Royal Trux on Their Unlikely, Reinvigorating Reunion

Royal Trux

Photo by Amanda Milius.

Since breaking up Royal Trux in 2001, Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty have both been so busy that it was hard to imagine they’d ever join forces again. Herrema made five albums with her groups RTX (a moniker that, confusingly enough, Royal Trux had used in the past) and Black Bananas. Hagerty has been even more prolific, crafting upwards of 20 releases on his own and with his group The Howling Hex.

There was also the matter of their communication—or lack thereof. Herrema, who lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and Hagerty, now in Denver with his wife and daughter, didn’t speak in person for years. But in 2015, somewhat out of the blue, they announced Royal Trux would headline L.A.’s Berserktown Festival (with The Howling Hex’s Tim Barnes on drums and Black Bananas’ Brian McKinley on bass). Later that year, a show in New York made the comeback feel official, and now Royal Trux is a fully-functional entity once again, currently touring Europe (with drummer Kid Millions of Oneida and Man Forever) with a string of additional dates planned in America later this year.

Solidifying the rebirth, there’s a new Royal Trux album out this month—but in keeping with the band’s odd history, Platinum Tips + Ice Cream isn’t exactly new. It’s a live album compiled of 12 old Royal Trux songs that were performed at those first two reunion shows (with a few studio tweaks). The live setting gives the record the rough, gut-level energy of prime Trux. Covering songs from across their history, Herrema and Hagerty howl and growl through their trademark take on classic rock, breathing smoke-filled life into songs that could easily sound dated.

We recently spoke with Herrema and Hagerty in the midst of their current European tour to find out why they got back together, how things have gone so far, and what—if any—future they foresee. Our separate conversations with each have been edited together below.

Royal Trux

Had you discussed the idea of reuniting before you were offered the spot at Berserktown Festival?

Neil Hagerty: Oh, god no. I wanted to be the one band that never did it. I didn’t want to be like The Who, where every tour was their farewell tour. It seemed pathetic.

Jennifer Herrema: [After Royal Trux dissolved] Neil and I didn’t speak for 13 years, except infrequently via email. But in the last few years, our communication became broader. It wasn’t just ‘by the way, the cat died,’ or something like that. And then I was doing a Black Bananas album and we co-wrote a couple songs. Then everything culminated into a perfect scenario, where he was out here on tour with Howling Hex, and for the first time ever he wrote me and said, ‘Come to our show in L.A.’ That was shocking. He told me that this promoter was really interested in having Royal Trux play his festival.

Hagerty: The [Berserktown] promoter offered some money, and I said, ‘Add another zero to that.’ I was kind of joking because I didn’t really want to do it. But he actually got close to that number. I thought, ‘Am I killing myself for a point of aesthetics?’ A light bulb went off in my head: ‘What’s the difference? It’s just standing next to someone else on stage.’ I was already touring a lot anyway, so I was ready to work as much as I could. I’m getting excited just remembering it because I was like, ‘Oh my god I think I could actually do it!’

Herrema: I looked up the festival, and it was happening five blocks from my studio, which is in the middle of nowhere. I’d had that studio for over a decade! So that was bizarre enough, and then the money was great, and the fact that Neil asked me himself—it was just like, ‘Ok, it’s a no-brainer really.’

How much did you plan for that Berserktown show?

Hagerty: It was meticulously approached. We decided the band would be me and Jennifer and two new people, one person from her camp and one from mine. So I picked the drummer [Barnes] and she picked the bassist [McKinley]. I made a list of 25 songs, and she did the same, and we took all the songs that were matched in that first pass immediately into the set.

Herrema: Neil and Tim walked into our studio, and it was as if no time had passed whatsoever. The way that we worked together hadn’t changed at all. Of course, we are way smarter and older and had accumulated more experiences, but other than that we were the exact same people. So it totally locked in.

Hagerty: We had to practice getting along, but we only had one huge fight the whole time.

How much had you listened to Royal Trux songs over the years?

Hagerty: I didn’t listen to them much after we broke up. I knew they were good, and if I listen to our old music, it inflames my ego; after a while I’m dancing around the balcony without a shirt. It’s dangerous.

Herrema: My records had been sitting on the shelf for over a decade. I’d hear a song here or there, like on a test pressing for repressings, but sometimes I didn’t even need to check those since nothing had changed. So yeah, I hadn’t listened much.

