Photos and Interview by Nolan Gawron
They weren’t quite famous and they certainly weren’t for everyone, but Royal Trux were the embodiment of everything rock and roll represented.
They were notorious, from the myths and legends surrounding their supposed self-destructive existence, to their look—a sexy, cooler-than-thou, nonchalant elitism. Their gritty sound was a soundtrack of decadence and in their 13-year career they proved that they could evolve, stay unpredictable, and do so with mystery and swagger. As Drag City’s flagship band, the pair of former lovers evolved from teenage junk punks creating raw primal rock and avant-garde sound collages to more melodic and meandering power rock songs riddled in metaphor.
The Royal Trux’s rocky road came to an end in 2001, breaking up mid-tour. The two split off into separate musical camps, both foraging careers with new bands. Neil Hagerty leads the Howling Hex, one of the most prolific bands on Drag City and one that highlights his guitar-driven solos and twisted Americana. Jennifer Herrema heads Black Bananas, a beach-metal-noise band that is as futuristic as it is retro and unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Besides continuing to be an iconic frontwoman, femme fatale and fashion icon, Herrema is also a jewelry designer, artist, actress, clothing designer and all-around badass.
We caught up Jennifer Herrema as Royal Trux prepared to play their third show in 15 years to talk about the surprising reunion, and what comes next.
What were the steps that brought the band back together and did you ever think it would happen?
It was all pretty quick. I never thought we would do anything together again as the Royal Trux. Nah, I never thought about that. Neil was on tour with the Howling Hex and he was in Los Angeles. He invited me to come see him. I hadn’t seen him in like 13 years. At the last minute, I couldn’t go. I couldn’t get a ride back. My car was… I don’t know it was this whole thing. So, he texted me the next day and said “we should talk.” This particular promoter had offered the Royal Trux to headline this particular festival and I was like, “What, really? You’re interested?” and he said, “yeah I like this guy and I like the idea behind the festival.” And actually Berserktown Festival is pretty much the coolest festival. It just runs the gamut and has a lot of underground stuff, not a lot of fly-by-night hipster shit. Anyway, he liked the idea, which was shocking to me, and I guess we had this amazing money offer. The fact that Neil was into it—and the fact that the venue was six blocks from where I’ve had my recording studio for 11 years, in the middle of nowhere, which is odd too. So all of these things happened really quickly.
You said you hadn’t seen Neil in 13 years, but didn’t you two collaborate on the last Black Bananas record?
Well yeah, we wrote two songs on it together, but we didn’t speak to each other. It was the kind of the beginning. I guess more contact started when he wanted to do the “Twin Infinitives” album [live in NYC] note for note. So he was communicating to me about that, and I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but something switched where he was open to communicating about music and sharing ideas. We communicated more and we wrote about music and things, otherwise we would email twice a year about the cats or something.
Were you offended that he did the “Twin Infinitives” show with other people?
No, no, no. Basically his idea to begin with was he wanted to find a guitar player to play him as well, but that wasn’t going to be possible. I didn’t really care because I didn’t want to reenact an album. It didn’t make sense to me. It made sense to me what he was doing because we would always talk about stuff like that. We would always talk about “let’s have someone play me on the East Coast and let’s have someone play me in the UK.” I would have loved that.
Did you have practice sessions before your first reunion show or did you just wing it?
We had a couple hours the day before, but it was pretty much winging it.
What was your impression of the first show? Did you think it would happen again?
I thought it went really, really well. It was unusual at first; you think the body language or onstage communication would just fall back to where it used to be. We were changing the setlist until the very end and then he wanted to do different songs in different keys, but we thought let’s roll with this. We were in the same pocket and we had a lot of fun and we thought it was great and terrific. Before we were even off the stage I guess our European booking agent had said that we had offers to do ATP that November for a bunch of money… whatever. We were just like “Noooo.” That would have been two months later and we knew we had fun and we a good time, but just the idea of going overseas, which was a huge deal for Neil anyway, so we said no. Then three or four weeks later, my booking agent said Webster Hall wanted us to play and it was a really good offer. I’m open to a lot of shit unless it’s bullshit and crap. He [Neil] was into it, so I said “of course.” And then that happened. And then we started talking about Europe and stuff and he had just flown for the first time a year ago.
As far as the upcoming Levitation Festivals, do you have any trepidation about playing festivals instead of clubs?
No, I mean, I played PsychFest with Black Bananas a few years ago in Texas and it didn’t seem any bigger than the 1,200 people in New York. New York seemed like a much bigger crowd than the festival. I don’t know what the PsychFest in Chicago is like, but regardless of size, the past two shows have been in front of over 1,000 people so that’s bigger than we ever played to before. Royal Trux played to 100 people, we were never a pop band or mainstream band, you know.
Your onstage chemistry in NYC seemed to have grown from the first show. Did you guys spend more time together practicing?
No, we practiced the day before the show. We flew in two days before the show. And Neil drove. Neil drove to the California show and he drove to the New York show. We got together the next morning and rehearsed and ate and talked and hungout and then rehearsed some more. I think we felt pretty comfortable with each other.
What do you think about the rereleases? Did you have any input on them at all?
I think they started the re-releases maybe 4 years ago. You couldn’t get anything anymore. Everything was out of print. You could still get em, you know, online or at a record store. There were just none left at the distributor or the record store so Dan Koretsky asked, “Do you want to put them back into circulation, put them back into print?” Neil and I were okay with that, but we were not ready to make it into anything. We said they could put them out there and make them available, but we weren’t interested in doing special. They were exactly as was, as is.
Would you ever consider doing a whole tour or are you going to stick with the bigger shows and bigger offers?
I have no idea, like really. I mean it really is up to Neil, honestly. He has all sorts of these travel things and he’s got a kid. He’s got a bunch of stuff. I do whatever I want. I just work on Black Bananas and work on different stuff around here. So it’s kind of all over the court. He’s having fun other than that and we are going to put out a live album of the recordings from California and New York. We just had that mastered and our friend Amanda Milius was in California and in New York filming. She was the president of the Royal Trux fanclub when she was like 15 years old. And she’s like 28 now. She’s still really young. She just graduated USC grad school and she has an amazing archive of Royal Trux stuff and she’s working on a Royal Trux movie with me and Neil and Drag City.
The Royal Trux play Levitation in Austin, Texas on Sunday, May 1. What comes next is anyone’s guess.