Morphic Resident: Interview w/Neil Michael Hagerty [Howling Hex / Royal Trux]
Neil Michael Hagerty is an American guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer who first captured the imagination of the underground music community as a guitarist/contributing songwriter in Jon Spencer‘s pre-Blues Explosion avant punk band, Pussy Galore. Following their break up, Hagerty and then-girlfriend, Jennifer Herrema formed the band that he is the most well known for, Royal Trux. This new project applied Ornette Coleman‘s musical philosophy of harmolodics to a trashy rock and roll sound equally influenced by the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, and Velvet Underground. The duo released 4 albums and countless singles as the flagship band for the fledgling Drag City Records (their “Hero Zero” single was the very first release for the label) before signing a 3 album deal with Virgin Records, as part of the nineties “indie/alternative rock” corporate signing frenzy. After their second major label album, Sweet Sixteen, was critically trashed and underperformed at record stores, the Trux were dropped from Virgin and returned to Drag City for 3 albums, two eps, and a singles compilation. Some time in 2000, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema split up and the Royal Trux ended.
In 2001, Drag City published a Hagerty-penned comic book called, The Adventures of Royal Trux – Vol 1 #10 that hints at some of the reasons for Royal Trux‘s split. This was followed by three albums released under Hagerty‘s own name – Neil Michael Hagerty (2001), Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll (2002), and Neil Michael Hagerty & The Howling Hex (2003).
In 2004, Hagerty started releasing records under the moniker of “The Howling Hex“, with 2005‘s All Night Fox becoming a personal favorite of mine. The most recent Howling Hex release, Victory Chimp, is actually a highly ambitious 4xCD (3hr 19 min) audio book version of a 157 page sci-fi paperback that Hagerty originally published in 1997, during his Royal Trux days. The story centers around a chimp master of the multiverse “rattling the cages of freedom.” It’s also one of the fucking weirdest recordings I’ve ever heard in my life. Seriously nutty stuff…
Along with releasing this newer Howling Hex material, Drag City recently took all of the Royal Trux albums out of print and has been reissuing them -one at a time- on gatefold vinyl, over the past few years. Another reissue (maybe Accelerator?) is due out in November.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Hagerty some questions about his bands, Victory Chimp, comic books, baked beans, and where the music industry is today. Some of these questions may dig a little deep, but pretty much every other Hagerty interview that I’ve found on the internet seems to ask the same questions: “You used to do drugs, huh?” “Why did Pussy Galore cover a whole Rolling Stones album?“, “What was David Briggs like?” etc. That information’s been covered. Hopefully there’s something new in here for the hardcore NMH fans and something worthwhile for anyone discovering his work for the first time.
BP: What made you decide to do a 4 cd audio album of a book that’s been out of print for almost a decade?
NMH: The time seemed right to look back at the 80s, personally and ‘at large’– and I have been feeling weird about having that book out there floating around without any context other than it was by some guy in an indie band from the 90s. I wanted to put the book into an easy to consume version using sound to flesh it out.
One thing that I love about the Victory Chimp album is that there’s all of the music, halves of songs, and weird sounds going on. You can listen to it while working, without paying attention to the narrative. What made you decide to construct it this way?
I just wanted it to be useful.
Is Victory Chimp supposed to take place in the same creative universe as the Adventures of Royal Trux comic book? I guess that what I’m really asking is if there is only one Victory Chimp in the multiverse.
Yes, I like the idea of a “universe” that you can keep going back to, telling stories different there (ie, Discworld, Dr. Who)– someday I hope to see FanFic of it. There’s only one VC in any multiverse, but probably many in the universe of multiple multiverses.
So, he’s kind of like Uatu the watcher?
Like Uatu confronted by fundamentalist Christians, like he can’t maintain his aloofness because they’re always trying to convert him. One of the main inspirations for VC was this book called “Scop” by Barry Malzberg about a guy from the future who keeps trying to go back and stop the Kennedy assassination, but screws it up each time and makes things worse.
I have always thought that it was cool how the Royal Trux comic book was split into chapters; kind of like early issues of Fantastic Four. Did you read many Marvel comics growing up?
Heh, you caught me. I loved Marvel in the 70s when I was a little kid: The Avengers, Daredevil and Iron Man.
