Royal Trux “I really liked it. I think I liked it more than I remembered I liked it.”

Drag City has done a great service by reissuing the oeuvre of one of America’s most essential rock bands, Royal Trux. The Trux helped usher American rock music through the genesis of “alternative” music in the late 1980s and early 90s, and Veterans of Disorder was their 1999 wave goodbye to the decade. It was also their first album recorded after the Virgin Records years, and the varied songwriting and production create an eclectic aura that could be interpreted as freedom, if the Glimmer Twins hadn’t always been free. Drag City re-released VOD in November 2013, but don’t let the year change stop you from starting 2014 off right by picking up this oft-overlooked classic, which features at least ten top-shelf songs. (There are 10 on the album.)

Back in November, I spoke with Jennifer Herrema over the phone and emailed questions to Neil Hagerty to talk about the reissue.

First, I talked to Herrema, who now plays in the goopy rock project Black Bananas. She was getting ready to drive to L.A.

It’s fun to be able to get to ask you a bunch of questions, especially about Veterans of Disorder, which is one of my favorite albums of yours.

Great. I like that one a lot too. Actually it’s one of the reissues that, when they sent the test pressing, I actually listened to it. It’s been weird [because] it’s been basically re-upping the stock. They’re not reissues, like remastered, extra tracks, that kind of shit. It’s just that they were all sold out, so they didn’t have any more, so they’re reissuing them. But, a lot of the times, during the test pressing, I’d be in the middle of doing something, like recording or whatever, and I didn’t want to listen to it so I’d call Koretzky [Dan Koretzky of Drag City] or someone and ask them, “Does it sound good?” And they’d say, “Yeah,” and I’m like, “OK.” And so, finally, for this one, we’re done recording the new Black Bananas album, and so when the Veterans one came in the mail I actually listened to it and I was, like, “Damn, this record!” So I was really happy. I really liked it. I think I liked it more than I remembered I liked it.

That must be a really good feeling. What made you go back and listen to this one, besides the fact that you weren’t recording?

I guess I just came to a place where I felt like I could listen to old stuff again and not get, I don’t know, sentimental about it, or think of it as nostalgic, just actually hear it, sort of objective — well, of course it’ll never be objective, but to a certain extent objectively, where I’m not totally emotionally and mentally tied to it.

That makes sense. It’s been 14 years now. That makes a lot of difference. One thing I really like about each Royal Trux record is that they all sound like they’re a snapshot of that time. The production changes, the sound changes…

Yeah, totally.

I feel like I followed through on what I needed to do at the time, didn’t act like I knew everything but didn’t buy into some bullsh&t [sic] either.

…And I was wondering if you had anything to say about the mindset going into Veterans of Disorder, especially after this thematic trilogy you did (Thank You, Sweet Sixteen, Accelerator).

I feel like even though Accelerator was part of the trilogy, it already started feeling more like Drag City, more like home, where you’re not talking to weird people you don’t know on the phone, random Virgin employees. I feel like that trend encompasses a lot. This runs the gamut from the extremes, from “Waterpark” to “Coming Out Party” to “Stop.” You know, they’re all so different, the songs. And I feel with that there were no parameters put on any of the sound. We weren’t trying to rein in the influences as we were on the trilogy. I think it was more about writing the songs and recording it right after touring, and kind of just having played live a lot, working out the stuff while we were sound-checking. It was more about, “Let’s go. Let’s get this done.” Old school. In the past, before we had the studio or anything [at their home in Virginia], we could maybe have two days in the studio. That was the most luxurious we ever got. Earlier, we just used friends’ 8-track tape recorders and shit like that.

So [with Veterans of Disorder] it was more of that immediacy. We’re not going to linger on this album just because we have this studio. I think that’s part of why we decided to record parts of it at other peoples’ studios. Two days here, two days there, and that’s that. Like, old school. It’s it. We’re done.

Like Sweet Sixteen; when we had our own studio, we could fuck up, like, endlessly, and we did, and it was fun. But that was part of that. Yeah, Veterans was, like, the parameters were: we’re going to get this done in a week.