What was it like to hear them again after all those years?

Herrema: I completely rediscovered how fucking amazing we were. It sounds fucked up, but I was like, ‘Goddamn, our records were good!’ I knew they were, but I wasn’t expecting to be so blown away. I expected it wouldn’t move me in the present, but it totally did. It just sparked me and gave me all this kind of fresh initiative.

Hagerty: It was so much fun to be relaxed and listen to them. I had put a wall up so I could get on with doing my own stuff, but letting that wall down turned out to be easy, instead of being like some painful extraction. It was great. I thought, I have this vault right here, I wrote all this shit! So I was happy.

I take it the Berserktown show went well.

Herrema: Oh yeah, it was great. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was making shit up, but enjoying myself. I didn’t feel stressed. I figured, in keeping with the lineage of Royal Trux, I can have no expectations—just wander in and see what the mood brings.

Hagerty: For me, it was about playing with the pre-conceived notions of whatever small amount of hardcore fans we had. I was really rigid—I wanted to recreate the sonic palette of each song using shakers and effects and things like that. I had, like, seven pedals, so I could switch them out, but now I’m only playing with one.

Herrema: Brian and I have spent years creating this live scenario where we record things beforehand and assign sounds to different strings on our digital guitars. So I suggested to Neil [after the first show], maybe we should utilize that with Royal Trux. That would give Neil more room to open up. It’s more tools in the toolbox. We weren’t going to be able to play the songs exactly the same way anyway; we could probably only do it once and then we would get bored. So it’s about having more colors and flavors available—different ways of keeping the core of the song but being able to wander off.

What made you decide to make Platinum Tips + Ice Cream using recordings from the first two shows?

Herrema: Neil and I were talking about recording the first show for posterity because we didn’t know if it would be the only show we would do.

Hagerty: I told Dan [Koretzky of Drag City], ‘Let’s record this and bang out a cheapo cash-grab record, so we can finally get paid for some of this shit that we did.’ I see Veterans of Disorder on the [record store] wall for $100, and I don’t even have a copy. So that was my idea, but I was like, ‘I hope it doesn’t turn into the Eagles live record’—and it did. We recorded a second show and overdubbed stuff, so it’s not completely live.

Herrema: They’re old songs, but new versions, new dates, new time, new people. We decided we’d just put it out as something new. It was an easy decision.

Each of you has made a lot of music since you stopped playing together. Has that changed your perspective on Royal Trux?

Herrema: It’s hard to pinpoint. Neil and I always shared duties, so being separated from him for the first time since I was 15 and working as the director of my own band and bringing in musicians that I chose—I just feel like I can do any of the jobs now. It’s the product of time and moving forward and learning new stuff.

Hagerty: All the different ways I’ve done stuff since has helped. I can handle it now. I had to take like 18 years off to get my shit together before I was able to handle doing it again. I’m happy to be able to live in Jennifer’s presence and actually be humans around each other again. I have so much to learn from her. That’s the reward that comes with being able to be chill instead of panicking every second. I follow Jennifer’s lead, because she’s smart in a way that I don’t understand. I have to ask her for advice, which she’s able to give.

Herrema: Royal Trux is what it is, regardless. What we’re doing now, other people are just starting to do, and what we were doing when we left off, people are doing now. It’s strange. I’m not claiming this happened because we planned it. It just is. There’s just something there, maybe because of the bubble which Neil and I created for ourselves and lived in. We took in tons of information, but as far as social beings, it was pretty much just me and him.

Your artistic dynamic seems so potent. Can you explain it at all in words?

Herrema: It’s weird. When we were in Detroit, we did an interview with Rolling Stone on speaker phone, and Neil got there late, and some of the same stories I had mentioned before he got there, he reiterated without knowing I had told those stories. We just think a lot alike. Even if we’re thinking opposite things, those two contrary ideas are what makes up the singular idea. A lot of it is about us having been so enmeshed together during our super formative years. It’s not like we met after becoming fully-formed humans, so there was just so much common ground in that sense. It’s still totally there.

