If Royal Trux were a disease, it would be leprosy. For over eight years, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema have been crafting noisy anti-rock that stinks of slow decay, of sickness, death and dissipation. Their music inhabits its own druggy underworld, one you exit feeling dirty and violated. Then as you crawl away, the glitter twins taunt you, gloating, “You're gonna lose,” over and over again. Royal Trux was literally banned from clubs in parts of Ohio and Boston for antagonizing their audiences at live shows. But people are masochists at heart, and the nastier Royal Trux got, the bigger its cult following grew.
Thank You has the odd distinction of being both Royal Trux's major-label debut (on Virgin) and its darkest record yet. Speed-pushing grannies, burnout teens and lonely chicken hawks fill a landscape of “dying border towns” and “seaboard slave states.” A reclusive widower feasts on his dead wife's prescription pills. A man declares he'll love a woman “even when her breasts are rotting with cancer.” And Royal Trux? They're just “stuck on the street like dirt … fully prepared to get burned.” Driving the ugliness home is the gritty raunch of their sticky-fingered blues, made ramshackle by a slack, drowsy alienation.
“We're very negative people,” Hagerty says. “We may be into boredom and banality but we're trying to understand it and make something of it instead of just complaining. It's not the rotting-meat school of industrial or a Germanic Sprockets deal. We're into Samuel Beckett and the humor of it all.”
Hagerty is sitting in self-imposed exile in semi-rural Virginia, where Royal Trux is known as the “weirdo other band” — some “pseudo-New Age, crystal-gazer second-rate Phish guys” being the local favorite. “We make it a point not to socialize,” Hagerty says. “But our drummer is half hippie and he tells us strange stories about the townspeople. We get a lot of stares at the post office.”
Both glib and easily distracted, Hagerty comes off like a smart space case as his monologue skips from the artistic merits of Grand Funk Railroad to his notorious obsession with the Stones (which he denies) to his “belief in rock 'n' roll, not rock.”
“Hey-hey-hey, Jennifer,” he whispers as I ramble on and Herrema heads out for the 7-Eleven. “Get me some cigarettes. Oh, and a newspaper. Gotta know what's going ON. You can't trust the TV,” he says, with a trace of paranoia in his voice. “You can't trust anything.”
Herrema and Hagerty have been insepar-able since their mid-teens, floating around the country releasing records, like the infamously impenetrable Twin Infinitives and the gritty Cats and Dogs. A gang of two, the couple would write songs and hire musicians to help record and play them on tour. Thank You marks the debut of what Hagerty calls “a real band,” but already percussionist Rob Armstrong quit.
“We never really lost anyone because we were so personally unappealing, but I guess it's difficult for them with this boyfriend/girlfriend thing going on,” Hagerty muses. “We just don't want anyone to mutiny and screw up the dynamic.”
Hagerty and Herrema could run the show on star power alone. Trux brought a scabby glitter to the bland indie-rock iconography, rock stars in their own mind, if not on paper. (The band hired professional paparazzi to sneak around and snap Thank You's album photos.) Trux have been dipping into the '70s aesthetic from the start, preferring the dirtbag feel of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to disco-glam. Theirs is a way-past-cool born of cutting class to smoke pot and drink warm beer by the levee all day, of driving the muscle car to the football game to pelt rocks at cheerleaders.
Then there's Herrema's stage presence — the backseat betty with one hand thrust into the waistband of her skintight flares, her mop of bleached blond hair pulled over her face, too blasŽ to even look at her fans. The best moment on Thank You is her snarling “cock … sssssUCKER” on “You're Gonna Lose.” An incredible vocalist and songwriter, Herrema is one of the most underrated women in rock. Partly, she's been overshadowed by Hagerty and his Pussy Galore connection, but mainly its her casual disconnection from current trends. She's not concerned with playing around with gender roles or standard grrrl issues; you're more likely to see her in a hooded parka than a bra on the cover of Spin. Though Herrema's voice is a teasing bad-girl husk, she avoids singing about sex. On “Ray-O-Vac,” she matter-of-factly wheezes, “When I was 12 and my ass was up for grabs” — which isn't a come-on but a declaration of jadedness.
But most of all, Royal Trux rides the timeless junkie mystique, chronicled with deadpan detail in songs like “Blood Flowers” and “Junkie Nurse” on Royal Trux, and immortalized in tales of the band nodding off onstage, skipping shows to score drugs and blowing a Matador advance on smack.
Hagerty claims it was blown out of proportion. “We've cleaned up. That's all I want to say. Everyone thought I was a junkie even in high school. I'm definitely not a type-A personality. I'm incredibly lethargic, but super skinny. That combination is lethal.”
Straight or not, Thank You still sounds pretty out there. Royal Trux may have been, as Hagerty says, “trying to make the music more corporate like Rush — vague, zonked-out, good-time, party music,” but the band can't escape all those years cooking down the blues into ugly little pieces. Thank You is accessible, but something severely off-kilter rises with repeated listens. Hagerty and Herrema couldn't make a standard rock-and-roll album if they tried — and they did.
“When I say I like Bruce Springsteen, it's not an ironic comment,” Hagerty argues. “I grew up in the suburbs listening to him. It's real to me like asphalt.” As is customary in his interviews, Hagerty lists off his favorite schlock-rock, whether to atone for his days with the deconstruction crew or just to annoy indie purists. “I happen to think there's a lot of substance to Van Halen — musically, not those butch jock lyrics. The appeal is that they know what they're doing. They're filling the stadiums.”
Royal Trux wants to sell them out, too. “We need to be commodified as much as possible, but we don't want to be trendy. Hopefully the record company will alienate the indie cult factor. We don't want to be an elephant in the living room anymore.