From Royal Trux to Black Bananas through RTX, Jennifer Herrema has been surfing the rad times xpress for three decades. A genius and a survivor, Herrema is rock royalty whose contribution to music over the last twenty-plus years has been both endlessly influential and criminally overlooked, beyond a loyal cult following. She continues, having just released one of the highlights of her career as Black Bananas’ Electric Brick Wall, a neon breezeblock of sonic swagger that is as dense as the title suggests and defiantly nimble too – like a Christopher Wool painting it’s what’s smudged out that makes it sublime.
‘Black bananas’ are a recurring motif that came first as a lyric, after finding a bag of wholly intact black bananas on the riverbed during community service, then as her group’s name. Nothing to do with smoking the skin. A cannon in the pantheon of rock legends, aside from music, Herrema dabbles with style – she’s got enough for everyone – through a wildly successful collaboration with Volcom, Feathered Fish (sporadic editions of mega, artisanal objects with jewellery designer Pamela Love and Drag City’s Dan Koretzky) and art; painting, making blankets and more, exhibited in New York and Copenhagen most recently.
Herrema doesn’t have a manager because she can speak for herself. When Royal Trux signed to Virgin, she got a lawyer to make sure the label followed through. After the shit-and-blood filled toilet on the sleeve of 1997’s Sweet Sixteen got herself and Neil Hagerty dropped, they had a pretty sweet deal – a recording studio, a healthy pay-off and no compromise. Total TCB. Then they released Accelerator, a belter of a record on Drag City. Right now, going into 2015, she’s as awesome as ever.
Dean Mayo Davies: Hey Jennifer, what are you up to? Are you in Los Angeles?
Jennifer Herrema: I actually live 35 miles south of Hollywood, like at the beach. Kind of in the middle of nowhere, a little town actually.
DMD: Oh, cool.
JH: I was just watching a story online about this Japanese denim [Zoo Denim]. They’ve been taking denim and wrapping it around all the tyres and toys that the tigers and lions play with at the zoo. And when the tigers and lions play with their toys they totally tear it up. Then they go in and get the denim and make these $1,500 jeans which are all torn up and like salivated and everything. I was like, it’s pretty fucking awesome.
DMD: That’s strong. Are you getting ready to play shows?
JH: We don’t have like a proper tour until November, UK and Europe, which is like a long tour. We’re playing some one-off shows, like festivals, we’re playing a big show in LA in October. The tour is actually a lengthy tour, starting in Europe and then we’re going to do a full one in Spring. We’re working on how we’re gonna do it live and shit.
DMD: You’re doing the 100 Club in London.
JH: Yeah, I haven’t been there in a million years, I was there like… Royal Trux played there in like ’95.
DMD: You’ve always been in bands who really thrive on gigging, not just when there’s a record out.
JH: I mean, we don’t go on any real schedule. It’s not put a record out, do a proper tour, then go in and record more… Nothing is done in any real strategic manner. It’s sort of just when stuff comes that we’re interested in, we kind of go for it.
DMD: Any favourite places?
JH: I really like Australia. We’ve played Sydney and Melbourne but we haven’t really toured the whole country. I’d like to go back there. And as far as in the US, I really like the South East and the West Coast. Those are kind of like my favourite areas, the middle of the country is really hit or miss. We were just in Finland for the first time like eight months ago, that was the first time I’d been there and that was really interesting – I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourite places but it was really intense, we were there for like six days so it wasn’t just pop in and pop out. I was kind of choked out by the fact it never got dark. It just was kind of weird.
As far as tour stories go, it’s just crazy shit all the time. Stone’s Throw had this big party and we ran into DāM-FunK and we were talking with him… Last time we tried to play Canada it was so fucked up. We were trying to get in and DāM-FunK and his band were actually going over the border to Vancouver to come see us play. They were all cruisin’ through and we got stopped – they threw me out! We’ve been getting offers from Canada, but until something gets straightened out… because I’ve had arrests in the United States, but not for… my last arrest was like nine years ago… it’s not a big fucking deal. I’ve been to Canada a million times, I don’t know who the fuck they think they are [laughs]! But anyway, there’s so many Canadians in America, it’s insane.
