How does a bike work? There are gears and spokes, some handlebars, a mudguard maybe, and then some tricky mechanical shit most people don’t quite get. How awesome is Royal Trux? I’d say “quite” and make you drink beer on my porch for a while. Someone else may yell “really, really” into your ear at a show – but then you probably wouldn’t be that much closer to any useful understanding of the Trux. Better ask in what particular ways is Royal Trux awesome? Here we pose a more useful question, one any student of contemporary underground American rock must confront at some point. MUST because most indie rock fans, many underground types, and people in general can’t stand Royal Trux. Lots of people. Royal Trux sucks. They frequently sing and play out of tune, the dual vocals sound like a chimp and a gorilla humping in a dive bar stall, and the music is some ripe and unholy mash of no-wave psych blues crud. Yet despite of these issues their success demands study. Over a decade of music and touring, 10 albums (two on a major), and a small but intense fan base – surely there must be something to all this. So let’s listen a bit harder. And a few times through. After a bit you may discover that what once sounded like sucking now appears brilliantly lucky: lucky for them to get it on tape, lucky for you to hear it. A wobbly beauty falls in the door after barely parking her car. Like the moment you went from thinking teenagers were stupid assholes to thinking they were cool. If Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel with tar, Hawaiian Punch and snot using Slim Jims instead of brushes, his contemporaries would have seen only a massive shit smear. Holding noses, the audience would have totally missed the mythology, the gestures, the attitude.
Exhibit One: “Mercury” opens with Neil Hagerty singing poorly, a 2-cylinder keyboard piercing a tin guitar, and Jennifer Herrima strangling an alley cat (1). Amidst the gloom a fine lace brushes your cheek and disappears.
SPREE DE CORPSE
If you want to stare hard at the inside of your head for the rest of your life baby that’s just fine with me
Wankery, unfortunately, is not cool. Head music and noodling should never have trickled out the Dead show parking lot, much less attracted notice in indie circles. “Their relative tunelessness needs to be addressed,” notes Alison Fields. The Trux can “sound like a clueless Eastern European bar band trying to cover American songs.” However, “there is a part of the Royal Trux that is very sincerely doing what they are doing while at the same time they’re winking at you as they do it. They have built their own filter through which they play classic American music” (4). This filter is the Trux’s basement crawlspace, a foundation for all that goes on top and kind of creepy.
Straight retro, and worse still retro that doesn’t admit it, retard the progress of rock music; The White Stripes, Strokers, Enterpole, Bloc Party and others seriously damage the artistic possibilities of meaningful pop music and condemn thousands to unnecessarily-retread mediocrity. Given their whiffs of blues, jazz, and psychedelia, how is Royal Trux not just rehashing these lamest of lame genres? Fields argues they are “playing it straight through a skein that is completely foreign”- that the Trux are honestly trying to play genres but their perspective is too radical for the resulting music to be homage or retro. Songs may have categorical moments or moods, but some UFO has gamma-rayed most of the music beyond recognition. They are not playing at a style, like the bands mentioned above. They’re not playing with a style like The Make Up or John Spencer. That Royal Trux adopted song structures and slide guitars after three albums of free noise suggests a net positive approach resulting either from the honest-but-whacked filter Fields mentions or an anti-anti stance. Either way the Trux are untouched by the stylistic sarcasm that hallmarks the 1990s and early 2000s. They are not post-ironic but Morrisette-ironic: well-meaning, opaque, and possibly naïve.
Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrima are Royal Trux. Neil a voice, guitar, and other melodic instruments. Jennifer a voice. Their vocal lines interweave like MCs and both allegedly wrangle sounds and structures into the end product. A shifting lineup of rhythm players fills things out but doesn’t really leave traces on the music until the later albums. Hagerty previously played with John Spencer in the seminal trash outfit Pussy Galore, plying “lewd, un-PC, technically non-proficient punk rock” (AF) in Washington, DC during the height of serious post-punk (Fugazi, Rites of Spring), thus displaying an early individualism that is both stubborn and ill-advised. They go from DC/Virginia up to New York City and back and forth. Hagerty claims to have walked across the Key Bridge with a guitar slung across his back. Jennifer likely met Neil during Pussy Galore’s days in NYC, hopefully by walking in to some bar, buying two beers, and proclaiming “pool is cool, but I like pinball best” (5). Neil and Jennifer start “free” recording as Neil exits Pussy Galore. After a few years the project thankfully devolves into more traditional pop structures and content, with the romantic/artistic partnership putting hazy moments half-lived to tape: touring, scoring, getting lost – a Hunter S. Thompson road trip through moments of Selby and Wojnarowicz that somehow winds up more goofed than tragic. Freaks stumble out of vans at various stops along twilit western interstates. Camps are intruded upon. Deals head south. Non-player characters join the party at random but recurring times. Bob Dylan packs the comparative grizzle of a cereal box mail-in offer. Between bong hits and falling out the Trux also manage to predict both Gulf Wars. After a few years of research, Royal Trux is set to record a handful of inexplicable albums.
