Published Sep 01, 2010In the annals of late '80s and '90s indie rock, Royal Trux were known as much, if not more, for their ramshackle presence and drug binging than their music. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema were viewed as the high priest and priestess of music's junkie culture; two denim-clad Stones obsessives who took the blueprint from Exile On Main Street and spun it into a schizophrenic mess of skuzzy, one-take freedom rock. There was and still is nothing ever like it, which is why their long-time label Drag City has rolled out the red carpet for a series of reissues spanning the band's entire catalogue.
Beginning last year with the band's first three albums, Royal Trux, Twin Infinitives and Untitled, the label now approaches what is widely considered to be the band's seminal work, 1993's Cats and Dogs. The moment where Hagerty and Herrema broke out of their insular bubble, the album was a step closer to more traditional song structures (let's face it, they were never "traditional" by any means) and paved the way to an infamous major label deal that is one of the greatest examples of an indie band actually winning out in the end.
Right before she was just about to catch a surf contest, Exclaim! caught up with Herrema over the phone from her Sunset Beach home to discuss her life in Royal Trux, the reissue series, life on a major, that notorious Sweet Sixteen album cover and how Nelly is influencing the next RTX album.
You and Neil started Royal Trux when you were 15. Most 15-year-olds can hardly . What was different about you at that age?
I grew up pretty fast. I moved out of the house when I was 15 and I lived in the inner city, only white kid for miles and miles. I went to Montessori school, graduated early. I don't know, all of my friends were a lot older than me. I never considered myself 15. By the time I was 12 I was five-foot-ten. I never wanted to be a kid. I pretended to act like a grown up, but got myself into some pretty serious grown up situations early on.
Was that the first band you were in?
Yep, the first and only band, other than RTX.
Is the plan to reissue everything at this point?
Yeahâ¦ ooh! Bee! Get away!!! Sorry, I had a bee in my hair. Yes, everything that's out of print should be reissued. When Drag City asked me if they could reissue the records I said yes, but didn't want them all at once. One or two a year I figured. The next one would be Thank You, but I think there's another year to go before the rights revert back to me and Neil own it outright. Last time I talked to my lawyer, that's what he said. Maybe we'll skip ahead and then go back to Thank You and Sweet Sixteenâ¦ although it would be nice to get them in order. I think it's only a yearâ¦
So all of these are straight up reissues?
There are a few little different things on the third album, they put the artwork on the inside of the CD, the cartoon kid with the wizard hat that I made, they put that in the vinyl. I gotta get them to send me my copy. And Twin Infinitives is colour gatefold, where it wasn't before. As per Neil's request, Drag City hasn't been sending out reissues for press coverage or reissue consideration, or whatever. We're just slowly putting them back out there.
A lot of people consider Cats and Dogs to be the seminal Royal Trux album. Do you agree?
I'm not really sure. I feel like it was the first record that was recorded with a band. It was me, Neil, Mike [Kaiser] and Ian [Willers] in the studio together. It wasn't just myself and Neil recording all the different instruments as overdubs. Maybe the sound was a bit more traditional, maybe, compared to the first three. And then the storytelling thing was maybe a bit moreâ¦ I'm not really sure why. I can't say. It did sell a lot of records, but I don't really know why, maybe.
How important was it to add another guitarist and drummer?
It wasn't really that important. It was a weird thing, we were on tour for the third record and the second guitar player Mike was added in Gainsville, Florida after he had us come stay with him in Daytona Beach. He was working at a trophy shop and hated his job, so he wanted to play with us and we said, "Okay, but you've gotta get in the van now." And he did. He just came with us. When it came time to do the next record, this guy gave up his home and his job. With Ian, we wanted to add a drummer. The second guitar was just about his dedication. Ian was the drummer in the opening band we played with in Lawrence, Kansas. He caught our attention. We didn't talk to him, but when it came time to record Cats and Dogs I still had his number and called him up. It was important to have a drummer. We wanted to record the album in a studio and play, but rehearse the songs prior and execute. Before we'd just have lyrics and melodies, go in, mess around and do overdubs. That kind of thing. The idea behind this was to rehearse prior and give it our best shot in the studio. We had five days.
