Q&A: Black Bananas' Jennifer Herrema On Rad Times Express, Neil Hagerty, Royal Trux, And The Curse Of Opening For The Stones
Jennifer Herrema has helped define the underground rock scene since the 1980s, thanks to her constant pushing forward of both music and style. In her youth, Herrema cavorted with the straight-edge hardcore rascals in D.C. (she felt more at home with the stoners); she scurried off to New York City at 16, where she worked at CBGB, lived with then-partner and Pussy Galore noisemonger Neil Hagerty at the local YMCA, and birthed the crusty-assed, blues-oozing, glorious vomit-rock outfit Royal Trux.
From 1988 until the early 2000s. the constantly reinventing Royal Trux was an arena-ready scum-rawk unit, hopping from indie giant Drag City to Virgin and back again before imploding in a drug-addled demise. Hagerty first went the solo route and ultimately formed The Howling Hex while Herrema released a trifecta of Stonesy noise-rock blues epics as RTX (a.k.a. Rad Times Express). Fed up with the RTX moniker and feeling the urge to change things up a bit, Herrema has re-grouped as Black Bananas and is touring behind Rad Times Express IV, a booty-shaking, Some Girls-like slice of disco-ized blooze that, Herrema admits, was inspired by the Royal Trux classic "Shockwave Rider."
Sound of the City caught up with the cussin', super-laid-back Herrema for a convo about changing her band's name, Hagerty and his quirks, and hanging with Mick and Keef.
You don't seem to tour that much. Do you not enjoy it?
No, I love touring, but you know. I mean, we toured... we tour, I guess, actually the last RTX album JJ Got live RaTX, we didn't tour the U.S.
We toured the U.K. and Europetons overseas, and then we just did maybe a couple one-off shows, like locally. But prior to that, we did proper tours for each of the releases. But more and more bands are trying to make money off of their tours and I think that's the impetus. That's not really why I tour. I want to tour under... I'll sleep on floors; I'll sleep in Motel 6'sif it's for a really good cause. Other than that, fuck it, dude. You know, I got the record. We toured a lot already since [the] Black Bananas [record] came out like five-and-a-half-months ago; we've already done a bunch of touring. So, I feel like these next dates... well, we did dates with Sleigh Bells, we did a three week tour with Kurt Vile and now we're doing five shows with the Kills. We've got a bunch of stuff that's coming up for the fall but actually we're almost done with an EP so I think we might push it to the spring.
Are you into doing festivals? That seems to be where the money is to be made for bands these days.
Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think that's the... We had to turn down this one festival up in Seattle, I guess in October, because we won't be around. Yeah, festivals, I think, are good money. I think it might be good money for the bands but I don't think it's a good place to showcase your music or anything because people don't even know what the fuck they're lookin' atthey just wander around. It's just like music is coming from here; music is coming from there. They don't know what bands are what. Basically, I just want to play in front of people, you know, they're there and they're captive [laughing] in a club or a theater.
Yeah, festivals are usually outside and it's like 1000 degrees out. The bands and the audience are sweating their asses off.
Yeah. It's a payday, definitely. I don't think really it's much more than that. Unless you're fuckin,' you know, Kanye or Gaga or someone.
So why did you change the band name from RTX to Black Bananas?
Basically because, the three RTX albums, people started warming up to them more and more but there was a lot of hesitancy to recognize as people continued to think that it was Royal Trux, when, in fact, it's never Royal Trux unless it's me and Neil. Neil had already given the blessing on the name [RTX], but it just created problems. People didn't want to really embrace it and the music was badass. Now, I come to find we actually sold a bunch of fuckin' records. I'm looking at numbers now and I'm like "Damn. I guess we did do pretty well."
Yeah, and this new stuff that we did it's basically RTXlike the same dudes that I've been working with for the past eight years. It takes a long time to kind of teach them a new language and bring them into the way I want to work and all that. So, we got that down and then we wanted to expand our sound, you know, and expand the foundation we had laid down with RTX. So, I just figured, you know, I was like "Fuck, dude. This has got more going on." You can tell it's us but basically if we put another record out as RTX, people will be like "We know what this is. Whatever, whatever, whatever."
