Rank Your Records: Jennifer Herrema Ranks Royal Trux’s Nine Albums
A look back at the eccentric catalog by one half of the reunited duo.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
There is no mistaking the music of Royal Trux for anything else. Over their original 14-year run, the one-time husband-wife duo of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema created their own inimitable sounds that evolved from strung-out, lo-fi experiments to greasy, Stones-esque, boogie-rock jams. By definition they were as much a punk band as anything, incapable of conforming to even alt-rock's norms, and instead releasing some of the most uncompromisingly, fucked up rock 'n' roll ever imagined.
When Royal Trux broke up in 2000, right after the release of their last album, Pound for Pound, it seemed for good. As the years went by, Herrema kept busy with bands like RTX and Black Bananas, as well as styling models for Playboy and designing clothes for Volcom and Feathered Fish. Hagerty, on the other hand, made music under his own name as well as the Howling Hex. For years, the two weren't speaking, and, when asked in interviews, neither of them expressed much interest in a reunion. But 14 years after announcing their break-up, Hagerty and Herrema were offered the headlining slot at the Beserktown Festival in LA, and after adding another zero to the number, they agreed. Like every reunion, another gig came soon after, followed by more dates, a European tour, and last month's live album, Platinum Tips + Ice Cream, their first official release in 15 years.
"We didn't know if we'd do more than the one show. We didn't know anything," says Herrema. "But I told Dan [Koretzky] at Drag City that we needed to record it anyway, because we weren't sure if that'd be it. So we knew we'd record the show at Beserktown for posterity, but we didn't think we'd play all of these shows and release a record. So we recorded it and it sounded really cool. Then we got the offer to play New York and did that, but we didn't record that one. However, my friend flew out to see us and do footage. So she recorded with her camera, and the recording was so good we used two of those tracks on the record. It was just the stereo mic on her RED cam."
Noisey convinced Herrema to rank her records and on the day we spoke, this was her order (though as she points out, it'll likely be completely different tomorrow).
9. Untitled (1992)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Jennifer Herrema: I put it at the bottom because I just don't like to listen to it. I did an interview not too long ago where I said it was actually my favorite, mostly because there are a couple of songs that are emotional favorites. But now I don't want to hear it, so it's not my favorite today. It was basically us paying ten bucks to go in and out of somebody's basement for an hour and just record it. There was no production, no depth of process. And it was a really bad, shitty, fucking time, too. It brings up some horror themes in my mind.
Can I ask what made it such a bad, shitty, fucking time?
Yeah. Neil and I lived in this abandoned house and we were pretty fucked up. We were writing these songs and everything was not very good. So I took off and moved in with a drug dealer, so I could babysit his kid and get free drugs all the time. Then I would have to take the bus to bring the drugs back to the building for Neil so he wouldn't be sick. It was just a really shitty, shitty time. The songs are great and I remember them clearly. Especially "Blood Flowers," which felt like a real thing that was happening. We didn't have electricity, so when a song came in through the window of the abandoned building while we were shooting up drugs it was the most amazing thing because I have no veins. So to be able to find a vein when the blood comes through it's pretty intense. The lyrics are very true and honest to the reality.
Compared to the first two, this album seemed a lot simpler, and a more direct rock album.
It was recorded like that. We had the songs written and it was on the back of a DC paper that said some guy in Maryland had a home studio that was eight bucks an hour in his basement. We got a ride out there and recorded the whole album in one day. There were some overdubs because it was just the two of us doing everything. But there was no sitting back and listening to it; it was straight up, like, here are the songs, whereas Twin Infinitives took over a year and a half.
Was there a reason why this album wasn't titled?
Usually a title would come to us. I think I named every album, but nothing came for this one. I thought about using a song title, but that felt weak. It seemed so far away from the first album, like it was a whole other world. Nothing came to me and I just didn't want to call it Hallucination. So I was just like, "Fuck it!"
8. Accelerator (1998)
I love Accelerator, but it's kinda fucked up. I'm not doubling up on myself; each and every one of the records has been my favorite at some point in time. But I'm just kinda sick of Accelerator. It's the most requested album for songs people want to hear. The ones that are my favorites—"New Bones" and "Follow the Winner"—are never requested and we never play them. To me, the production is very compacted and streamlined and simple, in a certain way. I prefer the stuff that is denser.
Virgin basically paid for this album, right?
No, no. There is a lot of stuff on the internet that is right, but I'd have to say 40 to 50 percent of everything is wrong. What happened was we were signed to a three-record deal no matter what, plus an option for another three. Our contract stipulated that we could literally do whatever we wanted to do. We administered our own budget, which is another bizarre thing. Normally, you get a budget and you tell the label what studio you're going to and they cut a check from your budget to the studio or producer. But they just wired the entire amount of money into our bank account, so we could do whatever we wanted.
