Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Faux reunion shows, B-sides, new-age garage music, and packing albums to the brim.
Neil Michael Hagerty’s creative output over the past thirty years is a tangled and winding road, to say the least. If you were to divide it into three acts, you could start with his membership in the Washington DC scuzz-rock outfit Pussy Galore, famed for their own version of Exile on Main Street, in which they threw the Stones double album into a musical blender and produced a “covers” record that is a true descent into the maelstrom. It wasn’t Neil’s idea, nor was it his band. Then there was the undeniable, meteoric rock n’ roll odyssey that is Royal Trux, Hagerty’s partnership with Jennifer Herrema. The flagship Drag City band, they later signed an infamous multi-million dollar deal with Virgin in the wake of a post-Nirvana indie feeding frenzy. The Trux produced some of the most confrontational, beautiful, hot-shit rock n’ roll records ever committed to tape. Each record—whether the patterned chaos of Twin Infinitives, the roaming free-boogie of Cats and Dogs, or the “accessibility” of the post-major label Accelerator—demonstrated a complex and meticulous deconstruction of the American “rock” canon, if not the entire genre itself. And, against all odds, Royal Trux will return for at least one occasion this August in Los Angeles.
But, one must look to the future and live in the present. After the implosion of Royal Trux in 1999, Hagerty released the solo records Neil Michael Hagerty and Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll, two spiritually shaking albums in the mode of Link Wray’s Three Track Shack run. Breaking from the Trux mold, both albums cathartically diverge from the strange continuity Royal Trux had developed. They are something entirely new, and are all the more compelling for it. This paved the way for The Howling Hex, Hagerty’s main musical outfit for the past decade. In his own words, “Royal Trux is the long haul, and the Howling Hex is something that cannot be destroyed.” The Hex is just empirically there—records of harmolodic blitz were released at a lightning clip, with sporadic (and not-to-be-missed) live shows popping up across the US every year or so.
In the prolific decade since the inception of Howling Hex, Hagerty has also released full-length novels, comic books, narrated audio books, resurrected a recreation of “Royal Trux” with new band members, gone on extensive tours, produced records for Bill Callahan and Hebronix, and most recently, started other potent acts such as Dan’l Boone and the Hagerty-Toth Band. A long-time admirer, I finally chatted with Hagerty about some recent developments.
Gary Canino You’re living in Denver again these days?
Neil Michael Hagerty Yeah, I was in New Mexico for eight years, and then I came back here recently.
GC And you grew up in the Washington DC area, right?
NMH Well, all over really. My dad was in the army, so we moved around every couple of years.
GC Your next tour sees you heading to the UK for the first time in a while.
NMH It’s been fifteen years, or something like that.
GC When I interviewed your ex-bandmate Jennifer Herrema, she mentioned you had a fear of flying.
NMH Well, I started telling people I didn’t fly just to get out of shit. It was a way to throw the brakes on things, and it sort of snowballed. (laughter)
GC She also told me that Trux would do Japan tours without you, because nobody could tell the difference with somebody else playing guitar.
NMH Yeah, we did that a couple of times. We had Alan Licht do a bunch of shows. Dave Pajo would play guitar sometimes, too. We would just have every band member move over one—the sound guy would play bass or something. It sort of worked out like that. I also didn’t want to go to Japan because Jennifer was relapsing at the time, so I told the band, “You guys go, you can take her with you. I’m not gonna go, because she’s getting high again.”
GC I caught the “Royal Trux” performance in Greenpoint back in 2013, which was an exact recreation of Twin Infinitives, with new people cast as the old band.
NMH Oh, you saw that show? That was fun. It was weird.
GC I found the concept of the show really interesting, doubly so because it was just that one show, then it never happened again.
NMH After that show, I asked the band right away if they’d maybe be interested in doing it again. There was a little bit of interest, but their euphoria lasted like a day. The band fragmented, just like it did before. The singer flaked out, got strung out, left town … (laughter) The formula doesn’t work.
