Illustration by Aubrey Nolan
This piece appears in AdHoc Issue 24.
In 2018, artists face an unspoken mandate to “connect” with their fans, feverishly reminding us of their existence via social media and near-constant press coverage. With non-stop access, the distance between us, the consumers, and them, the artist, narrows. But the closer we get to the artist, the less focus we seem to put on the art itself. It’s the disavowal of these games that makes a band like Royal Trux so refreshing.
Royal Trux began as a creative and romantic partnership between Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty in Washington, D.C. in 1987. From the get-go, sonic accessibility was never a Truxian priority. Their earliest records, like their self-titled debut or ambitious sophomore double-LP, Twin Infinitives, can make for a challenging listen, mostly due to Royal Trux’s penchant for atonal noise rock and extended, lo-fi jams. Later records would expose the band’s deconstructionist tendencies as they toyed with ’60s rock on Thank You, ’70s rock on Sweet Sixteen, and ’80s rock on Accelerator. These records add up to a body of work defined not just by Hagerty’s guitar fuzz and Herrema’s snarling lead vocals, but by a guarantee of unpredictability.
You won’t get to know and love Royal Trux by subscribing to their email newsletter or syncing their songs on Spotify—they don’t have a newsletter, and their music is conspicuously absent from the streaming giant. And judging from their behavior onstage and in interviews, they don’t seem particularly interested in being understood.
In advance of Royal Trux’s upcoming appearances at Market Hotel in Brooklyn on January 19 and January 20, we spoke to Herrema about the band’s preference for letting the art speak for itself. They’re not going to micromanage the listener’s experiences with superfluous context and direction. To get a sense of what they’re about, you have to commit yourself to digging. But even if you do, Royal Trux doesn’t really give a fuck.
AdHoc: Between 2001 and 2015, Royal Trux was inactive as you both pursued other projects. What went into your decision to get the band back together?
Jennifer Herrema: A perfect situation presented itself at the right time. It was the hand of fate. The planets aligned and showed us the sign. Way too many coincidences to be ignored. We didn’t consider it a “reunion.” We saw it as the “reconvergence” and it happened in the most unlikely of places: in the middle of nowhere [in] Santa Ana, seven blocks from the recording studio I’ve had for 13 years.
How would you say that you complement each other as artists?
We are very compatible and understand each other’s processes and strengths. We share multiple commonalities as well as differences. We use our differences to complete the “pictures” that neither of us could on our own. The “pictures” have distinct elements that can only be realized by the combination of the two unique personalities. That's one of the reasons we've been taking our time, since no one can get those pictures without us—not even us apart.
Royal Trux have always thrived off of subverting people’s expectations. How much are you thinking about the listener or the audience when you’re making music? How can you make art that isn’t influenced by other people’s expectations even though you’re releasing it to be consumed by them?
I would not say that Royal Trux has thrived off of subverting people’s expectations; I would say we have thrived despite our unwillingness to give people “more of the same.” It is not easy to know what fans like and respond to yet ignore it for the sake of our own creative growth. We don’t think about our audience at all, other than to treat them the same as we treat ourselves, which is with respect.
That being said, we never willfully try and defy expectations, but for the most part our personal interests in experimenting with new sounds and processes yields something a bit different on every album. Any expectation that does not recognize those characteristics as an integral part of the Truxian lexicon may be disappointed, but we choose to believe it will leave them excited and not simply placated.
You lived in NYC when the first Royal Trux record came out, and Drag City, your longtime label, is in Chicago. Can you describe the particular scene you felt a part of during the band’s early days? What stands out to you about it in retrospect?
There was no Drag City label when we self-released our first album. We were independent from the start. Drag City was later inspired and then created for us by two strangers (at the time) that wanted to base their label on the inherent methodology and characteristics that Trux outlined and came to define. Earliest Trux days were in D.C., where we were not part of any music “scene.” We knew lots of people that were part of various D.C. scenes. Having grown up in D.C. and attended lots of all-ages punk rock shows, I came to know all types of musicians from all types of backgrounds and sounds. Some of them, like Mike Fellows from Rites of Spring (we renamed him The Mighty Flashlight) and Chris Bald from The Faith, ended up playing and touring with Royal Trux at various times.
We moved to NYC because I graduated high school early and got a scholarship to The New School and Neil was hired to be part of Pussy Galore. There were definitely “scenes” in NYC when we moved there, but we never pledged our allegiance to any of them. Like in D.C., we knew people from disparate scenes and made acquaintances throughout.
Pussy Galore was part of the LES/post-no-wave scene, which was comprised of bands five to 20 years our senior, like Swans, Sonic Youth, Live Skull, Lydia Lunch, Foetus, White Zombie, etc. But we spent time around them because Neil was part of Pussy Galore. There was the NYC hardcore scene that we knew people from, too—Cro-Mags, Reagan Youth, Bad Brains—but Royal Trux was its own “scene”: the two of us and the ever-rotating list of musicians we worked with.
What is it like making art with someone you’re in a relationship with?
The art and relationship began simultaneously, so there was no relationship in place prior to our first efforts. It always just seemed natural and easy. But since the definition of “natural” changed around us, we didn't know people would think what they did. And it had to be easy, since there was no way around it back then, because either we could hold ourselves together within that stuff or they were going to try and rip us up.
Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is a retrospective, but it captures the energy of your live shows. What aspect of the band were you hoping to highlight with this selection?
Platinum Tips + Ice Cream (scenes from the water park) is comprised of songs from every album we have made. [They’re also] the only songs we had together to play “live” with new musicians and two rehearsals. That’s how we ended up with the selection.
Can you describe a particularly weird and memorable live show in Royal Trux history?
There are lots of weird and memorable stories, but writing them out would make this a multi-multi-page interview. Suffice it to say, broken bottles, bloody faces, police, drugs, etc. have all been unintentionally part of the more rowdy performances.
It seems like, thanks in part to social media and technology, there is less mystery in rock & roll than ever before. How important do you think mystery is when it comes to the art form?
In general, I don’t really care to know much about the musicians and artists that I enjoy and respect. I prefer the work be its own beginning and end. But with so much focus on “content creation,” musicians and artists are compelled to give up everything they can for the sake of continued attention. More often than not, the hordes of “bands” vying for attention don’t have much of interest to share, so we now see bands creating fictitious backstories and histories culled from reading and emulating other interviews.
“Fake news” was born in the entertainment industry and has since moved into the art and political worlds. Homogeny is rampant, with instant access to trends, slang, style, etc. It’s boring and incredibly transparent (to me) when an artist or band has pieced their “vibe” together by hijacking others’ authentic expressions and content, whether [it be] visual, aural, attitudinal. The “mystery” or lack of intimate/personal knowledge is way more compelling than watching or reading some faux form of information/imitation.
Any plans to release brand new material as Royal Trux in the future?