“Royal Trux only worked when it was all opposites, when people thought it was one thing and the truth was the opposite,” says former Royal Trux guitarist-singer Neil Hagerty, explaining the band’s demise by phone from a recording studio back East. “That was the only way it ever worked. Royal Trux was like a fake drug band, and then all of a sudden it became a real drug band — it all clicked into line. It made me sick. It degraded the whole Royal Trux thing. So I quit. And after I quit, the band fell apart.”
It‘s not easy to get at what that “Royal Trux thing” was. Although they sustained a career for 15 years, the Royal Trux thing wasn’t about pop hits — much to the frustration of Virgin Records, which signed the duo (Hagerty and singer Jennifer Herrema) and then watched sales of the band‘s second Virgin album — the one with the intestine-filled toilet on the cover — stall out below five digits. (The band were released from their contract, with hundreds of thousands of big-label advance dollars theirs to keep.) Royal Trux — especially the blue-jeaned, hair-in-the-eyes, badass biker chick Herrema — made the most of posturing, but their various poses seemed to owe more to bizarre Ornette Coleman–influenced intellectual moves and cryptic recording and visual-presentation strategies than simple fashion-grabs. Yeah, Royal Trux did record some of the best Stones music since Some Girls, and Herrema did once interview Keith Richards for Raygun, but the Trux were hardly a Stones-copyist band — their massive catalog is relentlessly experimental and art-jazz-actionist. Sure, Hagerty was a member of the Jon Spencer–fronted garage-punk incompetents Pussy Galore, but his latter-day work with Royal Trux showed a level of technical virtuosity (songwriting, riff slinging, at-length improvisation) well beyond that of most of today’s rock guitarists, be they mainstream or “indie.”
The band couldn‘t help but be misunderstood: If Dylan is a never-ending crossword puzzle, the Trux were a triple acrostic, working conceits that made the gambits of fellow game players like Pavement seem obvious. The duo existed in their own hermetic universe of sonic and lyrical vocabularies, informed — for one album, at least — by everything from ’70s singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and politicalliterary theorist Edward Said to Hagerty‘s passion for college basketball. Then they’d move on to a new set of obsessions and tactics. Their career was their own, divorced from rock-music — and rock-celebrity — cliches. Or so it seemed.
“Royal Trux was always this dodgy thing — we snaked around really well,” says Hagerty. “And then all of a sudden, people were losing their moorings completely. It‘s basically drugs, is what it is — not on my part, it wasn’t me. I‘ve been clean for almost 10 years. Jennifer’s been up and down, struggling with it. She‘s trying. The band became like an enabling mechanism. You could be clean when we weren’t doing anything, and then the touring starts, the pressure starts to build, and all of a sudden drugs come into play. That‘s total VH1! Royal Trux had become one of those stupid shows: ’And when we return, the specter of drugs lingers . . .‘ It was bullshit.”
In the aftermath of Royal Trux’s dissolution, Hagerty — who‘s always been prolific — has shifted into supercharged. He’s written a “pretty straightforward” script for a forthcoming Royal Trux comic book — sort of a sideways, pre-emptive maneuver on the Behind the Music folks. He‘s produced new albums by King Kong (Hagerty: “It’s a weird science-fiction biblical techno rock-opera thing which is just fuckin‘ nuts”), Original Sins acid-garage-rock singer-guitarist Brother JT (“It’s a really spiritual kind of thing”), and plans to produce one by new No Neck Blues Band spinoff group Suntanama. He‘s produced and performed on Tramps, Traitors and Little Devils, an album-length “super session” featuring Bill Callahan (Smog), Edith Frost, Jim O’Rourke and other Drag City Records regulars taking on choice covers (Randy Newman‘s “Old Man,” Sabbath’s “N.I.B.,” Lou Reed‘s “Charley’s Girl,” Del Reeves‘ “The Girl on the Billboard”) as well as a clutch of Callahan, Hagerty and Frost originals. He’s joined a new band featuring ex-members of the Make-Up, singer Ian Svenonius and bassist Michelle Mae. And this past spring he released the completely solo-recorded Neil Michael Hagerty through Drag City, an album of groovy electro beats, extended guitar runs and a gorgeous, Lennonesque falsetto miles from the tandem screech of Royal Trux.
“I was holding back in Royal Trux,” he explains. “Royal Trux was all planned out and calculated — I had a role to play. I‘m sick of that shit, I don’t want to do it anymore. So I had to do a tearing down, simplifying everything. I didn‘t want it to be a continuation of what I’d been doing. It was like a cleansing.”
Since then, Hagerty has assembled a new band with an unusual lineup: ex–Trux bassist Dan Brown on standup acoustic bass and New York vets Tim Barnes and Seven on drums, with Hagerty on guitar and vocals. The band, which has an album in the can already, will function like a jazz unit, convening occasionally for short tours and recording sessions under the Hagerty brand name.
“There‘s no ’group‘ image or mystique we have to somehow pretend to hold on to,” says Hagerty. “It’s just: We play. And tell jokes. And that‘s it.”
Neil Hagerty and his band play a double bill with Smog at Spaceland on Sunday, October 21.
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