Features I by I 28.10.12

“Royal Trux was a way of living.” Jennifer Herrema looks back on her former band’s ’98 masterpiece, Accelerator

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There is a certain sort of person who reckons that rock music reached its apotheosis in 1991 with the release of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. These people are, evidently, deluded, but you have to wonder what they were up to during the 14 years in which Royal Trux existed.

The recording project of musical/romantic partners Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, in their decade and a half of life Royal Trux were a messy but truly protean force, morphing from record to record, exploring strange and often unexplored territory between classic rock, lo-fi and the avant-garde.

Royal Trux were every bit the ’90s band, but there was no irony here. They were an underground band who recorded, for a while, on a major label; again, this was no contradiction. On one hand, they would release a record like 1990’s Twin Infinitives, a double-disc of demented, atonal noise with tracks titled things like ‘Yin Jim Versus the Vomit Creature’ and ‘Lick My Boots’. On another day, they might cover ‘Money For Nothing’ by Dire Straits as feral voodoo-motorik that inexorably speeds up over its four-and-a-half minute lifespan, like amphetamine is leaking into its bloodstream.

For a few years in the mid-90s, the post-Nirvana goldrush meant that even the weirdest and most non-conformist bands of the age had a chance of making it onto a major label. So it was for Royal Trux, who signed up to Virgin Records for what they conceived as a trilogy of records conceptually based around the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It didn’t turn out exactly as Virgin wanted it – their sleeve of their second and last record for the label, 1997’s Sweet Sixteen, featured a toilet bowl pictured pre-flush – but it did spawn 1998’s Accelerator: the duo’s take on the smooth and slick radio rock of the ’80s. After a short while out of print, it’s being reissued on Drag City and Domino this November. Herrema, taking time out from recording a new EP for her current band Black Bananas, spoke to FACT about the reissue.


“Radio in the ’80s was so smooth, so slick. It just kind of rolled out of the radio and rolled into your head.”


When you reissue an old album like Accelerator, you presumably find yourself listening back to material you haven’t heard in some time…

“It’s been a long time … not forever, but I did listen to it about a year ago. A friend was over, wanted to hear it on vinyl. It brought back some thoughts. I saw myself singing some of the tracks – like, right where I was standing when I was singing ‘Yellow Kid’. That’s kind of why I don’t listen back, y’know [laughs]. Makes you stuck thinking about things that have already happened. A lot of music does that to me – when I listen to Fairport Convention, I just go back to when I first heard those songs. I can’t hear ‘Meet On The Ledge’, I swear, without thinking about a particular day, tripping on acid. It’s like memory takes over and the music becomes the background, you know?”

Sort of Pavlovian…?

“Exactly. It triggers some recall. Some brain chemicals or whatever. Can’t stop it.”

What are your memories of recording it? Was it a good time for Royal Trux?

“Yeah, it was an awesome time. We always set up parameters, like how we would record. We had our own studio at the time, so we could start, and just never stop. It was always like, what’s the goal… what’s the end game for this particular recording? We were working on this conceptual trilogy for Virgin – the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The intention was never to make albums that sounded like they came from those particular decade, but each album would deal with signifiers. So, Sweet Sixteen, every song was over four minutes – a homage to ’70s rock radio, where they would play prog songs, Genesis songs, and so on.



“With Accelerator, we did the ’80s. Radio in the ’80s was so smooth, so slick. It just kind of rolled out of the radio and rolled into your head. So with Accelerator, our nod to that, we bought this spectrum analyser. We would take different hit songs – songs from when we were making the record, like Britney Spears, or other stuff that we liked – and kind of made pictures out of it with the spectrum analyser. Then we’d take a song we’d recorded for Accelerator, and match up the grids. Each musical track on any given song when through its own separate equalizer. It would, like, pump up the guitar on some tracks, but completely obliterate other ones. It was kind of like a sculpture, in a way. If it had sounded like shit, of course we would have changed plan – but mostly it sounded amazing, so we just kept going forward. When I listened to it last year, I was struck on how you couldn’t really say, that record was made at this particular time. You couldn’t pinpoint when it was made.”

In the ’80s, rock bands sounded very crisp and produced – they didn’t sound like live bands.

“Exactly. While the ’70s album, Sweet Sixteen, that just had mad insanity all over it – the dynamic of the highs and lows and everything in between, all that was left intact.”


“We would take different hit songs – like Britney Spears, or other stuff that we liked – and kind of made pictures out of them with the spectrum analyser. Then we’d take a song we’d recorded for Accelerator, and match up the grids.”


While Accelerator is harder to rock out to –  songs like ‘Liar’ are great rock songs, but there’s something artificial-sounding about them.

“It’s like butter [laughs]. There are all kinds of vibes in it, melancholy-sounding bits to joyous bits… but it doesn’t demand that you go there when you’re listening to it. You don’t have to go into the depths of the melancholy. It’s just very listenable. That’s how I find it.”

So when you were shaping these songs with the spectrum analyser – were you conceptually twinning songs together? Or was it more random than that?

