Royal Trux - Biography
Royal Trux emerged out of the breakup of noise-junky rock band Pussy Galore, who were based in Washington, DC. Pussy Galore’s records were largely a tuneless avant garde mess; an admittedly acquired taste, although many enjoyed their unholy racket. At the band's best, they brought to mind a sloppy melding of Sonic Youth and The Cramps. If you either dug it or at least pretended to, it could definitely earn the listener serious hipster cred. And there was certainly some pleasure to be found in their carefree assault on rock 'n' roll. Critics who trotted out clichés about them not being able to play their instruments generally missed the point, and ignored the live-wire excitement of such songs as “Don’t Jones Me.”
Neil Hagerty, one of the band’s three guitarists, convinced the band to record a (cassette-only) cover of the entire Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street LP. With apparently only Hagerty having the least familiarity with the record, the resultant release was a clumsy out of tune rehearsal tape, charming in an “I can’t believe it’s so bad” type of way.
Hagerty left the band to form Royal Trux with his girlfriend Jennifer Herrema. Their first two releases, Royal Trux (1988 Royal; reissued 1993 Drag City) and Twin Infinitives (1990 Drag City) were similar in sound to Pussy Galore; random riffing and Herrema’s somnambulant junkie croak, and what sounds like a cheap drum machine. Twin Infinitives was an ambitious piece of noise-rock, a double-LP with one song, “(Edge of the) Ape Oven” occupying an entire side. Their third release (untitled, 1992 Drag City) showed the band actually beginning to evince interest and ability in playing slightly more traditional rock music, even including an acoustic song “Junkie Nurse,” likely inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “Sister Morphine.” Hagerty’s Stones fixation began to surface more frequently, and their next two records featured an array of hired musicians brought in to give a more professional underpinning to their free-form sounds.
Following the sudden and unexpected success of Nirvana and other so called “grunge” bands, Royal Trux was swept up in a signing frenzy by major labels; inking a deal with Virgin for a reported seven figures. Hagerty and Herrema undertook a low-rent retreat to a house in the farmlands of West Virgina to write songs and rehearse their newly enlarged band. They hired a professional rhythm section once again, including drummer Chris Pyle, the son of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer Artimus Pyle. The presence of Pyle was appropriate for the material the band began to record, which traded in their trademark clumsiness and low-fi clatter for a post-punk take on 70’s southern rock and hard rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad and Black Oak Arkansas.
Perhaps pressured by Virgin, Royal Trux also brought in an outside producer for the first time in their career. The band selected David Briggs, best known for his work with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Briggs was dying of lung cancer and would pass away before the end of the year; this recording would be his final production credit. Briggs’greatest work with Young and Crazy Horse was the mid-70s masterpiece Tonight’s the Night, recorded in 1973 but not released until 1975. That record was a rough-hewn and often spooky elegy for the departed Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and band roadie Bruce Berry — both victims of drug overdoses. With its loose, drunken and occasionally out-of-tune music, cracked vocals, and battered harmonies, it was an affront to the slick, glib, letter-perfect productions of the mid-70s. Tonight’s the Night can be seen as a template for what Briggs achieved with Thank You, (1995 Virgin), Royal Trux’s finest moment.
“A Night to Remember” opens the album in full hard rock splendor, with Pyle’s musical drumming anchoring the song in the same way that Sonic Youth’s excellent rock drummer Steve Shelley anchors that band’s most “out there” experimental pieces. “Map of the City” sees Hagerty and Herrema trading often hilarious verses over a melancholic melody enlivened with very 'Young-ish' blasts of guitar. “Fear Strikes Out” draws its title from the 1957 film biography of mentally ill baseball player Jimmy Piersall, and the 6 plus minutes of closer “Shadow of the Wasp” scatters shards of bleak lyrics over a simple Crazy Horse-like one chord vamp, with Hagerty stretching out with a long guitar solo that encapsulates his wobbly bluesy style perfectly.
While the band gave Virgin the best record of their career, it didn’t produce a hit single like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and after follo-up album Sweet Sixteen (1997 Virgin) similarly failed to deliver the goods, the band was dropped by Virgin. They returned to their former label Drag City for the remainder of their career, releasing five more full-length albums, one EP and a collection of live and unreleased material from their back catalog.
Toward the end Hagerty and Herrema could be heard in interviews declaring the band’s entire career was a fully-planned deconstructionist approach to rock history, although to what end was unclear. However, this likely after-the-fact theorizing did little to slow the inevitable. Their last release as an active band was Pound for Pound (2000 Drag City), after which Hagerty and Herrema separated as a couple and brought Royal Trux to an end. Drag City released Hand of Glory (2002 Drag City) following the dissolution of the band; the material was drawn from their earliest days as a band.
Hagerty has since released 3 well-received solo albums, all on Drag City Records. He tours occasionally, often without a backing band, instead hiring local musicians to provide simple backup while he solos over the top in his semi-psychedelic, Stonesy fashion. Herrema left the scene for several years before returning with RTX, which combined the latter period Royal Trux sound with elements of heavy metal and hardcore punk. RTX’s first release, Transmaniacon (2004 Drag City), named after the Blue Oyster Cult song, gave a nod musically as well to that band’s guitar-heavy sound. Followup release Western Xterminator (2007 Drag City) was a critics’ favorite as well. Strong echoes of Herrema’s gritty hissing vocals can be heard in the singing of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s vocalist Karen O.