Royal Trux :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Drag City Records happening this year was the return of Royal Trux. The duo of Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty released a new studio album, White Stuff, in March, an excellent juxtaposition for the anniversary of the label they helped found.

But for the first time since their infamous stint on Virgin Records in the 90s, they weren’t on Drag City but rather Fat Possum. Also, numerous attempts at scheduling a national tour for the album fell flat with the tour being completely canceled in late April. The state of the band was further thrown into doubt via some intensely wild interviews given to The Guardian and several other outlets. It’s as chaotically appropriate – though disappointing – as a Royal Trux promotion cycle could be.

Aquarium Drunkard spoke with Jennifer Herrema via Skype back before the tour was canceled and in an hour-long interview discussed returning to Royal Trux after an eighteen year hiatus, the interview with The Guardian, the somewhat contested recording story behind White Stuff, their almost unbelievable stint on Virgin Records in the 90s, intense bargaining over streaming their back catalogue, and the proclivity of Burger Kings in the U.K.

Aquarium Drunkard: I’d imagine after a long hiatus from working with Neil, that there is a certain familiarity in returning to work with someone, but that can be both a blessing and a curse.

Jennifer Herrema: Yes! You hit it exactly on the head. The curse part of it is only making itself present as of late. When we split up – you forget over the course of 19 years what all the internal working problems were. You just think of the good things. And it was awesome working together again – the familiarity was great. And as time goes on [laughs] it’s like ‘oh, right.’ There are these struggles. These back and forth personality struggles, so Neil thinks. I hadn’t gotten that far ahead. That we’d get to another strange place of being in the same place but also kind of wanting to go two different directions. That has just recently cropped up.

AD: There was this kind of tumultuous interview y’all did with The Guardian back in March.

Jennifer Herrema: Yeah, let me say something about that. So, before that interview was one we did with Mojo. We started the interview together and then Neil went and smoked a bunch of weed and freaked out, and it ended up as a separate interview. What I noticed was talking with the writer, having questions asked and giving honest answers and the facts and everything, and then (the writer) going and talking to Neil and instead of just asking Neil the same questions and getting his answers, he went to Neil and gave him all of my answers and basically said ‘what do you think of this?’ And in general Neil is kind of feisty, up to no good. He literally made so much shit up that’s all wrong. Which is what Neil does a lot. That’s fine. But what I found interesting was in the actual piece, there was no balance. It was everything Neil said was the truth and the facts. And everything I said was kind of dismissed. Which kind of started this thing. In Royal Trux, in that scenario, the two of us, it’s kind of the way things usually tended to go, unfortunately. It was of no consequence at that time. But this time it’s one of those things where yeah, that’s not really okay.

Then comes The Guardian interview and Neil was interviewed first. And he actually had a caretaker with him because he tends to really go off on these bizarre, fictitious rambles and rants. So he started out by saying ‘I’m not in the band, I’m not doing the tour,’ etc. And the writer failed to mention that the caretaker was there, and called him out about it when they went out to smoke, and Neil went back in and said nah, I’m doing the tour, I’m in the band. But was that anywhere in the article? No.

It’s click bait. It’s just craziness. Which is fine to a certain extent. It gets people interested, but if they get interested and they’re taking everything at face value – it was interesting when I did my part of the interview, I said of course he’s doing the tour, of course he’s doing this. But it felt once again the craziness took the headlines. That’s kind of the world we live in now. That’s where when you’re talking about the familiarity being a blessing and a curse, the curse part is all of a sudden recalling this. That’s why Neil never did much press. He can’t help himself. He just plays around and says whatever the fuck he wants to say. On his Twitter, he said things like ‘I’m not on this record. I didn’t play on this record,’ which, anyone who’s heard the album can hear that he’s on there.

It does create this strange tension between Royal Trux and the public because they have no idea what’s real and what’s not. It creates a strange tension between myself and Neil because anything that he says within the context of Royal Trux takes precedent over what I say. I’d forgotten all about that, because I’ve been making my own records for 18 years without him. So going back to that place was weird. I just kind of jumped off when you opened with that. [laughs] That’s all I wanted to mention.

