Royal Trux 
Conjugating the twin infinitives
By James Lindbloom

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


In the mid-1980s, Pussy Galore carved out a name for themselves in New York City and beyond. Adored and reviled in equal measure, they were the figurehead band of what came to be called "scum rock." If the Cramps' objective was to put some of the sexual swagger and dirt back in the grooves of rock and roll records, Pussy Galore added blood, semen, feces and enough attitude to more than compensate for any lack of "chops." The volatile chemistry practically insured that this was a band that wouldn't be around forever. Guitarist/lead vocalist Jon Spencer has gone on to a fairly lucrative career with his Blues Explosion, although, at this point, his voice is the chief link between his current stylized work and the truly dangerous vibe that his former band radiated. Neil Hagerty, Pussy Galore's other six-string player, started making music with his partner Jennifer Herrema under the name Royal Trux as his main outfit was imploding under the weight of personal friction. Since then, the two have issued a series of albums that have been awe-inspiring, toe-tapping, baffling and enraging. And while they have left the basic sound of Pussy Galore far behind in search of new territories, they have kept the forward motion of experimentation going in a way that their former bandmates—and precious few other rock bands—do not.

Hagerty and Herrema are the sole constant members of Royal Trux. The shifting lineup ensures that each record will sound different than its predecessor; and yet, every record is recognizable—for better or worse—as Royal Trux. Though they have a rabid fan base, I honestly don't know anyone who loves everything they have done. But it's that unpredictability that makes them worth following. As Thurston Moore has said, why trust a band that's good every night?

Royal Trux (Royal, 1988; reissued by Drag City in 1993)
Poised between "real" songs and the aural Mulligan's stew of Twin Infinitives, Royal Trux's first album straddles both camps in an uneasy balance that ultimately doesn't gel. Songs that would become future live staples are here in the rough ("Bad Blood," "Esso Dame," "Strawberry Soda"). There is good material, but it's hampered by cautiousness (and the fact that Hagerty's guitar had yet to shine). It's an embryonic glimpse of what was to come.

Twin Infinitives (Drag City, 1990)
A landmark double album that sounds like nothing else. It's as if they recorded a set of rock tunes, added on loads of extra guitars, keyboards, percussion and random sound effects and then removed the basic tracks and left the overdubs floating in a thick, disconnected haze. Songs are hinted at more than delivered outright. The results have frequently been chalked up to the narcotic miasma that Hagerty and Herrema were living in at the time. While it would be hard to deny the pervading druggy vibe, I wouldn't be too quick to write it off as the sonic fingerpainting of two befuddled junkies; Hagerty and Herrema have proven themselves to be determinedly single-minded in setting parameters for a project and then following it. Twin Infinitives requires patience, repeated listening and a willingness to meet the music on its own planet.

Royal Trux (Drag City, 1992)
Like a swamp monster that was slowly beginning to rise up out of the muck and dance, this was the first Royal Trux album with songs you could sing along to—the first glimmers of what might make a major label think "sales." Hagerty's guitar skills had grown in leaps and bounds; listen to the overdubbed freakout that ends "Hallucination" or the acoustic fingerpicking of "Junkie Nurse" (Royal Trux's answer to "Sister Morphine"). If the first album was an unsuccessful attempt to construct songs that rocked while threatening to collapse at any moment—in the tradition of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat and vintage Sonic Youth—this one hits the mark. The push/pull between melody and entropy makes for a record that bristles with tension.

Cats and Dogs (Drag City, 1993)
Released at the zenith of grunge's popularity, Cats and Dogs gave a sideways glance in the direction of current trends—the infectiously snotty "The Flag" would have found a different (and larger) audience if the record had come out on Sub Pop—but it was unquestionably a logical progression from the previous album. Royal Trux have often been tagged as having a major Stones jones; "Turn of the Century" shows the Exile on Main Street influence, but as filtered through a smoked-glass creation of their own. The vocal pairing of Hagerty's nasal whine and Herrema's three-packs-a-day bark has a ragged appeal, and it has served their music well through all the turns they have taken.

Thank You (Virgin, 1995)
When an indie group jumps to a major label, fans will often cry sellout and point to the music—usually, a slicker, more refined version of the sound of their first records. In the case of Royal Trux, however, such accusations were ludicrous. A comparison of Twin Infinitives with Thank You yields two utterly distinct bands. While Thank You is much more radio friendly, it can't be said to be a watered-down model of the old Royal Trux, but rather a completely different approach, with different goals (something that could be said about virtually every album of theirs, come to think of it). There was grumbling amongst the old guard that they had turned into a "boogie band." And for this album, they had. With production chores falling to Neil Young's longtime studio helmsman David Briggs (making this the only record to date that Hagerty and Herrema have not completely overseen), excursions into dissonance were temporarily laid aside in favor of straightahead, dirtyjeans rock and roll. It's a solid album; if it turned off admirers of their early work, it also caught the ears of new listeners (and those who had Frisbee'd Twin Infinitives out the window after the first song).

