The Audacious Revival of Royal Trux
Jennifer Herrema unlocks the door to her Hackney hotel room and heads directly towards the bedside table.
Unwrapping herself from an Oakland Raiders jacket, she flings a rumpled foxtail keychain in the direction of the nearest surface. Placing herself among a half drunk bottle of beer and various joint-rolling apparatus, she looks back towards the door. “Are you just going to stand there the whole time?” Her American drawl thrums like rusted gears grazing together.
At the door stands Neil Hagerty. Maybe he’s reluctant to be lulled into another awkward sit down with his former girlfriend and longtime band partner. He grudgingly shuffles to the bed and lies flat with his arms stretched. He’s agitated. Earlier on, he seemed less than pleased to pose for our photo shoot, questioning the purpose of the practice all together. “Honestly man,” he growls, “People get paid to photograph me? Why? That’s fucked up.”
Needless to say, the pressures that come with the attention around the pair’s reunion as Royal Trux are irking Hagerty. “We haven’t had any sleep,” Herrema explains, clumsily fiddling with crumbs of weed. “We were in Brighton last night. It was fucking great and now we’re here.” It’s the final day of the UK leg of their comeback tour. It began only four days earlier at the Transformer festival in Manchester, only six days after the terror attacks at Ariana Grande’s gig in the same city.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” Hagerty insists. “Mark E. Smith, a true Manchester dude performed directly after us and he was totally cool with it. When I was a kid I lived in Belgium – my dad was in the army – the Baader Meinhof gang were just shooting people fucking left and right. We toured London during the IRA bombings and there were signs telling you to look under your tyres before you reverse. So we’ve seen enough to not be afraid.”
After Royal Trux’s formation in 1987, Herrema and Hagery – the group’s core members – soon gained a reputation as alternative music’s most fractious and self-destructive couple. Their gruff noise-rock defined them as diamorphine-addled experimentalists who both celebrated and subverted rock ’n’ roll traditions. With her eyes often concealed by a thick fringe and aviator shades, Herrema embodied the sexual veracity of rock with a rugged fashion sense, and she appeared alongside the likes of Kate Moss in Calvin Klein’s campaigns and in fashion editorials that defined the controversial ‘Heroin Chic’ trend of the mid 90s.
With lyrics like “We took your invitations and shoved them down your eye sockets one by one,” or “I’ve got to get out to the sticks / Start my own franchise,” or “The baboon crawled in your mouth and ate your brain,” Herrema’s liquor-corroded howl made her the ultimate mouthpiece for the sloppy shredding of her musical partner. Hagerty, a seasoned guitarist, began his career in the early 80s performing alongside members of Government Issue before enlisting himself as one of the many incarnations of Jon Spencer’s garage act Pussy Galore. It was during these early performances that Herrema and Hagerty began dating, writing and feeding their appetites for intoxication.
"Everybody wants me to be honest and I don't want to give it to them. The exchange is not fair. I get a chance to OD on a fucking bus and a bunch of cowards write the story and get paid for it"
What transpired from this staunch affiliation were some of rock music’s most iconoclastic records ever deemed fit for consumption. With a close connection to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s free-thinking philosophy of Harmolodics, albums such as 1990’s double LP Twin Infinitives and later records like Thank You and Accelerator demonstrated an improvisational ethos. “That’s the basis of everything,” Herrema starts excitedly. “Even from when we met, Harmolodics was the undercurrent of it all. Over the years when Neil and I weren’t speaking, people would ask if I had had any contact from him. We weren’t physically talking, maybe an email once a year, but we’ve been working together in some unspoken way this whole time.”
Despite their viciously uncompromising sound, the couple’s relationship suffered at the hands of their own commercial success, when Royal Trux were swept up in the grunge media surge of the early 90s. Virgin records snatched the band from the independent label Drag City with a three-record contract worth over one million dollars. Hegarty and Herrema took their label advances and holed themselves up in a farmhouse in Castleton, Virginia where they recorded the albums Thank You, Sweet Sixteen and Accelerator from a converted home studio. But the major label soon began losing faith.
“’We need music for kids to roller skate to,’ those were the literal words from the A&R peoples’ mouths,” Hagerty claims, hoisting himself from the bed. “Fuck that. All I was thinking at the time was we’ve got four weeks until that cheque goes through from our lawyer. We had a buyout for the last three records. And we got paid in full for all the records we didn’t fucking do. That’s all that matters man. Bands, artists, nice people; they just get screwed over by bureaucracy. So if I win it’s like a little victory for everyone.”
Following a return to Drag City, Royal Trux dissolved shortly after the release of 2000’s Pound for Pound LP. Focusing on their own varying projects such as Hegarty’s Howling Hex and Weird War and Herrema’s RTX and Black Bananas, it wasn’t until 2012 that the pair began communicating again. And it wasn’t entirely for the best reasons. Hegarty had revived the Royal Trux moniker, performing a slew of shows with a Herrema lookalike.
At this point, the duo begin quibbling over the details of their reformation. “I was playing as Royal Trux 1988, revisiting the Twin Infinitives material,” Hagerty explains. “Jennifer contacted me, offended. That was the first time we had talked in 15 years.”
“Are you talking to me?” Herrema drops the joint she’s been prepping for the duration of our conversation.
“No,” Hagerty continues, “Anyway, she thought I was being weasel-like for not telling her.”
Herrema kicks out her cowboy boots and stares directly at Hagerty. “The truth of the matter is I was fucking pissed. The simplicity of having the name Royal Trux announced as a show without me? That was unfathomable. So I wrote to you about it. And when you put everything into context by sending me a picture of the girl who was supposed to be me, I understood what you were doing.”
It was this disagreement that eventually led to Hagerty and Herrema reuniting and playing together again in 2015. They’ve recently released their first record in fifteen years via Drag City. Recorded live at two shows in New York and California, Platinum Tips + Ice Cream offers ‘new, live and unrehearsed’ renditions of some of their most acclaimed material. “We are trying to capture something that’s not synthetic,” says Hargerty, now writhing above the sheets with discontent. “We’re back and we’re the best band again. And it’s for real now. But the whole system of automated touring. And this stuff,” he points at the recording device with hostility, “It’s not my cup of fucking tea. Know what I’m saying man?”
Hagerty readies his escape by fumbling with a cigarette. “Up until this tour, I lied to a lot of people,” he admits, bringing to mind a story of him fabricating a fear of flying to be relieved of international tours with Royal Trux while quitting heroin. “But I promised Jennifer that I would be real and not fuck around like I used to. But then everybody wants me to be honest and I don’t want to give it to them. The exchange is not fair. I get nothing. I get a chance to OD on a fucking bus and a bunch of cowards write the story and get paid for it.”
“I don’t care about telling my story one way or the other,” he continues. “But Jennifer’s letting me share in Royal Trux again and I’m so grateful. I have a lot to learn. I’ve been granted this opportunity and I don’t want to fuck it up. I’ve got to try and be nice this time. But I have to be myself and sometimes that’s not nice. I can’t do that fake nice shit. All I am is a fucking guitar player. And I like to get stoned.”
Herrema, finally pinching a fully formed joint, lets out a husked laugh. “Nah, you’re just a piece of shit.” Her heavily circled eyes pierce straight through Hagerty’s embittered grimace.“You’ve really got to practice being yourself more.”
Photography: Eleanor Hardwick
Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is out now via Drag City