Yeah. Rad Times Express IV maintains your signature sound but it does have a different kind of vibe going on.
Yeah, exactly. That's another thing: no matter how many times I've said it, RTX stood for "Rad Times Express." It did not stand for Royal Trux. RT. Rad Times. But anyway, so I kinda combined it up and I just wanted to just put a fresh face on it so people would look at it differently because people are just, in general, we know that they're like all ADD and actually when it comes to music most people are just floating around, just pickin' up on this and pickin' up on that and next week it's somethin' else. So I just figured, put somethin' fresh to it.
But that [changing the band name] wasn't even 'til the last minute. Honestly, the album was gonna be an RTX album and then we were sending the artwork out and I was talking to [Drag City label founder] Dan Koretzkyhe's like one of my best friendsand we were sitting there and laughing and we're like "Fuck. RTX [laughing]." We're like "We should change the name" and I was like "But I hate it when people change their [band] names" cuz it seems like so, like, it's capitulating and I was like "Fuck it. It's so fuckin' stupid that I'm gonna go ahead and capitulate." Then Dan's like "Black Bananas! Black Bananas!" So I was like "That's one of my favorite RTX songs. Let's do it." That was literally like a day before the artwork was going out so we changed the name of the band that day.
Black Bananas, "Foxy Playground"
Sometimes when bands change their names it's written something like, for example, "Black Bananas, formerly RTX" but it doesn't seem like that's needed in your case.
I would hope not. But I can tell you what it's already gonna say: "Ex-Royal Trux." For fuck's sake, that's never gonna end. Whatever. I'm proud to have an amazing body of work. I worked really fuckin' hard for a long time. But when you say "Royal Trux," that means one thing to some people and then like Black Bananas should just be fresh; it shouldn't be tied into any preconceived notions or whateverthat was the idea but whatever.
Is that also the reason why the sound is different on Rad Times Express IV, like a '70s dance kind of thing going? You were looking for a somewhat new identity?
That's all like the Royal Trux style. We were, kind of, like on "Shockwave Rider" and stuff, we did some super-duper dance songs [with] Royal Trux but we never expanded. It was basically guitar, bass, drums and it was just very standard with RTX cuz we were feeling each other out. It was a real process because I was working with people that had never been in bands before, which was pretty much like a prerequisite because I know a lot of musicians that were interested but they come with all sorts of preconceived notions in ways that they do things. So, it was like starting from scratch, like the ground up and like learning each other. Once we had that foundation, I was like "Okay, let's buy an Ableton. Let's do this. Let's expand upon it." It was gonna be an RTX record; it was just gonna be expanded upon. But I was like "Let's just, you know, call it something else."
Were you listening to anything in particular that sparked the direction of Rad Times Express IV?
Well, I listened to a lot of old go-go and just stuff I grew up with up as a kid. We were listening to a lot of Zapp. I went back and I was listening actually to that track "Shockwave Rider." That was another thing: that was like a dance song, and then I re-did that song with my new people as like a rock song on [RTX's 2004 album] Transmaniacon. I re-did it and turned it into a rock song. I just was thinking about all the inclusivity of Royal Trux, and I wanted what I have now to maintain inclusivity, and I felt like we were at a point with each other where we could really branch out. It wasn't like they wouldn't understand. So, always listening to Funkadelic, listening to a lot of Zapp, listening to a lot of rock, whatever kind of gets me moving.
So since you changed the band name to Black Bananas, are you over putting what people perceive as the abstract Royal Trux referencing in your song titles, albums and such and you'll distance yourself from that on future releases?
