Next week, Drag City is reissuing Royal Trux's 1998 album Accelerator. The punchiest, catchiest record in the gloriously, notoriously fucked-up band's history, Accelerator is one of the best examples of the misguided expectations and unintended benefits of the major-label alt-rock gold rush of the 1990s. Parting ways with Virgin Records after the disappointment of the previous year's Sweet Sixteen, Trux were left fully funded and totally unfettered to do whatever they wanted. That turned out to be using scientific measuring tools on crummy pop radio to graft its cruel logic to their own messy rock n' roll. Overstuffed with shouted hooks and curdled glamour, it's the best thing they ever did, and likely one of the sneaky-best rock albums of the entire decade.
We talked to singer Jennifer Herrema as she enjoyed a perfect fall California day (by phone, from Brooklyn, sigh) about making Accelerator with applied pop-music science, the record's very 90s take on the 80s, and the majestic perks once held by even the most contentious major label deals.
When you think back on Accelerator, is there one lingering impression that sort of stays in your mind about making it? Or do all the records sort of blur in your memory?
Jennifer Herrema: Actually, Accelerator was…basically you know we had a three-record contract with Virgin, but we didn’t want to give them a third record, so we got them to buy us out. Even though they had to pay us for the third, we still didn’t have to give it to them. We were dissatisfied with how they handled Sweet Sixteen. So, we went about making Accelerator specifically for Drag City, and having worked with Drag City for so many years, we could take our time, do whatever.
Accelerator was tracked and mixed, and then Neil and I were listening to it and listening to it, and then we were like, it was kind of a conceptual idea but, we went back and ran some of the songs through a spectrum analyzer. You could take any hit song at the time, I don’t know what was going on, like Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby” or radio songs, and you run them through a spectrum analyzer and you track the EQ, a bunch of the significant ebbs and flows of the song as it pertains to the EQ, coloring, and all this stuff. So after doing that we went back to just random songs. Something would be on the radio even if we didn’t know what the fuck it was, like, some fucking shit…God what was going on at the time?
Spice Girls maybe?
Yeah, anything that was on the radio. We just picked random stuff. We were like, out in the country, so we didn’t get radio that well either. The only one we would kind of get was Top 40. So we ran random songs through the spectrum analyzer and sort of tracked their movement through the spectrum analyzer, and we went back to the mixes we had for Accelerator and we re-mixed them, squashing them accordingly.
It was tracked on a 16-track and we actually had 16 tracks of EQ and 16 tracks of compression. “Yellow Kid” was 12 tracks. We put each one of those 12 tracks through it’s own EQ and its own compression, and just squashed the fuck out of all of them, and started seeing really cool, next-level results. We just took extra time and re-re-did everything in that way. Because it just felt really fresh, like it was cool. It came about in a kind of strangely conceptual way. But really, we had just purchased a spectrum analyzer and we were like, “Wow, what the fuck are we going to do with that?”
It’s sort of strange because you had just left the big label, but in a lot of ways it feels like the record of yours, out of all of them, that they might have wanted, maybe? I was wondering if you took pleasure in becoming super catchy just then?
(chuckle) Well it’s interesting, because it was very simplified. Sweet Sixteen was kind of our homage to indulgent 70s prog and different things like that. They had to pay for the entire album, regardless of whether we gave it to them or not. So we had the same budget, but we were like, “Fuck, that shit’s going into our bank account! We’re not touching it.” So we spent maybe $800 dollars making Accelerator? I mean, we already had most of the gear and everything. It’s not like we were sitting around with a 4-track or some shit. We had really cool gear.
But it was not meant for a major label, and probably never could have passed by them. If we had decided to stay with them they would have wanted somebody else to remix it. Our contract being such that we got to administer our own budget and do whatever we wanted with it without sign-off…
Whoa, that’s a good deal…
Yeah, it was an amazing deal! Full creative control. But I can only assume that there would have been some contention if we had turned in Accelerator and we had tracked it and mixed it ourselves. Ultimately, you know, the politics of a major label would have dictated that they most likely wouldn’t have pushed it, just like they didn’t with Sweet Sixteen, because it wasn’t done the way that they wanted. Basically, they gave us all the control, but at the same time they also had all the control, where they could push it or not push it. Contractually they had to, but then you are getting into litigation and shit.