Sweet Sixteen (Virgin, 1996)
Starting with its gag-inducing cover—a photo of a filthy toilet that appears to be filled with Jeffrey Dahmer's table scraps—this Royal Trux album generated more fiercely negative reaction than any other. Virgin hated it and gladly cut the band loose afterwards (though they did send out lots of promotional copies, as a quick perusal of any used CD shop will prove). While this record has its followers who champion it as misunderstood, I'm not one of them. It's a triumph of production over material. The album's sound is thick, dense and glistening and would probably appeal to studio gearheads, but sadly, the songs just aren't there. Even good tracks like "Morphic Resident" struggle to breathe under the squeaky-clean polish. In their defense, the band produced it themselves, so no one can claim that their vision was polluted by corporate bigwigs. But all the same, it was a misfire.

Singles, Live, Unreleased (Drag City, 1997)
Back home on Drag City, this 2CD/3LP collection was a boon to those who didn't want to pay collector's prices for the band's many out-of-print singles and EPs. There are classic early outbursts ("No Fixed Address," "Hero/Zero"); good-natured covers of Milton Nascimento, Jefferson Airplane and the theme from M*A*S*H; and some dross ("Chairman Blow," a "tribute to the heroes of free jazz" that does no great honor to its laureates). It's not sequenced in chronological order, and the switching of styles from track to track can be jarring, though that's probably the point. It's a good representation of the disparate territories that Royal Trux has cut their swath through—indeed, there's something to appeal to everybody here—but by its very nature, it lacks the cohesion of any of their individual albums.

Accelerator (Drag City, 1998)
After Sweet Sixteen, Royal Trux took their cool million from Virgin, bought a house in rural Virginia, equipped it with a home studio and came up with their best record so far. There's a sense of playfulness here (bordering on sheer goofiness on "The Banana Question") that was only hinted at before. The studio prowess that drowned Sweet Sixteen is present, but in a far punchier, rougher vein. Unlike Steve Albini, whose trademark sound is identifiable on any session he spins the knobs for, Hagerty and Herrema (or "Adam and Eve," as they bill themselves when working with other artists) are shapeshifters. Hagerty's guitar is compressed to stun capacity on "I'm Ready" and "Liar"; it's appropriate that the two songs open each side of the record, as they can make anyone stop talking and pay attention. Other highlights include the Latin beat of "Another Year"; the side-ending "Juicy, Juicy Juice," which builds into a wall of noise without losing its infectiousness (a la the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"); and "Stevie (For Steven S.)," the finest feel-alright '70s song not written during that decade. Sweet Sixteen is an absolutely essential record in every way, and the place for the uninitiated to dive in.

Three Song EP (Drag City, 1998)
Taking a cue from the dub feel of Accelerator's "New Bones," this quick followup features a big, echoey bass-and-drums atmosphere. With the assistance of David Pajo on bass, they chug along at a pleasantly head-nodding groove for the first two tracks, and then kick out the Old Testament jams with "Run, Shaker Life." A full-length release from these sessions, if such a prospect was possible, wouldn't have been a bad idea at all.

Dante's Vendetta (1998), 4 of One 1/2 Dozen of the Other (1999), Summoning Sickness (1999) (Royal Trux)
Three self-released cassettes, available by mail-order only through the band's Web site ( Dante's Vendetta and 4 of One 1/2 Dozen of the Other are live collections [for a full review of Vendetta, see the April 1999 issue of Gadfly]. Summoning Sickness, described on the Web site as "the armature of our records," is a hodgepodge of studio and rehearsal tracks. There's a good, if too brief, cover of Moby Grape's "Motorcycle Irene," a string of different takes of "Run, Shaker Life" under the title of "Ra-Kunesh Rifle," as well as tapeloop experimentation ("Thru"), self-deprecating jabs ("Sux") and samples of hesitant interviewers ("Um"). It's not essential, but anyone who has made it this far will want it for the additional perspectives it offers.

Veterans of Disorder (Drag City, 1999)
Thank You
, Sweet Sixteen and Accelerator supposedly comprised a trilogy of sorts, each album being Royal Trux's take on the music of the '60s, '70s and '80s, respectively; their next record was anticipated with a greater-than-usual sense of "what now?" Veterans of Disorder, as the title might imply, looks back on their career. The first side springs from the same shake-it-with-a-smile stock as Accelerator (though it may be hard to reconcile the sullen, bruised visages that stare out from the back cover with their avowal that they like to have fun at the "Waterpark"). Side two kicks off with "Sickazz Dog," an older-but-wiser serving of Twin Infinitives-styled material. "Coming Out Party" starts off as a kazoo-fueled hootenanny before dissolving into atonality. "Blue Is the Frequency," the album's closing number, gives its nine minutes over to an extended Neil Hagerty solo that serves as ample evidence of his bid to be considered alongside the frontline of today's guitarists.

Where the Royal Trux will go next is anybody's guess. They have been on a winning streak for the last few records, so I have high hopes. A new EP is due out from Drag City sometime in early 2000; I wouldn't conjecture what it'll sound like, but after twelve years of highs and lows in more diverse musical settings than most bands ever spend time in, I bet it'll still sound like Royal Trux.