Well, RTX kinda did. I guess the name referenced the Royal Trux period, 'cause people never knew that it was Rad Times Express; thy just thought it was Royal Trux. But the sound was, I think RTX was very different, way more different, than Royal Trux and Black Bananas. RTX was very based in traditionalor as traditional as I getrock and roll sounds, but with way different guitar sounds than what Neil had ever put forth in Royal Trux. I think Black Bananas is just an extension of RTX; we just added a lot more sounds to it. I feel like you can strip it down and they could still be kinda rock songs or you take the bass out of it and let all the light and airiness parts kind of consume you.
Would you ever do an album under your own name, like a genuine solo record?
I would only do that if it was just like, if it was just me [laughing]. Like kinda like Royal Trux's first record, where there was just a bunch of songs and it was just me and Neil [laughing]... I would only do it like that, but I have no intention of doing that. I could do a whole covers album like a lot of chicks do, like cover all the best songs and use my most feminine voice and see what happens.
Black Bananas, "My House"
Do you think Royal Trux don't get the credit deserving as one of the seminal bands of the period you and Neil were putting out records, the way, say, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr and bands of that ilk are called groundbreaking?
Major label bands, bands with money. Royal Trux was never a unit where we were just one thing. Sonic Youth made the same record over and over and over again and Dinosaur Jr, you know, did kinda the same thing. I love J's guitar playing, but they had a formula and they stuck to it and that's exactly what they did. Royal Trux never, ever did that. So for each new release, we would lose people and gain people and lose people. You take one step forward; you take one step back. We have an amazingly broad audience and an appreciation from all different types of people who are not very inclusive and who were not like "Oh, we're just part of that particular scene." People give us credit and stuff but I feel like there's [also] a lot of people that should definitely give us credit but of course they won't because that would just show exactly where they got everything they ever did from. You know what? I don't give a fuck. Our music is good and we just continue on.
So you look back on the Royal Trux days very fondly.
Yeah. Fuck, yeah.
I read that your favorite Royal Trux album is Thank You.
Yeah, that was that day. It's strange. I feel, lyrically, I did some of my best work on that record. But then part of me thinks there's certain songs from Sweet Sixteen, which is the other one, where those are some of my best lyrics. But then I go back to the simplicity of some of the earlier shit and I'm like "Yeah, you know, I like that better." That's the thing: every record does sound pretty different and there isn't one favorite incarnation. I'm just thinking about it from a different perspective when everyone asked.
Was going from Drag City to Virgin Records back in the '90s a dramatic transition for you and Neil?
It was really great. It was the same as being on Drag City except for we had a ton of money. Our contract was really great cuz we, you know, we got to administer our own budgets, we didn't have to get approval for anything; we kinda just went about our business like we had on Drag City. Unfortunately for Virgin, they're giving up the rights to comptrol our every move, you know, created two awesome albums that were like completely, supposedly unmarketable. But I think those records are rad and I wouldn't change a thing.
When you left Drag City for Virgin, were they pissed off about it?
[Drag City's Dan] Koretzky fucking is the one that fucking got us signed [to Virgin]. He facilitated the whole fuckin' thingactually, it was amazing. We were about to go with Geffen. We were brought in there by Tom Zutaut, who did Guns 'n' Roses. He was really interested in us and then the guys who worked with Sonic Youth and stuff [at DGC] were like [to us], "Oh, yeah. College radio and this and that." I remember that meeting went really well but Neil was like "Nah. Fuck that. I'm not interested in college radio, and not interested in doing that kind of thing. I want to follow Zutaut's lead."
But Koretzky is like "No! Hold the door." I got a meeting over with you at Virgin. This guy is fuckin' amazing. You have to go." He orchestrated the whole thing. The first album, Thank You, they gave Drag City the rights to put out the vinyl cuz at that time, they didn't do vinyl at all. No, it was all very amicable. We had a manager for a bit, and I think that Dan didn't like that. But Dan's still... we're starting a new company together by the end of the yearif we could come up with a fuckin' name. We've had a lawyer on this for a while. Dan, myself and Pamela Love, the jewelry designerthe three of us are starting a new company.
What kind of company?
