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.
For 25-plus years Neil Michael Hagerty has been in the business of catalytic transformation. To DC-cum-NYC punk outfit Pussy Galore, he brought a blues-guitar semiotics that helped to define a signature style of trash. He then quit to form Royal Trux with Jennifer Herrema, behind which the now-thriving Drag City record label was launched. At once a stance and a theoretical journey, Royal Trux evolved from a self-styled enigma of tape loops and encryption to a major-label touring rock band with an international profile. After Royal Trux’s dissolution in 2001, Neil re-emerged briefly as a solo artist before introducing The Howling Hex, his current concern. He is also the author of two books, 1997’s Victory Chimp and 2005’sPublic Works, the first of which he has recently re-created as a deluxe four-CD audiobook. His Hound Dog Taylor houserockin’-meets-cathode curriculum vitae finds him situated somehow appropriately in the Southwest, though it would seem not for much longer. As his archive goes to auction anticipating his next move, we had a chance to talk a bit about his background, as well as the validity of cabaret laws, politically motivated science fiction, and the DIY-touring model of early Van Halen.
Keith Connolly So what’s your world? You’re in New Mexico now?
Neil Michael Hagerty Yeah, I’m back in Silver City.
KC What time is it there?
NMH Just after midnight.
KC You know, it is Albert Ayler’s birthday today.
KC Yeah. He was born on July 13, 1936.
NMH Sorry; I’m still in mountain time.
KC I don’t know if he ever made it to your time zone.
NMH I wonder. People used to play in Denver a lot. There was a stop on the way to San Francisco. From the era of Charlie Parker onward. Thurston [Moore] said Ayler was tied to a jukebox.
KC All I heard was that he would blow paint chips off the ceiling when he was playing. He would shake the room.
NMH I heard he was tied to a jukebox in his room and then found in the East River. Or something like that. Yeah, he died in 1970. I’m looking it up.
KC There’s a good documentary, My Name Is Albert Ayler, from a few years back … Have you seen the Don Cherry documentary, where he’s fighting gargoyles with an umbrella? It kinda has a What Is Royal Trux? vibe to it.
NMH Yeah, do you remember the loft jazz? I was reading about it—pretty interesting. It was a way of getting around the cabaret card you needed. In some places you couldn’t dance, even if there was a dance floor, because it changed the legal status of the bar or club. The loft was where it was at. I never really understood that mid phase between the ’60s and ’70s.
KC I was killing time earlier tonight watching Go Go Tales, Abel Ferrara’s film about strip clubs. I’d heard it’s a comedy, but so far it doesn’t seem that funny. (laughter) I don’t know, man. Unless it is a nude girl, I don’t see why there’s gotta be laws against dancing. Anyway, I guess you’re pretty far removed from all that now. I don’t know what you’re dealing with. As far as I know, you’re picking up sticks.
NMH Well, you guys [No Neck Blues Band] travel out here? You took a trip, I know.
KC We were close, but never Albuquerque. The closest we probably came to you was San Antonio.
NMH I played there once. Maybe twice.
KC You remember that place Taco Land? The guy Ram who ran it was murdered, I heard …
NMH Yeah, it was a metal club. That’s what you are really dealing with out here. People play it at their weddings and shit. There’s metal, pop music, some hip-hop stuff, and, you know, reggaeton.
KC I want to triangulate this idea of American music with you, if possible.
NMH Well, you know, the thing about it here is the influence of LA—the big late-night TV shows and what’s big on the radio. On and off I’ve been here for fucking eight, nine years. It’s still shocking to me. Bands here are nothing like the big money bands that have come out of New York. They don’t mean a damn thing. Lady Gaga, for example. Wasn’t she an NYU student? I just read somewhere that she finished third in her senior year talent contest. As for metal, I find Van Halen is the key.
KC Van Halen is a genre in and of themselves.
NMH They used to tour and play in places close to where I’ve been living. Other bands wouldn’t stop there. Only country bands. They would play in these towns in the West—that’s where the green-M&M thing came from. They would bury a clause requesting green M&Ms in their rider. First thing, they’d go check their dressing room to see if the promoter had followed that instruction. If he hadn’t, they would know that the lighting rig might fall down. That kind of thing. (laughter)
KC There’s a lot of labor and PVC involved.
NMH Exactly. So they had a duct-tape dude who’d follow them around fixing that shit. It was really low to the bone; I’d associate that with Black Flag or early Sonic Youth. Here it’s more like that, closer to the ground.
KC So you were born in Virginia?
NMH In Baltimore, Maryland.
KC And your father worked for the army.