Do you have a favourite?
I go back to the third album, I guess. I haven't listened to the albums in a very long time, but the third album is my favourite if I were to pick one. That's just how it kind of feels in my mind. I've always had affection for that one.
Did it make sense to you for Virgin to sign Royal Trux?
We figured they knew us. Different labels had been talking to us. Geffen wanted us to do a showcase for them at CMJ. It was just me and Neil in some big old space. It was kind of karaoke; we were just blasting the tracks behind us and Neil was playing along, we had a drum machine and I was singing on top. That's what they saw, but Geffen still wanted to be involved. They said, "Since you're kind of a wide open format band, if we fly you out could you put a band together?" We said yeah. We didn't have any money, and it gave us an opportunity to get these people that were interested in playing with us. There were a whole bunch of labels looking into us. Everyone knew we were really a two-piece, but I feel like they didn't quite understand that we didn't equate to popular music. It was confusing to them but not to us. We were stoked to outfit ourselves with a dream band, for the purposes of soliciting labels. It was weird. Geffen flew us out to L.A. and some players. It was a lot of fun, but I don't really know what they were thinking. I know Virgin was thinking "rock'n'roll band." And that was based on what we did while we were out there. I really have no idea what any of those people were thinking, to tell you the truth. But it didn't surprise me that they were interested because I loved our music and think it's interesting. Why not sign us? We wrote really good songs that could be executed in a million ways but we chose to utilize the full band format. That threw a lot of people off too though.
Do you see a big difference between Cats and Dogs and Thank You?
Not so muchâ¦ Cats and Dogs was mellower. Once we added two drummers and a bass player, which we hadn't had before, the writing was still the same but there was a lot more sound on Thank You. The writing process was very much the same as Cats and Dogs though. We rehearsed them, went into the studio and recorded live. Cats and Dogs, there was only three weeks to rehearse and five days to record. Thank You we spent months writing and rehearsing them, and months recording and mixing them. We just recorded a lot more, we had more time and money. It was also the first record where we recorded with a producer, other than ourselves.
Did Sweet Sixteen actually get a proper release?
Yeah. It did get released, but it wasn't necessarily a proper release. There were all these things they were contractually obligated to do, as far as promotion and advertising. It was supposed to be released on vinyl by Drag City, we put that in the contract. Drag City paid for that. Basically, we used the fact that they weren't putting up the promotional money from the contract to get them to release us from the contract, but not without having them pay for a third album. It all kind of worked out properly. After we got their feedback on Sweet Sixteen... they didn't make it very pleasurable. We had a fun time making the record, but we wanted to do it with David Briggs, we had bought this big farmhouse and built this studio with him. But then he died. But they totally wanted us to use a producer, they didn't want us to produce ourselves, but we had this new studio. We met with some producers they were interested in, but we didn't get any good vibes from them. So we proceeded on our own. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I think no matter what we would have given them, they were disturbed by the process. We knew that we didn't want to work with them anymore, but it was fine. We could have fought them for all the promotional money and tour support, but we said, "Screw it, just give us the $500,000 and we'll go." We had an amazing contract. Our A&R person was awesome, but at the end of the day, he was newly appointed and kind of quickly fading away when the Spice Girls got huge... It wasn't him, he was awesome. He actually contacted me a few years ago about RTX. He's a good guy. At the end of the day though, it's such a huge company that there was nothing he could do.
I heard the album cover was done to piss off the label. Is that true?
[Laughs} Not at all. It was supposed to be a juvenile idea. The morning after a 16th birthday party, with the frosting of the cake. Just complete debauchery... That's what the name intended. It never had to do with pissing them off, and they actually never said anything about the artwork. It's just supposed to be vomit, chili, peanut butter, Tabasco sauce... hangover excrement.
When you cancelled the Pound For Pound tour was that the end of the band?
