Now, with Royal Trux in his rearview mirror, two solo records under his belt and an ensuing tour that stops in Tucson on Tuesday, it looks like the sky's the limit for one of rock's most creative and unsung axemen.
I recently spoke to Hagerty (now known as Neil Michael Hagerty; more on that later) about his new record (Plays That Good Old Rock 'n' Roll, out now on Drag City) and current tour, his recent collaborations (with Smog, Edith Frost and others), the release of the new Royal Trux comic book, politics and basketball (among other things).
If Royal Trux were known for one thing in the music press, it was the band's reputation as reclusive oddballs. At times, its members came off as aloof and uninterested, making it very clear that they couldn't care less what anyone, including fans, thought of the music they make.
As a long-time fan of his work--not to mention the fact that this was my first interview--I was a little more than nervous about attempting to pick the brain o' Hagerty. However, once the chatting commenced, I found all my fears unfounded and a conversation with the man much like shooting the breeze with a fellow music fan and socially observant dude. Whew!
While in Royal Trux, Hagerty and Herrema were responsible for creating some of the past decade's most interesting and inspiring rock and roll records--from the avant-garde noise and mayhem of their early work to the more refined boogie rock of later albums, such as Veterans of Disorder and their would-be swan song Pound for Pound. Hagerty's guitar playing (as well as his singing) has progressed during and since that time and has never failed to surprise and impress those willing to adjust to the band's always changing line-ups and experiments in sound and approach.
When the band officially called it quits in the summer of 2000 (apparently due to Herrema's dealings with some personal demons) Hagerty upped his work ethic and began work on his first solo album.
The release of Neil Michael Hagerty (Drag City, 2000) found our man playing all the parts and using electronics as the main instruments. This had many Trux fans scratching their heads wondering if the absence of his partner (as well as a band) had just taken a bit of the bite out of his work. His latest recording, however, dispels any concerns.
When I mention that Plays That Good Old Rock 'n' Roll sounds much more fun, as if he's more comfortable, relaxed and at home with being on his own than on his solo debut, he instantly agrees. "Yeah, that's a good description."
So, was he just in a different state of mind when recording the two records? "No, I mean, that first one was very regimented by electronics. It probably has that feel. Mentally, it's in the same vein--I just got in the escape pod and took myself out."
When recording the follow-up, Hagerty enlisted longtime Trux bass player Dan Brown, as well as drummers Tim Barnes and Tim DeWitt (all of whom were in his touring band for the first album). Will he be keeping these guys with him for the long haul? "Well, just the one drummer (Barnes), and we're trying to get it to be just a power trio, and then stay with that format permanently. When we had five people, and then even four, was just one too many people. ... It's hard to keep everybody focused."
And the addition of his middle name to his stage billing? It's partly an homage to his father, who recently passed away. "It's my dad's name too ... and that is what he would call me when he was mad at me. So I figured that I can't hide behind some kind of facade or whatever. But I told (the band) to think of it as a band name." Fair enough.
Some of the new album's songs sound similar to the Southern-rock tinge (James Gang anyone?) of Pound for Pound. There's the heartfelt dismay of "Some People Are Crazy" and the country-styled call-and-response of "It Could Happen Again," which definitely do not sound like anything his former band would have done.
"Royal Trux was definitely always a 50/50 proposition. Even if I did almost everything on a particular song it was still a 50/50 thing because when I would work by myself I would take into account her [input] from 15 years of working together and it was real good and I would just do the shit-work 'cause I just like to do that kind of thing. [But when] it comes down to just me I've got to do other things, so then I feel that I can just do just do whatever I wanted to do on the record. This whole thing has just been unlearning all these other things that I've geared myself up [to do]."
And has it been fun? "Oh yeah, yeah!" And that's all that counts, right?
Apart from recording with his own band, Hagerty has stayed busy since the breakup of Royal Trux with various projects. One of these being The All New Adventures of Royal Trux, a comic book that describes the last days of the band, the plot of which is written by Hagerty himself. Says Hagerty, "Right after the tour fell apart and the band broke up, I was really surprised, there was a lot reaction and (people) asking me about it. So I thought it would be cool to transmute the band as a real thing into cartoon characters 'cause we had certain cartoonish elements to what we did anyways, so I thought that'd be kind of cool. So then it could go on but it would just be a comic book and be a lot less of a hassle."
Hagerty also joined forces with Smog, Edith Frost and a few other friends this past fall to put together Tramps, Traitors and Little Devils: A Drag City Supersession, a collaborative affair in which each musician brought in a few originals and a handful of covers were chosen.
In case that's not enough, Hagerty's completed another album, this time under the name Weird War, a collaboration with friends Ian Svenonious and Michelle Mae of Washington, D.C.'s now defunct Make-Up.
So, can the masses look forward to seeing more of Weird War ? "I don't know if we'll even play live. It depends on if the record is pretty well received. We'll probably do some shows."
Weird War's debut album is due to be released in June on Drag City Records, by the way, but Hagerty is quick to make it clear that the act known as Neil Michael Hagerty is his main gig.
With the fate of Royal Trux forever sealed in comic-book form, a brand-spankin' new record and a touring band ready to hit the road, it looks like established fans and the uninitiated alike have a lot to look forward to.
But after being on the road for the better part of the last 15 years, does Hagerty still get excited to get out there? "Yeah! Why, should I not be? It's what I do."