NMH My dad’s last post was to the Pentagon, so we ended up living in Northern Virginia. That’s where I graduated from high school. I was in Fairfax County, which is like Orange County, or maybe like Westchester. Before that he was in the army. But by that time, he had moved up, so we were okay.
KC And you were a smart kid, I’d guess.
NMH I got good test scores and bad grades. I got good SATs and wrote some essays to get into college, without even trying. I went to UConn [University of Connecticut], but I went to a really good public high school. It was just luck of the draw, you know. Northern Virginia is not like the South, as I’ve been told. Also, my dad was stationed in Europe for a period of time in the ’70s—having that experience was awesome. I didn’t get into trouble. I didn’t get busted. I played sports for a while, but I didn’t get into the JV level. I was just a kind of invisible, generic, lower-middle-class dude in a higher-class county.
KC So you finished UConn; you went through it.
NMH No, no! To be a rock star you drop out after one year.
KC That’s what I did, at SUNY Buffalo.
NMH The Stones, for instance. Mick Jagger went to London School of Economics for a year or two and then dropped out. Same with Lou Reed; he went to Syracuse in Upstate New York. I know these stories because I read interviews and rock bios and shit. That was the story you had to follow. You’d go to school and smoke pot and fail out. Actually there were two other people that I met at UConn who also left after a year and are now pretty big in music and other things.
KC So, at this point you were already a self-styled refusenik?
NMH I’ve been a beatnik since I was nine or so. My mom had Kingston Trio records, from San Francisco. They were the pop face of the beatniks. Someone must have told me some totally asinine thing, and from then on, I was like, All grown-ups are idiots. Also, I was born in ’65, so when I was 15, Reagan got elected and I was like, All adults are fucking idiots. That simple. And now I can get away with so much—it’s weird. You know, punk rock and new wave shit was happening then. Things were changing …
KC So you finished that year and what did you do?
NMH Right after school I thought I’d be too strawhat for New “Yawk” City. I had lived mostly in the suburbs. Even in Europe we lived on the edge of the city, in the Queens of Belgium. I went down to DC first, for a year. I had a paid internship at the U.S.I.A.—the United States Information Agency.
KC Do tell.
NMH The pay was good. You know what I did? I was in the Latin American division. The boss would bring in editorials about El Salvador or something cut out of the New York Times. This was in, like, ’84. He would then edit the fucking thing and rewrite it! Then I would rewrite it again for style, and then they’d publish it in a propaganda paper that the US government ran in various Central and Latin American countries.
KC You were some sort of second-string copy editor.
NMH For the United States propaganda machine! (laughter)
KC That gives me a sharper image of you in the ’80s than Pussy Galore could ever possibly give me. But, you know, we have to assume that the subculture still counts for something, right?
NMH Then I had an existential crisis. I was going to save some money and move to New York after living in DC for a year, but I just worked at this job for three months. I could’ve taken a test to get a government service rating. That’s a good gig, but I was like, No. I’m a refusenik, as you said. I just bummed around in DC with the money I’d gotten. And then … I don’t know how Pussy Galore heard about me, but they called me. I was in a band.
KC It seems now that Pussy Galore was beholden to a climate and situation that have since ceased to be. Royal Trux was kind of incubated within Pussy Galore, was it not? The arrival of Royal Trux as an entity was to herald a period of transitioning and shift, seeming not so much a band but more a thing or a vibe. I recall you guys saying that you were “on a Royal Trux.”
NMH Trux really started before Pussy Galore, in DC, in ’84 or ’85. Jennifer and I pretty much started playing together right after we met, though I was a little resistant to it at first. We were hanging out, and would play with different people who’d come and go. Soon after this, I got a call from Pussy Galore. Jennifer and I talked about it; if I joined them, I could learn the ropes and get some experience playing in someone else’s band. Until then, I’d always been the “leader” of the bands I’d been in. So I joined them and they moved to NYC; Jennifer came up there soon after. We figured I’d do Pussy Galore for a while, and then have Royal Trux start playing out after I’d quit. Trux was built on a plan we came up with in long conversations during that time. Conversations about what the point of being in a band was, how the traditional ways bands went about things were bullshit, etcetera. I’m quite sure Public Image Limited had a big influence on us. At any rate, it was gonna be a “royal trux,” a long haul. We figured we were going to have to do a bunch of fucked-up stuff and act like assholes for a few years. You know, get a bunch of money and then continue on with a little power to do what we wanted, rather than being at the mercy of 1980s trends and tastemakers.
