Jennifer Herrema (Royal Trux, RTX): Interview
We Can’t Afford To Bore Ourselves
Jennifer Herrema, with her band Royal Trux and more recently with RTX, is responsible for some of the greatest rock 'n' roll music America has ever produced. She has sang or played on at least ten of my favorite records of all time. I recently had the opportunity to speak to her about early influences, surfing, and the fantastic new RTX album, Western Xterminator, which was recently released by Drag City.
I know you're a Dead Moon fan. Did you hear they broke up?
I did not hear that! Why?
I don't know the story, but no last show, no final tour. It's weird, though, because they just started to get this recognition overseas…
Yeah, yeah absolutely. Very interesting. Why do bands “break up” instead of just not making stuff anymore? There's this whole formal thing. Royal Trux never did any kind of formal shit like that.
On this new record, you're using your voice as an instrument, and it's totally adventurous but still traditional in certain ways. Was this something you worked out or was it something you discovered by accident?
I've always considered my voice an instrument, and in traditional pop music, in the mixes, the vocals sorta lay on top, and on Transmaniacon, there is only two of us playing and recording. It was me and Jaimo (Welch), with Nadav (Eisenman), who was the engineer, the overseer and organizer. But it had a lot of space so that the vocals could be a little more on top. This album was recorded with a real band and I wanted the vocals to fit in there. I mean, I like my lyrics but I'm not making any statements or anything. It's just fuel for the fire.
I don't wanna talk too much about Royal Trux, but I mentioned in my Your Flesh review about how it seemed like there's a theme running through Western Xterminator and I noticed a similar theme running through a lot of the Royal Trux stuff. Have you always been responsible for the lion's share of your lyrics or is that my perception?
I wrote a lot of the lyrics. Neil wrote a lot of lyrics too but there were certain songs that I would write from start to finish, lyrically, and those would be the more rock-oriented ones.
Yeah, like “Waterpark,” “Second Skin,” things like that. And on Thank You, “You're Gonna Lose.” Then there were songs that he wrote from start to finish, like “Stop” and things like that. But the bulk of lyrics were written collaboratively, where I'd write some and he'd take it and do something and then I'd take it back and do something. There was always a process. A lot of songs were individually penned, but a lot of it was also collaborative.
Wow, that's kinda ambitious. Co-writing lyrics always seemed like a weird concept to me.
Yeah, and time consuming. But I think that's where it all came about with Royal Trux, the process of two different sensibilities really checking and balancing each other.
For sure. It's even more evident now, with Neil really pushing the harmelodic stuff, while you seem to be coming from more of a… well, not a traditional rock background, but, you know, you're getting favorably compared to Ratt and Cinderella which I think is really cool. I like your quote that ‘rock is inclusive.'
It's honest for me. Some people don't like that stuff. But in Royal Trux you could only bring so much of your childhood and your formative years, and then it would get checked and tempered with a different sensibility I just like to bring in all the things that have moved me and inspired me. My first shows, when I was ten, were those Bad Brains all ages shows. Then my older cousins would take me to a lot of arena shows. In Maryland I saw Rush, Motley Crue, Metallica, Megadeth…
Yeah, that was kinda my background too.
And I was really into it, ya know? But in the past I've played with people who didn't have that, didn't share that with me. So, with Brian (McKinley) and Kurt (Midness) in the band now, I felt like I could flex those muscles because we had that in common.
I hate the term ‘glam metal' or ‘hair metal,' but the hard rock stuff from that era became like anything else, where it became hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, just like grunge and trip hop and folk now. I mean, for every Tesla or Whitesnake there was Bullet Boys or a Dangerous Toys and it just kinda oversaturated the market.
Yeah, saturation, that's the perfect word. And that needs to happen, saturation, and then it needs to move on. But that's the danger about genres. I guess it's not really a danger, it's just evolution.
And history repeating itself.
Yeah. What's past is prologue.