We were on tour with Primal Scream in some town, I think it was Bristol. And we were at some electronic store, just looking at shit. We were only gone for like ten minutes, when we got back all the windows of the rental van had all been smashed in [laughs]. The drums were stolen, I was like, “What the fuck, they took the drums and left the guitars? They’re cruising down the street with drums?!” That whole day was just insane. We got totally faded, Mani was DJing after the show and we were in the hotel and I was like talking to the hotel guy about the drums being stolen and what to do… We were all hanging out in the hotel room and I don’t know what I was doing but I ended up in the hallway, locked out of the room, just in my underwear, no bra, totally topless, just hanging out. I was like banging on the door, the music was really loud. And I was there forever. Finally I walked down to the front desk topless and was like “Can you let me in?” That was a UK tour story.
DMD: Electric Brick Wall has been universally praised, have you felt the love that’s come off the back of this record?
JH: Yeah, so much. I just got an email this morning that we’re number fifteen on the radio charts. I mean, I always feel really grateful that a lot of people do have my back. Of course, I’ve gotten tons of shit press before. But I feel that there’s always people spreading the love. I feel we’ve kind of crossed into a place where people that had never even heard us before, are really taking to the music, it has nothing to do with the past or anything. It’s just fresh ears and they’re just liking it for what it is. I’m really stoked about that.
DMD: What’s it like when you record, do you tend to shut yourself away from the world?
JH: Well I kind of like to just shut myself away from the world in general, that’s why I picked this place to buy my house. It’s not far from the city, it’s like 45 minutes to get into LA. But other than that, I’m kind of in the middle of nowhere. I like it like that. When we do tour or do work with other people, that’s kind of like when I’m social. My studio is down here too. I’ve got TV on demand and been watching all these old reruns – Martin, the Martin Lawrence show, I’ve been watching them all. I’m like not even really watching, just like cruising around the house, episode after episode. Yesterday I watched like, the best episode, Biggie Smalls was the star of it. It made me really sad though, I was just looking at him and he’s so cute and his voice, and I was like damn, I wish he wasn’t dead.
We definitely record in spurts. We’ve had this studio for ten years and record and produce everything ourselves. I go over the studio at least five days a week and just hang out, seeing if something happens. Sometimes play video games, sometimes just fuck around with [guitarist] Brian [McKinley]. Either stuff happens or it doesn’t. It’s pretty much just an ongoing thing, always working on something.
DMD: There’s a lot of people playing music, as opposed to rock stars who are grand and magnificent in the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, like yourself, at the moment. How do you see the state of music?
JH: I feel like maybe people are playing and writing towards some kind of endgame or goal, where they are trying to get somewhere. And I don’t really understand that. That it’s more of a professional thing, a way of making money. We have TV commercials over here where we have normal people, like a commercial for life insurance or something… and these random people are starting a band and making a living now. They’ve sold a song to a TV show for like $10,000 but they’ve never sold a show, never made an album. It’s just work, there’s a lot of this going on in music. I don’t feel that there are a lot of grand visions, I don’t feel that there are a lot of bands that are operating within a big picture, I feel that it’s always geared toward some kind of endgame, and making money. I think that’s the one thing I’ve noticed a lot. And whatever, it’s just different from me. Not that I’m like, ‘This is despicable,’ but at the same time, it’s just very different from what I do.
DMD: Yeah, absolutely.
JH: It just is what it is. It’s just not my thing. Of course, making money is all fine, but that’s never the endgame for me, obviously. If it was, things would be done in a very different way. Anyway, I don’t know, I think there’s just a lot more out there, more than there ever was. There’s so much music out there.
DMD: Everything is on a level platform because of online. That must make things difficult for young bands, as much as it’s made things good in some ways, a bigger stage even if there’s more people clamouring to be heard.
