Glitterbust: Understanding Their Twin Infinitives as a deconstructive cultural force
by Ben Dyment
There's something in the phrase 'Rock 'n' Roll academia' that can't help but suggest an oxymoron; surely rock 'n' roll, in its most primal and understood form, can only be tarnished by running it through the usual rampant intellectualism? In most cases, the theory rings true, but every once in a while a band comes along that demands a certain level of study in order to fully figure them out.
Out of the many bands littered across the stages of the last century, few are more deserving of this than Royal Trux. Formed around the twin artistic/personal partnership of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema in 1985, Royal Trux forged a steady and uncompromising path both within and without the contemporary American alternative environment until their demise in 2001. On a personal level, they belonged to the first generation to grow up with rock music as a constant element in the world. As artists, they took not only the sounds around them but also their atmosphere, critical responses and overall culture, bringing each element together into a strange and entirely personal form. Throughout their existence they infused cultural theorems with both avant-garde and traditional rock signifiers, in a way far removed from any of their contemporaries. Each album played like a microcosm of influence, incident and irreverence, presenting anything from prepared primitivism (Royal Trux), structured excess (Sweet Sixteen) or twisted pop (Veterans of Disorder), but it's their 1990 double album Twin Infinitives that ultimately presents their most realized thinking, offering up a multi-faceted sonic miasma that to this day still manages to exist just outside of any steadfast boundaries.
Common lore serves to view the mainstream/hegemonic rock culture of 1970's America as a burial ground for passé dinosaurs, killed by the fresh breeze of punk and the underground movements of successive decades. But despite the elements of truth involved, it would be wrong to outright dismiss its later value. For a certain number of groups, the era proved a fervent environment for future mining. Bands like Redd Kross and The Replacements toyed with the more superficial aspects like Kiss covers and bellbottoms, while other acts sought to dig deeper, such as noise merchants Pussy Galore, of which Hagerty was a long-standing member. Outfitting themselves with an identity sewn together from liberal send-ups and pastiches of their more popular forbearers, the band wreaked havoc on listeners with a breed of lo-fi gutter trash albums for the larger part of a decade before splintering off into various factions. Shortly after their move to New York in 1986, they even went as far as to record an infamous art-damaged take on Exile On Main Street in its entirety, which was mistakenly assumed by many as evidence of Hagerty's influence on the band. "Royal Trux was his 'thing,'" said Jennifer Hererma. "He considered Pussy Galore his National Service" (PSF interview by Ed Mabe, 1999).
Both Hagerty and Herrema were studious music listeners from an early age, witnessing the ways in which '70's mainstays like The Stones, Zeppelin, Sabbath et al perpetuated the basic signifiers of blues-derived melodies, repetitive song structures and the posturing of wild excess into the mainstream consciousness, forming what cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci defined as a 'unison of intellectual and moral unity' that in turn perpetuated a hegemonic social group and begat an entire culture entrenched in the low grade ephemera available to them. Though their peers and antecedents had copied the generalities, the pair assimilated it on a much deeper level, understanding how these signifiers operated through music into culture and back out into music. Seeing a potential for forward experimentation and outright refusing the concept of Artist-As- Glorified-Wurlitzer, the pair viewed the whole idea of submitting to the wants of an audience to be totally limiting, and rightfully so:Herrema: "The whole genre... underground thing, whatever- all the bands have more similarities than dissimilarities. You can slot almost all the bands that I've heard. I think they wanted to be slotted-then people know what to say about you, they know what to write about it. To be tagged or slotted is instant death, I think" (Rollerderby interview by Lisa Carver, 1990).Another important element of the duo's burgeoning philosophy was 'Harmolodics,' a musical concept created by American jazz visionary Ornette Coleman in the mid-'60's. Rather than adhering to the traditional constructs of jazz improv, Coleman's model allowed his musicians the freedom to play with different tonalities and pitches simultaneously, thereby allowing the music to move with relative freedom far greater than before. Hagerty explained how he saw it as "a way things can be related to each other by ways that you can't perceive. You can just dissolve situations