The first thing has already been made. Pamela and I redesigned it, but in sterling silver, the old Royal Trux skull ring I made a long, long time ago. It's been sold out. People are always asking me for it so we took the Trux thing off of it and we took the wings off and made it with kind of a bow and arrow. Dan ordered a bunch of those so those are sitting over there for us waiting for us to create the company. That will be the first thing and then the second thing I think is we're gonna design a pair of snakeskin boots. Everything is gonna be limited edition but every few months we're gonna come up with something fuckin' radical. It's very serious for Dan. He's gonna start the whole new website, we have the legal with the names and everything. We were totally down. We had named it Golden Bonesthat was one of my lyrics, an old Royal Trux lyric that I'd written. Everything was on par, on par, cool, cool. The lawyers were like "Yup. It's a go." Fuckin' we got on Dan's Facebook thing and we got a Facebook for Black Bananas like six months ago then I got one to help administer it. We got this thing, from I guess from a fan, called Golden Bones and it came from Los Angeles and they're starting a clothing company with that [name] because they wanted to send me stuff. I talked to Dan and I was like "Yeah, they're really not much of anything" and I told him about it. But Dan was like "Yeah, but dude, they're your fans and that's bad karma." So we had to go back to the drawing board. A lot of my lyrics have been taken. It doesn't have to be a lyric, but it's like "Fuck. Everything we think of is taken."
Well, you've got some supercool song titles to choose from, too.
A lot of them have been taken. [laughing]
You wouldn't want to release this stuff through Drag City?
It's a whole different company. Dan wants to get into distributing differently. When I started doing a denim line with Volcomand I still doDan's like, "Why didn't you do it with me?" and I was like "I'd do it with you, but fuck, you don't know what the fuck you're doing." [Laughing] Then he's like, "Well, we're gonna start a company," and I said, "OK. Let me know." He really did his research and got it together. I brought Pamela into the mix. It's easy for me 'cause I know what I like and I know what I want to wear and seemingly a lot of people kinda like my style so it's worked out really well.
Royal Trux, "Lightning Boxer" (live in 1990)
Getting back to the major-label Royal Trux records. Are those records still in print?
Thank You just got reissued, and I think [Plain Recordings is] gonna do Sweet Sixteen. They have to get Virgin's approval. The label is out of San Francisco. They do a lot of reissues.
Were you involved in that at all or they just did it?
They just did it, let me know about it and sent me a copy.
How did you meet Kurt Vile? It seems like a natural thing for you to collaborate with him. You did that seven-inch and toured with him.
Yeah, that was cool. A year or so back, I think it might have been our last RTX show, we opened up for him in L.A. We had worked with one of the guys in his band had been in another band and we had recorded some of the stuff at our studio. So we got introduced and then Kurt was way into us and we all got along really well. So he came, stayed down here, we went to the studio, we played some shows with him down here, then we did the seven-inch and we did the tour. He's awesome, he's great.
Did you enjoy having that male complement again, like you had with Neil? People compared that collab to the chemistry you had with Neil in Royal Trux.
Yeah. That was cool. That worked really fuckin' well. It was strange how well our voices... you never know until you start pit them against each other but they sat really well together and strangely enough my voice sat really well with Wino's, too. I think it was the choice of songs, as well, like the range.
Was the Stones cover of "Before They Make Me Run" with Kurt your first choice?
That was Kurt's [choice]. Before the tour, also we played shows up north with Kurt at the end of last year. We played a show at The Bottom of the Hill with them and he called me after the show and was like "We have to record the Stones." I was like "Okay, well, when you come into town, let me know and just come to the studio." Within three months, I was like "Okay, let's do it." So we did it. With Wino, we had recorded the a little live acoustic thing together once, and we did "Sway." He wanted to do something so I explained to him who Kurt Vile was and how it was cool and it wasn't some jankee-assed shit and so he was like "Okay. Cool. I'm down."
Would you be into doing an entire album with Kurt or Wino?