AD: Is that experience that you had, in terms of not feeling listened to by press in the past, is that something that you feel is related to the misogyny that is built into the music industry? Did you think of it that way?

Jennifer Herrema: In this late stage where I’ve made just as much music without him, which has sold just as well if not better in some respects, going back to this place is hard to ignore.

That’s another interesting question. The past year and a half has shown me some of the most extreme examples of sexist, misogynistic attitudes and it was kind of jaw dropping. I’d spent years making music and hadn’t really run into that – when I said I was being more dismissed in the past, that was sort of our own fault. That was how we kind of started that. But the recent pieces really took me by surprise. All of the information was there, but the writers chose to give a very small part of it. And it was all concentrated on Neil and the negative. I’d definitely say it’s sexist in that instance, but just as much as being sexist it’s just kind of click bait. The gore, the ugliness is what brought it to the top. It was the number one read article above [Keith Flint] dying that day. It was set up to be that way. I’m not bitching about the fact that at least there are eyes and engagement with the band on some level, but yeah, it is annoying at this stage to deal with that.

We had an engineer that I had to kick out of the studio [during the recording of White Stuff] because he was dismal. It wasn’t a generational thing – he’s in his late 40s. But I threw him out and I took over. I can’t deal with someone dismissing me when I wrote all the fucking songs with Neil. We wrote the songs together, we spent a lot of time going back and forth via email writing everything. Then the engineer was a total dick and Neil did one of his strange disappearing acts, so I did have to take over [finishing the album.] So I’m going to sit here with this asshole engineer? No. And when Neil disappears, he disappears. I had forgotten about the push and the pull. It’s what makes Royal Trux. I forgot how difficult it was at times. It does seem a lot more difficult at this point in time because it’s so much further down the road, and so much other work has been done.

AD: In terms of the writing on the new record, do you think about White Stuff as a continuation of where Royal Trux left off in 2000, or more a continuation of each of your work in the ensuing 18 years?

Jennifer Herrema: Well, it’s definitely a Royal Trux album. I guess I’d say the only thing that is different is that we spent months writing, but we weren’t in the same house or the same state. It was emailing; I’d be using ProTools, GarageBand to put ideas together; I’d send them to him. He would do the same, then we’d write. Which is similar to what we could do in our own studio and house in Virginia or wherever we were, but there was no sitting around with an instrument and fucking around together with that. But I’d say the main difference was that Neil did not stay throughout the whole process. He wrote all the songs with me, we collaborated beautifully, everything was really great. Then at a certain point, he had gotten all of his tracking done, and we had three days left in the studio before we were going to start mixing, and he just disappeared. Finally he contacted me and wanted me to handle all of the mixing and just wanted to hear it when it was done. So there was a lot of other work that went into it that Neil wasn’t a part of. In the past, he would’ve been a part of the process from start to finish. So as far as the mixing and finalizing overdubs, he wasn’t present. But when everything was said and done, I sent him everything and said ‘give me your notes, changes, etc, etc.’ And he loved it. Which is not what he says publicly. [laughs] Which is interesting, because he had all the opportunity in the world to change it, stick around. I don’t know. It needed to be finished, he wanted it to be finished, but he didn’t want to engage in the last lap.

AD: The first Royal Trux record was 1988, so it’s quite a long career you’ve had. It’s also safe to say that there are no two Royal Trux records that sound alike exactly. You always seem to have pursued different ideas with each record. Where do you draw inspiration from 30 years into a career? There are things that hang around from when you were younger obviously, but where does inspiration come from at this point?