Kaz Utsunomiya had been the president of A&R when we signed on for Thank You, and in the interim the Spice Girls came along, and Phil Quartararo took over as president. So Spice Girls became the bread and butter for Virgin, and they couldn't figure out what Sweet Sixteen was. They didn't understand it, and we were like, "Okay. Fuck you! It's a great record." We didn't want to give our music to these people anymore because they didn't like it and didn't get it. So after Sweet Sixteen we realized we needed to get out of here. According to our contract we could do whatever we wanted, so when we began our next record a few months afterwards, we told them we would do it at home again without a producer. So we just scared the fuck out of them, and they were definitely freaked out. Our lawyer said to them, "You can give them the $300,000 and they can just walk away, if you're worried about what the next record will be like. Or you can take the record and be obligated to give them another $250,000 to support it." The idea was to get them to give us the money and let us walk away, which they did. We didn't get dropped. Basically we finagled and dropped them.
You've said there was a conceptual trilogy of albums planned for Virgin, each representing a decade, from the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s, which was Accelerator.
Yeah. We closed out our deal with Virgin and got our last $300k, but we were never gonna make the next record for them. So when it was time to make the next record and finish this loose trilogy, we always set parameters when we record an album anyway. With this, we just went with this 80s sensibility for that record. But it was written and recorded a year after we had already finished up with Virgin. The 80s thing was just how we'd close out the trilogy in our minds.
What exactly do you mean by 80s sensibility?
For me, it was more it was a pop simplicity, as far as production. It was the antithesis of Sweet Sixteen, where every song was over four minutes and more about a 70s prog length, and the tracking was very dense. Accelerator was meant to be the opposite of that: shorter, simpler songs that were more pop-oriented and would fit on the radio. As far as EQ and stuff, when you have something mastered it's able to be heard now as an MP3, but then on the radio. We wanted to record it where we took off the bottom-bottom and the hi-hi, which is why every track ran through a compressor. We EQ'd everything the exact same way, where we cut the extreme highs and lows in that middle, radio-friendly band. That's how it sounded in our heads. I don't know if anybody else understood or heard, but that's what the 80s represented to us.
7. Thank You (1995)
I love Thank You but it's a weird one. It's the only record that we had a producer for. David Briggs was amazing, but it was recorded live. We went to Memphis and recorded in Joe Walsh's studio, and people brought this stage, lights, and a PA into the main tracking room, so it was set up like we were playing a live show. So we played the songs over and over for two days, and after that he said we had all of the basic tracks and we were done. There were still overdubs and extra vocals for me to do. We were there for a few months, but our actual physical part of planning and recording was done pretty quickly, and we were pretty stoked. But there was an unbearable process of sitting with David and deciding how he wanted to mix it and what effects he wanted to use. He would only monitor the music in a rented Cadillac, so we had to sit in this car and listen to it over and over. I almost lost my mind at a certain point. I just wanted to be done. I loved the experience of working with David, but artistically, the production and mixing was being handled for us. If we didn't like something we would say it but we didn't really participate in that part, which is normally something we'd do ourselves.
So Thank You started the decades trilogy. This was your homage to the 60s?
Yeah, to me it sounded sort of garage-y. It was recorded live and the sound is kinda dirty.
What do you think Virgin's expectations were for Thank You?
I think the idea was that we'd be with them for the long haul. They didn't have any great expectations, like we'd be selling a ton of records. We certainly didn't have those either. It was a relationship that was supposed to grow over time. Kind of like what they were doing with Ben Harper. He stayed there forever and never really sold that many records. They just developed him in this thing that could be marketed towards a particular niche genre. I think they thought we would be the next great rock 'n' roll band, and that it would take some time. But maybe they never listened to the first album or Twin Infinitives. I think they saw that we were songwriters based on Cats and Dogs and that we would find this sound that would start clicking with people, like this formula that could get bigger and bigger. And we just totally made a U-turn on Sweet Sixteen. We wouldn't let them hear anything until we were done.
6. Sweet Sixteen (1997)
I still listen to this record a lot. I like the fact that it still sounds unusual. We were gonna do Sweet Sixteen with David Briggs. After we bought the farm in Virginia, he came out and we did some construction to make the room sound better. He helped me put together a list of what gear to buy for the studio. Unfortunately, he died. So we just said, "Okay, fuck it. We'll just do it ourselves here at the farm." And Virgin was freaking out. But there was nothing they could do about it. So we recorded it like that. We loved the record, but it was clear they didn't know what the hell to do with it.
