With notorious rockers Royal Trux poised to release White Stuff, their first studio album of new material in nearly two decades, this seems like a good time to resurrect my 1998 interview with singer Jennifer Herrema. It happened on the eve of some Canadian tour dates — and honestly, I’m still amazed they made it across the border. Anyway, enjoy. And check back over the weekend to read my review of White Stuff.
For many bands, being dropped by their record label would be a dark cloud hanging over their careers. But when that happened to legendary junkie-blues duo Royal Trux, they managed to find the silver lining — and it was worth $300,000.
“It all worked out perfectly for us,” drawls Trux singer Jennifer Herrema over the phone from the Virginia ranch she shares with long-time companion and musical partner Neil Hagerty. “The whole thing with the record company was definitely a best-case scenario.”
Actually, it sounds more like a rock ’n’ roll swindle worthy of The Sex Pistols. Thanks to a clause in their deal with Virgin Records, the band was able to force the company to buy out their contract after a dispute over their 1997 album Sweet Sixteen.
“They hated Sweet Sixteen,” says Herrema. “When I spoke with the woman at Virgin, she said, ‘There are too many notes on it. Kids out there just want something they can rollerblade to.’ That was when we decided it was time to go — and thanks to the deal we’d made, they had to pay us off to get rid of us.”
Herrema and Hagerty returned to their former label — the Chicago indie Drag City — and put the windfall to good use.
“We bought this place,” says Herrema of their ranch. “We’ve got seven acres. We’ve got a garden. We don’t have any cattle or horses, but Neil wants to get some goats. And we’ve got a 24-track studio in another wing of the house. We’re pretty much self-sufficient.”
Which is pretty much the opposite of what everyone expected. Herrema, a former Calvin Klein model, took up with Hagerty with she was 16, after seeing his former band, legendary New York noise-rockers Pussy Galore. When the group split, she and Hagerty formed Royal Trux, merging his funky guitar work and spaced-out, shambling blues-rock with her barbed-wire singing voice — think Janis Joplin crossed with Randy (Macho Man) Savage.
Onstage, she was Mick to his Keith; Plant to his Page. Unfortunately, offstage she was Nancy to his Sid. They were both heroin addicts and quickly acquired a reputation as sleazy, gypsy junkies, living hand-to-mouth and gig to gig.
“I do all the business, and he cooks Indian food.”
“That was the reality at one point,” admits Herrema, who quit heroin five years ago but still has the halting, half-baked cadence of a stoner. “But it was never our intention to maintain that as our reality. Ever since we started working, there was a big picture, a greater plan. It was never to be dependent and reliant on other people.”
Now that they are independent — at least financially, thanks to Virgin — the pair seem to have evolved from addicts to entrepreneurs. Especially Herrema. She handles all the couple’s business from home — dealing with their label, arranging tours, hiring musicians, doing interviews — and monitoring their stock portfolio via financial networks on their satellite TV.
“We’re involved,” she says. “I check it every day. Of course, right now, the market is so crappy, I don’t even want to look.”
Of course, they haven’t turned completely into Ozzie and Harriet. Hagerty continues to live on rock-star hours, sleeping days and staying up all night playing guitar, writing science fiction and mixing spices to indulge his passion for exotic cuisine.
“I do all the business, and he cooks Indian food,” she jokingly gripes. “Yeah, he’s a total odd duck — and a pain in the ass sometimes.” For example, Hagerty won’t fly, so if the band wants to tour Europe, they have to take an ocean liner or go without him.
Of course, Herrema’s one to talk about idiosyncracies. Minutes later, she explains how she’s teaching a new guitarist their songs — but won’t let him listen to the recordings “so he won’t have a pre-conceived notion of what to play.” Onstage, she likes to wrap her arm in tape “because it feels nice and restricting.” And in the studio, she says, their three cats have to approve all new recordings before they can be released.
“On our latest album Accelerator, there’s the song Follow The Winner,” she says. “We had to remix that one. We had a final mix and we were into it, but the one cat, Joe, didn’t like it. His tail was all fuzzed out and his ears were back and he had this look on his face, so we knew we had to do it again.”
Too bad Virgin Records didn’t have Joe on staff. They could have saved $300,000.