Keep on trucking

Informed by the aesthetics of free jazz and swampy blues, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema reinvented rock ’n’ roll.

Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux funnelled their creative energy into a focused, deliberate attempt to recalibrate what rock music could be.
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For most listeners, rock and the avant-garde are, if not polar opposites, then certainly somewhat estranged. The overall impression of rock since the 1970s has been as one of the most rigid forms in modern popular music. To its detractors its straight-ahead guitar riffs represent a staid monoculture: an overwhelmingly white, male adaptation of original African-American rock 'n' roll, predicated on aesthetics of "maturity" and "real music", notionally challenging the plasticity of pop, while being so derivative as to barely change from one decade to the next. To its fans, rock is still transcendent - irrepressible, evergreen, and perhaps joyous for the very reason that you always know exactly what you're going to get. Why, a rocker might argue, should the Rolling Stones, The Faces, AC/DC, Metallica or Muse not be held alongside each other as pan-generational equals, and enjoyed on the same terms?

The theoretical position of "rockism" has been difficult to dislodge. In this ultimately conservative philosophy, the rock canon is key, playing "properly" is essential, and deviation into the fakeness of pop music, or the pretension of experimentation, compromises a band's integrity, and thus its worth. Unsettled by these sentiments, Kurt Cobain had originally intended that the title of Nirvana's final album In Utero would be Verse Chorus Verse, a sly dig at the traditional rock formula. By this stage, in 1993, the imagined dichotomy between rock and the avant-garde had already collapsed spectacularly, with fantastic results.

The prevalence of hair metal, college, adult-orientated and heartland rock in mainstream American culture in the mid to late 1980s pushed hardcore punks such as Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Royal Trux to funnel their energy into more focused, deliberate attempts to recalibrate what rock music could be. All three bands quickly acquired cult followings and, eventually, signed to major labels. However, throughout the 1990s Royal Trux were overshadowed by the success of their peers.

The duo formed in 1987 when the Washington DC-based couple Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema decided they needed an outlet for their ideas beyond the local punk scene. (Hagerty was already releasing music with his band Pussy Galore, which also included Jon Spencer of Blues Explosion fame.) The opiated haze of Royal Trux's terrific eponymous debut arrived in 1988, and is now - along with the double album Twin Infinitives, another eponymous LP generally known as Skulls, and 1993's Cats and Dogs - being re-released by Domino Records.

The impact of Royal Trux was such that they were seduced into a lucrative three-album deal with Virgin Records, a partnership which led to predictable unhappiness on both sides. The band were angry at being asked to compromise their sound and make more commercially viable rock music, while the label allegedly told them their work was "confusing", contained "too many notes", and best of all, according to Hagerty, that "children need something to rollerskate to". It's probably fair to say that rollerskating to Royal Trux at their most experimental could easily have left people hospitalised.

The duo finished their unhappy dalliance with the mainstream, released five more albums, and finally split up in 2001, going on to work on several side projects for the label Drag City. Royal Trux's post-Virgin albums contain a lot of great music, but it's the daring songwriting and production in these first releases that truly stretched the scope of a genre in which, allegedly, all the good songs had already been written.

Crucial to their approach from the outset was a philosophy created by the jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter and composer Ornette Coleman, called harmolodics: a holistic ideology which was at the centre of the free-jazz movement in the 1960s. Constantly referenced by Royal Trux in interviews, harmolodics was not just a dilettantish flirtation, but their whole world - they applied it to rock the way Coleman applied it to jazz. In the words of the 2006 Harmolodic Manifesto, "a harmolodic discourse is not being bound by technical considerations as to key, time, modality, interval, and other traditionally oriented musical signposts..." - all of which begets a "particular freedom" which "informs conscious activity running counter to the alarming tendencies currently active w/in mass culture".

What those "alarming tendencies" were was not important to Royal Trux - indeed what harmolodics is in opposition to musically, or culturally, is never explicit. Unlike, say, the 1970s punk movement, harmolodics was not nihilistic. It did not seek to create something new by destroying what went before, but rather to escape the constraints of established generic form. Royal Trux's aesthetic embodies the indirectly politicised avant-garde: the delineation of a dichotomy between political and apolitical music. "Write off immediately the temporal materialism of the political and search for the horizon. Our records rest there for an indeterminate need," Hagerty wrote in an essay accompanying the 1997 compilation called Singles, Live, Unreleased.

Twin Infinitives is where this carefree experimentation really peaks. On a song like Ice Cream we are treated to one twanging bassline, a series of whistle noises, and stray acoustic guitar strumming, all lying underneath a barely audible stream of spoken poetry from Herrema. Twin Infinitives will appear pretty "out there" for people more used to the verse-chorus-verse model; indeed barely any of the above feature, let alone in that order.

Yin Jim Versus The Vomit Creature starts with a wail that could be from a movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd, and a jabbing guitar riff that sounds like the work of a garage band who are only just learning to play. "Woooowohhhh," Hagerty wails again, coughs for a bit, trills, barks, yelps, and then yodels. The only consistent sounds accompanying him are an effects-laden guitar line and a distorted spoken vocal. "My head in the sink!" he exclaims at one point, which seems about right. The song ends with manic laughter and more gibberish, then the chaos subsides, and slowly settles into a synthetic glug, glug, glug of water. It's an exhilarating ride. Sometimes traditional tropes glimmer through the feedback, though. For example, a snarled "hey, hey, yeah, yeah," refrain offers the only audible words on Jet Pet.

By the release of Cats and Dogs, Royal Trux were using a slightly more conventional approach to achieve the same immersive effects. But their desire to "twist it all upside down", as they half-speak, half-sing in unison on the seven minute sound-poem Turn of the Century is still evident. The song's gentle cymbal taps and collage of manicured slide guitar lines are an exemplar of how to work around the rules.

Hegarty and Herrema even foreground a crunching riff and wig-out guitar solo on Hot and Cold Skulls. The thrilling thing about Royal Trux, though, is that even when leaning towards traditional song structures and rhythm patterns, the approach remains the same as when making borderline unlistenable sound collages. Even when they're not experimenting, they are.

The duo's early work was not a fleeting indulgence of avant-garde impulses, either. In 1998, on the release of Accelerator, the duo's seventh studio album in a decade, Hagerty was unrepentant in his adherence to the philosophy that had so inspired Royal Trux, In a fax to the music magazine The Wire, he said: "Harmolodics is my only social and moral framework. Everything I do is in a relationship with a billion fragmented lines through time. Understanding those relationships and my next line is the exertion that leaves its record in music. Rather than trying to control the things I understand, I would like to leave them free to develop as they will."

The legacy of these ideas can certainly be found in the music. The band's eventual demise, in 2001, did not lessen the impact of their first four albums. In fact, their influence can be heard in everything from the bluesy sonic assaults made by The Kills or The White Stripes, to Interpol's angular guitars. Historically, many rock bands have decided to throw creative caution to the wind after a few albums. Royal Trux did it from the outset, because they couldn't conceive of making rock music any other way.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.