A lot of that comes across in how different the songs sound but how immediate they all are. The back-half of the album for me, that ending trio “Sickazz Dog,” “Coming Out Party,” and “Blue is the Frequency,” I love that so much. Was it actually immediate to make those tracks? It’s hard to tell how they’re put together.

Well, “Coming Out Party,” yeah, that was really immediate. I just like, did the vocals. Everything I had written on a piece of paper and it was so immediate that, like… Whenever I write anything or Neil and I would write stuff together, but I would always make sure the lyrics were ingrained… That I didn’t have to think when I had to open my mouth. But with “Coming Out Party” everything was written on the page and I was literally reciting off the page it was that immediate. I hadn’t internalized what I had written.

With “Blue is the Frequency,” we had been messing around with a version of that song; it was in the making on touring and stuff, but it was recorded pretty live. I’m pretty positive that that was one one of the ones we recorded at our house, like, boom. That’s the other thing. I’ve been having a hard time differentiating… I was talking to Ian Svenonius, like, “Dude? When was blah blah?” Everything kind of runs into itself. He wrote me a bunch of questions, but I said, “No, I have to talk to you on the phone, because you have to remind me what was going on.” So there are different gaps in my [laughs]. I think I remember everything. I just don’t remember everything sequentially. I had completely forgotten about being in Chicago and playing with Pajo and Fellows at the same time prior to… I was reading what Pajo had told Ian, and I had completely forgotten that. So it’s kind of a mess.

And now for the interview with Neil Hagerty, who now plays in The Howling Hex and lives in Denver. As mentioned earlier, he replied to questions I sent over email.

First off, how’s the Howling Hex? I keep playing “Trashcan Bahamas” over and over.

Right now we’re recording a 2-song 45rpm 10” that Drag City is putting out next year. We play once a month in Denver.

I know you’ve said before that you are removed from the reissue schedule, but when was the last time you listened to the “Veterans of Disorder” material?

I haven’t heard it since the year it came out.

What’s your current relationship to it?

I’m getting kinda curious to hear it.

To me, each Royal Trux record feels like a snapshot in time, a document of what you and Herrema were feeling, how you were working, etc., at the given moment of the recording. What was the mindset during Veterans of Disorder?

We were moving into a new phase of trying to be a road band.

I feel like even though Accelerator was part of the trilogy, it already started feeling more like Drag City, more like home, where you’re not talking to weird people you don’t know on the phone, random Virgin employees.

Maybe 14 years affords enough perspective to ask: What are your thoughts about Neil Michael Hagerty in 1999, i.e. the guy who worked on this album?

I feel like I followed through on what I needed to do at the time, didn’t act like I knew everything but didn’t buy into some bullsh&t [sic] either.

As a listener, it’s a satisfying transition from 3-Song EP to Veterans of Disorder. For you, how did making 3-Song EP influence Veterans of Disorder?

Well, I think the EPs are all in their own categories but having Jon Theodore playing drums gave us a little more flexibility than we’d had before, and that carried over into VOD.

The b-side of this record is one of my favorite sides of any Royal Trux record. All three tracks feel both “free” and “completely under control.” How did you conceptualize and create them (“Sickazz Dog,” “Coming Out Party,” and “Blue is the Frequency”)?

“Sickazz” was based on “Sick as a Dog” by Aerosmith, cut up and reorganized with strict serialist methodology. “Coming Out Party” we tried to write a song that didn’t ever repeat exactly, it had a key change every time it came back around, and the lyrics were written from a big batch of unfinished songs stretching back to our first record. “Blue” was a way to set up a long instrumental thing that we could do live, the tonal center of the song is based on a mathematical reduction of the frequency of the color blue, around 650 THz.

That guitar solo in “Blue is the Frequency” especially stands out to me. How do you approach writing and playing an extended guitar part like that? How does something like that happen?

It just started growing in the live shows when we played with Theodore and Dave Pajo in the rhythm section. The solo on the record is written from tapes of the live shows, extracting the best parts and then re-performing them in the studio.

[The original version of this interview had questions regarding the new Black Bananas record, but we have since taken them down for various reasons.]

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