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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Royal Trux:Bad Blood(A History of Genius)

     Royal Trux were(are) my favorite band of all time. Sure, there are many more whom I obsess over, but when it comes to bands that are absolute geniuses at their craft, none were bolder or more original than Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty. Now that the band has been broken up for more than 10 years, I figured it was time to refresh the brains of the uninitiated. True, it was very easy not to know who Royal Trux were, throughout their 15 year career. They were always under the radar, released almost all of their records on Chicago indie label Drag City, except for 2 released on Virgin Records, in what is surely the most bizarre story of an underground band being signed to major, and walking away with TONS of cash ever. They changed their music very often, usually producing a particular style in 3-album cycles. It was very sad, but if most people were familiar with the band if was for their famous heroin habits, that produced fabulous music, but caused the band tremendous troubles until they cleaned up around 1995( a little later for Herrema). People viewed the band as a glorified train wreck, would show up to shows to taunt and heckle them, usually resulting in Jennifer coming out into the crowd to take down a male 2 times her size! As sad as was, I guess the fault lied with Jennifer and Neil, as in the early days, they were very open about their drug habits, and played them up in interviews. They made up lies about brushes with the law, Jennifer being a prostitute to support their ravenous habits, and even spent a Matador recording advance on "the powder" and never delivered the goods. All of things did nothing to help the band out, but the loyal(myself included) ate it up by the spoonful, and bought anything with their name on it, because at the bottom of it all, they were the most important band to ever emerge from the indie scene.
      The two met in Washington D.C in 1987, while Neil was playing in local scuzz-rock heroes Pussy Galore. He was never "into" what PG was doing, and considered himself a hired gun because Jon Spencer was the de facto leader in that band. Although the coolest thing that PG ever did was at Neil's behest, a cassette only, song for song cover of the Rolling Stones masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. While still in the band, he was already cooking up his master plan about creating the hippest, coolest, and most dangerous motherfucking band in the world. Jennifer was still in High School, she used to watch Neil's prior band play when they did gigs, and she has often said it was love at first sight. She said he was the "weirdest fucker" she had ever met, so she knew that had to be together. The two started working on songs together, and playing out live, as soon as Neil quit Pussy Galore for the final time! The early shows must've scared the holy fuck out of audiences, as they were already experimenting with instrumentation, lineups, improvisation. Neil said that he formed the band to apply Ornette Colemans theory of musical harmolodics to classic music in the vein of Black Sabbath! They released their debut record, simply titled Royal Trux in 1988. This one was self-released as Drag City had yet to open it's doors. No one really paid attention to it, except an article in Spin where Gerald Cosloy of Matador Records, and uber-snob reviewer Christgau discussed it. Cosloy seemed to really like it, and somewhat understand it, while the snob totally dismissed it. Recently Cosloy has stated that Christgau didn't even listen to the record more than once. If I had to describe that first record(which really is a VERY hard thing to do) I would say it's a sort of drunken blues, psychobilly pastiche, jazz minded, no wave based, brilliant record that must be heard to be believed. The thing with Royal Trux, is that they are not an immediate gratification band, most of the early records you have to spend a lot of time with, in order to reap their rewards, and to soak in the brilliance. I am sure that casual music listeners heard unstructured noise.....and ran!!
