In the post-Nirvana, pre-Spice Girls 1990s, the buzz band of the day was Royal Trux, the druggy noise-rock duo of ex-Pussy Galore guitarist Neil Hagerty and his then-girlfriend Jennifer Herrema — who, according to indie-rock lore, met at a D.C. club when a 19-year-old Hagerty set a 15-year-old Herrema’s hair on fire.
“I was on the cusp of 16. I remember my 16th birthday, because that’s when he decided to tell me he was my boyfriend — after doing acid after school for like a week,” Herrema tells Yahoo Entertainment, in her typical unfazed manner and pack-a-day vocal fry.
After a notoriously rules-flouting career that perhaps peaked with Royal Trux convincing major label Virgin Records to give them 100 percent creative control (“Our lawyer was like, ‘What, you think you’re Whitney Houston or something?’”); let them release an aggressively and obnoxiously uncommercial album, Sweet 16, with a photo of a vomit-and-feces-filled toilet on its cover (Herrema now confesses that it was “actually a bunch of oatmeal, Tabasco sauce, and chocolate sauce”); and then give them $300,000 to basically go away, Herrema and Hagerty split personally and professionally in 2001. Though the majority of their catalog remained out of print and unavailable on streaming services until very recently, their music still circulated underground via unauthorized cassette-trading and file-sharing, and they arguably set the template for stripped-down scuzz-rock successors like Sleigh Bells, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and especially the Kills.
Now Royal Trux are back against all odds with White Stuff, their first full-length studio album of dirty rawk ‘n’ roll in 19 years, out on Fat Possum Records. And the saga leading up to their reconciliation practically makes Fleetwood Mac’s relationship drama look like nothing.
Throughout their 15-year relationship (for only one year of which they were legally married), drug use bonded the couple — something they freely admitted to in interviews back in their ‘90s heyday. “Early on, it was just acid. Heroin wasn’t part of it at all at first, but there was drugs, weed, acid — a lot of acid — and a lot of drinking.” Heroin came later. The drug use understandably informed Royal Trux’s woozy, sleazy sound (imagine Crass doing an album of Stooges covers with Mick Taylor on guitar) and notoriously confrontational live shows. And Herrema was the decade’s heroin-chic heroine, staggering and swaggering onstage like a female Axl Rose in her snakeskin boots and Cousin It bedhead, trailing cigarette smoke and raccoon pelts everywhere she went.
It all worked for a while — gloriously, in fact, for nine studio albums — until it really didn’t.
“Dude, I’ll tell you what: Within our first year of marriage, Neil had me committed. Seriously,” Herrema shockingly reveals. “He did it because he thought he was helping me, blah blah blah. Oh, I was furious, but I understood that he really was doing it because he was so scared for me. I really believe that was the impetus. I don’t believe it was necessarily a controlling move, although he is a very controlling person. I think it was more just complete fear that I might die, or I might go off and not come back. But at the same time, I needed to go off and not come back.”
Herrema, who started smoking pot at age 12 (“Even at a young age, I was like, ‘Why the f*** am I bothering to get out of bed?’”), didn’t realize then that she had a “total chemical imbalance,” which she says runs on her mother’s side of the family. “I was self-medicating. I just thought that was the only way I could get through and not be super, super depressed. I kind of moved on to different drugs — and then heroin. Once you go in, it’s not easy to get out.”
Eventually, Herrema realized the only way to get her life on track was to walk away from everything she was familiar with — that is, from both her band and her marriage. “I was just like, ‘I have to go. I can’t keep going around in circles, like with the same self-destructive behavior,’” she explains. “It was not easy, to have to concentrate on this whole new world without Neil. I’d been with him since I was 15, so it was like I didn’t even know myself as well as I should. I realized I had to take myself out of the equation and become completely autonomous, because we were still forming our human selves as teenagers, you know? I mean, it takes a while to get smart.”
Life before and after Royal Trux had its ups and down for Herrema. A bona fide underground fashion icon, she styled photo shoots for Playboy, modeled for Calvin Klein, interviewed her idol Keith Richards, designed a denim line for Volcom, founded the bands RTX and Black Bananas, and even lectured about Southern rock at Princeton. And during her times of sobriety, she says, she “had no compulsion to be self-destructive, no compulsion to change my reality. I was stoked to see the sun. I was like, ‘S***, this is what it’s like to have a regular chemical balance!’ Everything was great.”
