Royal Trux Return – Interview with Jennifer Herrema

(photo courtesy of Amanda Milius)

This is Poppin’ Off with DJ Gopal, and I’m on the phone with Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux who have reunited after a long time apart, and are playing at the Chapel in San Francisco on Wednesday night (11/1/17).  Thank you for taking some time to speak with me tonight Jennifer.

Yep

How is the tour going so far?

Well, we’re not on tour actually.  This is like a one-off show.  We’ve been doing a bunch of shows.  But we toured Europe May and June and then we did like a week in like Poland, Finland, Eastern Europe and then we’ve just been doing Montreal Pop Fest, and just different festivals, one at a time.  And now San Francisco, because we haven’t played San Francisco yet and we would like to make sure that we play all of the major cities that we were fond of at one point.  You never know with schedules and stuff when you can do it again, and such.

What do you remember about the time you spent in San Francisco as a band?

It was a not a good time, honestly.  I gotta say that it was crucial.  It was important.  I’m glad that we went through that time but it was definitely a rough time.  We lived right by where the Chapel is.  I looked it up and we lived like 6 blocks from there on 16th and Dolores, which is just ran parallel to Mission.  I’m just assuming it’s super not like what it was before.  Y’know.  It was worse than the Tenderloin was, and the Tenderloin still seems like the Tenderloin to me but I don’t know… It was bad times.  A lot of drugs.  A lot of darkness.  Actually what was very interesting was I had never been in an earthquake.  I didn’t even know what an earthquake felt like.  We moved there [to SF] and one week later that fuckin’ earthquake that took down the Cypress Freeway.  The World Series.  It was epic but I didn’t even know what that was.  Everybody was standing in doorways and like, dude the world is exploding.  I had completely forgotten about earthquakes.  They don’t have them in DC.  Or Virginia for that matter.  I’m sure they have seismic activity so to speak but that was a terrible terrible earthquake.  So I remember martial law.  

Did you think you were going to die during the [1989 Loma Prieta] earthquake?

Well no actually.  If I had know maybe from the very beginning what it was maybe I would have gotten to that conclusion faster.  I would have experienced that.  But I was just like, what the fuck is this?  I’m looking outside for a wrecking ball and then it just dawns on me when I saw people standing in doorways.  And I was like, oh, it’s a fucking earthquake!  But that felt like forever, but it was probably only like four seconds and then it was over.  I was scared by the aftershocks because I knew what they were.  I didn’t want to get taken out by a building or a freeway or something like that.  Martial law.  The Mission up to the Castro the electricity was all out and so people were guarding the bodegas and such, and if they weren’t people were just going in and taking shit.  Acting crazy.  It was just trippy.  It felt like dark vibes hanging over this beautiful city with a big fucking cloud on top of it forever and ever.  

Do you remember much about the musical scene of San Francisco from those days?

We remember some of the stuff that was going on.  It was Mr. Bungle, and it was… I don’t know.  Really, when we moved there we didn’t really go to many shows unless we were supposed to play or something.  I remember seeing Mr. Bungle, I remember there was a woman named Barbara.  There were some people that introduced us to a lot of different people but we didn’t really pay much attention at the time.  There was Shirley Temple’s daughter.  She had been playing with the Melvins and then she played with Royal Trux for about three months or so playing drums.   Her last name is Black.  She’s Shirley Temple’s daughter.  She was in the Melvins.  I think it’s Laurie or Laura.   A lot of this stuff I had forgotten about, but the past year, hanging out with Neil and hanging out with people that are fans, the floodgates have opened.  I’m like, aw shit, that’s right!  I had forgotten about that.  I have huge gaps.  They’re not gaps like I can’t remember it, it’s just that their not in the harddrive that I have access to.  They’re in my storage, where I’ve got to wait for somebody to call them up.  

How has the fan reaction to your reunion been?

Really good.  It’s not the same reaction every time.  Then again it’s not the same performance every time.  It’s all been positive.  Depending on what venue, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, what’s the capacity.  The energy kind of goes with the scenario.  It’s kind of a give and take.  It was intense.  People were staring.  It was super intense and everybody was in it.  But there were other ones where it was intense but not the same type of intensity.  There’s a lot of people at nighttime, it’s outside, it’s kind of a wild energy.  So it just depends on where we are and what’s up and what time of day, but it’s all been positive.  