Jennifer Herrema: Well, I’d say that one thing with Royal Trux as opposed to anything else I’ve done, Royal Trux always speaks to what we know – real life experience, things we see. It’s just as simple as we were on tour in Europe for three weeks not quite two years ago. We were in the same van for almost a month. And a lot of the ideas came from there. Literally “Suburban Junky Lady” was something we both observed – we observed the woman. Just seeing people dressed nicely, some with baby carriages and stuff just looking for pills – oxys. It was bizarre. It was so long ago, being a junkie. It’s never a good thing, but it was also a lot harder. It was more, I don’t know, just not mainstream, I guess. It is so mainstream that no one even bats an eye anymore. And we saw this woman in the parking lot and we just started talking about it. And then comes the song.

Same thing with “Whopper Dave.” Burger King is, by far, the biggest fast food chain in the U.K. Every gas station, truck stop, whatever, it’s a Burger King, not a McDonalds. We were in line, getting food, and there was this kid working there and he had on this Burger King hat and I started fantasizing about what his personality was like. And Neil and I started talking about it and we started making a story about him. It’s nothing really super inspired. It’s just real. It’s just stuff that we see and that we experience. That never ends, so it’s not like we have to think of something no one’s ever thought of before. it’s kind of the mundane and perhaps looking at the mundane in a different way.

Whereas my other bands, like Black Bananas – they specifically are fantasy, fiction, all sorts of different people’s attitudes. Pretending I’m someone on a reality show, that’s what drives me in Black Bananas. So there’s no lack of subject matter or inspiration. It’s everywhere.

AD: One of the things that happened in the last couple of years – you were on Drag City for most of your run, and now you’re working with Fat Possum. In order to facilitate Royal Trux stuff being available for streaming, you had to get all of your non-major label catalogue reissued with Fat Possum. Was that something you had built into your contract, were you always in possession of the publishing and ownership rights of that music from the beginning?

Jennifer Herrema: Yeah, we started Drag City with them. It was always – there’s never been a piece of paper, a contract. It’s always been ‘we do all of our work, they do all of their work’ and we split everything 50/50. At no point in time did that imply any kind of ownership. Now, Virgin [Records], they do own those two albums. Because they paid a million dollars for those records. Drag City, I think the most we ever took wasn’t more than $4,000 from them. And they’ve made their money back a million times over. There was never any point in time where they had any creative ownership of our work. It was a partnership. But as time went on – I guess things in the music industry – compulsory licenses and stuff like that – I don’t keep up on that kind of stuff at all. But I guess a lot of labels – especially ones that use contracts – had to register copyrights in order for Pandora and such and such to not just walk off with everything. I’m not sure. All I know is that we have always owned 100% of our copyrights. There was just some confusion that went on and shit went on, and there was nothing personal about it. Everything was meant to be resolved as friends. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of that culture we live in, it’s all or nothing. I was for the middle ground, but I was certainly not going to capitulate to the all or nothing scenario. We had to take everything.

AD: That kind of ownership of your work is great, but it seems like that is the exception and not the rule. You hear big exceptions to that rule like R.E.M., who at this point are album-by-album reissuing their Warner Brothers records on this smaller label to take back that control and profits.

Jennifer Herrema: You know, having been with Drag City, having started it 30 years ago, the 50/50 split – it’s not like they did advertising or big marketing campaigns or anything. They had made all of their money back a bunch of times. We weren’t leaving them unresolved debt at all. A lot of records labels give real recording budgets, and the fact of the matter is Neil and I had a studio in Virginia and when I moved to California, I’ve had a studio here for 18 years. So we didn’t need advances. We just made our records and turned them in and said, you do your business and give us 50 percent. It was never some huge outlay of money like other record labels. And that’s different from a lot of other people.

But we are also the only band on Drag City, up until recently, who never released albums with anyone else really. Every single artist on that label has released something with somebody or another, so every artist had been at some point, even if it was just a song, they were in the streaming world. 10 years ago you could go and find Will Oldham. He was there. You could see Ty Segall, etc. etc. We were the only ones who were completely loyal to Drag City and never put out anything with anyone except for Virgin. We finally got the Virgin stuff up and streaming because our manager finally contacted them and was like ‘hey, guys, you might want to put these things up.’ It’s like they didn’t even know they owned them. It was a year ago on April 10th that we went streaming for the first time. So there’s a lot of catching up to do.

