Understanding those relationships and my next line is the exertion that leaves its record in music. Rather than trying to control the things I understand, I would like to leave them free to develop as they will. I know what concrete ideas are attached to Accelerator, but they don't involve false need or seduction in measured doses. It sure isn't about imposing my ego on anyone. We have our wits with which to do that." Trux are themselves slightly vague as to when harmolodics was first employed as a tool. It's possible that it may represent a retrospective slant on their music, in as much as the theory followed the event. In any case, they seem to strive towards situations which, inproviding friction, offer a new and unpredictable dynamic. "This unknown quantity is part of our decisions," agrees Herrema. "When we decided to start work on Accelerator, we knew that we wanted to make a record under 40 minutes, that we wanted to keep the bandwidth, the signal, within this shape [she uses her hands to frame a horizontal space], whereas with Sweet Sixteen the highs were up here and the lows down there. We wanted to compress and condense everything to a narrow bandwidth. We had this idea that the music would be more subliminal. It could, like a lot of TV and radio music, run right by you and yet leave a trace. People are telling me that they'll listen to the record over and over and that maybe hum one of the tunes, which is exactly what we set out to do."
While Herrema concedes that Accelerator's sonic parameters cannot be replicated during live shows, it's significant that the Trux duo have decided to approach music from this new direction. If it weren't so patently untrue, cynics might suggest that it was a push towards a greater commercial viability or, as the fist album to follow Sweet Sixteen, a reaction against their Virgin experience, an unhappy three album deal which yielded a Sticky Finger-ed Thank You (1995), Sweet Sixteen (the title came from an Iggy Pop song on Lust For Life) and a large cheque. "They'd wanted us to use a producer," remembers Herrema. "We hadn't wanted to use any producer. They'd wanted us to use some studio, one they probably owned; we'd built a 24 track studio at home. They weren't happy we were going to record at home. We made the records. We didn't hear from them for a while and then we spoke. It started with them saying, 'As true Royal Trux fans, we think this is a great record and we expected you to go further", and it finally dwindled down to, 'This is just no good, it's got way too many notes, it's too confusing; children need something to rollerskate to.' That's exactly what they said. Too many notes. Children need something to rollerskate to. Yeah." All of which raises the question of the destination of their music. It's not for males; it's not for females ("Riot Grrrl was complete bullshit; it was incredibly regressive," Herrema says, appalled that the segregation it suggested was considered even briefly seriously). Nor is it for kids, by which she means anyone under sweet 16. "I don't like children. When I was a kid, children were stupid and they generally moved around in packs. They had no notion of decentralisation." She adds, later, "Teenagers do buy our records, tons of 'em, but I think it's because we don't condescend to them." Hagerty, already on record declaring Royal Trux as a group for middle America rather than New York intellectuals, says, "If the middle Americans could let go of their efforts to sustain certain lines of bullshit, things could get interesting. We find that you don't need to support a consumer economy with a lot of bogus quid pro quo or nationalism. Pleasure could find its own level without the need for revolution or invasion from the outsiders. By the same token, our bread and butter customers are 'New York City reactionary intellectuals' from Orlando to Sacramento, and the less we try to do things for that world, the more records we will sell to them."
Nibbling the hand that feeds them? An old tactic, yet one that can have some efficacy. The paradox is that Trux music - with all its haphazard qualities, its manifest inadequacies, its often precarious and inchoate references - is far from inarticulate. If Accelerator is marginally less confrontational than its predecessors, it's because it seeks to destabilise. But what? 'Decentralisation' is a key word in their conversation and it goes hand in hand with a scepticism levelled at all organisations. An innate distrust of government is an essential characteristic of US culture, Herrema suggests, and it's no coincidence that she grew up in Washington DC, while Hagerty was the scion of an army family. One might mention here their interest in science fiction, a genre defined by it paranoid tendencies - indeed, Hagerty has recently published his first foray into the area. A short and baffling novel, Victory Chimp, stars a psychic, space-hopping monkey as its protagonist who seeks to survive against various incomprehensible odds. In as much as Royal Trux are a product, a regurgitation, of US culture, they are also peculiarly outside the world. Herrema relates a revealing anecdote from her days as a poster girl for Calvin Klein's CK One, an advertising campaign over-reacting in its global intentions. Being splattered on billboards and buses the world over didn't exactly change her life. "Good money, though. Really good. I don't live near any city, so I didn't see any of the campaign. After it had been up a really long time, we went up to New York to do press and I saw a whole postered area of me, but really old, all tattered, ready for someone to go over it." It is an extraordinary story: Herrema was a face for one of the biggest poster campaigns in the world; she and Hagerty subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, compile a financial database and play the markets. They live in the wilds and write songs about US culture and a consumerism which makes little definition between buying drugs and washing machines. "Well, exactly," Herrema says. Isn't that the whole picture?