The first gig was at a festival in southern California called Berserktown, correct?

Yes.  Yes.  Berserktown, which is just so crazy to me too.  It was just a strange thing.  Serendipitous.   It’s in a place called Santa Ana, south of Los Angeles County and inland from Newport Beach and whatever.  It’s a pretty cool area, but literally I had had a studio there.  We had a warehouse space that we had put up walls and moved in all our gear for over a decade since I came out here and bought my house, and we rented that space.  I ended up playing with Royal Trux literally five blocks from my studio.  Like it was just bizarro world.  Like, what is that?  In the middle of nowhere and then I played there.  

How did that first reunion gig come together?

Neil was on tour with the Howling Hex.  Kind of unexpectedly he emails me and said that he was coming to Los Angeles and asked if I was coming to the show.  So I said yeah, ok, I’ll go up there.  And then, I guess it was the night before, he said no don’t come because the band members might get freaked out, and I’m like, dude ok, whatever.  And then the guy that booked that show that Neil was playing really liked him, and said that he wanted to do a show.  And he said that he wanted us to headline this festival that he had been having in Los Angeles, prior to the year we played.  So I really liked that dude.  He offered us a lot of money, he was super on the level.  It was tripped me the fuck out because, y’know, five blocks from where I’ve been playing music for over a decade.  On accident, you know?  Of all the places in the world.  There’s all sorts of music and shit.  

So we ended up doing the show.  And I picked the bass player and Neil picked the drummer.  So I picked Brian McKinley, who’s a guitar player for Black Bananas.  And then Neil picked the drummer who was Tim Barns.  Great drummer.  Great guy.  He’s played with Neil before.  Solid dude.  It was pretty cool because we only had one day before we had to play in front of thousands of people.  So it was kind of harrowing at first because I was like, wow-wow-wow.  I hadn’t done tons of due diligence.  I hadn’t gone back and really memorized and prepared every one of the four hundred some odd songs.  It was great.  When Neli walked into my studio it was like, oh there’s Neil.  And it seemed like nothing had changed in the way that we were in each other’s presence.  So it quickly came together.  We played that rehearsal and then we had to play the next day.  It was great.  There was a lot of stuff that we had kind of worked out on the one rehearsal day, but then there was all sorts of free-for-all, we’re not totally sure where it’s gonna go.  So that was exhilarating.  And then New York was kind of like, now we had played one rehearsal and played one show.  So we had another rehearsal in New York and then another show.  So now we’re like, as far as I’m concerned – it’s all contextual – but we were getting pretty tight.  New York was really a super tight kind of show.  It still had a groove, but it was a little bit different.  I felt like we were tighter because now we had played it four times.  

What era of your music mostly comes up in the live shows nowadays?

There’s something from every record I believe still.  So the set’s like twelve songs.  They’re all like extended versions.  Sometimes there will be more.  Sometimes we’ll throw one out because we go long on another one.  Sometimes we’ll substitute it out or this or that.  At the end of the day it is something from everything.  At least there is to begin with.  

Did your time apart affect the musical dynamic between you and Neil?

Yeah.  It’s next level.  We’re just like psychic twins.  I totally can do this and I don’t feel like I’m in a bubble.  I already know what’s up over there.  And I feel the same, y’know, I can bring Brian in the studio and Brian’s so chill.  I think it’s next level better.  Good.  

I think it just kind of put it through the washing machine.  It was kind of getting heavy with build up.  You know when you meet somebody when you’re fifteen years old and that’s the person.  We didn’t have crews or gangs or scenes.  We knew different people that were part of different scenarios but we were mostly each other’s yin and yang.  We were inseparable.  But twenty years in and it’s like you gotta go through the car wash or something.  Get the layers off.  

I can’t predict him and he can’t predict me, but he can predict any given variable that I might have.  And I can predict because we know each other so well that it’s just all the details are already shown.  Sometimes we react to each other.  Sometimes we get in a fight.  But it’s not a real fight.  It’s just more like the way we used to do in the studio when we were writing and recording together a long time ago.  It’s like, you gotta fight sometimes.   Otherwise if one person let’s the other person completely take control, then weird and strange things occur in life.  Anything like that.  We always be honest with each other.  That creates fights sometimes.  