GC Jennifer mentioned you tabbed out all the parts for a band if she ever wanted to do a “Royal Trux” show in LA without you, in which a different faux-Trux would perform Accelerator in full.
NMH She found out about the booked Twin Infinitives show through some other party and called the club, and she was threatening to sue. So, I wrote to her and explained what was going on. And I told her she could do [the Accelerator show] to balance it out. She ended up being cool with it, but she didn’t hear about it until just before it was going to happen. So, she thought it was a reunion without her. She didn’t know what the deal was. We worked it out though.
GC I’ve been enjoying this Qalgebra album by the Hagerty-Toth band. I like that it’s been billed as “New-Age Garage.”
NMH Yeah, that’ll work.
GC Was it always the idea to have the record be four shorter songs on the A-side, and one long song on the other?
NMH Yeah, I suggested that as a way to collaborate more, instead of just having a handful of songs that were co-written. We did co-write a bunch, but, if not for the long song, there would have more been songs individually written, or maybe covers or something. We sent a lot of fragments back and forth. There are two songs that actually are individually written, stuff we had been working on and never recorded for other groups, or we’d co-write a riff.
There’s a Sandy Bull record, E Pluribus Unum, that I think was the basis for that long song—the song “Electric Blend.” James was into it, and the bass player, a friend of James, was also into it. Instead of making ten or eleven songs that were done quickly, we did one long thing and sort of stitched the fragments together. It also worked spontaneously in the studio: improvise, structure, record, and finish. One person would have been the captain for each song. James had wanted to collaborate more because he was on an island in his band.
GC Da Capo by Love is the same way, with that one long song on the B-side.
NMH Yeah, we were talking about that. A lot of people have an album with a long song like “Revelation” on Da Capo, and there’s usually this mixed reaction to it. We wanted to do something like that, but maybe improve upon it a little bit. Qalgebra is a Record Store Day release.
GC Between the Hagerty-Toth band and Dan’l Boone, it seems like you’ve been doing more collaborations than you have in the past few years.
NMH Well, since I’ve been back here in civilization, I’m trying to get back into being around other people, and the best way is just to collaborate. I haven’t really worked with other people too much besides some production stuff. New Mexico was very isolated. I would go out three or four times a year, do a very limited period of touring, then go right back. Since I’m back here, I’ve been more open to collaboration.
GC I first caught Howling Hex at Cake Shop in 2011.
NMH Oh yeah. That was with the comedian Ben Kronberg opening.
GC All I remember is how confrontational he was that night. He was really riling people up.
NMH Yeah, I think that was unusual—like he was going through a phase. It was cool though.
GC What Howling Hex record were those shows culled from?
NMH It would have been the previous three records, at that point. We were doing medleys of songs. We had three sets with each of the eight songs in it, and on that show we stretched them out and took some song parts out. We took one or two parts from the first couple of records, but most of the songs were from Earth Junk and Nightclub Version of the Eternal. We still fit bits and pieces of those into what we’re doing now.
GC This next tour you’re doing isn’t billed as Howling Hex. It’s billed as Neil Michael Hagerty.
NMH I’ll tell you, man—I always tell the booking agent to give the clubs five different band names they can use, including some made-up band name of the moment. I’ll let the clubs just pick what name they want. A lot of times it’s just “Neil Hagerty from Royal Trux.” So, I don’t even know what it’s billed as, to be honest with you. It could be “Neil Michael Hagerty and Howling Hex,” “Neil Hagerty (ex-Pussy Galore, Royal Trux),” or the latest band name I made up, which was the Denver Rhythm Disciples. But they don’t really use that one, or they don’t want to. It’s not like a brand though. I use the same group, I just let the club decide what they want to put on there.