But we did it at the farm studio with Paul Oldham engineering. We had a lot of fun doing it there. We could just wake up in the middle of the night and all of a sudden work on it. I had all of these tables custom made, like 30 and 50-feet long, and it was a four-story farmhouse. We could record anywhere in the house, but we also had this gravel road where we could walk down to the pond and record. Like at the beginning of "Pol Pot Pie" you hear frogs and crickets, which were in the pond. We were way down the fucking road with the mic, so it was pretty fun.
You said the label didn't get to hear it while you made it. What kind of feedback did they give you when they did hear it?
Oh, "There are way too many notes, the songs are too long, and nobody can roller skate to it." Those were the exact words. All of the songs were over four minutes long, which was not radio-friendly. It was very different from Thank You. I think they wanted us to expand upon what we had started with that album and keep moving towards a more rock sound. Instead, we just went wacko.
The album cover is fantastic, but I bet it turned a lot of people off. How did the label respond to it?
They never said anything bad about it! They didn't because they couldn't. Anything we turned in they had to release. That was the true beauty of our contract. Of course, the amount of money was the amazing part, but the true beauty was that we could do whatever we wanted. We controlled all of the money and they couldn't say no. I didn't know what record contracts really were. After we met with the label, I called the lawyer, who wasn't really our lawyer, and he told me to write down all the things we wanted. Complete creative control was the most important, and I faxed it back to him and he said, "Who do you think you are? Whitney Houston? This is an insane contract! There's gonna be a lot of back and forth, and we will have to negotiate." He was wrong. He called back two days later and said they accepted all of our demands.
5. Veterans of Disorder (1999)
Sometimes this is my favorite. It has two of our best songs. In an alternate universe, I think a million people would love the song "Stop." And "Coming Out Party" was fun for me because I got to ramble, ramble, ramble these notes I'd made, and it was this one take thing. It's nothing I could ever do live because there are too many words. I love those songs. They're exceptional.
You've said this album was designed as a singles collection. How so?
If you listen to "Stop" compared to "Coming Out Party," you'll think, "What the fuck just happened?" They're two totally different things. It was more about making each song different, as far as production and mixing. There was no uniform methodology around the album. It was about making each song stand alone.
This album was quickly turned around after Accelerator, and then Pound For Pound followed a year later. Was this a prolific period for the band?
Oh yeah. We had the big farmhouse with our own studio, so musicians could come stay with us and we could just record our ideas at any given moment. That was something we never had in the past, so we used everything at our disposal and we got a lot done. Plus we lived out in the middle of nowhere, so there was nothing else to do other than fuck around in the studio and write songs.
4. Twin Infinitives (1990)
We didn't usually play a lot of these songs live. Maybe a few times when we lived in San Francisco. We do play "Ice Cream" live now and "Solid Gold Tooth," and I think some of these songs are my favorite to play live. I never know what's gonna happen when we play "Ice Cream" live, so we have to really listen to each other. I think that kind of thing is something I'd like to explore more. I don't really listen to the whole record much, but I listen to individual tracks. I can get really lost it certain songs.
Twin Infinitives never seemed like it was designed for you to play live because it was more about patching together different segments of music you'd recorded than writing actual songs.
Exactly. None of it was accidental though. Neil recreated it almost exactly, writing extensive notes and telling people what to do. The songs are really just riffs, some lyrics and a beat. We're not doing it like I suspect he did when he wrote the music for others. We're just following each other and seeing where it goes. I like doing that live.
You guys had left NYC for San Francisco. Did that city have any impact on the album?
Oh, for sure. We had been doing drugs in New York, but we really went off the rails in San Francisco because it was so much easier to find them. You could get them delivered to your door. That's how we got super, super strung out. That's why it took us so long. Of course, it didn't feel so long because we were in a drugged out haze. Also, Drag City got us this warehouse that we had unlimited access to for over a year. In New York, a studio was hourly, super expensive, and all precious. Like, you couldn't smoke around the gear. San Francisco was really casual, with lots of drugs and freedom and time.
Is it true that Dan Koretzky started Drag City just so he could put out Royal Trux records?
He started Drag City so he could re-release our first album, which we didn't do right off the bat. We put that out ourselves and it cost nothing. But he worked at this distributor called Kaleidoscope, and Gerard Cosloy [founder of Homestead and Matdor Records] helped us figure out what to do with our records. I didn't even know what a distributor was. Dan heard our record at Kaleidoscope and said, "This is the future. This is the best thing ever." So he sent us postcards saying he wanted to start a label to put out our stuff. And so we did the "Hero Zero / Love Is…" seven-inch and that was the first record he put out on Drag City.