So, it was interesting, because they would have had to accept it, but they would not have been happy accepting an album that was just recorded and mixed by myself and Neil. Speculation, but I can only imagine.
It was talked about at the time that Accelerator was Royal Trux exploring 80s pop sounds, as opposed to Sweet Sixteen’s prog 70s. A lot of music that’s come out in the last decade has been inspired by 80s pop music to a much greater degree than it ever was in the 90s, but at the same time it sounds a lot softer than Accelerator. It’s a much hazier interpretation. I wonder what the difference was between how the 80s sounded to you in 1998, and why that sounds so different from new bands today exploring the 80s? What accounts for the difference?
Well, you know, the 80s to me is like pop radio…Duran Duran, shit like that going on in pop radio. Utilizing the spectrum analyzer, but it being our music…it was more conceptual than just listening to the Psychedelic Furs or some shit. It was taking a blueprint from our special machine and putting it on to our stuff. OK, it’s the 80s, because it’s a blueprint of pop radio.
It’s the same thing with Thank You and Sweet Sixteen. It wasn’t really trying to emulate the decade, because it doesn’t really sound like those decades, but we employed different ways of going about working, and different people to work with. Sweet Sixteen, all the songs were over a certain amount of time. They’re long songs, multi-multi-multi-tracked. Those were characteristics of radio in the 70s. They would play 5-minute, 6-minute songs on the radio. So we adhered strictly to the longer song format. That’s just one of the things.
When you guys were making Accelerator—the repetitions on it, the loops, the grooves—it gets kind of hypnotic. I’m wondering in the recording process, when you are making stuff that’s so aggressively repetitive, how do you decide how long a song can just coast? Is there a feeling when you are listening to it, and you think, this song cannot take another round of “Juicy, juicy, juice….”? Just from a writing standpoint, how do you decide where it stops?
Well, you know, you track the stuff and then you make lots of decisions. In the mixing process and the editing process, you listen to it a lot, but then you have to put it away for a minute. I remember at one point, with “Juicy Juicy Juice” I was like, “I can’t take it another second after a minute and a half!” I was like, “Good Lord!” But, that’s because I was just sitting in the studio listening to it for months on end. I had to put it away. That’s why it got kind of another new life when we analyzed it. It gave us time to sit back and not listen to it. When I came back to it, I had a fresh take. “Of course it should be more than one and a half minutes long!” And then you just feel like, what would feel natural to do live, and then you just go with your gut.
Were you touring a lot at that time?
I don’t know. I don’t really recall honestly. I know we toured a lot for Sweet Sixteen. Oh, actually, I do know we toured Europe, because I remember very specifically when we were in Rome there was a girl that brought me a tape-recording of her cover of “Juicy Juicy Juice.” I do recall that.
Was it good?
Yeah, I mean, it was cool…she was into it…I dunno. (laughs)
Do you ever hear your influence on new bands? Do you often hear something and say, “Oh!”
Yeah, I have. And people from other bands have told me that. But I think it’s more signifiers than people being able to get the sounds that we got. Because nobody has my voice, nobody can play the guitar like Neil, nobody can write songs like we can. But I think a lot of signifiers have been utilized in the spirit of Royal Trux, for sure. A lot of bands have been really vocal about us influencing them, and then there’s been a lot of people who don’t talk about it because…they don’t like giving props, or whatever. (laughs)
Do you listen to a lot of new rock bands?
I’ve definitely heard some cool stuff. I like the new Blues Control album that came out. I think we played with them once. I don’t remember what they were all about live, but I liked the record. We played a show with friends of ours, Wild Yaks. I like their show, but I never heard any of their recorded stuff.
As far as big, big records mostly rap. I’m just kind of stoked for the new Bones Thugs n’ Harmony.