Royal Trux are gone, but RTX lives on. Jennifer Herrema talks with Trinie Dalton about chasing that airtight classic rock sound.
Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September, 2004)
Jennifer Herrema has spent the last 18 years establishing her reputation as a rocker through Royal Trux, her partnership with singer-guitarist Neil Haggerty. Described (or dismissed) by critics as “conceptual acid-punk,” “hate-fueled rock,” and “dissonant junkie” music, Royal Trux found a home at Chicago’s start-up indie rock label Drag City in the late-‘80s, where they released several albums before—and after—scoring a lucrative three-record deal with Virgin Records in the go-go mid-‘90s in the wake of Nirvana’s success. Today, Royal Trux are split in two: Neil records solo albums as Neil Michael Haggerty and Jennifer has started a new band, RTX, whose debut full-length, Transmaniacon, arrives in September.
Recorded with guitarist Nadav Eisenman and bassist Jaimo Welch, Transmaniacon is a wildly produced album that has the feel, scope and drive of the classic ‘70s rock—Rolling Stones, Kiss, Rush, etc.—that Herrema admires. The album fucking rocks, a powerful growling 11-song reminder that Herrema can stand on her own as a singer/songwriter in the traditions of not only great female rockers like Joan Jett, but also among those male icons who dominate Classic Rock World.
After years living at the Royal Trux stronghold in the hills of West Virginia, Jennifer now lives in Southern California, where she’s taken up longboard surfing. Her tan is insane, especially accentuated by her platinum blonde hair and eyebrows. She looks healthy, and I can’t help but think that her new So-Cal beach house has influenced her music; Classic Rock and the beach go hand in hand. Her inimitable sense of fashion is strong as always—remember, this is the woman who virtually defined “heroin chic,” for better or worse—and she’s just finished modeling local designer Henry Duarte’s new line of denim jeans.
Breaking from our interview, she plays me her new song “Kitty Grommet,” which will accompany a denim wetsuit she designed for a show at Tokyo’s MoMA in honor of Hello Kitty’s 30th anniversary. Kitty Grommet cruises the waves looking cute, but Jennifer’s raspy vocals undermine the tune’s Pokemon-ish superhero theme-song tendency by dishing out some death metal growls. Herrema says she’s been perfecting her growl since Royal Trux required her to invent vocals for songs that “weren’t classically pop, where the vocals had to present themselves more as an instrument.” All her new projects are a mature culmination of past experiences with music and pop culture. She discussed her ambitions and sense of accomplishment with both Royal Trux and RTX over cookies and beer, after answering the big questions: How did RTX come to be? And, what motivated the break-up of two of rock’s most notorious musicians?
Arthur: So, you stopped touring with Royal Trux, your dad got sick, and you were dealing with other things in your life. Were you writing these new songs during that time?
Jennifer Herrema: Yeah. We cancelled that last tour, and within a year I knew what I wanted this record to sound like. I got the sound in my head. I just let it be a sound, kind of an amorphous blob. I didn’t want to nail it in too soon or else I’d be over it by the time I got my shit together. So I just kept it in my head. A year went by. Jaimo and Nadav were sending me things. I was listening to Nadav’s engineering and production stuff. I flew them out to meet me, and we all got along really well. They’re awesome, totally inspired.
The bass playing kicks ass on this album.
Yeah, Jaimo’s psycho. He’s only 22 or something. He’s got this energy. He’s amazing. Very different guitar player than Neil, but at some point he will be as good as what it is he does. I felt like I hadn’t met someone [since Neil] who could nail what it is they do so well. He takes direction really well. There’s no need to reference things. I’ll be on piano or start humming the riffs and he’ll do it. Part of it was learning a language, how to communicate. I had a real rapport with Neil. It was intuitive. But Jaimo and I have that communication.