I’m not sure what ties PG to the past, as you say. It’s pretty standard: upper-class people put the science to lower-class entertainment. But it might be that they did things so well, they got locked in that time period. Pavement did the same thing, but in a different era. I really liked the PG guys, but I couldn’t accept some things that perhaps they understood as absolute “laws” of American society. I had different views that I needed to articulate. Royal Trux was going to be a vehicle for that, answering a bunch of “what ifs,” you could say.
During the Pussy Galore days, Jennifer and I worked on tapes a lot, sometimes involving other people—we’d do little films or whatever. Sometimes I’d pass them on to Jon [Spencer, PG’s guitarist]. At least one of them ended up on one of the band’s records. At the time, in some quarters, Royal Trux was basically my nickname, the character I became when on any given day I’d drink cases of beer, rum, whiskey, and smoke weed, dope. I spent great chunks of days high—lovely times, especially since I was mooching off of Pussy Galore members as much as I could. New York was great because every little group thought they were “the scene.” I’d stay in their worlds and, since no one gave two thoughts to me, I was able to check out the city entirely. I liked to go to Seventh Avenue and Sweet Basil and those clubs. I saw great shit then. Jennifer and I could also go to big clubs like the Limelight. She was pretty comfortable in that scene, which was part of the fashion world. In fact, one of our first gigs was at the Limelight—I don’t even remember how that happened.
We started getting the first Trux record ready in ’87, ’88. I quit Pussy Galore—and rejoined at a later point. It seemed fine because Royal Trux was always just going to be me and Jennifer anyway. Eventually we moved to San Francisco and repeated the process we’d been honing in New York. No one liked seeing us coming down the street then …
KC But you stuck with the guitar. How did you first come to it?
NMH I saw José Feliciano when I was three or four. He was in one of those variety shows that they don’t have much anymore. A comedian was the host, and they’d have musical acts and stuff. He covered pop songs, but in a flamenco style. I was blown away. Dude, he had black glasses on because he’s blind. I had this toy guitar and there is a picture of me as a little kid sitting on a stool pretending to be playing—with the spotlight on, and wearing some sort of turtleneck. I saw something on TV and immediately started dressing like the person. (laughter) That was about it. Then it just went unchecked.
KC In terms of rock cross-pollination you seem to have always been a step ahead of the curve. History would credit you with Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street homage. The simultaneous embrace of the Stones plus Einstürzende Neubauten was at odds with the whole punk-hippie schism, was it not? Though I suppose Black Flag had begun to let their hair down by then as well. I’ve always heard as much—if not more—Jefferson Airplane in the Trux as the Stones. This in addition to subterranean signals from Chrome/Helios Creed and Jandek … Jennifer often talked about Spirit and Randy California in interviews, and Royal Trux covered Jefferson Airplane, Milton Nascimento, Moby Grape, and Dire Straits. This all before ’60s and ’70s rock became widely accepted in indie culture. Can you discuss some of your ideas about this?
NMH True about Exile, but it did take all of us to actually get it done. The Stones/Neubauten blend was all Jon—that was his vision of PG. For Royal Trux, it comes down to grabbing bits of music here and there to find some way to communicate with an audience that will work. Certain things by Airplane we did more as fans, whereas we would do Dire Straits covers just to shock people in a very particular way. Other times we would randomly buy cassettes on the road, pick one, and say, This is the greatest album ever. We’d then carry that concept for a while. That’s why we did a Waylon Jennings cover at one point. We avoided Velvet Underground covers by any means possible—it was just too close to home. Also, in Royal Trux, we would try and seek out very obscure stuff—at the time—not so much to cover it but to find a world we could live in. We’d say, If we could just be as big as this X band, we’d be set and totally happy. Once we found this music called “burial dub” from Jamaica; it had dudes toasting over tracks while dressed up like Baron Samedi. Their loudspeakers were coffins. We lived in that world for a while—we were like the Vanilla Ice of burial dub.
As an aside, the thing about ’70s music is that it represents the socio-economic peak of rock as the dominant pop-cultural force. I thought that back in ’84 and still do. Thank God hip-hop took that over a long time ago, but ’70s rock is the story of a transitional phase in Western European–based culture. So to play that music, deconstruct it, and then reconstruct it, is worthwhile. People still play traditional jazz for the same reasons. Oh, and you mentioned Spirit and Randy California. We loved that shit. In fact, David Briggs, who produced Thank You, produced Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus by them—that’s why we wanted him to do our record.
KC Speaking of production, I tend to think of you as a producer. I mean, you are a producer. We have worked together in that capacity when you produced the first record by The Suntanama. You’ve also produced records for Edith Frost, Brother JT, Bill Callahan, and numerous others. But I am thinking here maybe more in the filmic sense—you create the situation or context within which the work takes shape.