and then re-establish their relationship along the same objects" (Hot Press interview by Peter Murphy, 1998). Grafting this subaltern practice onto hegemonic rock foundations further demonstrated how the band sought to fully eradicate any perceived barriers along their path, taking Gramsci's notion of common sense as a constant struggle and henceforth embracing it as a weapon, making the band free to create without genre classification or any conservative mode of song properties. The duo would mutate common sense into the struggle of listeners forced to reconcile against entire pre-existing musical reference points:Hagerty: We were into anything that was connected with that paranoia-is-really-enlightenment thing. Our idea was that the less conscious thought we put into the music, the more the random electronic gizmo element would take over.The construction of Twin Infinitives could easily be an article in its own right. After migrating from New York to San Francisco in 1989, the pair set up camp at Lowdown Studios, working up the "Hero Zero b/w Love Is" single for newly-created Chicago label Drag City. The two songs, aided by second guitarist Pat Johnson and drummer Tom Rafferty, demonstrated a considerable leap from the basement din of their first album (1988's Royal Trux) into the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic urban mirage, throwing layers of dissonant, murky instruments around Herrema's raving vocal delivery ("Red Tiger," a third track recorded at the same time, would end up as the A-side of a 1992 single, reminiscent of the other two yet wholly its own beast, and arguably the greatest Trux moment captured on tape). From there, the group built up the bones of a second album, but decided to abandon it and go for a different approach. Released posthumously in 2002, Hand Of Glory is a mixture of alien transmission blues ("Domo des Burros (Two Sticks)," which plays like a proto- "(Edge of the) Ape Oven") and wandering tape collage reminiscent of Faust and William Burroughs' cut-up audio experiments. While fascinating in its' own right, it's easy to see why Hagerty and Herrema decided to shelve it in favor of a work that would better convey the grandest scope of their ever-growing visions.
Herrema: But underneath all the weird shit, we still had our roots, the music we loved at school like AC/DC, Led Zep, Stones. We still judged everything in terms of whether it was lame or rocking. Even the weirdest noises, we'd think: 'shit, this scrungy noise is lame, it's like the last Led Zep record!' (Melody Maker interview by Simon Reynolds, 1993)
After a six-month period of rehearsals, the band reverted back to a duo. Left with tapes of the sessions and given free use of Lowdown's facilities, the pair spent roughly eight months searching for the heart of the music and then destroying it in an effort to employ their deconstructive ethos to the fullest possible extent. It was a way of using the studio not as an instrument, but as a reflection of the machinery built up through decades of mass collective ephemera, and it worked. Songs mutated with each passing day, turning inside out and back over into new realities, regardless of any musical or linear definitions that would have stood in the way of others. Dozens of sessions were dedicated to overdubbing a myriad of instrumentation onto the original tracks, such as piano, guitar, background vocals, synthesizers, tape loops, drum machines, flutes and organs, as well as monolithic walls of sheer noise that swam up in the mix from no discernible point of origin. Hagerty and Herrema used their music to express their need to completely eradicate the past of their audiences and their own, in order to properly arrive at new forms of expression:Hagerty: It has to go into rock/pop form. I like records that are really worked on, worked over. More songs mean more work than one long piece. There are bound to be dead spots in one long piece, but if you're a rock'n'roller, you just take the highlights and repeat those to infinity. The chops were made in a harmolodic way. Like the Big Bang, first it was a solid composition. But if we'd put Twin Infinitives out as one long piece, it's not enough (Bananafish Interview by Seymour Glass, 1990).It would easy to assume that choosing to spend so much time and effort into the extreme minutiae of each element was simply down to an uncertainty in direction or end goals, but the continuous mention of harmolodics once again reveals the pair's mindset at the time of recording, and confirms the deliberate application of their theories. Considering the average recording time for an album's worth of material, it's a testament to their dedication that they spent so long working and re-working their original messages in order to fully approximate their vision and allow them to truly break ties to all conceivable reference points. Gramsci once stated how subalterns could rise above hegemonic constraints, and that there existed a potential for cultural resistance at any level.