What happened with Neil? I know he’s busy doing solo albums…
Well, we’ve been together since I was 15. We email each other all the time. We just needed to separate, to have time to fill the holes. When you compliment each other so well there’s all these deficiencies that occur because you’re always pleasing somebody else, and vice versa. We’ll be much stronger people [for going out on our own], like two wholes. That way, whether or not we play together again, it’ll be a benefit.
Royal Trux was clearly collaborative, but did you feel like ideas of yours weren’t happening because of the other influence? Of course, that probably goes both ways…
Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I love all of Neil’s solo stuff. But it’s different than what I want to work on. So it’s just like, break it off into two entities. I want to nail something solid, not that that stuff wasn’t solid. I just want to simplify.
“Simplified” is a good word to describe these new songs. They strive to be perfect, as if you’re trying to make the rock song a perfect thing.
Yeah, distill it and put it in a jar. That’s why live they’re going to have so much room to open the fuck up. They’re such a studio creation. I wanted them to be all tight. Ziplocked, all the air taken out of them.
RTX makes me reconsider classic rock. Classic Rock has such a clichéd image. But the great bands became classic by trying to invent the perfect song. Achieving that loud sound. What you’re doing is an extension of that.
It sounds new too, though.
It’s not retro. There’s a checklist in my head, like where the guitar sits in the mix, how the kick sounds.
Every era has its Classic Rock. I can hear different eras in your songs. There’s the 80’s metal sound, Def Leppard or Motley Crüe, then the 70’s arena rock thing, and the female punk heritage, the Runaways or Plasmatics. Suzi Quatro.
Yeah, Suzi Quatro. The songwriting, I wanted it to be really tight.
I guess you’ve been influenced by all different sounds, since you wrote these songs over a long period of time.
But that’s where the subconscious comes in. You’re not trying to find something, you just keep playing until you’ve got what you need. That’s the subconscious bringing back all the things you love. I love that sound, and it was implanted somewhere back there a long time ago. I love millions of sounds. But I had to put parameters on the record. I didn’t want it to be all over the map.
One thing that’s different [from Royal Trux] about RTX is the vocals. In terms of ugly music—ugly as beautiful, disharmonic—this album seems less in that aesthetic vein.
There was never a period when there was a conscious aesthetic. We were never trying to coax a lesson. It was what it was, it was never trying to be ugly. And to put tons of reverb on it—going back to Royal Trux—it didn’t make sense musically to do that now. Singing with Neil, the song’s keys were different.
You sang a lot lower?
Yeah, I had to. Neil has such a high voice. I can go high, but in order for us to sing together I had to take a place. It was cool, I had to stretch. I forced my voice to do things that didn’t come naturally.
You have more range now, I can hear your voice more on this album.
Oh yeah, these songs were easy. The melody line is very natural. I probably won’t lose my voice as often. I don’t really abuse my voice that much. It was more live, wanting to hear myself. Royal Trux would have two guitar players, two drummers, bass, and Neil’s got lungs. I have to push. People say I don’t have to push, we can hear you, but it’s like, “This isn’t about you out there, it’s about me having fun, so shut up.” That can get rough on your voice. But that was rare. People tell me to stop smoking but I love smoking.
Did you get the name for your album from the Blue Oyster Cult song?
Well there’s the BOC song, but that’s with the MC motorcycle club thing. It’s a fictitious word and the alliteration of it sounded like the album to me. I mean, when pronounced correctly. Trans-man-I-acon. But there’s also this Japanese video game called Transmaniacon in which a book is buried under NYC. And there’s a science fiction book. So it’s not just one thing.
The sci-fi reference puts that song “Psychic Self-Defense” in a different context.
Yeah, the album needed a space there. The album’s supposed to be like a book, to be read through. Of course, each song should stand on its own. But lyrically, there’s a sense the songs make. The sequencing came really quickly, and usually it’s really hard. Usually, it’s like playing Tetris. Nadav and I were talking about sequences, and we used the first sequence we burned. We were like, “That’s it, don’t fuck with it.”
Sequencing is a crucial element on my favorite Classic Rock albums. Brian Eno is so good at sequencing, but he’s not Classic Rock.