Hagerty: Now that we’re stuck in the van together, we’re starting to act like ourselves again. Jennifer’s the star of the band. So I get to be gracious and grateful and generous, which is new. To be honest, the idea that people really love music and they want to hear certain people perform it for them, I never really understood it. And now, I am finally learning about it. Just live, be alive, be a person, and you’re not a bad person to just be yourself. I heard it a million times, but I never really understood it until now. I learned it from Jennifer.

Have you thought about making new Royal Trux songs?

Herrema: Yeah, the idea has come up. We’ve written like 300 songs or something, most of which haven’t been heard by the general public, and they’re good songs that are pretty timeless. I’d like to go more into that meta-idea that I use with Brian, accessing the previous work, yet making something new out of it. That’ll happen in time. Neil’s got Howling Hex and I’m doing Black Bananas, and we’ve got a huge body of work, a big tool chest. Eventually, I’m sure lots of stuff will get done as long as we’re around on this earth.

Hagerty: I swore up and down to God ‘No!’ I couldn’t put myself in that mindset. But Jennifer and Brian may have a way of transporting things, so if I write a song, it would suddenly click into place and be Royal Trux. I know she can do it. My whole aesthetic is basically, is music something or is it nothing? It’s better than sitting around in my apartment.

Jennifer, what was the idea behind calling your band RTX for a few years?

Herrema: You can ask Neil. He was like, ‘You should call it RTX,’ so I did. He’s an instigator. Nobody even understood that. I think he thought it was pretty funny that we were being parsed and separated into the bad witch and the good witch—I think he found that amusing. I kind of did, but I was also like, ‘I thought our people were smarter than that.’ But they’re only our people when they’re listening to us.

Hagerty: I was like, ‘You should go to England—after White Stripes hit, you could totally be huge over there now.’ I owe her for doing all that work, because now I’m cashing in on some of that glory. We’re the only two people on earth who understand each other, so you have to at least stay in touch. I’m cool with that. I’m a different person now.

Has reuniting made you think again about what Royal Trux is, either musically or philosophically?

Herrema: Both of us love music, and we both know a lot of music. Even as teenagers, if we were playing something that sounded like something we already knew—and we had quite a hard drive of stuff in our heads already—we needed to skew it to make it more our own. It was more of an artistic philosophy where it was like, ‘OK, I love the color red, I love the color pink, let’s choose all these things that we really like from all sorts of disparate places and things, whether it’s books, or colors, anything, and utilize them in a new way.’ Over time, the inclusivity was so all-encompassing, we needed to find ways to like things that we hate. Like, I cannot stand polka music, but there’s something beautiful in there, and I’m going to find it, and I’m going to use it.

Hagerty: We have a soundman now, which is new. Before, we felt like it was bourgeois to fool the public in that way. So our sound would be random—if we played a metal club, the house guy would mix it like a metal band. I thought that was kind of cool, like a regional mutation would happen. We’ve got Cooper Crain [of Cave and Bitchin Bajas] doing sound for us on this [European] tour, but what we’re doing doesn’t sound like the records. That’s not my game. I’m literally in the moment playing onstage, and I feel totally honest. It’s fun. We’re not doing fake stuff. I’m not good at that anyways. I also wasn’t so good at being myself onstage before, but now I can stand up there and talk and be comfortable.

Did you both always think you’d be making music, either separately or together?

Herrema: Yes and no. At no point did I ever think I would be allowed the opportunity to do this and nothing but this in order to shelter myself and feed myself. Once it became clear that it was a possibility, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done—for better or for worse. Sometimes, shit was rough. It’s up and down. There was a brief point when I walked away from music and went off on my own strange excursion of the mind. I was associating music with the way I was feeling and the cyclical nature of my repeating self-destructive behavior. I threw that all into the same box. So I threw the box out—I was like, ‘Fuck this box.’ But it didn’t last long. I started writing songs within that year, and I was like, ‘Well, there we go.’

Hagerty: The only thing that can stop us is if we are in a transportation accident. We’re not going to go out OD’ing in a hotel room. The guys in bands who did that, they brought so much joy to people and paid with their lives. That’s what always scared me about being good. You have to both attract and repel—it can’t be just love all the time. It’s got to have some boundaries.

Herrema: I don’t have any expectations. I know it’ll be good, but I don’t know how I will feel on any given night. I would love it to feel great every single time, and that’s a distinct possibility, but I have no idea if it will happen that way.

Marc Masters

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