[^ click to enlarge ^]Were you a fan of the Hostess ads where Spiderman or The Thing or Hulk or whoever would stop criminals with fruit pies and cupcakes? I have noticed that Hero Zero uses similar crime fighting tactics.
Yes!! I wanted the story to be completely set in the universe of an old Marvel comic.
It was a big surprise to me when you released Rogue Moon on Golden Lab records, after pretty much releasing all of your albums on Drag City since Royal Trux (besides the two albums on virgin, obviously…) What made you decide to work with another label all of a sudden? You must have had offers from other labels before, right?
The Golden Lab guy just contacted me cold and, after sort of going back and forth with him for a couple years, we ended up putting that out with him. One of the reasons was he was from Manchester, UK (that’s a big deal to me)– and the band was really scattered around the country, so doing a record in pieces like that, based on the book (which could help me prepare for doing Victory Chimp,) was a good way to work. And most of all, since it was on this little label, we could get it out without too much attention.
What’s the appeal of manchester, uk? Are you a fan of a lot of the bands from there like The Fall and all the Factory Records bands, or just the city in general? Mostly I’m asking, because it doesn’t seem to show in your discography. You seem to have such an American sound.
I’m a fan of all those bands 70s-90s, just how they developed in that environment, the industrial history of the place, that mood, or my fantasy of it, etc.
The live tracks on the Neil Michael Hagerty and the Howling Hex double lp are some of my favorite recordings in your career. Have you ever thought of doing a live album? If not, why?
I think I will do that someday, like all my favorite songs redone live.
Had you always intended on Weird War being a one album thing? Or, at least, as far as your involvement with the band? Was it weird when Scene Creamers went back to using the “Weird War” band name?
I didn’t really know, I enjoyed collaborating with Ian (Svenonius) and Michelle (Mae), but it seemed like we held it together just long enough to do the record. After that, there might have been trouble. Since doing that band was their idea, I was ok with them using the name again.
What made you switch from using your own name to “Howling Hex”?
I wanted to add more H’s to the name, so it was like Davy Allen and the Arrows, but with H’s. It also reminded me of the Joe Walsh solo/Barnstorm non-distinction, just a great tradition of muddled communication.
What happened to the ladies from All Night Fox? I loved their singing. I thought that I had heard one of them singing on Rogue Moon and Victory Chimp, but maybe I’m wrong.
Alas, they all moved on. Rogue Moon had a new person named Evrim, but she went to Portland. C’est la vie.
Why didn’t All Night Fox ever come out on vinyl?
Timing, really. Drag City didn’t want to do it at that moment, since sales were slow or something. Hopefully they will put all of the non-vinyl out someday.
Not sure if you’re into Facebook or not, but there’s an “I bet i can find 500 people who would buy All night Fox on vinyl” group.” I guess that’s not really a question, but thought I should mention it.
Drag City better get off their asses.
One last “all night fox” related question (sorry, it’s one of my favorite albums ever…). When it came out i was blown away by the use of reverb on all of the vocals. It seemed so new at the time. Now it seems like half of the lo-fi/indie/etc. bands in the world are putting a ton of reveb on every single instrument, vocal track, etc. What do you think about this? I don’t know if this is All Night Fox inspired, but it still seems like you predicted a musical trend by half of a decade. Do you listen to much new music these days?
I listen to all new music I can, but I try to mix my impressions of it with my own musical comfort zone, not to chase anything and all that.
I’ve noticed that baked beans are a reoccurring lyrical theme on the Howling Hex albums. Are they one of your favorite foods? I’ve recently gotten into cooking them at home. Have you ever tried making them? Any recipe tips?
No, I haven’t cooked them, don’t eat them much. To me it was just funny that a population of humans might one day crown a can of baked beans as their king.
Why did you decide to go for the multiple song writer approach on Howling Hex XI / Monster Bird? I guess you did the same thing on Rogue Moon. Is the upcoming Howling Hex album going to be the same way?
The new Hex record is like Earth Junk– in fact, that’s probably going to be the template for the new band. Earlier there was that phase of the group approach, songwriting and arranging all shared. I just try to make something each time out that is at least interesting, and changing around the process is one way I do that.
