Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Melody Maker, November 9th 1991
By Simon Reynolds
Something wiggy this way comes… Royal Trux are Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty, the latter a refugee from Pussy Galore. There's some continuity between PG and Trux, but to apply the concept of "trash aesthetic" to Twin Infinitives would be to dignify it, imply a degree of coherence that isn't there. This isn't trash, it's garbled garbage, a spewed slew of cultural detritus that barely holds together as music. Sounds good to me.
If there are precedents, they're the early lo-fi Cabaret Voltaire (when the Cabs would cover Sixties garage psych group The Seeds, who made a career out of one riff) or the paraplegic rockabilly of Panther Burns. Broken blues or garage punk riffs jut out of a miasma of hissing, ultra-cheapo drum machine. On "Jet Pet", a contorted, funky wah-way riff recalls the Cabs' "Nag Nag", while the voice is mangled by a "futuristic" effect that's simultaneously naff and disturbing, like the purple rinse they used to put on T.Rex on Top of the Pops. In "Jim Versus the Vomit Creature", the gibbering hoodoo punkadelia of the Hombres is submerged under a million miles of reverb and treated hi-hat.
Elsewhere on this double album, Royal Trux regress even further, unleashing the sort of clamour made by a classroom of six-year-olds each given a simple instrument by their music teacher. "Chances Are the Comets In Our Future" is a hive of bedlam that sounds like jazz-less incompetents trying to mimic Sun Ra. Elsewhere, they sound like what would have happened if Elvis's Sun Sessions ever reached the Clangers' s planet. "Osiris" recalls Faust or Loop, a black inferno of techy guitars. The side-long "(Edge of the) Ape Oven" is less murky than the rest of the album; it's a "musaic" of incongruous, incompatible textures -- phased harmonia, shortwave radiation, fitful piano, dribbled half-wit vocals, deformed, disfigured guitar--that recalls Can's weirdest tracks on Unlimited Edition.
The more I listen to Twin Infinitives, the more I get gripped by the perverse logic that connects the apparently random spillage. This is the direction Amerindie noise should have taken after Daydream Nation and Hairway to Steven: everywhichway. Dance this mess around.
ROYAL TRUX, interview
Melody Maker, June 19th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Royal Trux are the kings of fucked up shit. At once primitive and futuristic, low-down and far-out, Royal Trux are currently unrivalled as exponents of the avant-garage mess-thetic.
Having boggled to their unearthly records, it's hard to imagine Royal Trux as creatures of flesh-and-blood. But here they are, sitting opposite me in a cafe on St Marks Place, the Main Street of New York's bohemian East Village. Neil Hagerty
(guitar/voice/weirdstuff) looks disarmingly ordinary; his partner Jennifer Herrema (voice/otherstuff) looks more the part, with her extravagant blonde coiffure, sunglasses pushed right down to the tip of her nose, kooky rings, and mouth that hangs open when she's not talking. Together, they exude a strange, appealing aura-blend of space cadet and down-to-earth.
Royal Trux formed in 1985, while Hagerty was still playing guitar in Pussy Galore. Personally, I never much cared for PG's conceptual primitivism, their drive to distil rockabilly, garage punk and hardcore down to its teen-delinquent essence: fuck you!/let's get ripped/kick out the jams! But there's a lot of crossover over between PG and Trux. Hagerty played a instigating role in PG's obliterative cover of ALL of the Stones' Exile On Main Street. This feat of homage/vandalism pretty much set the tone for Trux's crush collision of classic rock cliches and freeform freak-out.
Hagerty and Herrema started Royal Trux to find "something not trendy, something we felt we could do forever". They felt that the New York downtown noize scene in 1986/87 was going nowhere. Trux's untitled 1988 debut (recently reissued by Drag City) sounds like an attempt to scrape back all the layers of rock history and critical knowledge, and recover the primal, thoughtless urgency of rock'n'roll. The result is hoodoo-voodoo garage punk and rockabilly more ghoulish than The Cramps' wildest dreams. Cadaverous blues riffs twitch and jive amidst spacey keyboard noodlings midway between Sun Ra's Disco 3000 and ? And The Mysterians' "96 Tears".