Upon its completion, Twin Infinitives was released in December of 1990 through Drag City and was immediately understood as being separate from everything else of the period. The album cemented the band's bid for total hegemonic separation and freedom from cultural restraints, even down to the packaging: a double album with an inner gatefold collage reminiscent of countless bloated releases from the '70's:Hagerty: To make a double LP in an indie situation where it is going to be construed as a private act... ego glorification, we wanted to make sure there were a lot references to a larger world. As in "Yes we know!" Just because it's Eric Clapton in Derek and the Dominoes, it doesn't give him the right to make a sloppy album cover. There's no difference. It was cool but it became this thing where you couldn't do that because a bigger band had already done that, which sort of defeated the whole intent. People took it the wrong way, like we were these crazed egomaniacs living out this rock and roll fantasy. But that's our problem. It doesn't really have a bearing on the record, but to me it says that we were successful because people took it seriously (Disorder interview by Nicholas Bragg, 1992).The months spent in the deconstructive vacuum paid off, creating a discordant wash of information that bleeds through the skin of each track: this is music created by culturally-aware historians. Over four sides, the album runs the gamut of pop idioms ("Ice Cream," "Jet Pet"), literary obscurity ("Yin Jim vs the Vomit Creature," "Glitterbust"), lengthy atonal statements ("(Edge of the) Ape Oven," "Chances Are of Comets in Our Future"), before closing with "Ratcreeps" and "NY Avenue Bridge," a pair of harrowing, downed-out ballads that sound downright sweet after the terror that came before. Guarded by bits of silence on both ends, each piece is a polyphonic landscape unto itself, over which Hagerty and Herrema continuously celebrate their references while throwing them back into everyone's faces as new statements. Songs like "Glitterbust" evoke the atmosphere of '70's New York picked up by small town kids in back issues of Creem, heightened and re-imagined. Enough talk has been made on the couple's drug use during this era to last a lifetime, but it would be negligent not to reflect on the chemical allusions that the songs are filtered through, both in the characters locked within the lyrics and the sonic environments they exist in. The classic dichotomy of band versus artist is twisted through a total vortex, rendering the band as both stoned adolescent disciples and master architects of their own realities. A track like "Osiris" comes off like the fever-dream of a cocksure teenage girl, wise to the world and flipping it the bird while rambling off classic Sci-Fi nightmare lines over a blitz of window-wiper noise fragments, a towering fuzz guitar that seems intent on singlehandedly revamping the world of rhythm and a distant flute melody floating up in a warning signal of imminent danger coming up from the sky. Herrema's vocals are teeming with personalities that jump out at you and shake, scream, moan and clutch at the throat without caring if you can pick out coherent lines from the entangled mass of lyrics. Each song presents itself as singular force, largely unrelated to what came before or after it in the album sequence but never dropping down beyond a high threshold of pure potency. Hegemonic rock signifiers blare out, buried behind layers of overdubs, eschewing their traditional functions and alienating listeners.Hagerty: Twin Infinitives is a good thing for signification, you know, when people get complex ideas from sounds [ ] "Lick My Boots," has a harmolodic, fucked-up world beat rhythm with a real American line on top of it" (Bananafish).It's the blend of pop song formats with avant practice that creates such a strong juxtaposition unlike any previous marriage attempts by those who came before them, if only because no one else had fully operated before on such a convoluted level of pure alienation. By refusing to give listeners any one stance to base their opinions off of, most people figured the band recorded the music in a completely careless manner and wrote it off as a drugged, incoherent mess, but it was just another window into their concepts, this time of immediacy vs methodical creation:Herrema: Improv and everything is great, but in terms of actually writing a song and wanting to get something across, you have to break it down and work it over and make it clear. [ ] When writing you get confused every four seconds. It can be completely misinterpreted because you haven't taken it outside yourself and looked at it again and then extrapolated and clarified it so that there is no room for misinterpretation. Whereas if you leave it all out there the [listener] can go in a million different directions with it and maybe our vision is lost" (Your Flesh Interview by Johan Kugelberg, 1993)At first, this seems totally counter to the common belief, in that publishing the raw, initial thought creates an honest product devoid of self-consciousness, but after consideration it's apparent what they had in mind; with