NMH Well, in music, producing has multiple definitions. In the ’90s there was Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana, and in the ’80s, Martin Hannett, who produced Joy Division, corralling madness and capturing it. But in the ’70s the producer was just the dude behind the soundboard. Now when you say producer the first thing that comes to mind is Kanye West.
KC I’m trying to use it more in terms of the dictionary definition.
NMH Back then a producer worked under the radar. People didn’t realize how influential producers were. That came later on. I enjoy your description of it, because it relates more directly to work.
KC The production of the unfinished product.
NMH That’s the thing, you know, I really like to work. It’s just another bad lower-class kind of a habit. I get restless kidding around too much, although I can sit around real good … .
KC So, insofar as “producing “ your own work, everything from Royal Trux to The Howling Hex, to Victory Chimp, and the artwork, the stance, and the staging that are involved—
NMH It changes by the context of the economy; by class, context, moving up, or being in different cities. If I was in New York now, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Here it’s been the last eight years of something. I am constantly surfing on it, trying to maintain it: direction. There is some direction that’s reflected in the things that I’ve made, with the bands I’ve been in. There were differences when we did The Suntanama record together. There were different eras of Royal Trux. And Pussy Galore, too. I was involved with that band and it was the first thing that got up over the hedge, made it over the fence. Then, it meant a different thing. You had to have a producer produce you; you were just the dumb people that got ripped off, or you played that role. Now people don’t look at it that way, they’ll just go along with how things work.
KC People don’t look at anything any way; they look at it exactly as you tell them it is.
NMH Yeah. I know. (laughter) That’s why I don’t like Americana, because of that. It’s playing that role.
KC There certainly seems to be something of a regional currency running through your output. You mention the anonymity you were exploring from the insularity of NYC in the ’80s, and then the subsequent relocation to San Francisco, where it would seem that things came to something of a boil. Then Chicago, Virginia, New Mexico … How much of the “long haul” was predicated upon movement? A sort of manifest destiny perhaps? There is something distinctly American, in a frontiersman kind of way, about much of your activity. Coupled with classic “outlaw” tropes, this paints an almost romantic picture. Has romanticism any place in your own image of your doings?
NMH I liked the idea of “site-specific” art, so to move somewhere, absorb it, and reflect it, was part of the project. We thought the nomadic tribes—the Tuareg, or the songlines people, the Australian Aborigines—were cool. And all this helped in different ways. Even in superficial ways, like establishing tropes and connecting them to the band name, or spreading rumors about ourselves, dropping names in San Francisco to people we knew would spread gossip back to NYC. All in the pre-Internet days. We resembled more the fraudulent landowners who seduced people to move to the frontier with lies rather than frontiersmen. Although I suppose we were like frontiersmen in other ways … We were physically tougher than many of our soft, soft contemporaries.
In terms of Romanticism, I was influenced by that kind of literature—Poe, Blake, Whitman, and the Beats. Although Balzac was my main man. Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair too, who were not Romantics. Jennifer always loved memoirs: Stop-Time by Frank Conroy and Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Also French symbolist poetry and its influence on Patti Smith and The Doors. We were all over the place, but I suppose the most solid aspects of our self-images were, for me, Balzac, and, for Jennifer, Patti Smith—individuals we fixed on not in a heroic sense, but in a more prosaic, what-do-we-do-next way.
KC Can you talk a little about Drag City as a model of a new kind of information exchange? An indie record label, sure, but one with sort of a more involved scope or design, establishing them as tastemakers or even microlifestyle makers. What was your role in the inception of the label and how do you gauge its evolution?
NMH The days of Drag City being a topnotch manufacturing and shipping company are over. They’re doing a good job making the transition to the new model you describe. Since I have seen the entire thing happen—their first two records ever were Royal Trux and Pavement—I can only be pleased. I do wonder if I should move off every now and then but, in my current situation, they’re the best fit for me by far.
KC Speaking of your current situation, and at the risk of attempting to pin down the ineffable, what exactly is The Howling Hex?
NMH Royal Trux is the long haul and The Howling Hex is something that can’t be destroyed. It’s a constant moment of saying “no” to something. It’s “This no longer makes sense.” The frustration. It’s not something that has a solution. It is like the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail. It’s constantly howling, but it’s also symbolic. The hex has a certain power but it’s also—
KC A curse?
NMH Usually it feels like a curse, but sometimes it feels like power. It’s just always there, howling constantly. Royal Trux is about moving. The Howling Hex is about trying to isolate that power, stripping everything down to express it. It’s not an answer thing; it doesn’t satisfy you. It’s never going to go away; it’s the cause of things. It’s the sound of that.
KC Let’s talk about the most recent Howling Hex full-length album, Rogue Moon. How did that come about?