But Royal Trux really started to get attention with the follow-up, 1990's Twin Infinitives, an addled sprawl of inspired self-indulgence and lo-fi experimentalism that defies description. Comparisons with Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Can's Tago Mago apply only in so far that this formidably, forbiddingly unhinged record seems to have slipped free of the physical laws that govern terrestial music. In a sense, the album was recorded on another planet, in that it was the product of a combination of
"hermetic isolation" and systematic derangement of the senses. The album was recorded, over an extended period, in San Francisco, after the first of many Trux migrations ("the Tuaregs of rock'n'roll" is how Neil describes their nomadism). Here, the couple quickly made a number of enemies. "A lot of people were offended by us - we were pretty wild, when we weren't working on music we were just running
around, acting like assholes, and totally into getting fucked up."
At first, Hagerty and Herrema worked with a wannabe session guitarist and rudimentary drummer, playing endless versions of the same four-song set (Velvet Underground's "Cool It Down", The Godz' 'Radar Eyes", Gram Parsons' "Wheels", Louis Armstrong's "Oh Lizzy"). After six months, the musicians split, and Trux started fucking around with the rehearsal tapes, cutting and splicing, looping and
reversing them. They hit upon the idea of writing "basic, classic songs and combining them with totally random and unconscious music". By this point, with their isolation from society deepening and substance-intake soaring, Royal Trux had gotten pretty estranged from reality. They started writing songs based on books they were reading by Philip K. Dick and Thomas Disch, "real complicated science fiction, which we'd try to compress into three minute rock operas".
"Neil was trying to reach VALIS," recalls Jennifer, referring to Philip K. Dick's idea of a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. "Our windows had been smashed out, and we ran an aluminum foil antenna out the window attached to an FM receiver."
Neil: "We were into anything that was connected with that paranoia-is-really-enlightenment thing. Our idea was that the less conscious thought we put into the music, the more the random electronic gizmo element would take over."
Jennifer: "But underneath all the weird shit, we still had our roots, the music we loved at school like AC-DC, Led Zep, Stones. We still judged everything in terms of whether it was lame or rocking. Even the weirdest noises, we'd think: 'shit, this scrungy noise is lame, it's like the last Led Zep record!'"
And so songs like "Edge Of The Ape Oven" compact together kosmik sound-debris and crass rock riffs. Royal Trux pivots around the collision of The Cliche and the
Anti-Cliche (the hitherto unheard and unimaginable noise). Like other visionaries - Suicide, Faust, Fall - they combine minimalism and maximalism, repetition and randomness.
Given free use of a giant warehouse studio, the pair spent nine months recording Twin Infinitives, using a stack of cheesy effect pedals, a disintegrating guitar, a clapped out Moog synth, and other thrift-store instruments. The result is one of the most groggily disorientating records ever oozed, so crammed with nuanced delirium it'd take a lifetime to fathom. Amazingly, it garnered rave reviews,
although Jennifer remains sceptical: "I wanted to have X-Ray spex and see who really liked it enough to actually listen to it". Royal Trux became a touchstone of uncompromising avant-garage-ism for those dismayed by the shift towards the mainstream made by the likes of Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers.
Shortly thereafter, Royal Trux embarked on a calamitous tour of the Mid-West, documented on the video "What Is Royal Trux?". The pair pushed the confrontational nature of their thang to the point of physical altercations with audience members.
"One guy threw a beer at us, and Jennifer lept into the audience and smashed a mug over him", remembers Neil. "We could have been completely destroyed by this guy, we were so physically weakened." They'd travelled by train, in order to give themselves time to get psyched for the tour, but instead consumed their entire supply of drugs. "A lot of the weirdness of that tour was really biological," recalls Jennifer, dimly. "Weird sensations going through your body. Onstage, we were in altered states".
That seems to be a big part of Trux's music, communicating these uncanny physical sensations. Twin Infinitives make me imagine the effects of really trashy, low-level drugs - solvents, cough medicines, veterinary anaesthetics, poisonous plants.
Neil: "At the time, we were into this little head trip about non-mitigated communication between nervous systems. Like telepathy."
After Twin and the tour, a long gap ensued before Royal Trux recorded their third album (also untitled). Released late last year in the States, it's the first Trux album to get a proper UK release. It's far more accessible and stripped down than Twin Infinitives.
"We wanted to take what we learned from the second album but put back the obvious elements of rock'n'roll," explains Hagerty. "We weren't consciously trying to reach out to people, but we weren't trying to push them away, either". The result is still pretty eerie: imagine the druggiest dregs of Exile On Main Streetboiled down into this pitch-black, treacley goo.