     The duo packed up and left D.C. and moved to San Francisco, and around this time is when they started the infamous heroin habit. They worked and recorded a very long time for record # 2, and it, called Twin Infinitives, is the most (in)famous record in their whole discography. A sprawling drugged out haze of a double record, that chewed up minds and spit them back out, never to be the same. Many claim TI to be their crowning achievement, but I can't imagine that many people actually "got it" enough to make such a claim. The "music" is lie nothing ever heard or released before or since, especially on an indie record label. The most obvious comparison is Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica", but take that add the craziest of Jandek's material, throw in some Sun-Ra, and you might come close. Neil has said the "songs" were achieved by recording them on tapes, then taking the tapes, and cutting and splicing them into oblivion, and put them back together into some semblance of the avant-garde. On top of that you have Jennifer's brilliant snarl/rasp screeching out the lyrics like a possessed drill Sergeant. It was my first RT purchase, and of course, I hated it upon first listen. The more I listened, the more I thought I understood, and slowly began to "like" it. It wasn't until I had searched out the first record(it had not been reissued by DC yet), and spent some time with that one, that TI really clicked with me. I have heard many fans say that they can only listen to it very rarely, but I can throw it on anytime and enjoy it, and now wonder how myself, or anyone else for that matter, had such a problem with it. The Trux started touring around this period, and saw some of the most hostile audiences of their career. usually they just baited them and played along with it, like I said earlier, Jennifer would attack some of them, and they would exact audio revenge by playing the worst sounds known to man! After touring for a bit, they realized that they might want to write some songs that were easier to play onstage, and that audiences might be able to get into in a live setting. This led to album #3, again just called Royal Trux. Most fans call it Skulls(after the cover art), to avoid confusion with the 1st record. This time it was a completelyy different Trux on the record. Although Neil and Jennifer again recorded it themselves, the songs sounded like they could have been recorded by a whole band. They however did not lose their edge, they still had that spacey-dementia to their sound, and I can't imagine a normal "alternative" music fan digging this record, there are several songs that will surprise the fans that they had collected along the way. The sound was a bluesy-tinged swagger, and this is the first time that the ubiquitous Stones comparison came into play. A few of the songs displayed a Stones/early Aerosmith vibe that shocked fans expecting a Twin Infinitives part 2. On their 3rd record it was already becoming apparent that Royal Trux was not interested in repeating themselves or resting on their laurels. There was one song in particular, that shocked everyone! "Junkie Nurse" was the closest thing to a hit Royal Trux ever had. An acoustic ballad of sorts, sung by Neil instead of Jennifer, about meeting a nurse that could give him an endless fix. It's a fantastic song that still holds up to this day, and had the subject matter been different, it very well could have been a hit. Again they toured, they always hired different musicians to record and go on the road with them in order to keep things fresh, 2 records/tours with the same band was a record for them. The drug stories, and their reputations preceded them, it was mentioned in every magazine article, review, etc. Neil in particular was starting to get tired of it, and the junkie lifestyle in particular.

     As this article/story is going to be far longer than most I write, I can not even begin to touch on all of the 7" singles, EP's, and song contributions that RTX have done. I will say that oftentimes their best work is relegated to one of these formats, and Drag City released a 2 LP compilation in 1997 called Singles, Live 7 Unreleased with most of their stuff of this nature. It works as good or better than some of their records so if you are interested don't hesitate to pick that up, it's the only way to get all of that stuff. Ok, back to 1993, Neil has gotten clean, Jennifer has made steps, relapsed a few times, but she comes totally clean later in that year. So their 4th record, Cats & Dogs, again released by Drag City, is a surprising hit in the indie/alternative world. More musicians are used in the actual recording, so it's the first full-band recording of RTX. The songs are similar to Skulls, except they ROCK a lot harder, again, there are the obligatory spacey, creepy, and usual noisy Trux-styled material. But the Rock songs posses a Sabbath/Zeppelin vibe that immediately garner the duo a lot more fans. One of those fans was grunge posterboy, Kurt Cobain. in those days all it took was a mention that Kurt loved your record, and major labels were biting and pulling each others hair to sign you. That is exactly what happened to RTX! The world's most-unsignable band was signed to Virgin Records in 1994. Jennifer said they laid out all their stipulations such as; retain ALL creative control, a HUGE signing bonus, tour buses, and basically they could release what they want without any input from the label, and those silly fuckers actually signed them!! The 5th record, and 1st for Virgin was called "Thank You", and it surprised/pissed off a lot of RTX fans. I'm sure it gained them quite a few as well. As I said, I had been a fan since the 2nd record, and I had no problem with Thank You at all. In fact, I loved it, it brought out a whole new sound for the band. People should have known they were not going to stick to the same sound for very long. The new Trux, for lack of a better term, and one that they used frequently in that period was a "Boogie Band". Very amped up Southern Rock, that sounded like the Black Crowes played by gutter punks. They had a full band, complete with two drummers, one of them was the son of Lynard Skynards drummer. Jennifer & Neil had also bought a big house in rural Virginia, built their own studio in it, and Jennifer could be seen driving around the sticks in a new Jaguar. Thank You sold reasonably well, but not for major label standards, and the tour was also well attended, despite most of the "indie-elite" calling them sell-outs. Perhaps they had forgotten what attracted them to RTX in the first place? For me, it was the sense that they would do whatever the fuck they wanted to, whenever! Now those same people were bustin their balls for doing just that. Myself, I listened to Thank You everyday for that whole year, I was obsessed by it. The lyrics were printed for the first time, and I loved them, they were morbidly fantastic. If they were "selling out" nobody else knew it. Radio sure didn't play any of the record, and ANY one of the 11 tracks could be played on Rock radio....ANY of them.