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve read about Royal Trux?

I don’t know.  I don’t read our press.  I post it.  Sometimes people will give me some this and that.  Pre-social media I never read any of our press. And it was only post-social media when I would read things from media and people Googling shit that stuff from the past that I’ve never read to begin with.  It started to make more sense.  The picture became more clear that…yeah…there was multiple ways in which you could love or hate what we did.  At the end of the day, they’re all wrong because it’s never one of those things, but they’re all also right…because what people carry away, regardless of whether it’s real or not, and pass along is just as important as the reality in a weird way.

It’s because we definitely.  I think a lot of people might get upset sometimes because, I definitely heard people be like, wow, what was that.  But it’s not a negative, but what the fuck do you think it was?  It was what you signed up to see.  A real time thing happening.  It’s like, that kind of drives me crazy, when people can’t appreciate it for what it is, and like to think about what it’s not.  Cuz it’s not a lot of things.  But it is its own thing.  It’s about the weirdness, and it’s about the sentiment and it’s about the two unified voices and the story that we tell together, and there is a natural offset to our deliveries.  The way we deliver our lines and stuff.  I think it makes me so stoked to hear when I listen to the records and stuff.  

What do you remember about the period where Cats & Dogs and Thank You were released?  That seemed like a really great era for you.

It’s true.  It seemed really cool because it felt like we had made so many records, but really we had made the first album.  We had made the compilation for Matador, the one-off thing.  The Twin Infinitives double album.  We had made the bones (third album) and the Cats & Dogs album.  So it felt like to me that at that young age that I’d made a lot of records.  So when we did the Virgin one, it was super exciting to be able to be oh wow, after five records of this and that, now we have the luxury to scope out and experience things that we’ve been curious about.  To pick a producer and just bring somebody else in.  It was really exciting.  It was really different but it didn’t feel like a huge jump.  It felt like that’s where maybe we were gonna be.  But had no idea and no expectations.  It just felt like that we were gonna be able to experience that some time.  That’s just the way it felt.

What was it like working with David Briggs on Thank You, who had previously produced people like Neil Young?

Yeah did most all the Neil Young albums.  He did Spirit, early Alice Cooper.  He’s just a character.  That’s why we chose him.  We chose him because he was all in.  He knew his shit but he wasn’t a tech guy.  He didn’t sit behind the board.  He hired Greg Archilla this y’know sick ass engineer that was his right hand man.  He was in the room with us when we’d play, like dancing around and shit.  He set up this whole scenario where it was like alive.  A live room at the studio.  Anyway, we knew that he just had good energy, and he was into it.  It was a real joyful excitement.  We were like, yeah.  Definitely.  It’s like Spirit, Alice Cooper, Neil Young.  These are all things that are great sounding.  It’s not like we’re going to go with Mutt Lange or something.  Maybe in the future.  Ha ha ha.  We wanted to pick a producer that was going to be a creative entity, not a mediator between label and artist as it were.  

How did that experience affect the way you approached recording?

Doing Thank You, did it change the way that we recorded after that?  Yeah.  After Thank You we had a bunch of money and we bought a farm in Virginia and we built a studio.  These things were not even remote possibilities or delusional illusions to us up to that point.  These things never entered my mind.  I didn’t have a driver’s license, I didn’t have a bank account.  And now.  Oh shit!  Now we got an awesome farm.  Now we have our studio.  We became very prolific after Thank You because we had set ourselves up.  We would still utilize other local studios, but…

What kind of feedback did you get about Sweet Sixteen, the follow up album to Thank You?