“No, no, it was totally random. Neil picked a couple of songs – like, the Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’, songs he was just interested in, and seeing what would happen. The songs we picked were of that very polished, ’80s, streamlined production sound. They weren’t all ’80s songs by any means, but they had that pop sensibility. We didn’t just pick 10 songs and stick to it. It would be like, this one is not working… let’s pick again. It was like a kind of game. We started learning what kind of analogue shapes were working best for us. I think of things visually a lot. Not being a musician – I mean, I play the piano, I play the guitar, both very poorly – but I tend to see things visually, and the waveform is a way to do that.”

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Were you signed to Virgin while making Accelerator?

“We signed a three record deal with Virgin, and that’s when the trilogy idea came up. After the second record, that’s when we demanded they let us out of the contract. But they still had to pay for the third record. So Accelerator was never going to be for Virgin but it was paid for by Virgin.”

How was it, being a band like Royal Trux and being on a major label?

“Um… it was awesome when we got to work with [Neil Young producer] David Briggs, we got to record in [The Eagles’] Joe Walsh’s studio. When we ‘broke the lo-fi sound’, or whatever, that was out of necessity. It wasn’t like we had all this equipment and, I don’t know, decided conceptually that we were going to go make, like, lo-fi crappy sounding music. That’s all we had: a four-track, an eight-track, a broken guitar. We were never married to that sound. I love our first record, Twin Infinitives, but if someone’s going to give me a bunch of money, I want to spend that fucking money and do all sorts of weird shit that I’ve never been able to before. Know what I mean? So it was great. We kind of knew very early on that we weren’t going to be some kind of major-label pop band.”


“If someone’s going to give me a bunch of money, I want to spend that fucking money and do all sorts of weird shit that I’ve never been able to before.”


What were Virgin’s hopes for you?

“I think they wanted the kind of two-piece, good-looking guy and girl… they wanted to get designers behind us, do a white trash video. They had an image in their mind and you could tell what it was, by the things they were asking. But that wasn’t on the cards. From the get-go, as far as marketing, images, videos – we found ourselves almost always saying no. But whatever. Our contract was amazing because we got to administer our own budgets, we didn’t have to get anything signed off, we did what we want and enjoyed it. There wasn’t any time we were going for that proverbial brass ring.”

You were doing some fashion stuff at the time, right?

“That happened independently of the label. Putting out a record on a major label, of course you’re going to get more press because the label pays for tons of advertising. It’s pay to play, still is. We were on the cover of a music magazine, and [photographer] Steven Meisel saw the picture of me and called me and asked if I wanted to be part of the Calvin Klein campaign for TV and print. I think my style at the time was kind of the essence of what they were trying to convey at that time. Paid a lot of money, so there you go [laughs]. Not that important, but paid a lot of money.”

So was there bad blood, between you and the label?

“No bad blood. I think it was just, kind of… we decided we didn’t want to give them the third record, because Sweet Sixteen couldn’t have been further off the mark in their minds for what Royal Trux was supposed to sound like, look like, whatever. And if they don’t get it… your team is not intact, you know? All this pulling, pushing. We decided we didn’t really want to give them the third record. But contractually they had to pay us for it whether they liked it or not. So we got our lawyer to freak the fuck out of them, told them what our plan was for the main record. We came up with some totally insane shit – like, it’s going to be recorded on an eight-track, no producer… we just freaked them out. Our lawyer said, it might be in your best interests just to pay them and let them go. The label were like, if that’s what they’re planning, it’s probably cheaper to give them all the money, get rid of them, and then we won’t have to market it. And then, of course, we made this album that they loved. Ha!”


“We got our lawyer to freak the fuck out of them, told them what our plan was for the main record. We came up with some totally insane shit…”


I was always intrigued by the cover. That’s the devil behind the wheel, right?

“Yeah. I did the drawing, Neil painted in the colours. The ring that the devil’s wearing on the cover – it’s this RTX ring I had made years ago for our fan club, the Pink Hearts Society. And it’s really weird – me, [owner of Drag City] Dan Koretsky, and Pamela Love, who’s an award-winning jeweller, we’ve just started a new company called Feathered Fish. The first thing we’re putting out is a replica of this ring in sterling silver, and in lieu of the RTX design, we’ve done this Native American-style design of these rain clouds. It’s not important, but it’s just a strange coincidence that it’s happening right now, as Accelerator is back at the forefront of my mind.”

Where does Accelerator fit in the broader Royal Trux catalogue? Does it stand apart?

“It sounds unlike everything we’ve ever done, but I suppose a lot of our records are like that. The pop sense of it – I think that’s what brought a lot of new people to Royal Trux. But each record brought different people. Twin Infinitives brought in very different people to Accelerator. Thank You brought a very different person to Royal Trux. I remember that it beat out Slash’s Snakepit to hard rock record of the year in Rolling Stone. Who could have imagined that kind of thing? It’s all very arbitrary, who’s drawn to the actual sound on each record.

“But Royal Trux was always more of an MO. It was a way of living, a way of working. It was whatever we wanted it to be at any given time. That meant we were light on our feet. We could do whatever we wanted. I mean, anybody can. But most people don’t. They find the sound that satisfies their listeners. For us, that was never the intention.”

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