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Rock Eccentrics Royal Trux on Recapturing Their ‘Psycho, Nutty Energy’

From the late Eighties through the late Nineties, the rock duo Royal Trux earned a reputation as a volatile, unpredictable presence onstage. To track down reports from their shows is to find descriptors like “one of the worst performances of anything in memory,” or, perhaps a tad more charitably, “one of the biggest ‘fuck you’ shows I’ve ever seen.”

“Sometimes people think we just suck so fucking bad,” acknowledges lead singer Jennifer Herrema. “We never suck so fucking bad. This is not Vegas, baby. It could fall apart. You could hate us. People should understand we have their best interests at heart – even if they don’t get what they want.”

At least for the moment, Royal Trux’s interests seem closely aligned with the rest of the world’s – after more than 15 years apart, Herrema and guitarist Neil Hagerty have reunited their band. On Platinum Tips + Ice Cream, a stomping, slapdash, feedback-swathed new live record out Friday, they revisit a chunk of their back catalog.

Those old songs cover an impressively wide swath of guitar-rock tradition. During their initial run, Royal Trux’s output ranged from noisy, inscrutable doodles with guitar and voice (1990’s Twin Infinitives) to slack funk (1995’s Thank You, overseen by Neil Young producer David Briggs) and crushingly direct, joyful blasts (“I’m Ready,” from 1998’s Accelerator).

Songs like “I’m Ready” might have become minor hits, if the band cared about hits. Herrema and Hagerty are famous their no-compromises, no-surrender attitude. The most common story told about the band is the one where they extracted a king’s ransom from Virgin Records without caving to any of the label’s demands and then added insult to injury by recording Accelerator with Virgin’s money and putting it out via indie institution Drag City.

Speaking over the phone from their hotel in Detroit, Herrema is far more inclined to answer questions than her bandmate, a fact that Hagerty freely admits. “Jennifer will tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m a little more circumspect. Inaction speaks louder than words.” He enjoys making compact statements that might turn up on a line of ironic bumper stickers. “I don’t discuss aesthetics,” he declares. “I only talk about people behind their backs.”

This is not true, of course – Hagerty is given to comic, topsy-turvy musings on four decades of rock aesthetics. At one point, he decides that Royal Trux are a “Nineties band,” and this makes him uneasy. “I can’t get comfortable with those bands,” he says. Herrema agrees in the background: “Nineties bands are horrible!”

“Where we do we stand on Pearl Jam, though?” Hagerty wonders. “Because I am pro–Pearl Jam.”

“I’m not anti–Pearl Jam,” Herrema asserts. “I just do not want to hear them ever.”

According to Hagerty, this is one of the first times he has been sitting in a room together with Herrema and no one else present in 15 years. Royal Trux had been a creative and romantic partnership, but the pair split following 2000’s Pound for Pound – 2002’s Hand of Glory actually collected tracks recorded in the Eighties – and cut off all contact with one another. 

Herrema believes that the breakup was necessary. “I met Neil when I was 15, and we grew up together,” she explains. “I’d never lived alone creating my own thing independently. There was some kind of reservation in the back of my head that needed to be sussed out – I really did need to know that I could do things without him.”

Perhaps relatedly, she also needed to snap herself out of a troubling feedback loop that repeatedly led her back to drug abuse. “I just kept fucking up in life,” Herrema says. “It took Neil a while, but when he got off drugs, he stayed off and kept moving forward. I would too, but then it would feel like groundhog day: ‘It’s time to go on tour, here we go again.'”

She continues, “If I didn’t extricate myself from this cycle, I saw it continuing on and on. I was like, ‘I gotta leave. I gotta get out of here.’ Everyone’s like, ‘Dude, that’s so wrong. You and Neil are perfect; you love each other; you have a great band; you have a great studio and house together.’ I’m like, ‘I wish everything was perfect. I have to walk away from it in order to get my shit together.’ I just had to tip over the apple cart, run away, and see what happened.”

Herrema kept making music in RTX and Black Bananas, while Hagerty released solo LPs, recorded in a group dubbed the Howling Hex and toured twice a year like clockwork. Drag City initiated a five-album reissue campaign in 2010, but Herrema says she and Hagerty still did not speak during that process. Hagerty has writing credits on Black Bananas’ 2014 LP, but the collaboration happened via email.

They finally broke their mutual non-engagement pact in 2015 after a Howling Hex show in L.A.: “Neil called me the next morning and said that the promoter had brought up Royal Trux playing,” Herrema recalls. “He was throwing some dollars out there and Neil was like, ‘It’s going to take a lot more than that.’ And the dude was like, ‘Well, let me know and we can discuss.'”

“We’re both completely solid and not half-solid as codependents, so coming together now is double great.” –Jennifer Herrema

“I just said, ‘Tell him 40 grand,'” Herrema continues. “My promoter is a good friend – she came back like, ‘I told him 55, and he’s taking it.’ That was that.”

After the briefest of rehearsals – “one day, and not for very long” – Royal Trux performed at the Berserkertown II Festival in Los Angeles. “We were the exact same people,” Herrema says, but with years of independent endeavors behind them, there was a crucial difference: “We could deal with our stuff without having to lean on each other. It felt like he had my back, and I had his. We’re both completely solid and not half-solid as codependents, so coming together now is double great.”

Hagerty felt similarly, and Royal Trux performed again at Webster Hall in New York City in December of 2015. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream compiles live recordings from those initial reunion shows. The band recently played two more shows in the U.S. and then embarked on a short European tour. More European and U.S. live dates will follow in August.

Platinum Tips + Ice Cream represents most of Royal Trux’s back-catalog LPs with at least one song, along with tracks from a few 7-inch records and the Deafer than Blind EP. But the album’s main appeal is the way it bottles the group’s turbulent live presence. “I didn’t want it to sound anything other than the way it sounded when I was standing on the stage,” Herrema says.  

She had conversations with JJ Golden, who handled the album’s mastering with Nadav Eisenman, about their process in order to ensure that the final product aligned with her recollections. “He wanted to change my vocals so I don’t sound all crackly or whatever,” she explains. “It sounded great, but it didn’t have that psycho, nutty energy.”

This remains an important component of the group’s identity. “When we’re playing, even if it’s all over the map, we’re in it,” Herrema states. “We’re giving you everything we’ve got. We don’t have expectations. We always tell the audience never to have expectations. Their expectations pinned up against the reality of the playing is what creates that negative dynamic.”

In a reunion situation, audiences often want their golden oldies and treasured deep cuts. But maybe both the band and the crowd have become more accommodating over time. “Getting onstage at that [first reunion] show, it felt really silly that we’d wasted all those years not playing,” Hagerty says, in a serious moment. “I love it. Every other show we played was just hostility, just us fighting the audience.”

“Not in England!” Herrema clarifies.

Now, Hagerty adds, “The people are actually here to see us.”

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