Black Bananas
Time Is Ripe
by Kevin J. Elliott

In retrospect, one could easily argue that Royal Trux were influentially the most important band of the ’90s. Their fingerprints are all over the current wave of lo-fi enthusiasts, and it’s hard not to pick apart a record these days without pointing back to some element of the Trux’s fractured blues. Whether it was a simple mix of junkie chords and beats or a trashy noise epic, the sound that Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty made was under-appreciated in its time, but has become a fairly omnipresent influence in recent years. Herrema knew that from the start, and after the dissolution of the Trux in 2000, took four years to realign her former band’s basic aesthetics into something new. In 2004, RTX was born, bearing a similarly sleazy unkemptness, only expanded into a full-on biker-punk nightmare.

While Hagerty may have been the Royal Trux’s brains, Herrema was the soul of that duo and the thread that tied their songs together, expounding their low-brow aesthetics with a gruff party-time bark. She created RTX as a podium for her heightened persona; no longer did she have to follow the downward spirals thrown by Hagerty, nor did she have to stick to one particular track. Soon RTX was sounding like an arena-ready version of the Trux, getting woollier, heavier and increasingly psychedelic by the second and becoming more a band than simply Jennifer Herrema’s new project. As RTX’s comfort level has grown, so has the imagination of Herrema, so much so that RTX transformed into Black Bananas after their new record, Rad Times Xpress IV, was already cut and mastered. For good reason, Herrema knew what she had in her hands, created over a three-year period, was another chapter. After a few listens, Black Bananas is looser, freer and overly dense to a level that makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. For most of the record, it’s as if multiple albums are playing simultaneously. Over in the left channel, it’s Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In. In the right, it’s Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, while down the middle a Dirty South bass tape is crumbling under the weight. Rad Times Xpress IV is one big party where every member of the counterculture has been invited. It’s as garish, decadent and colorful as the Lisa Frank–gone-hesher cover painted by Herrema. But as I came to find out from a lengthy phone conversation with Herrama, Black Bananas utilizes the same modus operandi she’s been employing since the beginning of Royal Trux. It’s just now there’s more to incorporate, more to say, and more to celebrate.

When you split with Neil and Royal Trux ended, were you unsure where you were going to go musically or did you know exactly what you would do?

Jennifer Herrema: I didn’t want to do music anymore at all. If it wasn’t going to be Royal Trux, then why make music? But it didn’t take long before I started having ideas and writing songs, and in about six months, I was making music again. I guess it was something that eventually had to happen, but it had to feel fresh and exciting again.

Again, talking about the past, I think Royal Trux had a lot of influence on music today. What do you think was the biggest impact of that chapter in your life on modern music?

JH: I don’t know. There are a lot of little things. I remember one of the very first shows we played to A&R people in New York at the Threadwaxing Space. It was just the two of us with a drum machine, and I was singing along with a sampler as well. They weren’t having it. Touring with Sleigh Bells, I can see them doing that, but on a much larger scale. What they do is way bigger than what we were doing, but back then people were appalled. With no band and just samples and drum machine pouring out of the PA, people just couldn’t believe what we were doing. I’ve been using a sampler since I was born.

I’ve always thought of RTX as a great hair metal band, and a lot of those old bands, as time has passed and nostalgia becomes more prevalent, are being credited more as artists than as decadent and hollow showman. Is there something that you attribute to this garish, maximalist style coming back in vogue and why do you guys embrace it so much?

JH: The big shows that I would go to, like Rush and Mötely Crüe, always fascinated me. The drama of it was what I found so appealing. It was performed with no apologies. You could be dramatic or sappy, and it wasn’t ironic or stupid. I wanted that music to have some kind of validation. It was hugely influential. For a lot of people, that genre is a take it or leave it endeavor, and I think a lot of that has to do with other males at one time being threatened by it really. But the songs are there. It’s good shit. RTX was never meant to be a parody; hair metal and glam metal are part of what we do. It was a thrill to take the purity of that stuff and put it into a new context. Including all of that was a big picture thing when I started RTX and it has eventually come correct.

I feel like I read somewhere you were doing a split with Ratt. Is that true? How did that come about? A Stephen Pearcy duet would be nice.

JH: There’s this woman who writes biographies with the William Morris Agency, and she wanted to write a book on me. We’ve been in touch for a few years, but I felt I didn’t need a book about me. Maybe one day I’ll feel compelled, but there just aren’t enough stories there yet. But we’ve talked at length about Ratt and about my musical influences. She didn’t know much about any of it, and she had no idea about my musical roots. She called Stephen Pearcy from Ratt to get more insight on their music and that all parlayed into her writing his story. He called me up after talking with her about Stephen Malkmus and David Berman doing an LA Guns cover. So I said to him, “Okay, you’re doing an RTX song and we’re doing a Ratt song, and that’s that.” And he responded with “it’s on.” He was just in Maryland for some hair metal crazy cukoo shit festival and called me again. When he gets back we’re going to go record with them.

You interviewed Keith Richards, so I’m curious to know if he got to hear Royal Trux and what he thought of the band.

JH: I knew beforehand that he had heard of us and heard the music. He told me that he liked it. But as it is, I was there to interview him. He kind of did want to talk about me, but I stopped the conversation and told him, “No way, this is about you.” I was somewhat curious, but at the same time didn’t want to hear his views.

When you’re stoned, Twin Infinitives is better than any of the Stones albums, right?

JH: Yeah, I guess we’re good for that.

Black Bananas sounds like a stone that has gathered a lot of moss. There’s so much going on in the mix, from both channels, with multiple layers. When you started recording it, did you intend for it to be this thick and over-sensory? Was anything off-limits?

JH: Nothing was off-limits. We are never on any schedule when we make a record. I had written some songs before we started rethinking the live set-up, and we were totally changing things up to use samples in real time and add more elements. I thought it was time to stretch out and put some more tools in the tool chest. Over the course of three years, it took on a life of its own. There were no parameters. The record prior to that was a studio album where the band was only together for three weeks, so this is the antithesis. We took our time to see how it sounded when we let things relax.

What’s the reason for the name change? Does it feel like a different band?

JH: The name wasn’t changed until after the record was finished. I knew this wasn’t just another RTX record. I’m not usually one to capitulate. I’ve always said that RTX is whatever the fuck I say it is. But it soon became pretty evident that it was a great idea to change the name so that people would stop and turn around and take another look. It made it a lot easier to direct people’s attention to something new. But really it’s all the same as far as I’m concerned.

Seems like Black Bananas is more of a party than anything else you’ve done in the past. Are we living in “rad times” or are you making your own rad times?

JH: It’s both. It’s the same aesthetic I’ve carried with me since the early days of Royal Trux. It’s taking lots of things that I really like and trying to put together all of my ideas and influences. It’s like making an oil painting over a collage of those things, if that makes any sense. If you go back to “Shockwave Rider,” we were using Bill Withers samples. We were still Royal Trux, the lo-fi blues duo, even though it was much more convoluted that just that.

Speaking of that lo-fi blues duo, is there a possibility that you will one day get back together?

JH: Never say never, but we’ve turned down a lot, lot of money over the past couple of years. I have no interest in doing it at all right now. It would be absurd. Shit changes, though. People don’t really ask me that. I think they just make assumptions that I don’t want to talk about it, which I have no problem doing.