Yeah, Wino has talked about that. We've talked about that. There's the Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends from like the mid-'70s. Basically I would be Lord Sutch, and then I would get just all the different people who wanted to work with me and I wanted to work with and we would just make that album. So it would be like Jennifer and Heavy Friends. Actually, I think some motherfucker just did that, too.
They stole your thunder.
Well, that's the problem. I move pretty fuckin' slow, so...
Black Bananas, "Overpass"
I assume you're a huge Saint Vitus fan.
Yeah, big time. I loved seeing them as a teenager.
Was that in D.C.? You grew up there, right?
Yeah. They played shows with Bad Brains. They played all-ages shows. It was very cool there. I grew up in D.C. and I moved to New York when I was 16.
So you were you into hardcore in D.C. as a teenager?
Yeah. I went to all those shows cuz they were all-ages shows. I was friends with Ian MacKaye and Ian MacKaye like spoke at... my first boyfriend, you know, killed himself and Ian MacKaye brought in his coffin and spoke words about him. Yeah, I know all those dudes. But I was never the straight edge type and they were all like a generation ahead of me so I was kinda like the little kid, the little girl. They were very cool to me and stuff. But, you know, I hung out with the stoners mostly. But I went to all the shows.
Where were you living when you first moved to New York at 16?
When I moved there I was living at the YMCA. I got a scholarship to The New School and I moved up there. Neil had moved up there to play with Pussy Galore and when I got the scholarship to go to the New Schoolyou know, my parents thought I was too young to go butthat was just like kinda pretend. They acted like they cared but... [laughing]. So I just left [home] and just stayed at the YMCA cuz the New School didn't have any kind of housing at the time. So Neil and I lived at the YMCA for about a year. It was like a year or so before the [first] Royal Trux album came out [in 1988]. We had been working on stuff before we even moved to New York and then on one of the Pussy Galore records, Neil and I wrote a song and it's credited as "Royal Trux." I guess that was on Right Now!, that Pussy Galore album.
Which one of you came up with the name Royal Trux?
Neil came up with it. As a kid, I skateboarded a lotI guess that's another D.C. thing. I then got into roller skating and I used skateboard trucks and like Kryptonic wheels from my skateboard onto my skates. We were just kinda talkin' about like cool things that kinda hit home with me and I always loved the word "trucks." I was like "God. I gotta get a new pair of trucks for my fuckin' skates." Neil just put it all together and came up with Royal Trux.
It seems like you and Royal Trux were always kind of detached from any type of scene. Was this intentional?
I can be shy, but I'm pretty social. I'm whatever. I create my own universe and a lot of people come in. Unless it sucks, I can get down with anything.
Do you remember going to see Pussy Galore at CB's and downtown clubs like that?
Yeah. I worked at CBGB. I'm in the first CBGB photo bookthis big double page. Yeah, I worked there when I was a teenager. As long as Neil was playing with Pussy Galore, I would go to most of the shows just to hang out with him cuz he's pretty anti-social. We kinda stuck together. Pussy Galore was kind of a launch pad for him to get out of D.C. and then he really just wanted to do his own thing. Honestly, Royal Trux never had much in common with Pussy Galore, other than the fact that Neil played in it.
Pussy Galore reunited for some shows last year, obviously without Neil.
I don't live in New York, so I didn't see that, and Neil's had nothing to do with them for a really long time. I remember when we lived in San FranciscoNeil had nothing to do with and just didn't want to have anything to with thembut with that Historia De La Música Rock record, they offered him shit-tons of money. We were strung out at the time so he went and played some on it and that was that. He really likes to distance himself from it.
Do you and Neil talk?
No, we don't talk. It's email back and forth every so often. But we don't talk. When you're with somebody sixteen years of your lifeeveryday, all day, exclusivelyjust even separating is weird enough but to separate and still have contact? Nothing's gonna change. So we just cut it off entirely. Like an email once or twice a year. That's it. He'll let me know if one of our cats died or "I think this sounds cool. Rad." But that's it.
Do you keep up with his music, like what he's done solo and with The Howling Hex? You're both on Drag City.