I love Brian Eno. I read this article about him years ago and he was talking about metal. He said it was the first ambient music. That made sense to me, because it’s so compressed. The reins are so tight, so it sails.
Maybe he was talking about Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, all that experimental stuff, Tony Conrad. Have you been listening to the new bands doing that droney metal now? Like Sunn0)))?
A little bit. Joe Preston, of Thrones, he toured with us a lot. And he’s doing something with Sunn0))). I like Thrones and I really like Joe a lot. He’s such an awesome dude. When he toured with us he brought his cat.
I love how the song “PB & J” sounds like a boy band song, all robotic.
We used a harmonizer on that. It breaks your voice into different octaves.
You employ a good blend of classic instrumentation with effects and machinery.
Oh yeah, we use effects. I’ve worked with so many engineers, and they’re a different breed. Not to say they’re all alike. But they use effects to make songs seamless. Sometimes that’s cool, but other times it’s like, “No, this is an effect and let’s fuckin’ hear the effect.”
When you use a harmonizer, for example, I think of corporate bands, bands who are totally manufactured. You seem so against that but then you exploit the possibilities.
It’s a balance. I don’t know what the hell’s going on. But I love Kid Rock. I love his production. He’s such a good producer.
Production is what saves your songs from being retro. Each song is produced in a new way. “Heavy Gator” is also really good, it sounds like a warped record. How did you do that? Did you fuck with the speed of the vocal track?
It’s not fucked with. There’s no real vocal effects. I think I quadruple- tracked my vocals and the way they went against each other, it sounds a little warped. That was a cool accident.
Some parts are muted and some parts are loud.
That’s a production thing. A volume thing. The way it’s canned.
Did you record on all different machines?
ProTools. We use tons of great preamps and stuff, but I’m so into ProTools. I’m not against analog or anything, but dude. You’ve got great gear and you’re getting the sounds you want. I love the sound of digital. Digital distortion. I love the sound of analog distortion, the thickness and warmth. Digital distortion is this whole other beast. You can just fuckin’ go in, you don’t have to power up. We’ve got tons of rack effects, we’ve got all these plug-ins, and it’s all right there. So you can walk in the room and try something really quick, boom, it’s the ease of it. With analog, it’s a ritual, the tape, how hard you’re hitting tape. But digital, it’s just different.
You must be a distortion expert by now. Who are your distortion heroes?
I don’t know man, there’s a lot of them.
You came out of a tradition of distortion—Sonic Youth…
Yeah, there was a lot of that going on but they were a whole generation ahead of us. There was this place on Long Island called L’Amours, and you could go see Skid Row, or Ratt. In New York, I saw a lot of those bands that you’re mentioning, but it was incidental. The punk rock shit, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, I loved that shit. I saw the Bad Brains a lot. I liked GBH a lot. I like Metallica, but I love Megadeth. I like Rush a lot, I just saw them last week. Kiss, I love them. I went and saw them three weeks ago. The songs are fuckin’ great.
Do you keep up on new east coast noise bands? A lot of it seems more electronic. Have you heard Black Dice?
I like Black Dice. I saw Neil play last summer with Dead Meadow. I thought they were good, but after 20 minutes, I thought, “This is great, now wrap it up.” Loved it, but then I wanted it to be done. Or else I wanted something drastic to occur.
Do you think they’re the new Led Zeppelin?
Fuck no. That’s blasphemous. Don’t even go there. I totally dig Zeppelin. How can you not? I mean, this is the problem: Zeppelin is Zeppelin. There will be no new Led Zeppelin, and if there is, it’s gonna suck, just by the nature of trying to replicate something that’s bad to the bone. So the new Led Zeppelin has to be that good at what it is. It can be fuckin’ polka, I don’t care. If you try to be be the next Rolling Stones, you’ve already lost. Because the Rolling Stones kick your ass. If you want to be number two, go for it. It’s all good and fun, but fuck it.