Who’s in the new line up of Howling Hex? When you say it’s like Earth Junk, does that also mean there will be no drums? Any plans to tour in support of the new album? I can’t remember you coming to the Portland/Seattle area since 2006, so it would be a nice treat.
I think there’s gonna be a new, new lineup so we’ll see. I’m going to move to a new city and go from there. And yes, there’s no drums on the next record, just sort of ended up that way like Earth Junk did– so I’ve been consistent.
Any chance of re-releasing the Royal Trux fan club cassettes as part of the Royal Trux reissue campaign that Drag City has been doing the past few years?
I don’t think DDC will do it. In fact, I don’t know who has the masters of those cassettes– really, if anyone has a copy they should just re-issue it.
Another drag city reissue related question: why are Singles, Live, Unreleased, Accelerator, Veterans of Disorder, and Pound for Pound currently out of print? I know that they used to be on iTunes, but Drag City took them off of there when the reissue campaign started. Why not just keep the albums in print if they’re being reissued on the same label? It seems weird that the only people making money off of these records at the moment are weirdos on ebay.
What Drag City do I try not to pay attention to very much. I think they’re feeling their way through this ‘era’– trying to figure out what a label does nowadays.
Around 2005, there was talk of Drag City releasing a Royal Trux dvd with What is Royal Trux?, Live in Cleveland, and a few music videos on it. Whatever happened with that release? Is it something that could still happen?
That must have come from Jennifer (Herrema), I can’t recall hearing about that.
I remember reading an interview with Royal Trux in Wire Magazine where you mentioned that you usually play on the albums that you produce, but there weren’t any of your guitar solos on Bill Callahan’s Woke On a Whaleheart album. Why not?
Heh. ALL of the guitar solos are me– but it’s a secret.
Are you still doing production work for other musicians? I haven’t heard of anything since the Bill Callahan album.
Haven’t done much since working with Bill. I did some stuff with that singer Evrim, but just mixing etc.
Are there any artists that you would want to work with? Sometimes when I listen to Marnie Stern, I think about how it would sound cool with NMH production. It’s the same thing with Wooden Wand. There was a Danielson interview on Pitchfork a few months ago where he said that if he could work with any artist that it would be you. Do you get solicited by other musicians often?
It comes and goes, but I have been living down near the border in New Mexico for a long time, so I am kind of out of it. I’m going to move back to the city this year, so I can be a part of civilization again.
One last question, it seems like besides you and David Berman, all the original Drag City artists seem to be going in a more commercial friendly direction. Bill Callahan is recording really clean sounding records with John Congleton, Will Oldham is playing folk and blue grass festivals and also making really clean records, Stephen Malkmus is chasing the 90’s nostalgia money… but, since the release of the Neil michael Hagerty and the Howling Hex double lp, you have seemed to go in a weirder and weirder direction. Have there been any ATP offers for you to do something like a concert tour of Accelerator live or any pressure for you to make a straight forward rock and roll record? Or do you just try to ignore what’s going on in the music industry right now?
There are some explanations for this. First: in Royal Trux and, to a lesser extent, Pussy Galore I did all the things I wanted to do in ROCK…jets, roadies, expensive equipment, wimmins, death, money, drugs, 6 month recording schedules, hockey arenas, transatlantic fame– whatever it might be, I feel like I did it and so that’s done. Second: I truly dislike Americana, white blues, metal, country music, ukuleles etc– I think it is all unpleasant. So I don’t really want to get involved with any of that bullshit again. The first three solo records I did, I tried to round all the bases and do really synthetic coverage of various styles that people seem to consider classic, meaningful, soulful or real; to satirize them in a self-destructive way. So, now I’m done with that and I can just play what I hear and earn about as much money as you’d get in a semi-decent job. I’ve gotten a lot of offers for Royal Trux reunions, or even for Hex to play at festivals or other similar things, but I’d never do it. I’d like a band to stay broken up for a change and also, I really hate those big festivals which seem to be the main direction things are going in, big conglomerated events. I really like a small nightclub vibe most of all.
peep out the following NMH-related links…
Benjamin Parrish lives in Portland, Oregon where he pets cats, eats pizza, draws comics, listens to records, grills up BBQ, and runs the cassette label Dog Daze Tapes.
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