GC It’s not like a Doug Yule situation, touring as The Velvet Underground without Lou Reed…
NMH Well, it could be whatever. But there’s no upside to trying to make sure that they bill things correctly, or even spell my name correctly. It doesn’t really matter. If they feel comfortable with it that evening, it’s their responsibility. In reality, it’s their responsibility to promote the show and bill it as they see fit, instead of putting it all on the band. We’re just supposed to show up and play, not do some uncompensated labor for promotion. In the last ten years, show promotion has been sneakily switched over to the band under the guise of “DIY” and self-driven social media promotion.
GC There are all these puzzling videos of the Hex playing these residency shows in Denver. In one of them you’re covering Motörhead with a guest singer. What’s going on with those shows?
NMH Yeah, there’s this local guy Arlo White who runs a radio show called “Hypnotic Turtle.” He goes to three or four shows every night and interviews people. He’s really good, just a local guy who goes to every show possible. That was a sponsored night with the band he’s in, and there’s this band The Fluid, who is from Denver, and they have a side project where they play ’60s garage pop. We were in the middle of the bill, and he wanted to do that Motörhead song, because he was MC-ing the whole night. It was cool. I don’t normally like to do that kind of thing, but I’m trying to be part of the city, you know.
GC Recent Howling Hex singles have very precise times based on the format, both songs on the “Butterfly” b/w “Party Shoes” 7-inch are around two minutes and seventeen seconds, and the “Fool’s Watch” b/w “Lord Gloves” 10-inch are both exactly six minutes and thirty-eight seconds. I know you’ve been very specific and careful with song lengths before. In these cases, did you let the length of the format influence the songs?
NMH Yeah, I tried to get each song to that time. When each format was introduced, in the ‘40s and ’50s, a lot of composers would work to the lengths. That was the tradition, to let it define a group of music. The “Party Shoes” single is also going to be hand-printed, which is cool because then you can’t really mass-produce the thing as much. It seems more sensible to produce something in that way. Drag City doesn’t do any kind of promotion really. They don’t just dump a bunch of money into creating buzz. There’s usually some announcement that a release exists, then that’s it. Given that, this release works a lot better.
GC It’s interesting how Drag City doesn’t have any of their stuff on Spotify. I work in a restaurant, and I’m always trying and failing to play Trux or your solo music.
NMH There actually is one streaming service they license to, but it’s very specific to a hotel chain, or a hotel lobby, or some restaurants that are a part of its network. But that’s a different, smaller service. Personally, I’m for having the music in every venue where people can hear it, but I defer to Drag City for those things. I don’t make those decisions, they do. Personally, I would let it go out in any format that would give more people the opportunity to hear it, you know? But that’s a separation of our interests. They’ll feel another way, and I’ll defer to them on those issues.
What about Pandora? I don’t know if that functions the same way. I get these compulsory licensing announcements every now: “We’re licensing this for use on our streaming service or digital services.” I don’t have a say whether they do or not. Back in the ’90s there was a similar aesthetic, but, if you’d license something to a commercial, it would damage your credibility. And this is how it was in ’95, ’96, ’97 until it approached the digital era, when music began to be used totally outside of any relationship with the fan or the artist. The “artist.” (laughter) That’s all washed away now. Soon after that, there were albums where every song was prelicensed before it even came out, and people thought that was a masterstroke.
GC I think Moby’s Play was one of those.
NMH There’s that Coldplay song, too, and U2’s “Vertigo,” of course. It was exclusively available in the iTunes store, and people are like, “Wow! That’s so interesting, they’re such geniuses!” If Jennifer and I disagreed about this, I’d accept her reason, but for me, the more people that hear it, the better. It’s free exposure, that’s where my thinking is. That was always the battle. First you get it made, then you look back, and it’s ridiculous. Everything was primitive and ethereal, then you turn it into a physical object, and that was the line you crossed where it went from this dream thing into something that actually exists. God, that was fucking complicated. Nobody knew what a lathe was—that manufacturing process was just shrouded in mystery. The magical glass CD—the “glass master.” You go from tape to this other format, you branch off into two other different formats, and then you were “real,” once it became that final thing. It’s so weird man.
