Seldom do we encounter a band with a style that’s utterly unique. But Royal Trux, like AC/DC and The Ramones, has boasted an instantly identifiable sound since its early days. Unlike those groups, however — whose musical growth could be graphed as a straight line — the Royal Trux chart would be something akin to a Richter scale beset by massive tremors.
Peaks would suggest new terrain, while troughs might intimate returns to areas previously (albeit differently) touched upon. Over the past 12 years of recording, Trux has created a body of work in a constant state of flux — yet forever emanating that indefinable Trux scent. As band frontman Neil Hagerty once put it: “Part of the fun of Royal Trux is that it’s like a mixed-up collection of baseball cards. You have to sort everything out to get things in order.”
To aid Hagerty in that capacity, let’s start at the beginning. Formed during Hagerty’s stint in the seminal deconstructionist punk-rock outfit Pussy Galore, Royal Trux — which also features Jennifer Herrema — began recording in 1988. Before hooking up with Drag City Records, the duo first released a double 7-inch record and LP independently; but whereas these works were beautifully skewed discordant rock, the duo’s next effort — the double-LP Twin Infinitives (Drag City, 1990) — mapped totally uncharted territory.
Existing in a virtual reality where Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” vies for airtime with Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” on a Top-40 hour led by cut-and-paste host William Burroughs, Twin Infinitives unveiled an impenetrable avant-rock world either loathed or revered by all who tuned in. (If you can envision that obtuse analogy, then the disc is probably right up your deserted back alley.) The album’s impact was such that, a decade later, it managed to make more than a few magazines’ best-of-the-’90s review lists.
After a cacophonous triumph like Twin Infinitives, what can possibly come next? Well, if you’re Royal Trux, you release a delicate and sometimes-acoustic portrait of a record in progress, like 1992’s self-titled third album. Then, the following year, you stay true to your mission (“never make a defining record”) by recruiting outsiders. Guitarist Mike Kaiser and drummer Ian Willers were called upon to flesh out Cats and Dogs (Drag City). The band’s most straightforward and widely accepted rock album yet, the disc distills parts of the duo’s past while showing glimpses of a more band-oriented future.
By this time, the Trux name had achieved enough clout for major labels to start sniffing around. The group then drafted a contract with an impressive list of demands — and Virgin Records took the bait. After releasing two more records and forging an association with its current touring lineup, the band was dropped by Virgin because, as Herrema herself once pointed out, “We’re a marketing nightmare.” Even if Royal Trux could sell 100,000 copies — as opposed to 60,000 — you won’t exactly find them sharing Teen Beat cover space with Billy Corgan (although you can catch Herrema in a series of Calvin Klein ads — really).
Being abandoned by a major label might have crippled another band. But not Trux, whose members ended up exactly where they wanted to be — back on Drag City, with a paid-off home, six beautiful acres, a 32-track studio, and money to burn. Once again, Trux proved the exception to the rule, and — true to that shiniest of rock’n’roll fantasies — bested the Goliath of corporate rock.
Since returning to Drag City, the prodigal rockers have released a three-LP compendium of singles and rarities and two more LPs, both featuring the warped Stones boogie their current shows are rumored to dispense in full force. Bassist Dan Brown (late of 68 Comeback, the Screws and Johnny Hash), drummer Kenny Nasta and percussionist Chris Pyle (a one-time Asheville resident who’s the son of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artimus Pyle) augment the current tour — dubbed “Veterans of Disorder,” because all three additions have peopled Trux’s ranks at one time or another.
I’ve been assured by both Brown and Pyle that the band is white-hot these days, and I’m hoping that the intimate atmosphere of Vincent’s Ear (a smaller venue than the average Trux show) will push them all to the limits.