     Well Virgin was not impressed in the less than stellar return results of their new investment.They started telling Jennifer & Neil that they needed a hit single, that they didn't wan't them to record at their new home studio, and last of all, that Virgin wanted to pick a high profile"hit-making" producer for the next record. Of course they had fucked themselves with the contract deal that they had given the band, so RTX did what they wanted. They released their 6th album entitled "Sweet Sixteen" with one of, if not THE grossest cover on a major label ever. A toilet filled with excrement, blood, frosting, and all sorts of other gross shit(pardon the pun), that was the first thing Virgin hated. Sweet Sixteen was an altogether different beast than Thank You had been. Sure, it was a ROCK record, in much the same way Ty had been, but that is where the similarities end. SS had strange keyboards, a totally different production, courtesy of the band themselves, and very strange lyrical concepts about conspiracies, FBI, dope farms, and many other things. In some ways SS is a very difficult record, not in the same way that Twin Infinitives was, but there was something most fans couldn't put their fingers on. Even though I like the record quite a bit, I would have to say that it's my least favorite out of their discography. Again, like TY there are songs that would've went to radio, not nearly as many, but I've always said that "Morphic Resident" would've been a hug hit. The band toured on a smaller scale, and the crowds were not nearly as large on this tour, so the band immediately started working on the next record. Virgin asked to hear it, and the band said no, so they just dropped them from the label. They got to keep the completed record.On top of all of the other money they had received from the label, in addition to the record and the studio, the band walked away with a cool million in publishing rights. It is most surely the biggest fuck off that an Indie band has ever given a major label.

     RTX walked back to Drag City like the conquering heroes that they were. The record that was completed and intended for release by Virgin, was called "Accelerator" and was immediately released by DC. Many people loved this record, and I though it was a very good & catchy ROCK record again, but I guess the fact that they were back on DC made the hipsters come around again. That's cool, because like I said it's a great record, the songs are (mostly) very short, verse chorus chorus, POP songs done in a very Hard Rock vein. Perhaps like Cats & Dogs without the experimentation? They went back out on tour, and I saw them on this tour. They were very tight and good, but the crowds seems to be smaller than they had been in years. I am sure that has to suck for a band that has being touring for years? Very shortly after that, they cranked out another record, this one called Veterans Of Disorder. Another fantastic record, very similar to Accelerator aside from a couple of songs in the experimental vein that had not been there since Cats & Dogs was released. I personally was very excited about this, as I love any version of RTX I can get, I like when they have a balance of good and catchy rock, and some seriously brain damaged, fucked up tunes. That was after all, what made me fall for them many years ago. I saw them again for the last time on this tour, and I said to a friend, "Jennifer looks fucked up". Maybe she wasn't, part of me wanted her to be, for the sake of the music, but most of me didn't want to see her go back to that life, and to hurt Neil. In another quick succession, the last Royal Trux record, Pound for Pound came out in 2000. It hung closely to the template of the last two records. amazing rock songs, and again some really spacey experimental songs. From what I have heard, the band started the tour, and did a few shows, and then cancelled the tour, and broke up. I had indeed been right, Jennifer was getting fucked up! She offered some excuses, like her Dad was ill, but she still broke their bond of nott getting fucked up!! She wanted to separate, take some time away from Neil and the band, and try to get it together. Neil said no, and I can't blame him. She then asked if they could keep the band, and the couple break up, again he said no, and that was all they wrote! I guess it's hard when a married couple are in a band together? It just sucks for all the fans that they couldn't keep it together. Neil, in a recent interview, said that he would NEVER do a RTX reunion, and that statement broke a small part of my heart. But at least we get two bands out of that one great one. After the break-up, Jennifer continued on as RTX(not Royal Trux, just the abbreviation), she got a new band, and carried on in the very Hard Rock period of the band. Some of it, in fact, is what you would call Cock-Rock, but handled with the usual Jennifer sleaze, it comes out great. She is also very clean now, although I do think she drinks, so that is a great thing. After 3 albums as RTX, she has just changed the name to Black Bananas. It's a mix of RTX, and very danceable funk sound, kind of like a sleazed up Sleigh Bells. I am digging it very much, indeed. Neil released 3 records under his own name, Neil Michael Hagerty, and then assembled a band and called it The Howling Hex. It is very challenging stuff, and holds true to the arty side of Royal Trux. I guess you can say Jennifer took the rock side, and Neil took the experimental side? The Howling Hex has several records under their belt, very prolific, and I think they have about 7 records already!! Well, it has been fun going over their history, and the romantic in me hopes that one day they will get back together, and fall in love, and make some of the most fucked up music that ever ruined my eardrums.

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