GC When Royal Trux was on Virgin, what was the main format with Thank You and Sweet Sixteen? CDs?
NMH Oh yeah, straight-out CDs. Maybe there was a way to do a really degraded file that you could preview on a website or something, but it wasn’t streaming yet. You’d click download, then wait—dial-up style. At the time we made those records, bands filled every possible second of the CD. The idea was, “Whoa, it’s like being able to make a double every time.” If you have too much music, at least you could skip through it with a remote control. So, for our second CD on Virgin, Sweet Sixteen, we filled the CD—to the second—with the most amount of music you could put on there. We just kept doing new songs and packing on little ending bits to stuff until we got the full thing. If we put any more on there, the data would be corrupted. They did a backdoor indie version vinyl on Drag City for Thank You, the first Virgin record, but not for the second. It was crazy.
GC Yeah, Thank You is almost forty minutes, and Sweet Sixteen is almost an hour.
NMH I remember the idea was that the only concrete plan behind Sweet Sixteen was to stir up every possible second. Every song had to be a minimum of four minutes long, and we kept coming up with new ones. Virgin didn’t like it. They didn’t ask too much about it either. At that point I think they were done with us.
It’s funny, there are like fifteen different versions of “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift, different ways Taylor can be packaged for individual tastes. Or, there are bonus discs of a record where there are two versions of the same album. Now it’s two discs versus one. I love that stuff, in a way. It’s just a complete product—“featuring guests…” You read the credits and you can’t even tell who the main person is. There are eleven people involved and listed in the credits. It reminds me of the AM radio days when it was just people trying to make good things, to get on the radio as fast as they could.
GC That reminds me of Initiation, the 1975 Todd Rundgren record. It has this crazy “Technical Note”: “Due to the amount of music on this disc (over one hour), two points must be emphasized. Firstly, if your needle is worn or damaged, it will ruin the disc immediately. Secondly, if the sound does seem not loud enough on your system, try re-recording the music onto tape.”
NMH (laughter) Right. Which is funny, because they were fighting the piracy wars at the time. “Home taping is killing music.” Ever see those? That was a big deal man, goddamn. “Am I killing music? I’m just making mixtapes man!” I’d tape stuff off the radio and would never understand why I’d have to buy albums, period. More than anything, I liked 7-inches. With a song rotation on the radio, you could get ready. All you’d have to do is have the cassette on pause, then get ready to tape it. I’d miss the first seven seconds of a lot of songs.
Todd Rundgren is so ahead of his time. He’s funny. I saw an interview with him where he’s talking about how streaming services will affect music technology. It’s from the late ’70s, and he’s talking about how in the future, you’re not going buy a single hard copy of anything. You’ll just pay for a subscription service and be able to get new things and arrange it yourself. It’s an interview from the backstage of Aurora Club in Cleveland.
GC He’s always been ahead of the game.
NMH Definitely. He’s funny, man. A restless mind. And a lot of great production work, too.
GC I always forget that he produced Bat Out Of Hell, which is the fourth best-selling album of all time.
NMH Yeah! That’s right. He did that. Oh, man. There was one song from that that was just stuck in my head—the little spoken word part of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” I had a friend whose favorite piece of music was specifically that section of that song.
GC I was reading about the recording of that album once. Apparently, Jim Steinman and Todd Rundgren were really going at it in the studio, and Meat Loaf was constantly feeling left out and inadequate.
NMH “We’re the talents. Go get something to eat. Have a cigar.”