careful ears the listener can even decipher remnants of the initial rehearsal tapes that showed a pre-Twin Infinitives Royal Trux. Their willingness to deconstruct their entire personalities as artists that frees them from any conceived ties to the hegemonic or subaltern communities surrounding them at the time of the album's creation and release, which was carried even further when the band embarked on a brief tour by train through the Midwest and East Coast to support its release in 1990. Tantalizing fragments of the shows can be found within What Is Royal Trux?, a companion film of sorts that crosses an intentionally muddled and hilarious sci-fi conspiracy plot with live footage, in which discordant drum machine tapes blare out arrhythmic beats as Neil runs down deconstructed Twin riffs, shadowed by the imposing amp stacks on stage, and Jennifer staggers around the room, her blonde mane hanging over her eyes and her microphone set to stun:Hagerty: We had samples from records that we just kept dumping down on the 4-track. We started off with a clean sample, like something from "Don't Fear The Reaper." By the end it was just processed sound. You couldn't tell what it was from, it was so decayed. It was organized so that it could be played backwards and forwards at any speed and it would fit in with the song we were playing. We got this cheap Casio sampler with no memory on it. The rhythm machine and the tone generator were in sync with the MIDI clock and the reel-to-reel. I had this digital drum machine that was producing typically clean drum sounds and ran it through dirty pedals and an envelope filter, sort of like a phase shifter or a stationary wash. It was also going through a sequencer and a tone generator so part of the drum sequence was cellos and bells but it was so fast, you couldn't tell (Bananafish)Throughout the performances, audience enjoyment seems to be the last thing on their minds, preoccupied instead with administering the full scope of their distinct identity. Davis Grubbs, writing of a particular Chicago show, perfectly illustrates the style that seeped out anywhere they went:Neil and Jennifer from Royal Trux look like they're visiting from another planet. Planet Junk. They're tall ghosts, ill-to-the-gills hypothetical rock stars, and couldn't be more dissimilar in appearance and affect from the dressed down, commonsensical Midwestern folk. Royal Trux are malevolent spirits. They haunt the Czar Bar during the opening two acts. Then it's their turn, and of course they're nowhere to be found. 30 minutes pass, 40, perhaps more. Dead time that is to a gig what dead air is to radio. I remember being aware that live music had to stop at 1 am. At probably 12:45, Neil and Jennifer roll back into the club to confront a hostile audience. Neil straps on a guitar and kickstarts a reel-to-reel deck that stutters forth an especially canned sounding recording of what I took to be cut-ups of The Master Musicians Of Joujouka. There's a little riffing, a little checking of the mic, the beginning of an attitudinal, non-sequiturish lyric. They slog through a couple of songs, but the monochromatic backing collage makes it all seem like one piece and then the PA is shut off. It must be 1 am, but the yanking of the plug feels unavoidably like a value judgment. Like being kicked off the Gong Show, Jennifer starts hollering 'LET US PLAY! LET! US! PLAY!' The show had come to an end. Elapsed time? I could be proven wrong, but I'm guessing that it lasted about ten minutes. I was thunderstruck. They had trashed the convention of the 40 minutes set with narcotized aplomb and zero self-congratulation. None of the pro forma niceties of in theory giving people what they've paid for. [ ] I never saw them nor anyone else pull off anything comparably disastrous and educational ("Davis Grubbs On The Seismic Shock of Short Performances" by Davis Grubbs, Epiphanies: Life Changing Encounters With Music, 2015)In later years, as the public slowly caught up with the reality within the Twin album, the band stayed cool, satisfied that they had succeeded where others had yet to even conceive of. Cognizant of indie 'cred' as being a waste of time, they were able to fully subvert both their antecedents and their contemporaries within the subaltern/underground scenes, applying 'rock' signifiers overtop 'indie' ideals without pandering to either faction. The only immediate understanding that the listener could gather upon first listen is that any recognizable element had been deconstructed and re-appropriated in an entirely alien way, devoid of the usual ironic overtones. The songs are constructed with careful measures of duality, ignoring accessibility in favor of non-linear expression, leaving no chance for the straight-forward continuity that most people cling to in music. Twin Infinitives is ultimately nothing less than its own universe, one that delivers a message credible without fault and without any possible expiration date.
Also see our 1999 Royal Trux interview with Jennifer and our 2015 RT interview with Neil Hagerty
and our interview with Jennifer Herrema about RTX and our 2017 article/rant/meditation about Royal Trux