JH: I think the knowledge about music and music history is just so superficial because it’s all Google, Google this and Google that. So much of the information is completely bullshit, just historically incorrect. When you Google shit you see the craziest shit, like, ‘OMG, what the fuck?’ And that’s how people do things now. There’s no depth to the knowledge, there’s no sense of how things came into being, and why what you just Googled actually exists. The whole big picture is just lost, once again it’s just about the endgame. Let me just get that piece of information… It’s interesting, it makes for an interesting reality I would think for some people.
DMD: Back to destroyed denim – you’re known for your incredible style and have always had a taste for the good stuff; snakeskin boots, mega furs and fucked-up jeans…
JH: I was just always, as a little kid I was very obsessed with clothes, I would get really stuck on something. I remember when I was like three I wore these patent leather Mary Janes and I had these little hot pink corduroys – and that was all I would wear. By the time I was four and five I’d totally outgrown them but I would just keep putting them on and my mom was totally beside herself, I was obsessed with the colour pink and she couldn’t get me out of those pants. She had to start dying my cereal milk pink so I would eat it. That was early on. In the seventh grade I was on the soccer team, I’d play basketball, I was such a tomboy. I would wear football jerseys, soccer jerseys, jeans and hi-tops. It kind of started there. As I grew up I kind of stuck to what was comfortable but added on things and started collecting, obsessing. Collecting furs, collecting snakeskin boots, collecting denim, collecting jerseys. I still have that, it’s a little OCD. It’s kind of ridiculous how many things I have. My whole garage is filled and my husband’s just like “What the fuck, you’re not going to wear any of these in California.” But it’s my collection, I don’t care.
DMD: What about when you hit the the road? Does it all go in a bin liner or a Louis Vuitton?
JH: I have my Louis Vuitton carryall, it just depends how long the tour is. If I’m on tour for like three or four weeks, then I’m going to take a bunch of stuff with me. But if I’m going for a couple of weeks and I know what the weather is going to be like, I try to keep it minimal, because it just makes it easier to not think. Whatever. It’s a little of both, I’ve got very expensive tastes, but I’m not like really uptight about my nice stuff. I’ll take expensive stuff on tour and it’ll get destroyed but that’s what it’s there for.
DMD: Some people see destroyed as ruined, they don’t realise destroyed means ‘yours’. You’ve got to wear the battlescars with pride.
JH: Yeah, people are now making stuff already pre-fucked up, like the denim we were talking about. That’s OK for fashion, that’s OK. But I prefer to get the nice shit and then it gets fucked up by itself.
DMD: What else are you collecting apart from clothes?
JH: I collect quilts, old quilts. I used to collect a lot of vinyl and books, and my husband buys vinyl all the time. But I try and keep buying books down because any imagery I might want to see or reference I can find online now of course. But as far as art, I have a lot of friends who are great artists, some really well known, some not. I collect all my friends’ art, I have pieces from almost every artist I know. Last year a friend gave me a Richard Prince and I was stoked. Yeah, crazy quilts are huge, I collect Native American Indian jewellery for the past sixteen years or so. I don’t invest in it as much anymore because now I feel like I have such a rad collection, nothing has really caught my eye which I don’t already have covered. And hats, I also collect hats. Crazy, ridiculous hat collection.
DMD: Native American culture is something which runs through a lot of your visuals, like the My House video from the last record, one of my favourite videos ever.
JH: Yeah, I’m going to Arizona tomorrow to do a new video [Creeping the Line] with the same director [Jess Holzworth]. She’s one of my best friends and she lives in Tucson. You know those dogs, Afghans?
JH: The really tall ones with long hair. She’s got it lined up for me to have three of them. She’s got a lot of shit lined up, and I came up with a few ideas. I can’t wait to see what she has planned.
DMD: What do you think your spirit animal is?
JH: I’ve always felt some kind of feline, maybe a tiger. I feel like I’m unobtrusive, I keep to myself, but then sometimes I can come out just totally aggro, raging. Then I slink back into cat world.