When Jay-Z did that last record, there was all this promotional footage where they’re sitting in an office with a computer. It appears to be a studio, people are on couches, and he’s commenting on the tracks, but it doesn’t look anything like a recording studio. They’re doing all the work there, but it’s all modular. There are twelve people in the room, and there aren’t any instruments. They’re concocting this sound sculpture. It’s cool. Rick Rubin is in the shot. You probably saw that shit when it came out. But it still has that vibe of working and creating in this space. There’s a desk and there are speakers, but it’s so funny, because it’s like the Jetsons. The neo-pills. You take the pill, and it’s a turkey dinner. It’s almost a throwback feel. It’s harking back to the rough-and-tumble days.
Bruno Mars should call Todd up. He’s right up his alley.
GC Prince was actually a big Rundgren fan. There are confirmed stories of him trying to sneak backstage to meet Todd.
NMH Really? I didn’t know that. Makes a lot of sense though. Their collaboration is unborn. If they put a band together, that could be nice. The way things are, that would be a huge surprise. If you’ve been reading Todd interviews for the last thirty years, you know where the industry is headed. If you’re part of his fan club, there’s probably some “Todd’s Prediction” section, where there’s an analysis of where things are headed. I missed out.
GC I spent a lot of time in Virginia the last few years. I understand Royal Trux had a studio in Castleton, VA?
NMH Yeah, when we moved back from San Francisco in ‘90 Jennifer’s parents lived in DC, and my parents lived outside, in northern Virginia. We were touring for three or four years and didn’t have a fixed place. After we got out of the Virgin deal, Washington was sort of the base of operations at the time, so we decided we’d wait another cycle and get a place close to there. So, we built a studio outside of DC, in Castleton, and that was our place to go back to. And that’s where it all ended. After the ’95 to ’99 run, everything was just liquidated and the band broke up. All those records were done there, in part or completely.
GC I went to the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
NMH Oh yeah, man. Steve Malkmus and [David] Berman went there. I got a lot of friends there because I finished high school in NoVA, so everyone basically went to UVA or Virginia Tech. I went there to Charlottesville once back then, and I remember seeing Ralph Sampson walking around. He played basketball for the Cavaliers and went on to play in the pros with Houston after that. He had one of those special rooms on The Lawn—the legendary area where the special seniors are allowed to live. I saw him coming out of his dorm room, all bent over, because he was so tall. He looked like a hobbit coming out of his den.
GC There’s a legendary story about Royal Trux playing Charlottesville once and getting into some trouble.
NMH Yeah, we were opening for Pavement once there, while we were still using, and we probably got banned. It was at the record store Trax. This was 1992. Pavement had just done the “Summer Babe” 7-inch, and they were just starting out. We played with them, and afterward stole a bunch of CDs, then tried to sell them at the nearby used CD store. And they all said “Property of Trax.” We played there like one other time, but I can’t remember being back there and playing a club, because we were literally black-balled in ‘92, and this was passed on to each generation. It was pretty funny.
GC Will Oldham told me recently that Virginia was sort of this unofficial Drag City pipeline. You have Berman and Malkmus at UVA, Trux recording in Castleton, and the Oldhams spent a lot of time growing up in Madison. Ned Oldham is actually still living in Crozet.
NMH Yeah, it is very weird—Chicago to Virginia. I don’t know. You had Steve Keene down there too, and I also went to high school in Virginia, because my dad was stationed down there, at the Pentagon. Bill Callahan was from Maryland and his dad worked in the government too—not service, but some branch. So he was down there, too.
GC There’s also a rumor you went to some frat houses to party.
NMH Yeah, for sure. We were just scrounging for any kind of dope. Any handful of Sominex washed down with a cortado. Whatever was around. It was funny. We just did all that shit to get attention though. Negative attention was a great publicity tool for us. We figured we’d get a bunch of attention, then stop it and have it snowball, like a sort of flying thing that is built into the foundation. And then it would take off on its own.
Back then, rumors were spread person to person, maybe through magazines, but it wasn’t any quick thing. It’s different now. We’d get in a lot of trouble just using Instagram. We wouldn’t have had to actually get drunk or high or do any of the things we did. You can’t help being born at the wrong time.
Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.