The Exile analogy isn't purely textural: the album took two full years between conception and completion, because the pair had slipped into the mire of junkiedom. They finally banged it out quickly in early '92, after they'd quit drugs but were "still in that disorientated state". That the album is haunted by heroin is
abundantly clear from songs like "Junkie Nurse" and the hideously voluptuous imagery of "Blood Flowers", a metaphor for the pattern made by blood spurting out [into the syringe chamber] as the needle enters the vein.
Neil: "It wasn't a pose, y'know. It was our reality, although we were also aware of being part of a grand tradition. But that life brings out a lot of strange conflicts. Opium is still beyond the pale of our culture. Dope is also a good metaphor for control and escape."
So what is the, erm, appeal?
Jennifer: "Biologically, our bodies produce endorphins, painkillers. Heroin is an endorphin and it's much stronger than the natural ones. Everything becomes so much more appealing, life seems so less hard. In normal life, there's starts and stops, but on heroin everything seems to roll along. But although it abolishes anxiety, it
creates new anxieties: a whole new set of stops and starts."
Eventually, Hagerty and Herrema got fed up with the ups-and-downs, the exorbitant and manifold costs. "We'd reached the end of the line, started dealing a bit," admits Neil. "And you see people who are older, been doing it for years and it's not gotten any better, and you start to think. I went into a rehab and this counsellor told me 'you've been on drugs since you were a kid and you don't know what it's like to do things straight. If you could see the world when you're clean, it's like a new drug'".
The counsellor was 'pushing' reality and Hagerty took the bait. So is the third album a sort of 'goodbye to all that'?
Jennifer: "I'd like it to be so, but it just doesn't go away. It still lingers, probably always will." And heroin still affects their decisions: they'd like to return to New York, but daren't 'cos smack is purer and cheaper there than their current base, Washington DC.
The third album is just great, but the one you have to hear is Cats and Dogs, set for UK release in couple of months. Trux's most conventionally beautiful and undeniable record, Cats and Dogs is less jarring than its predecessors, more of a gorgeous dream-time blur. Stones raunch vaporised into a billowing fug of bluesy fumes, it'll have you swooning from a contact high. Recorded in a Virginian country home, with a proper band, it's at once organic and
disembodied, raw and spectral: a consummation/condensation of everything Trux learned doing the first three records.
The standout track, "Turn Of The Century", starts like the bottleneck blues on the soundtrack to "Performance", then crumples and wilts into dust-hazy ghost-town of sound. This and other songs like "Skywood Greenback Mantra" and "Up His Sleeve" have a dissipative, mirage-like quality not heard since Daydream Nation. But there's also one return to the avant-gardism of Twin Infinitives, with "Driving In That Car (With The Eagle On The Hood)", a clammy, creepy cenotaph of sound that fills your head with rippling, shimmering murk. With its junkshop synth and dub-like spatiality, "Driving" is a product of Trux's love of electronic music (Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire) and the trance-mantra tradition (Terry
Riley). Neil even used to be pals with techno whizz-kid Moby: there's so many more strings to this band than a Stones fetish.
When I ask what the song's about, though, I'm none the wiser.
"The title was something Jennifer used to chant onstage when she forgot the words," says Neil. "Finally we turned it into a song. It evokes for us some kind of movie Nazi driving around in a low-rider, with a big eagle on the hood. He's cruising downtown, and he's baaad!"
I haven't a fucking clue what they're on about (and out of kindness, I've spared you their baffling explication of "Turn Of The Century"). But that's what great about Royal Trux: they may be straight now, but they're still floating free way beyond terra firma, still broadcasting on a wavelength that barely translates into common
sense. Tune in and turn on to these drop-outs.
Cats and Dogs
Rolling Stone, September 2nd 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Demi-gods of the lo-fi underground, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux have released a slew of weird records since 1988. Most infamously unfathomable is the double platter Twin Infinitives, which ranks as one of the most out-there avant-garage albums of the past decade. Cats and Dogs is Royal Trux's fourth, and most accessible, LP so far, but it's still pretty disorientating. At its groggy best, it's the missing link between The Stones' Exile On Main Street and Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. The Stones fetish dates back to Hagerty's first band, Pussy Galore, who once covered ALL of "Exile" in an extravagant act of homage/desecration.
