Since emerging as a member of the seminal Pussy Galore in the mid-80s, Neil Hagerty has had a hand in some of the noisiest and most interesting deconstructions of rock & roll of the 20th and 21st centuries. Pussy Galore proved to be as combustible as its music, and by 1987, Hagerty had moved on to the work for which he is best known, Royal Trux, for which he primarily partnered with paramour Jennifer Herrema, as well as a rotating cast of accomplices. Over the course of Royal Trux’s 14-year existence, Hagerty and Herrema explored some of the most out-there nether regions of the rock canon, with both drug addition and major label money feeding into their output at various times. At yet other intervals, though, they delved into some of the most riveting po-faced interpretations of post-Stones blooze.
In 2001, Hagerty and Herrema split, no doubt more for personal reasons than professional ones. After a few years, Herrema curiously formed a new band under the common Trux abbreviation, RTX, before changing the moniker to Black Bananas. Hagerty meanwhile released a pair of albums under his full name, Neil Michael Hagerty, and recorded an album with Ian Svenonious and Michelle Mae as Weird War, before taking on the Howling Hex nomenclature for his musical endeavors. Working with an ever-changing support cast, Hagerty has seemingly followed his muse on whatever wild excursion it takes him. Each of Howling Hex’s dozen albums has been different from the one that proceeded it. After the lengthy guitar excursions of its predecessor, Wilson Seminconductors, the latest record, The Best of The Howling Hex, which is not a greatest hits collection but a collection of new material, explores the Norteño music with which Hagerty became fascinated while living in New Mexico. (He now resides in Denver.)
With this wildly different new direction, the advent of Drag City’s Royal Trux reissue campaign, and Hagerty’s recent live reinterpretation of the Trux’s Twin Infinitives at St. Vitus in Brooklyn, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with Hagerty, who answered my questions via email.
You had a piece in an art show that my friend James Englebeck put on. How long have you been doing visual art and how does it correlate to your music?
Neil Michael Hagerty: Long ago, I enrolled in art school, but didn’t attend. It is just something I did—like writing—before I concentrated on music. It’s good to be able to work on other things and take a break from music, so I will from time to time do some of that work. It just takes forever, though, to produce very little.
I read an interview where you described Howling Hex as Norteño music with electric guitars and drums. Is this record reflective of that idea? Even before reading that description I was reminded of the Mexican polka hybrid you find in Texas.
NMH: I lived in south New Mexico for 10 years and really tried to gradually absorb that situation into my work. (I just moved from there.) I wanted to try to learn the music there slowly, so over the past three or four records, the basic form has been built on that. It’s a little bit different over there in New Mexico, y’know? It’s more like Mex-Tex rather than Tex-Mex. The energy is more rigid and devout, while being more desperate, unsettled and on the hustle.
On the new album, the songs all have a similar cadence. Was that done by design?
NMH: There are three basic forms: 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8. We stick to that, and while the other content is just stuff that goes on around us, we try to transliterate the intention and tradition of the forms to deal with things we know and see.
You frequently change band members. Is that indicative of needing to play with new people to keep it interesting?
NMH: It’s mostly economics and, to a lesser extent, geography. I can only keep the bands together for a certain period of time, but I like it because it does make everything different. I wouldn’t have minded having the same band for ten years, though.
What initiated the change to the Howling Hex moniker from releasing records under your own name? Do you see a distinction between the Howling Hex and NMH records?
NMH: The very first record was just my full name, and the second really should have been the Stupid Losers, but some of the band members objected to the name. Then the Howling Hex came about from trying to have as many “H” words in a row as we could. But there’s really no distinction.
The general assumption was that you and Jennifer were fairly sedated when you made Twin Infinitives. Was it difficult deciphering that record with a clearer head to perform it live?
NMH: Well, we always worked really hard on the records and were very detailed. I still have the notebooks from that record, in fact. The drugs just made it take a really long time to get that record done. But really all I did for the show was listen to it over and over and write the parts down. I remembered so much of it, it all came back pretty easily.
Is that something you will do again?
NMH: I don’t think so. It was definitely a one-off.
Was it odd performing Royal Trux material without Jennifer?
NMH: No, it was okay. The singer for the show did the vocal parts really carefully and tried to match the cadence of the original singing, so Jennifer was well represented.
Did it irk you when Jennifer was using RTX as the name for her band?
NMH: No. I mean, why throw away all those years of work? I hoped it helped her because she put a lot of time into building up the band to begin with. I just didn’t want to take that route.
I heard that you gave the other guys in Pussy Galore your blessing to do that reunion a couple years ago. How do you view that band these days?
NMH: Well, I love those guys. I saw Bob (Bert) at the Twin Infinitives show. I’m sure we’ve all changed, but I’ll always be grateful for their tolerance toward my antics.
Given the varied directions your music has gone in over the years, is each variation moving towards some ideal or is it a matter of just trying different things?
NMH: I just always think of how unaware I was when I was young and how music pointed towards a better way for me. So, I don’t know. If I feel like I’m not getting good stuff, good information, I imagine that’s still a thing out there so my work could be functional. It’s not like I’m moving in a direction, but more like focusing closer and better on the same thing.