jennifer herrema, unlikely american rock goddess
As her iconic band Royal Trux reunites, the original indie girl opens up about music, fashion, and why she's fundamentally different from Joan Rivers.
Photography Alex Aristei
It's electric to have a conversation with rock n'roll veteran Jennifer Herrema. However, it's impossible to interview her. Not impossible, but tough. She's got stories for days that link together as frustratingly as a tangled chain. She's anything but linear. But, when was she ever linear? That would be boring. And this artist, rock star (Royal Trux, RTX, Black Bananas), actress, model (and original "heroin chic" poster girl as shot by Meisel for Calvin Klein), and writer is anything but boring.
Herrema invites me over to her Costa Mesa, Los Angeles rehearsal studio. When I arrive, she hugs me, pulls off her aviators, then pours us margaritas and her mind and mouth go into overdrive.
Somehow we get onto the topic of Keith Richards (one of her icons) and Joan Rivers (one of mine). Waving her menthol cigarette like a flag she rasps, "[Rivers] can edit in the box. I can't edit in the box. I've got to do stream of consciousness."She stubs out her smoke in our now overflowing ashtray. "Let's talk about what is important at this moment."
What's important to Jennifer right now: her most iconic band, Royal Trux is doing its first, much-anticipated reunion show at Los Angeles festival Berserktown II. It's been 14 years since Herrema and then-boyfriend and bandmate Neil Hagerty dismantled. Royal Trux was weird, revolutionary, raw, and influential, yet undeniably misunderstood in its time.
Hagerty recently sent Herrema the 21-song set list he compiled of the band's ten studio albums of material. On a drive out of town to style an upcoming Playboy reality show, she listened to the mix.
"There is something psycho pure about those songs,"Herrema tells me. "I felt so removed from me [when listening to Royal Trux] and I thought it was the best record I had ever heard. The whole weird order of all our records, mashed together, I had no "this is my baby"feeling. I just thought it sounded really good."
Royal Trux was a freak story: a raw, art band in a world of go-getter fame-huggers. Herrema met Hagerty in D.C. when she was 15-years-old. Her ex-boyfriend had just overdosed and Hagerty befriended her. She was drawn to him right away, because he was so strange. "There was this girl who liked him,"Herrema remembers. "So, he set her hair on fire. He is a really weird, eccentric dude." Royal Trux moved from Washington up to New York and began putting out albums to mixed reception, but they could not have cared less. Hagerty and Herrema bonded over the Rolling Stones, Ornette Coleman, and altering the mind just because. The whole "junkie couple" tag followed them around for years as they kept up an air of mystery. (The tag wasn't helped when Herrema was the first to model Calvin Klein's "heroin chic" look.) Even when Royal Trux signed to Virgin Records in the 90s, they did it their way. With Herrema's scrappy, anti-singer vocals and Hagerty's eclectic, wandering guitar, they defined iconoclastic.
"Niel has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard," says Herrema fondly. "My voice is an instrument. It's a challenge."
Eventually, Hagerty and Herrema took the Virgin money and bought a farm house in Rappahannock County, Virginia, completely isolating themselves from anything but one another and music.
"[The farm] was in the middle of fucking nowhere. It was 20 minutes to get a pack of cigarettes from the gas station. It wasn't just us together. We were together only,"she says. "We knew ourselves when we signed with Virgin. We didn't even have bank accountants. I didn't have a driver's license. That was the antithesis of growing up in the inner city. I knew we had to spend that money on something tangible that would keep us grounded, because what's past is prologue."
During Royal Trux, the fashion world had taken an interest in Herrema and her inimitable style composed of snakeskin boots, big fur tails clipped to random parts of her body, layers of Southwestern jewelry in silver and stones, big aviators, rough denim, and long bangs that hide her big, blue eyes. After the band split (and she started RTX, which eventually became her current band Black Bananas), she teamed up with designers Pamela Love and Volcom on collaborations and modeled occasionally. She's styled multiple covers for Playboy, and just wrapped up starring in Judd Apatow's new Netflix series Love.
"I'm not totally stupid," she says. "I recognize [my fashion influence]. It's weird. Clothing has been very important to me since I was a tiny child and I can't tell you why."
Growing up in a house in Washington D.C. that her father bought in auction after the riots, Herrema was allowed complete freedom to find her way in the world. Plus, with a 2-subway commute to school, she was on the streets roaming alone since the eighth grade. Jennifer was a particular kid who knew what she liked and disliked. From a young age she hated dresses, kicking and screaming if asked to wear one, yet refused to eat anything that was not pink. "So, my mother made me Jell-O, changed my milk pink, made my mashed potatoes pink."
She was defiant. "I was never a cartoon. I never defined myself by the way I looked. That was very conscious. I just wore what I had and liked. I could have used my looks for years to make money, but I already knew that was not what I wanted."
This is the thing: Herrema is so cool it could be scary. And I sound like a dork saying this, but she is. Anyone who knows her, knows that she is exactly the kind of icon any punk wishes they could be: truly authentic and unique. Yet, she's welcoming and free of pretension. She lacks that wall of fear most too-cool poseurs keep up to hide their fragile insecurities.
Furthermore, she's not a career pusher. Her whole life has been one long thread of going through the experiences, no matter what they are, and knowing that smart decisions combined with a strong belief in the art you're making will make good.
"If you push too hard [to get what you want] it offsets the energy,"she says, through sips of tequila in her red plastic cup. "There's no retort and resistance left. You learn that."
Her husband is going to be here soon to take us out for dinner. We're buzzed and starving, so she puts out her last smoke.
"I don't want the ghosts of the past to just hang on forever. I'd rather just brush them off, recall them later. Something will happen. It's kind of like everything: it will happen when it happens."
Text Mish Way
Photography Alex Aristei