Two words provide a handle on Trux. The first is junk: they're fond of using thrift-store instruments (decrepit, outmoded synths, cheesy guitar effects) and the pair used to be heroin addicts. The second word is dissipation. Hagerty and Herrema's voices sound drained, ghoulish, as though the years of druggy excess have left them ghosts of their former selves. Hagerty's guitarwork accentuates the wasted vibe--it seems to drift and dissipate like narcotic fumes. Tracks like "Friends" and "Skywood Greenback Mantra" slip back and forth between grinding, low-down raunch and woozy blues. Hagerty's elegantly sloppy solos ripple like heat-haze on the horizon.
Two songs stand out as Trux pinnacles. "Turn Of The Century" is a shimmering mirage of bottleneck blues, echoey piano and multitracked vocals gabbling spectral imprecations--a real ghost-town of sound. Cryptic and crypt-like, "Driving In That Car (With The Eagle On The Hood")" is a slight return to the experimentalism of Twin Infinitives. With its hypnotic trance-beat and clammy, cadaverous synths, the track recalls Suicide at its most sinister.
The futurism of "Driving" aside, Cats and Dogs offers traditionalism bent out of shape, so that it's less a case of Black Crowes-style homage and more like, say, The Stones from an alternate universe. Haunting, baffling stuff, and highly recommended.
ROYAL TRUX, interview
Mojo, March 1995
By Simon Reynolds
Rewind to 1990. Tiny US label Drag City releases Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives: four sides of garbled avant-garde weirdness, recorded on junk shop instruments under the influence of Phillip K. Dick's paranoiac sci-fi and what sounds like the entire pharmacopoeia of brain-frying chemicals. Oft compared to Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Can's Tago Mago and The Clangers, Twin Infinitives makes Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema the kool kings of lo-fi.
Fast forward to the present. Major label Virgin unleashes Royal Trux's Thank You, 39 minutes of low-down Sticky-Fingered raunch'n'roll, recorded live'n'smokin' by Neil Young producer David Briggs. Thank You looks set to propel Trux into the Black Crowes retro-boogie arena league.
"Wh'appen?" you cry.
Well, in between Twin Infinitives and Thank You, Trux released two brilliant albums (the haggard junkie-blues of Royal Trux; the avant-raunch of Cats And Dogs), expanded from odd couple to five-piece combo, and slowly got fed up with being the kind of hipster's choice that garners rave namedrops and minimal sales. So just how committed are they to reaching out to 'the people'? In the statement which accompanied advance tapes of Thank You, Hagerty actually invokes no less than Grand Funk Railroad as an ideal: a band loathed by critics but loved by America's rock heartland.
"It's just the fantasy of a certain attitude which that band had," drawls Hagerty. "Like when they titled one album Good Singin', Good Playin'. When I was a kid, my friend's older brother had 'cool' LPs in their collection, but Grand Funk and that brand of generic mid-Western rock band was their main source of musical nutrition."
The 'funk' in Grand Funk also seems to relate to where the Trux are at now. With it's sultry percussion and supple, rhythm-guitar-driven grooves, Thank You harks back to the early '70s when rock was still dance music, played from the hips.
"Our music used to be a head thing, now it's more physical. Most rock today is like a church service, everyone sitting down, but we like the idea of people dancing, in a total-release, dervish way."
Thank You resurrects the era when bands 'jammed' and pursued vital intangibles like 'feel' and 'vibe'. It was David Briggs who persuaded Trux to do it live. "We recorded almost all the album in a couple of days, with just a few overdubs and the odd fixed vocal," Briggs says. "I approached the album as if it was a gig, with stage-lighting, a full PA, letting the sound into the room. It was an exciting way to make a record."
So will the album turn Trux into stadium-rock stars? Maybe, maybe not. They're still an eccentric band, to say the least. Even when you can decipher Jennifer's elegantly wasted growl, the sci-fi-meets-dirty-realism lyrics are fairly unfathomable. Even after Hagerty's exegesis of "Sewer Of Mars", I'm none the wiser.
"It's about someone who's the lowest of the low, y'know. He's a sort of psychic scam artist. I got the idea when this guy invited us back to his house 'cos he had all this codeine. I saw this cane up against the door, that used to belong to the guy's dead wife. And I got up and kicked the cane over. The guy was really gratetful, he said I'd freed him of the psychic burden of his wife's cane..."
Perhaps those arenas will have to wait after all.