NMH This guy from Manchester, England, wrote and asked me if I wanted to do a record. I think Manchester is awesome; it’s like the Memphis of England. A mystical place. I said yes, but I didn’t even know him. The label’s logo is pretty cool: an upside-down golden retriever with flowers growing out of its stomach. I’m out of touch with the guy completely; his email is dead. (laughter)
KC The title Rogue Moon comes from a sci-fi novel?
NMH Yeah, you’ve got to read that book by Algis Budrys, man. It’s science fiction along the lines of Brian Aldiss, Norman Spinrad, and Barry Metzger: psychedelic, techno stuff from the ’60s and early ’70s. Pretty cool.
KC Like Clifford D. Simak?
NMH Yeah, exactly. Science fiction about the power of mass media, like The Sheep Look Upby John Brunner. And Philip K. Dick, the main guy.
KC Yeah, of course. I’ve been detached from sci-fi for a while. I recently read a little Mark von Schlegell, and picked up the complete J. G. Ballard short stories … Where does the title of The Howling Hex’s 12-inch The Return of the Third Tower come from?
NMH It’s a pun on The Lord of the Rings. All three titles in one.
KC The only reason I have lumped those two albums together is that there is an overt abstraction involved with both. The first side of the The Return of the Third Tower is entirely abstract, as are chunks of Rogue Moon. Within what I would call The Howling Hex rubric, it seems like there’s a strategy of a 70/30 balance between a linear style and abstraction, with rock-informed elements providing a Petri dish for mutation. Let’s say higher art or thoughts can be incubated in this rock-ist place and grow differently—maybe like sci-fi all over.
NMH Sci-fi was one form of elegance that was available for a while. Elegance is the only term I can think of. And rock, for me, is the only other form that still sells records, to some extent. I mean, I’ve been listening to hip-hop music since the Sugarhill Gang put out Rapper’s Delightin 1979. We used to dance to that record back when everything was all mixed together. Parliament was not hip-hop; it was funk. They were on Casablanca records; Kiss was on that too, you know. And there was disco. It was that coming-together thing, where you could still have your part. You could stand side-by-side with Parliament and Donna Summer and other kinds of crazy shit—it was okay. And likewise every Howling Hex record involves a group. I have to be collaborating with people. As for my part to contribute … I go back to the guitar, you know what I mean? That linear element I bring comes from the AM radio, Rolling Stones, and Velvet Underground aftermath for me.
KC There’s a wake-up call of sorts on side two of Rogue Moon with the track “Stable.” All of a sudden these aspects of avant-gardism give way to this Hot 97–style would-be anthem.
NMH “First time I saw you I was only 16, that’s when I knew you were the boy of my dreams …” It’s about amphetamines.
KC Could have been a hit.
NMH Here’s what I’m saying, see? On all my Howling Hex records there’s always other people involved because I can’t do some fake shit. It’s gotta be somebody who really knows what they’re doing. The vocalist was a club person; just to cross that barrier and work with someone like her was so great. She left town; she moved down to Texas. But it was just random, you know? I put ads on Craigslist.
KC For real?
NMH Yes. A call for singers, actresses, musicians … everybody.
KC Do you ask for dimensions?
NMH What are you talking about? For singers? (laughter)
KC So the latest Howling Hex release is an audiobook restaging of your 1997 novel, Victory Chimp. Conceived in the ’80s but published in the ’90s, this has been a project spanning three decades, perhaps appropriately, as it is about a time-travelling chimp. Can you talk aboutVictory Chimp’s evolving format?
NMH It took me that long to be able to do it. Between writing it and having it come out, it took me a while to figure it out. It’s taken me this long to do the audio version because, again, it’s like, What the fuck is this? I have a much better grip on it now.
KC So what we’re dealing with in the audio book is an abridged version?
NMH No, it’s every single word. The text was the main arbiter; it drove every other element that could be put in there.
KC It does come across as musical theater at points. I would say in my own experience of having read Victory Chimp, I assumed that William Burroughs was a point of reference. I could never really process the content of Naked Lunch until I read it to myself aloud; it then calcified and became palpable. So, for me, the Victory Chimp audiobook provides this new entry point for assimilating the contents of the book. How did you put it together?
NMH I was trying to react to the text on my own. It’d just be me, since I put the original together. I’d get to bring out more elements, to make it more than, you know, a rock musician puts a book out kind of thing … I mean, even Jewel puts out poetry books and bullshit.
Keith Connolly is a founding member of the No-Neck Blues Band and a native New Yorker. He is currently on tour in Europe with New York City Players as part of the cast of Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero.
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.