Skip both self-titled albums and Twin Infinitives, confident that the Trux noise of the late 1980s and early 1990s is way less palatable and hip than today’s noise. Start with 1993’s Cats and Dogs, the most cohesive and acclaimed Royal Trux album and their last Drag City release before the big leagues. Heads who discover the Trux through other albums and years usually find Cats and Dogs to be their zenith as well (AF). Effortless, confident, solely comprised of starters flawlessly deployed, Cats and Dogs is the only Trux album that remains completely fresh, classic in manner, and yet also fairly plugged-in to the period’s high tide: the low-fi indie guitar movement of the early 90s. Cats and Dogs rubs shoulders with Slanted and Enchanted, Bee Thousand, and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, and for better and worse that’s the last time Royal Trux have anything to do with their underground contemporaries.
Cats and Dogs
“Skywood Greenback Mantra” introduces Cats and Dogs’ second suite of more classic-rock flavored songs with slabs of Stonesy guitar swagger and fuck-off-kid one-liners shot up with indie guitar jank and a hip-hop end break. The floating “Turn of the Century” recounts the delicate melancholy of the slow crash – “If you hand me my cape and my dog headed cane / Don’t mind the rain, we gotta go downtown…We’ll sit in the square / where the prisons used to be / just sit around” – with potent economy and spaced guitars. “Up The Sleeve” continues the story of dirty deals, investigations, and bad situations amid a slow oscillation of delayed noise. At this point it becomes clear that while many musics and styles are said to be predisposed pot-smoking, these two songs ARE the sounds of smoking the night away in some dingy hangout. Period. The pace picks up a bit with the riffy “Hot and Cold Skulls” to shake off the vegging and continues into the wobbly “Tight Pants” and the goofy romp of “Lets Get Lost” with characters talking shit like “Jimmy I thought you were dead / or in a hex or something like that / “How could I be dead” he said / “when I’m standing right here with this bad looking hat?”” But finally the album dissolves again into delirium, fading out on the nightmarish chants of “Driving in That Car (with The Eagle on The Hood) – an ooze of violence, sour guitars, and phase effects reminiscent of the Trux’s early period noise. The night has gone too long and no one can tell if they’re out of their heads or sobering up.
Purportedly “their last heroin album”, Cats and Dogs tones down the self-indulgence of the early Trux works and heralds the group’s greatest period of music making. All the elements float in perfect balance for these 40 minutes – the sonics, the arrangements, the storytelling, the attitude – and no subsequent album manages to hold this core together. It remains a masterpiece of indie rock’s birth: an exemplar of the sound of the time and yet wholly unique.
YOU’RE GONNA LOSE
Cats and Dogs
Like Cats and Dogs, Thank You begins with an off-putting track, “A Night to Remember” – a “kind of cheesy” boogie that evokes the European bar band analogy (AF). Fortunately the rest of the album is gravy, starting with “The Sewers of Mars”, a symphony of mandolin, congas, whistles and funk bass that still manages to rock and drops lyrics that foreshadow the mythologies of Sweet Sixteen. “Ray O Vac” sounds like a campfire song until you listen to some of Herrima’s lyrics “When I was twelve and my ass was up for grabs / The kids at school had their religion, sex and greed / Something was wrong with them”. This confusion of exploitation and fun emerges as a central theme of Herrima’s lyrics on this and other Thank You songs, following the tension between kicks and habits – the sacred and the profane – that is the essence of Trux music. These defiled combinations come to life in the album’s anchor, “Map of The City,” where aching guitar licks accentuate the deep yearning of some of the most bizarre love letters ever penned:
She had the face like a cook I’d seen in the kitchen of the Anchor Hotel…
When I look at myself in the shower I wonder if she’ll see what I see
And will she like what she has found?