I think it was John Darnielle who said this, and I'm paraphrasing, but he said that the best, most talented indie rock guitar player still wasn't fit to do sound for even the most mediocre metal guitarist, or something to that effect.
Totally true. I mean, it's just a different sensibility, and emphasis on different ways of playing and thinking. The conundrum that I've always had is that I straddle the fence because the sensibilities that I love and cherish on the really meticulous tip are always going to be coupled with the fact that I myself suck at instruments, so I'd rather not burden anybody with that! It's what makes RTX sound the way RTX sounds, but it poses all sorts of marketing problems!
I think this new one is a hard record to deny, though. Can we talk about the cover art? I fucking love the cover art! You as the pied piper, leading the minions back to rock! Was that the idea or am I just overstating that, blowing it out of proportion?
No, no, there was a big picture in my mind that I never verbalized. I wrote some notes and sent them to Andreas, the guy who did the artwork. But all the rats in the picture all have different styles and coming from different places, but they still like the pipe. They all like the same piper! It's kinda hokey but it's really not. It's what I'd like to see happen with the record.
Jaimo's Youtube thing is crazy. Totally my high school fantasy but I didn't have the chops. It reminds me of that Steve Vai video, for “The Audience Is Listening,” do you remember that?
That little kid - Thomas McRocklin was his name – was actually a shredder. He had a band. I wonder what he's doing now.
This might sound evil or wicked, but…Jaimo is a shredder, a prodigy from early on, and he played all the guitar on Transmaniacon, but I didn't have him play ANY guitar on Western Xterminator. I had him play the drums.
Well, because, it's like what you were saying, the Mountain Goats guy quote. The best indie guitar player couldn't even do sound for the worst metal guitarist, or whatever. Jaimo is saddled with intense – I shouldn't say saddled – but with intense ability and knowledge, and he's never gone on the other side of the fence where that tightness is allowed to get loose. Whereas Brian, the other guitar player, inherently has that. So with Jaimo being as good, or maybe a better guitar player than Brian - it's all subjective - I wanted Jaimo to stretch out and kinda feel a rhythm. He's a capable drummer, I feel like the chemistry is really cool when I have him there, and he's feeling music, stretching out, feeling something differently. That kept it fresh for me, and I know he gets a little frustrated but at the end of the day I think he's really enjoying it, too.
That's pretty ballsy, conceptually. It's like making Peter Green play bass or something.
Yeah, but we can't afford to bore ourselves.
It's true, Jaimo's guitar style is still way different from people like Neil, or even other super proficient players like Kawabata Makoto, it's way more precocious, you can tell he kinda cut his teeth checking out dudes like Marty Friedman
Nuno Bettencourt was his dude, and the guy that did all the music for The Transformers, the guy that did the music for Rocky IV. But yeah, Nuno Bettencourt was a big one. I like that stuff – those weren't formidable influences but I dig it.
Nuno Bettencourt, and Extreme, that was straight up 80s on the timeline. Isn't Jaimo kinda young to have been checking that out? He must've been an early bloomer.
Yep. He's got two older brothers who are pretty amazing musicians. He dropped out of school when he was in 7th grade so he just hung out with them.
The glorious results of a misspent youth.
Right. He says “If my parents would have cut my hair maybe I would have had some friends, not dropped out of school.” And I'm just like, “Shut up, stop your whining, dude. School was awful.”
Do you still surf?
Yeah. I haven't gone out in like a month, but I've been fighting a cold and then I got over it and then I went up north for the holidays and I got sick, so it's just been on and off with the cold, so I don't wanna go in the water.
But you generally have a pretty strict regiment with it?
Yeah, that's how I kinda get my exercise. I get out and just do that.
Are you guys gonna tour?
Yeah. I feel like I'm starting all over. There is some crossover, but I think that there's a lot of people who are coming to it like a new band.
But that's good.
Yeah, that's what I was hoping for.
Well, let us know if you ever wanna tour together. We'd toil for RTX.
Dude, RTX would be toiling too! We roll that way. I'll roll that way.