DMD: Do you remember picking up your first instrument?
JH: The first instrument was the piano, I started playing the piano when I was five. I was really into it, it seemed so adult. You know, when you’re little and there’s this big piano, I was like ‘OMG, im so adult,’ I was reading music and I was super into it. But then I had to do recitals in front of people. It’s pretty ironic that I’m a performer at all. I liked music but didn’t want to be in front of people on stage. Now here I am. Sometimes I just wish that I was kind of invisible, the tension gets placed on me. When we play live I just kind of want to disappear, listen and be part of it, as opposed to be projecting. It’s a weird thing, because I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve had different feelings for it over the years. At times I’d want to just put a big hat on, a mask. But that’s not the way it always is. It’s about finding a way to be comfortable on stage, I don’t feel like dance moves, or choreography, or expressing myself the same way to the same song, every night. I can’t do that. Even if it’s great, I’ll fuck it up intentionally because I can’t believe I’m doing it, I just can’t. I don’t want to do the same thing all the time. I’d definitely fuck shit up, but its all subconsciously, I’d just think ‘This shit is too square, I’ve got to fuck it up.’ Our live shows are usually very hit or miss, some people love it, some hate it. It is what it is. We give 100%, you might not get exactly what you’re expecting, but you are getting 100%.
DMD: Love and hate are strong emotions. What you don’t want is for someone to go, ‘That was alright’.
JH: Yeah, totally. There’s no mediocrity here.
DMD: In Royal Trux, you had the toilet sleeve and being paid to walk away from Virgin. Was there ever a point where you thought, ‘Fuck, I don’t know if we’ll come back from this’? If maybe you thought you’d pushed it too far?
JH: You mean for me and music?
JH: Royal Trux never really broke up, I just sort of quit. We were on tour and I just fucking quit, I just went to the hospital, made up this whole story to get put on morphine and I went nuts. I just quit the whole thing, I needed it to stop. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this tour, I don’t want to do this’. So then it stopped, and I wasn’t thinking about music, but within a year I was writing again and was like [sighs]. Then I met people, moved to the West Coast and it all sort of happened. I feel that I always keep myself open and shit happens. That was not the plan, but that happened.
DMD: How is California for you? Did you always envision moving there?
JH: No, never ever. I always consider myself very East Coast, having lived in New York for years and growing up in South East DC kind of ghetto it was very different, the seasons, the snow, and the cold. I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years during Royal Trux and it was… I hated it. We got a lot of work done there but it was just so… dark. Very dark times for me, I didn’t ever want to live there again. But Southern California has such a different vibe, at least where I’ve chosen to locate. It’s really beautiful and nice and serene and chill. Which is kind of the same vibe I had in the country in Virginia. It’s more about the vibe and what’s surrounding me. I don’t wanna fucking live somewhere really dirty, shitty with drugs everywhere ever again. I did that for so many years, that exists and I lived in it. I knew that I never wanted to live in that environment again.
DMD: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt along the way?
JH: Don’t read your press and don’t take yourself too seriously and make sure you enjoy yourself. If you’re not fucking enjoying yourself then it’s like, ‘Why?’ What the fuck?
DMD: How are your fans when you bump into them doing normal things, like at a bar or buying groceries?
JH: There’s just so many different types of people this far that are into our music. I’ve been told the demographic is young – they’ve got the statistics through apps and all that. But I actually went to the pharmacy the other day to pick up all my antidepressants and shit and the kid that was serving me was just staring at me and he was like ‘I’m a huge fan of yours,’ and meanwhile he’s standing there with all this antipsychotic medicine and I’m just like ‘Ahhhh great! Can I get my medication?’ I went to the place that fixes iPhones, a repair place and this kid working there was like, ‘Fucking hell!’ I get embarrassed, you know? I don’t know what to do. It’s definitely cool, but it’s embarrassing – especially when the dude had all my crazy-head meds.
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PHOTOGRAPHY MICHAEL AVEDON
HERO 12, WINTER/SPRING 2014/15