I rolled out from under the engine and I saw her standing there
I knew right then that I could love her forever
Even when her breasts are rotted with cancer
I wonder where she went when she said go
A sailor has to masturbate until the ship lands
Totally whacked, and even in a musical setting that lends great emotional weight, these sentiments don’t easily fit into traditional love song tropes. It is remarkable that “Map of The City” is most often THE Trux “hit” (if such a term could be applied) to be put on mix tapes and such – their “Stairway to Heaven”, if you will. The next two cuts – the comic truckstop prostitute tale “Granny Grunt” and the darker “Lights On The Levee” – continue Herrima’s desperate portraits of addicts trading in degradation. Her “(Have You Met) Horror James” hints at a liason between a pedophilic old man and a bored girl:
Some people like him got a problem I guess
He’s a crazy old man and I’m supposed to stay away
How can I convince my cousins?
They’re afraid to say yes
Well he’s got the goods and that’s all I can say
Again the imagery is an unsettling confusion of contradictory emotions, conveyed with gritty off-color playing that is somehow maintains a hook. What is to be made of this? I can’t say, but the uncertainty has an undeniable allure and reality that gives Thank You legs beyond the songwriting’s initial pop appeal.
also came out during that brief airing of underground music by the majors in the early 1990s. The Trux managed the trick and put out the aptly-titled Thank You on Virgin Records in 1995, supposedly even scoring health insurance on the deal (a rock first). The album is recognized as their most accessible, and while not as groundbreaking as Cats and Dogs in terms of style or sound (The Rolling Stones resonate loudest in this work), Thank You takes the next step lyrically and emotionally, and nails it as far as pop song structures go. While still fantastic in imagery, the stories also feel more biographical, with fairly half coming from a woman’s perspective. Herrima and Haggerty double their vocals often, but they also alternate singing a good bit more than on Cats and Dogs and the corresponding lyrical passages follow his or her particular perspective. plays out in three suites – the first, a group of four nuggets exploring styles to be expanded upon in the next six years; the second set, a more unified quartet of expansive blues/rock-inspired tunes where setting and lingo come to the fore; and the last few songs, a meandering disintegration of explorations away from pop structures and styles. Typical of the Trux anti-aesthetic, the album opener “Teeth” slurs hello in full smackdown mode, with dual vocals wrapped in opiate reverberations and pierced at strange moments with slide boogies and heavy rock crud. “Teeth” functions best as a patina for the rest of the album, as a smiling snarl of dentia dementia to scare off the casual listener. Only after this queasy middle finger greeting does “the single” arrive, “The Flag”. A true banner work, the first 75 seconds is the closest Royal Trux gets to pure pop, with big slide hooks, snarl-lipped call & response jumping right to chorus, some jittery soloing, and a rinse-out at two minutes ten. The next song “Friends” flies over some psychedelic terrain with delay-soaked gorges of effects and flares of guitar. The fourth cut, “The Spectre”, glimpses the acoustic and conga freakshow that lurks embarrassingly close to band’s inner heart. Together these four modes of this opening suite – the falling out, the pop, the psych, and the jam – stake out the cardinal points for all future Trux songwriting. (2). Do your own thing + fuck off = cool. This casual, off-the-cuff attitude drips from Trux music. Fortunate accidents, nonfunctional architecture, the exquisite corpse, 60s funk art, 80s sampling – Royal Trux work a similar ethic. From leftover rejects let us slap together an enviable and inspiring moment of ingenuity. There are only two kinds of people in this life / Fools and total fools (3). You get it or you don’t. Correction: you want to get it or you don’t. You have to go find them if you want to hang. They’re down at the levee. Bring a twelve-pack.
Next Installment: Sweet Sixteen, maybe more… -SBW 12/25/06
1. Royal Trux, from Singles, Live, Unreleased , 1997, Drag City
2. Royal Trux, “Skywood Greenback Mantra” from Cats and Dogs , 1993, Drag City
3. Royal Trux, “Aviator Blues” from Singles, Live, Unreleased , 1997, Drag City
4. Alison Fields is a music writer and record store guru, hereafter annotated by (AF)
5. Royal Trux, “Steal Your Face” from Singles, Live, Unreleased , 1997, Drag City