ROYAL TRUX, Thank You (Virgin)
LAUGHING HYENAS, Hard Times (Touch & Go)
by Simon Reynolds
Where could US underground rock 'go', after Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation reached the outer-limits of 'reinvention of the guitar'? Why, back to 'the source', of course--black R&B (and the late '60s/early 70s white appropriations thereof), in a quest to relearn the lost fundamentals of 'groove' and 'feel'. Hence the backwards journey taken by a new breed of blues fundamentalists like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Come and Mule (formed, coincidentally, by two refugees from Laughing Hyenas). I can only marvel at the timelag syndrome that bedevils Amerindie's relationship with black music: unlike British bands, US rockers only seem comfortable venerating African-American pop when it's dead and buried, e.g. Big Chief vis-a-vis early Funkadelic. Doubtless, we'll have to wait twenty years before the US underground wakes up to the booty-coercing futurism of SWV, Craig Mack and Underground Resistance.
Just to make sure we know exactly where they're coming from, Laughing Hyenas namecheck Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker in interviews, and insert the word 'blues' into not one but TWO songs on their new LP--'Hard Time Blues', with
its risible "I bin down since I could crawl" line, and the maudlin, country-inflected "Home of the Blues". The Hyenas used to be a noise-core outfit, whose sole distinguishing feature was the flamethrower vocals of John Brannon (who used
to sear ears in the ultra-taut hardcore unit Negative Approach). Despite their blues affectations, the Hyenas purvey what used to be called 'high-octane rock'n'roll', firmly rooted in the late '60s sound of their native Detroit; Brennon now sounds like Iggy if he'd been fixated on Jagger rather than Jim Morrison.
While the band can't swing for toffee, they do rumble effectively. But Brannon's slurred roar ('take me fo' a ride', 'reach out yo' han'', ad nauseam) has less to do with Robert Johnson than with The Stooges of "I'm Sick Of You" and "Not Right". If heavily-amplified, fuzzed-to-fuck self-pity is your particular cup of poison, drink deep. Me, I'll take my blooze bastardisation from those who take Ozzy rather than Muddy as blues-print, i.e. Alice In Chains (who could really make something of Hyena titles like 'Slump' and 'Each Dawn I Die').
Like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that other offshoot of garage-skronk pioneers Pussy Galore), Royal Trux have at least earned the right to go atavistic. Having proved they can push the envelope (with the drug-damaged lo-fi chaos theorems of Twin Infinitives and the Exile on Main Street filtered through Daydream Nation of Cats and Dogs), it's only fair that Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema should be allowed to contract their raunch'n'roll to fit the contours of Black Crowes-style retro. On their major label debut Thank You, Trux retain the supple boogie glide of "Thorn In My Pride", the baleful thrust of "Remedy", but purge the hokey Humble Pie over-emoting that makes Crowes stick in craw. Thank You is Sticky-Fingeredto the max, its sinewy riffs, grinding bass and seething percussion harking back to 'Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?". What sets Trux leages above and beyond Laughing Hyenas is that they funk, in that fierce white-boy fashion that early '70s rock had down pat, but which punk extinguished when it replaced syncopation with thud-thud-thud.
Song-wise, Royal Trux don't really write tunes so much as riffs; Hagerty & Herrema's elegantly wasted unison drawl functions as a vocal equivalent to rhythm guitar, just another twist'n'tug factor in the all-important groove. Herrema's haggard croon (you can practically hear the nodes forming on her distressed larynx) is at its vicious best on "You're Gonna Lose"--offset by Hagerty's gloating backing
chorus, she expectorates the venomous put-downs, and proves herself one of the best "bad" singers since Alice Cooper circa "Elected". Overall, though, what with lyrics that are as incomprehensibly Philip K. Dick-like as ever, Thank You isn't about songs and singing, but grooves and guitar. The album was produced by David Briggs (who worked on many of Neil Young's '70s albums), and appropriately Hagerty's short solo on "Map Of The City" has a jalapeno-sting redolent of
'Southern Man'. Generally, Hagerty avoids the gaseous, mirage-like soloing that made Cats and Dogs such a gloriously narcotic haze, and concentrates on a rhythm/lead hybrid that's tres Keef.
Best comes last with the aformentioned 'You're Gonna Lose' and the snakehipped, sultry 'Shadow of the Wasp'. The highest praise you can offer Thank You is that it's like time travel. While this ultimately underlines the inadequacy of the Amerindie state-of-art (basically antiquarianism, or at best, lo-fi's retro-eclecticism), it also indicates that Royal Trux have made a muthafunkin' fine record.