1993: Royal Trux - Cats and Dogs

Under the “About this record” section for Cats and Dogs on Drag City’s website is a statement that reads simply: “Do you remember the summer of ’93? Our brief stay in Camelot…”

That’s a joke on nostalgia, I’m guessing, but for music fans of a certain age and sensibility, it’s a bittersweet one. If 1991 was the year punk broke, 1993 might be considered the beginning of indie rock’s brief golden age, the year indie went from describing DIY-style labels and bands that were financially independent from major labels, to signifying a sound based in guitar-oriented rock groups that favored lots of distortion and quirky if not obtuse lyrics and album art. It was also the year Matador partnered with Atlantic Records for distribution.

1993 was the year between Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, the year of Bubble and Scrape, Painful, Vampire on Titus (though, truth be told, most of us wouldn’t know that until next year’s Bee Thousand), On the Mouth, Icky Mettle, and so on. Choose-your-own-indie-rock adventure. These are considered seminal albums now, and back then the bands responsible were starting to get wider distribution and even some radio and MTV play, thanks in no small part to corporate America trying to figure out what was and wasn’t “grunge.” And for some of the bands, the best was yet to come.

How does Cats and Dogs fit into all this? The answer, as with most things Truxish, is unconventionally. Despite having introduced Pavement to the world via their early singles and EPs, Drag City was never an indie rock label, à la Merge or Matador. It was home to sullen songwriters (Smog, Palace), conceptual groups steeped in art theory (Red Krayola, Gastr del Sol) a Popol Vuh-admiring psychedelic-folk artist — back when that wasn’t so commonplace (Flying Saucer Attack) — and whatever the hell Royal Trux was. Drag City’s flagship band, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema’s outfit made two albums of difficult, art-damaged rock, and a more accessible but still kinda weird untitled record before releasing 1993’s Cats and Dogs, a recording that was easier for indie rock fans to digest, and one that helped them get signed to Virgin records.

Cats and Dogs didn’t sound like indie rock so much as a comment on — or reflection of — indie rock, something that seems even more apparent 17 years on. Like Jean Luc Godard’s earlier films, Royal Trux albums often played like critiques of the genres they were operating in while remaining wholly enjoyable in their own right. You could groove on them whether or not you caught all the references, but once you did, your understanding and enjoyment changed, almost always for the better.

Cats and Dogs is littered with sounds that would be familiar to anyone listening to college radio at the time. The guitar tone and slow/fast tempo change of opening track “Teeth” borrows a style that was already a cliché for innumerable indie bands formed in the wake of Nirvana, and every band had at least one song that featured a similar languid coda that allowed for scorched earth guitar soloing; “The Flag” apes early Pavement’s love of unsynced doubled vocals and noisy scuzz placed over a pop song; “Friends” sounds like a Sonic Youth noise digression (though of course the spectre of SY loomed large over every rock band in the 90s); “Tight Pants” could be Sebadoh attempting math rock; and I’ve always heard the funky break beat and vocal breakdown near the end of “Skywood Greenback Mantra” as a send-up of Hagerty’s former bandmate Jon Spencer’s flirting with minstrel-like band Blues Explosion or a prediction of the coming of Beck’s shtick.

Of course there’s plenty of stuff here that has a more tangential relationship to then-current sounds. Side one ends with “Turn of the Century,” surely one of the great tracks in the Trux catalogue. Backed by a wistful piano figure, Hagerty’s multi-tracked guitar playing has rarely been as gorgeous, his duet with Herrema never as emotive. It’s comedown acid rock for clever kids, music as narcotic. Like the heroin dealer/user in the movie Rush said, “It’s like floating on a cloud of titties.”

The feeling gets a bit queasier with side two opener “Up the Sleeve,” a song about scoring/using drugs. It has a real menace to it, the guitars and analogue synth creeping along sleazily only to be interrupted by fuzz-peddle riffing near the end. If “Up the Sleeve” contains the first real hint on this album of the antisocial troublemakers who recorded Twin Infinitives, that druggy duo seems to have been resurrected in full for album closer “Driving in That Car.” It’s a lengthy dirge propelled by what sounds like handclaps and cowbell, a retro to the future synth that sounds like a spaceship landing, and chants about time and taking off your shirt.

Whether you accept this reading of Cats and Dogs as self-conscious indie rock or not, you have to admit that Royal Trux were one of the most referential bands of the era, with an astute critical sense. Not for nothing was the word deconstruction used repeatedly in Trux reviews and profiles of the time, and even if you didn’t fully understand what that word meant (I submit few of us truly did), you knew what these Cultural Studies-steeped writers were getting at.

Hagerty has famously claimed that Royal Trux’s three records for Virgin were a conceptual trilogy, representing rock music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s: Thank You (produced by Neil Young compadre David Briggs in 1995) was ostensibly their take on 60s rock, though the early 70s swagger of Stones/Faces/Mountain is equally present. Sweet Sixteen (1997) was their trip through 70s glam rock, the icing on the toilet bowl cover image mirroring the dirty riffs and guttural vocals sweetened with stadium-sized production and mixing, while Accelerator (1998) topped it off with a shrill-sounding take on 80s pop rock. But before this trilogy, they had already executed their take on the sound of the 90s with Cats and Dogs. I don’t mean to suggest they approached the album with the strict idea of “covering” that decade, that their intent and purpose was so thoroughly fleshed out as it would be, just that they were deliberately tweaking the sounds of their contemporaries. They were operating in an aesthetic they had yet to define, making it up as they went, reinventing their sound from album to album. Cats and Dogs is as different from the previous year’s Stonesian untitled (the “Skulls” album) as that album was from the broke-down futuristic nightmare of Twin Infinitives as that was from their rickety debut as Royal Trux were from Hagerty’s previous band Pussy Galore.

In addition to their abundance of ideas and self-reinvention, what most distinguishes Royal Trux from their peers of the 90s is Hagerty’s guitar playing. No one else seems to have his understanding of — and affection for — classic rock, using its tropes in a non-ironic way that explores the further edges and possibilities of hoary riffs and solos. While other bands would acknowledge classic rock with a wink and a smirk, as if those sounds were dumb fun they liked to revel in but were ultimately above, Hagerty seemed to embrace them precisely because they were dumb, almost awed they could be as powerful and musically malleable as they were.

So maybe the summer of 1993 was a too-brief stay in indie rock Camelot. The music got more predictable and codified as it got more popular, and the internet would soon show up and make everyone an instant expert, rearrange our idea of historical narratives by crushing all of pop culture history into one infinitely sided dice where every era touched every other one. Neil and Jennifer (surely a better Jack and Jackie than Ira and Georgia) wouldn’t continue into the new millennium as Royal Trux. They split up, breaking off into Hagerty’s prolific and often baffling project Howling Hex and Herrema’s somewhat confused take on Sunset Strip rock, RTX. The late-period Trux records are great (and absolutely perfect for road trips), and in many ways superior to what came before — certainly more listenable for most people. But Cats and Dogs stands as a perfect transition from their provocative experimentation to a more standard idea of a rock band. Never again would they turn their penchant for re-appropriation so inward, evaluating their own time while also transcending it.

I can’t believe this record was ever out of print.

[Drag City reissued Cats and Dogs last week.]


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

Most Read