I don't listen to all of it. I listened to All Night Fox; I actually bought
I actually interviewed him for a 'zine around the time his first solo record came out in 2001. It was via email and he was pretty funny. That was about the time we were separatingthe Neil Michael Hagerty one. He's fuckin' phenomenal, like fuck, dude, take some medication and get outta your head. He's still one of the best guitar players I've ever fuckin' heard, and he's an amazing lyricist, but he's just him... he's Neil. I see so many people, you know, excelling with these guitar sounds and songwriting. But he, honestly, he's never been... I don't think he gives a shit. [Laughing]
I actually interviewed him for a 'zine around the time his first solo record came out in 2001. It was via email and he was pretty funny.
That was about the time we were separatingthe Neil Michael Hagerty one. He's fuckin' phenomenal, like fuck, dude, take some medication and get outta your head. He's still one of the best guitar players I've ever fuckin' heard, and he's an amazing lyricist, but he's just him... he's Neil. I see so many people, you know, excelling with these guitar sounds and songwriting. But he, honestly, he's never been... I don't think he gives a shit. [Laughing]
Where does Neil live?
I think he lives in Colorado right now. He had a house. He owned a house in New Mexico. We have mutual friends, but it never comes up, like I don't talk about him; he doesn't talk about me. But I did hear from a mutual booking agent at a certain point that he had moved there. I was like "Oh, that's cool." That's where a lot of his family is from is Colorado.
Did Neil get you into the Stones originally?
I was way into the Stones just 'cause of my dad. I saw the Stones when I was ten years old. I remember crying 'cause I couldn't go both nights. I've always been a psycho Stones fan. My dad was a big Stones fan.
So it never was an overblown media-made glamorization thing how much you guys were into the Stones?
Who's not into the Stones? Like, what the fuck? Everyone's into the Stones. We never sounded anything like the Stones but the Stones appreciated us. When I went and I hung out with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and they listened to some of our [Royal Trux] stuff, they asked us to open up for them in Paris in 1995. And then, you know, Neil was like "No. No way, no way." He told me all about the curse of opening up for the Stones: ya know, you either break up or you turn to shit. I actually went back and looked at it and it was totally true, ya know? Living Colour, fuckin' Guns 'n' Roses, Blind Melon. And it was just one show so Neil said no.
Did you get a shit-ton of money to open up for the Stones?
No, no. It wasn't gonna be. It was, you know, decent but it was just... yeah. It's like the whole flying thing with himhe's like "Not gonna do it, not gonna do it." So I was like "Okay."
Neil has a fear of flying?
No, uh-uh. Yeah, no. Uh-uh. Whenever we toured over there, we took the Q2we took the boat back and forth like eight times. We took the Concorde once. We took the Concorde cuz it had a perfect track record. So we flew the Concorde. He does not flyno. He finds it disgusting, like flying over all the... like what people call "the little people." He's just not into it.
So it's just not a fear of flying. What's his deal?
All of it. I mean, he's got a fear of flying. He's also sort of, kinda not into it on all sorts of levels. He's explained it to me in many, many ways over many, many years. So whatever. I don't know.
When did you and Neil interview Keith Richards for RayGun?
That [interview] was the first time I met them, and the first time and only time I met Keith Richards. But I've met Mick Jagger plenty of times. I'm good friends with his daughter and we have the same birthday. We just went out to dinner this past yearwe went out to dinner with him and his daughter. It's cool. They wrote good fuckin' songs, but they're just fuckin' people.
Do you think after 50 years, they should hang it up already? Haven't they made enough money?
Yeah, exactly. I can't tell until I hear something new, but yeah, like that fuckin' Joss Stone debacle with Mick Jagger is just atrocious. A lot of it, you know, is probably better left undone. But, you know, I liked some of Steel Wheels.
If the Stones asked Black Bananas to open up for them, would you do it or think of the curse thing?
No, I'd fuckin' do it. I don't give a shit. I'll do anything.
Black Bananas play Mercury Lounge Friday and Hudson River Park Saturday.
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