We went out on tour for that, made it to Pittsburgh and... I was really fucked up. Two days before we left I was told my dad was gonna die and I didn't handle it well. I freaked out. Then when we got to Pittsburgh I checked myself into the hospital in this ruse to get painkillers. That was the end of that, I was in full "getting fucked up mode" again. Neil and I talked about it and I said, "I can't do this." It was like an out of body experience. I was so sad. I was drinking and it wasn't like having a party, I was just so sad. We made the record and I had been talking to him about personally taking time off, separating and having time away from each other. Everything came to a head. I think I just basically threw the table upside down and crashed the whole thing.
Was that it then? Was Royal Trux ever on the verge of getting back together after that?
No, because it was an all or nothing proposition. I wanted to separate from him. It wasn't that I didn't love him. I had been with him since I was 15. I'd always had drug problems, but I was then clean for years and then fucking up again. I knew there was something at the bottom of this and I needed to figure it out. He was always such a big support for me, but I felt I wasn't going to figure it out unless I went out on my own. I wanted him to accept that but he wouldn't - it was an all or nothing thing with him. Either I stayed and we remained married or else it's all finished. And I was like, "Well, fuck it, then it's finished because I can't keep on cycling like this."
Do you still talk?
No, it kinda sucks. It's unfortunate. He emails me a few times a year to say hey, but he's still really hurt by me leaving and he just won't talk to me. I mean, he'll talk to me through Drag City about business, but then it's only a couple times a year that we email each other.
What's going on with RTX at the moment?
The new album is in a holding pattern for a few months. It's done, but I have to finalize some mixes and a few overdubs. It was supposed to come out this fall but I've decided to do it in the spring. I don't wanna rush it. I've been really busy and wanted a break. I think we're gonna call it Rad Times Four.
Is it true the rapper Nelly is an influence?
Yep. I love Nelly. I just love him. I saw him in Utah and I actually got to go on stage with him. It was exciting. I've always been a huge Nelly fan.
He's got a new album coming out...
Yeah, I'm stoked to hear it. It's definitely influencing the next record. And Scorpions, stuff I grew up with on the radio. Just a few more influences thrown into the witch's brew for RTX.
You once modeled for Calvin Klein, but recently you've been doing shoots for Volcom. How did that come up?
That was an unusual thing. Five years ago when I bought this place, they got in touch with my manager, who's really more like my friend. They wanted to meet with me about their record label, it was all good and had money to off. But their record label sucks. The guys were nice but I wasn't interested in leaving Drag City. But when I met with them I mentioned that my boyfriend was moving out here from New York and he was a semi-pro skater. He was looking for a job, so I asked them to keep him in mind. When he moved out the next year, I got him a job at the record label. So I got to know those guys pretty well. A year ago they just came to me and their jeans are really big with the dudes, the skaters. But the girl's section wasn't doing well and they wanted to revamp it. They asked if I'd put my two cents in and do some PR for them and design some custom jeans and it turned out really well. It's a cool opportunity. We have another collection next spring. It's really the best of both worlds. I give them inspiration from photos or do a drawing, the designers come up with something and I can change things about them. Once they're approved, it's all good. It's really easy for me, it's kind of awesome. I'm modelling in the ads and get paid for that too!
You actually wear the jeans?
I wear them every day. They look good on me, hopefully they look good on others too. My friends wear them, even the guys. At the end of the day they're just patched up jeans.
Have you seen how much they cost? They're expensive!
Yeah, they're selling them for $255 bucks! They're not even salvaged denim, so I said they had to put a real foxtail on them. Girls spell a shit ton of money on jeans, but $255, I wouldn't spend that myself. But if there's a real foxtail, they're special. Those are limited edition.
A real foxtail?
Yeah. That's why they're $255. They said, "Not everyone's gonna want to wear the foxtail." But I said that's how I want it. You can take the foxtail off or give it to your little brother or sister, I just like how it looks like with it. There's another pair coming out without the foxtail though.