There are some bands that many claim to love, but few actually hear. The Velvet Underground set the standard as the uber name-drop band, with Suicide, Swans, Crass, and Einsturzende Neubauten, for example, to follow. In the early 1990s, Royal Trux was one of those bands.
Championed by the movers and shakers of New York’s post-whatever noise/scuzz-rock scene, Royal Trux was much more famous for the drug-fueled antics of its members than for its music. The band, formed from the wreckage of Pussy Galore, was composed of Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty (then married to each other) and occasional nameless, faceless backing musicians. Herrema and Hagerty were the underground Pete Dohertys of the grunge era—always in the spotlight of controversy, but never on the radio and rarely found in record stores.
After releasing nine albums, Royal Trux split, both as a band and as a couple, in 2000. Since then Hagerty has released a spate of albums as The Howling Hex and Herrema has soldiered on with her own band, RTX.
Asked to compare and contrast the sounds of RTX and Royal Trux, Herrema is somewhat cryptic. “I’d say [RTX’s music] is more linear, as opposed to, like, cyclical,” she says. “The way the music moves forward—it’s more straightforward. It has a lot in common with Royal Trux, but the momentum, you know, it’s a different thing. It’s just the way this band works as opposed to how the partnership of Royal Trux worked. It’s easier to latch on to. There’s a confidence in that. In the previous band we didn’t really know where the music was going, and that was the chemistry. That had a kind of purity of its own.”
And that rather oblique answer actually makes sense. The new RTX album, Western Xterminator, is a tightly structured affair with immaculate production values, giant guitar riffs, and an overall accessibility that rarely, if ever, surfaced with Royal Trux. Rock ’n’ roll with a capital “R,” the album delivers a set of solid tunes that seem rooted in the pre-metal hard rock of the 1970s, bringing to mind the radio hits of groups like Free, Grand Funk Railroad, the James Gang, or early Alice Cooper—songs that are heavy, melodic, and have a memorable pop element. Nevertheless, an underlying sense of foreboding pervades the album, a sense of fin de siecle despair lurking among the brash, high-gloss sounds.
Now living in California, Herrema still exudes a certain Lower East Side vibe, her sometimes drawling voice resonating with the sound of thousands of cigarettes. Affable but still tough as nails, Jennifer says her relocation to the West Coast has, to a degree, affected the slightly sunnier feel of her latest work.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it, but wherever—you know, wherever I am—I allow myself to take part in my surroundings and that’s inevitably gonna kind of surface in the music,” she says. “On a physical level there’s a real beauty out here. I like to use the beauty if I can, and try to put it into whatever I’m doing. I listen to music—not every day, not all the time. I think that everything that I hear that I like, it gets filed away somewhere. But I think that the influences that run deep are the ones that I heard in my formative years, like 12 or 13 years old, you know what I mean? My influences during that time were—well, I loved rock ’n’ roll, I loved the Bad Brains.... Everything kind of evolved from that place.”
Regarding the legacy and infamy of Royal Trux, Herrema concedes that the band was known more for its proclivity for decadence than for its music. “The music was really influential to people, but that influence came through word of mouth: One person hears it and describes it to another. And that person puts it into their imagination and makes something of it on their own. My thoughts on the drug thing are the same as they always were, I suppose. It was just something that became like a signifier and a way for other people to market us. Although, you know, there’s truth to most of all of it.”
As to her future and the future of RTX, Herrema says she has no intentions of ever slowing down. “I dunno, I mean one thing that does remain the same is that I’m part of it. I don’t go day-to-day with any expectations. I just do what I want to do. So, with no expectations, I will continue making music. It would be hard to sum up my music because it’s not finished, you know? It’s still in the process. It’s just music. It’s really fucking good. It’s rock ’n’ roll. It’s got everything you ever wanted.”