3. Cats and Dogs (1993)
Cats and Dogs was the first time we recorded in a very serious, real deal studio where there was no smoking. It had the mixing board from the Beach Boys' Wild Honey. We were huge Beach Boys fans and thought that was real cool. We'd never been in a place like that. There were session musicians that could be hired for string arrangements. It was super expensive to us, but Dan paid for it. At the end of the day it was probably $5,000 at the most, but that was huge. We were used to paying $500. So that was an awesome experience.
This was the first album recorded as a band, instead of you two as a duo.
Yeah, that was the first time we were a band. There were four of us, including Mike [Kaiser] and Ian [Willers]. We didn't even have to find them. They came to us. They were fans that we didn't even know. We literally picked them up on tour. Neil and I were touring as a duo, and when we were in Gainsville, Florida, [guitarist] Mike came to see us play. The next day we had off and he let us stay at his play in Daytona Beach. He was like, "Man, I wish I could go with you guys." And we said he could if he wanted. So he worked at a trophy shop, and went in and just quit, then got in the van and finished the tour with us. And then he recorded with us. The same thing happened with [drummer] Ian, except he was in Lawrence, Kansas. His band opened up for us.
Do you consider this a breakthrough for the band? It received quite a bit of press attention at the time.
Well, it was more palatable, generically speaking, to a normal listening audience, whereas the first album was so barebones and lo-fi, we sounded like retarded people. Then Twin Infinitives was so dense and crazy. People didn't know whether to take us seriously at all. With Cats and Dogs, we showed we could work on many different levels and contexts. I guess people figured out that maybe we were more than just retarded, drug people. I don't know.
2. Royal Trux (1988)
I love the first album. I was just listening to it a whole lot recently. When we got back from the European tour, Neil asked me to see what I could find in the archives. I have tons of stuff in my garage, in these big plastic tubs. I found the actual quarter-inch master tapes of the first album. We couldn't find them to get to Drag City, for when they reissued it, so they used the vinyl version. I couldn't believe it when I found them. So I've been listening to it recently, but now I'm bored of it.
There was literally no production, so to speak, at all. It is what it is. I love the songs, though. That album was just about getting it done. The studio was, like, ten dollars an hour. There wasn't this real process of recording and producing the album. As an experience, it doesn't have much depth, from what I can recall.
You were in your mid-teens when you and Neil recorded this album. He was also in Pussy Galore at the time. What experience did you have at that point?
I played piano and learned to read music as a kid. I gave it up once I had to do my first recital. It was so nerve-wracking I never wanted to play in front of people again. I had taken Yamaha guitar lessons in grade seven, but I was never good at any particular thing. Still, music was the driving force in my life. From 12 years on, I went to see all-ages, hardcore shows. I wasn't deterred by the fact that I had no real musical skills. Royal Trux started before Neil even went on to Pussy Galore. We started it in my last year in high school. We didn't record anything until we were in New York later on, when we could use this rehearsal space in an abandoned building we had the keys to.
1. Pound for Pound (2000)
To me it's kind of a combination of Cats and Dogs and Sweet Sixteen. It's pretty wild. I put Pound for Pound first because I was thinking about my friend Rita, who sang on the Radio Video EP, which was around the same time. We had her in our studio in Virginia. It was just a really cool time having her there. After having done Accelerator, where everything was limited literally, where we squashed everything down with compression, Pound for Pound was the opposite—it kind of leaks all over the place. I hadn't really listened to that album for a long time, and forgot about what the original "Accelerator" song sounded like. So I listened to it a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like the shit. That's why it's at the top for me today.
Drag City called this a "party record." Was that the intention going into making it or something decided after it was done?
That's Drag City being cheeky. That was not part of the preconceived parameters. Maybe it sounds like that to some people, but not to me. I guess there are some party rhythms on it.
To me, this is the most cohesive, straightforward rock album you guys made. I think "Fire Hill" could have been played on the radio.
We were definitely trying to edit things and distill it into what you're talking about, but without losing the wild, weedy side. There is something a little unhinged about how it sounds. But it was meant to be more straightforward and perhaps not quite as indulgent as Sweet Sixteen, or as simple as the production of Cats and Dogs.
Did you know this would be the last Royal Trux album when you were making it?
No. Everything changed the day before we went on tour and I found out my dad was gonna die. I just couldn't handle it. I lost it. Everything flipped. The whole script.
Is it the final Royal Trux studio album? Have you two discussed writing new songs?
There are new songs. The way in which we compile them has yet to be determined. I don't know if that would be the methodology. There will be new stuff. In this day and age it doesn't have to be the old fashioned way of getting everyone in the studio together to play the songs. So, I don't know. That is something Neil will have to discuss.