I don’t know.  I mean, we knew that record label infrastructure had already changed within the two years of signing with Virgin.  Things were different but y’know our contract did stipulate that we could do whatever we wanted, and they had to put it out.  No matter what.  Like, I could take a bath and record it.  I’m serious.  It’s not like we were fucking with them.  We made…I think of it as strangely proggy.   To me.  In its length and its depth and all of that.  That drove them crazy.  It drove them crazy.  It seemed like as far as the rest of the world and touring and stuff, things seemed the same.  It didn’t seem different, but as far as the relationship with Virgin and trying and wanting to move forward, and do it the way we were planning… We were allowed to do it.  It was in our contract.  They’re like so you’re not going to use a producer?  I’m like nope.  So you’re not going to into the studio?  Nope.  Most people have to do those things.  Or else they don’t get the money or whatever.  We’d just get the money and I think that was seen perhaps as hostile maybe.  By not utilizing a different producer, and using the studio that we built.  But honestly, it was like that.  The plan the entire time was with David Briggs.  He helped me set up the studio and we’d do construction and he’d make bass traps.  We spent shit tons of money putting that studio together to do that Sweet Sixteen album, but unfortunately he died.  Everything else that was in the plan stayed in the plan.  We had his engineer, Greg Archilla, mix it just like we had planned.  It wasn’t hostile.  We were going along with this vision where we were going to play it out.  Every song had to be at least four minutes.  We had many long talks about the parameters we were going to set for that.  Just because he died doesn’t mean we’re going to not do it the way that we said we were going to do it.  

Did I have any regrets of going to Virgin?

Oh no.  No.  Never.  Uh uh.  It was great.  

Do you still have close ties to Drag City?

Yeah, I mean Drag City, they’re…y’know we started that with them.  Me and Neil and Dan and Dan and Ryan.  The label has gotten bigger and bigger.  There’s so many artists on it.  That’s the difference in the relationship.  Everything else is still the same.  Our dudes are like spread out, working for like a hundred different bands instead of just like…us.  Ha ha.  You know.  

Do you follow any of the newer generation of Drag City artists?

Oh yeah.  There’s a lot of them.  I listen.  Our sound person..actually basically the fifth member at times of Royal Trux is Cooper Crane from Bitchin’ Bajas.  My husband’s been into Bitchin’ Bajas music for the past five and they’ve been really good friends.  And then I became good friends.  And then Cooper went to do some stuff with Will.  Cooper is just an all around great guy.  Bitchin’ Bajas, I’m totally into that.  Cave is good.  There’s a lot of shit that I do not like though.  Old school dudes y’know, Will, Bill, David, David, Mayo and Greg.  All those people are holding it down.  

Oh yeah.  All the time.

It’s nice.  I gotta say a lot of times I don’t believe them.  And then I’m like, what is that?  Why am I so cynical, and I’m usually proven wrong.  There’s just something about social media that makes me think that people think they did something, but they actually didn’t.  They just did it online.  There’s this kind of transference of experience or something.  

Do you like social media?

No.  I hate it.  I mean I love the fact that Facebook…people have…you know like you got in touch with me through that, so I think that’s cool.  Basically I just do Facebook when some Royal Trux or Black Bananas or something that’s going on with my art.  I put that there.  I don’t actually engage in dialogues.  I don’t really.  I reply to things, but people are respectful for the most part.  So yeah.  I check it every day, but I do not Twitter or instagram.  I’ll check that shit once a month, but like, there’s other, a couple of people that are better at it than I am.  

Were you more into print media?

I collected all sorts of magazines.  I used to love pictures.  Tangible.  Flippling through picture books and photo books.  Anything like that.  Everything seemed really new all the time.  I’m seeing some new interesting activities in music for sure.  But I don’t think it has culminated in any one band or genre of music.  

I spoke to Judah and Russell from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion a few years ago, and they had effusive praise for you.  Want to guess what their favorite Royal Trux album was?

I don’t know.  I mean we knew Judah really well.  We knew Russell, but we didn’t know him that well.  I actually can’t say that I would know what his favorite might be.

It was the self-titled album with Strawberry Soda Pop on it

Yeah yeah.  Oh yeah strawberry soda pop.  That’s a good one.  Yeah I’ve been doing these lists lately.  We have a lot of songs and I’ve been trying to go through and not pick favorites, but really pick different favorites that kind of encapsulate or kind of are of that moment.  That vibe.  That album.  That period of time.  Or that type of song.  There’s a lot of different types.  There’s 11.  There’s eleven different Royal Truxes, ha ha.  There’s definitely distinctly eleven Royal Truxes.  To my ear anyway, at this point.

Do you have any message for the fans ahead of your show Wednesday night at the Chapel?

Come to the show.  You never know.  We might not be back.  So if you’re interested, I don’t want to hear about it later.  

Bye.

 

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