I was not for the streaming model for at least the first five years, because I figured oh, you know, we’ll just wait for something that makes a better model, that makes more sense. I figured that streaming platforms would morph into something different. Then after the first five or six years, I really realized it’s not changing. It’s embedded. It’s not going anywhere. That’s when we finally started talking about how we’re the only people who aren’t represented to an entire generation of humans. So it became increasingly important for us to do that. And it was more of a collective bargaining agreement that had Drag City holding out. They were utilizing the larger catalogues like ours to kind of leverage better rates or whatever, but we’re autonomous, always have been autonomous. Never considered ourselves part of some genre family, and we didn’t want to be part of some sort of mass move. The record label is never more important than the artist. A lot of things just came to light and needed to be sorted and that’s how it ended up.

AD: So Drag City finally did get on to Spotify.

Jennifer Herrema: Two days after our entire catalogue went live, theirs went up. And it was not without comment. I saw that Gerard Cosloy [Matador Records founder] totally jabbed at them. It was absurd. I was actually quite offended. But at the same time, that was the kind of all-or-nothing, ego-type bullshit that it came down to. I don’t know. It was disappointing. We still love those guys a lot, but our work is more important than the label we started with them. That’s for sure.

AD: As someone who was around for, and benefited from, the major label spending spree in the 90s, what are the things in your experience with Virgin that you were glad you were able to take advantage of, and are there any things you wish you would go back and do differently? The money you made from it is how y’all purchased your studio and house in Virginia, right?

Jennifer Herrema: Yeah, it is. I don’t know. Honestly, as far as our contract, we were able to administer our own budgets. We didn’t have to get anything okayed. These are things neither one of us knew anything about. We didn’t know how major labels worked. We didn’t know the terminology. When Virgin asked us what we wanted, we were coming from a place of what made sense to me. So, you give us money, you give us all the control, you sit back and you wait for us to give you something. And regardless of personal taste or whatever, you are beholden to marketing it up until a quarter of a million dollars. I just put it down there and our lawyer was like, ‘Do you think you’re Whitney Houston or something?’ And that will always stick with me, because I really thought I was writing down what anyone would ask for. And Virgin accepted it. And turns out, most bands, of course, are never able to administer their own budgets. If they’re given $300,000, the label’s holding it and they’ll pay the producer once they okay the producer with you, they’ll pay the studio once the label and artist have settled on that. I had no idea that was kind of the norm. So them just wiring us $300,000 cash and just ‘give us a record’ with no conditions, yeah, come to find out, was very strange. I don’t know. I don’t think there is anything at all we would’ve done differently. It all really worked out in the best way.

I think one thing is right after Sweet Sixteen, we knew we didn’t want to give them the next record. So we kind of figured a way of getting them to give us the money for the third album, but never giving it to them because of the amount of money it would cost them, contractually, to market it. So it was cheaper for them to give us that last $300,000 rather than give us that money, wait for another Sweet Sixteen, and then be beholden to another $300-$400,000 worth of marketing and tour support. It was the cheaper of the two ways to go for them. And it worked. But the record after that, Accelerator, at the time we had a manager the whole time we were on Virgin, which was absolutely necessary, and I remember we finished Accelerator and gave it to Drag City and our manager said, he called them up and was like, ‘what kind of advance or licensing advance are you going to give us,’ and they said ‘nothing.’ So our manager was like, ‘well we can take this to any label.’ Any label would take it and give us money for it. And Neil and I were both like nah, it’s okay. We’ll give them the record and do the 50/50 split. Those are the type of things as friends that you do. Usually you get partial ownership when you pay for partial ownership. The major label world and the Drag City world could not be more different. But in their own ways, each could be equally appealing and unappealing. words / j neas

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