But there was “gnarly, stupid, horrible s***” too. At her lowest point, Herrema says, “[Doctors] were talking about amputating one of my fingers. I was in the hospital, in the psych ward, and they wouldn’t release me to stay with my family because my dad was an alcoholic. So they sent me to this place called Melwood in Maryland. It’s basically where ex-cons go to live in the real world before they actually go to the real, real world. Then I didn’t have any money and I had nowhere to go, so I lived in this shelter in Northeast D.C. I had left Neil at that point too, because he kept doing drugs. He wasn’t gonna stop, so I separated myself. But then of course we got back together, and then we were both doing drugs. The cycle repeated one too many times.”
Shortly before her romantic relationship with Hagerty dissolved for good, Herrema went “on a tear for like a year” after she found out her father was terminally ill. “There was all this guilt about having left home so young, and having no contact with [my parents] and shutting them out — not because they were bad, but because I didn’t want them to know what I was up to, you know?” Before that relapse, Herrema had been clean for several years. “I was shocked at myself, and I was so sad. I said, ‘Oh s***. I can’t let this happen to me again.’”
Nowadays, Herrema says with a shrug, “I don’t do [hard] drugs. I just smoke a lot of weed and drink. … I’m not strung-out on drugs, but I am on [psychiatric] medication. I had spent my whole life not on medication. I tried it, and yeah, it worked. Neil didn’t believe in it, though he came to my psychiatrist with me once. He’s OK with it now, but he won’t take [medication] himself.” Herrema adds with a wry laugh, “That motherf***er needs to take it.”
Somehow, after all this, Hagerty reached out to Herrema out of the blue about playing a reunion show at Southern California’s Berserktown II festival in August 2015. This was a total surprise, since Hagerty had said in a 2012 interview that the prospect of a Royal Trux reunion was “depressing,” and the two had had almost no contact since their split. “For almost 14 years, I would get a random email from him every once in a while. One was like five years after I left. Then the other was 11 years later, telling me when our cats died. That was it. But that was fine,” Herrema says. She agreed to the comeback concert, but in classic scrappy Royal Trux fashion, the two didn’t practice, and weren’t even in the same room together, almost right up until the Berserktown gig.
“We were supposed to have one day to rehearse,” Herrema recalls. “I mean, we had emailed about a setlist. Then when Neil got here, his plane was late, so we had a half a day to rehearse. I was like, ‘I don’t remember the words!’ I mean, I was just making some stuff up at times, but [the lyrics] kind of started coming to me when I heard the riffs and whatever. So I was pretty lucky on that.” The two decided to capture that shambolic show, and a second show at New York’s Webster Hall in December 2015, “for posterity” as the warts-and-all live document Platinum Tips + Ice Cream. “We recorded it because we had no idea if it would ever happen again. It was rough, that live album that we put out. But it was real,” Herrema says.
The past still sometimes haunts Herrema: For instance, Royal Trux’s spring tour just got postponed due to her criminal record, after a routine traffic stop uncovered a probation violation. In fact, Herrema reveals that she’s conducting her phone interview with Yahoo Entertainment while wearing an ankle monitor from that recent arrest. (“It’s just the dumbest f***ing thing,” she groans. The court-ordered GPS tracker comes off March 18.) And the animosity between the former junkie-rock poster couple may not be entirely smoothed over — a feature in the January 2019 issue of MOJO detailed their bickering during the White Stuff recording sessions (and during the MOJO interview itself), and that in-fighting has seemingly moved over to Twitter. But for now, White Stuff is a ferocious return to form that reestablishes Royal Trux as garage-rock royalty… and really, it wouldn’t be Royal Trux without a little Herrema/Hagerty drama.
“Nothing has changed within the Truxian universe we created for ourselves as teenagers,” Herrema said in a recent press release. She further tells Yahoo, “The thing is, the dynamic between us is exactly the same. Neil is still the same person. I’m still the same person. We’re just smarter, and we have more experiences under our belt. It’s complicated, but it’s the same. … He’s one of my best friends.”
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This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.