When I first met Void MagazineArts & Music Columnist Daniel A. Brown, he was Folio Weekly Arts and Entertainment Editor Daniel A. Brown. It was November 2014 and I was the new, quite-green Editor of that particular alternative newsweekly. I remember we talked music. It come up that he had played in a few bands, one of them was called Royal Trux–I’d heard the name, but was unfamiliar with the band’s music. We talked about Kim Gordon’s very good autobiography Girl In A Band–he had just finished it; I was roughly halfway through.
Sometime thereafter I dove back into the Sonic Youth bassist/vocalist’s book and came to a section where Gordon waxes poetic about one of her favorite bands: a noisy, art rock outfit led by Neil Hagerty (Pussy Galore) and Jennifer Herrema, a famously enigmatic and volatile couple. The band was called Royal Trux.
Brown–as I later learned–joined Trux just after the band had signed a major label deal with Virgin Records. With Brown on bass, they subsequently recorded perhaps their most sonically mainstream record, Thank You, an album that remains a favorite among such modern Indie darlings as Kurt Vile. According to rock lore, the band–which these days has become synonymous with artistic integrity–followed that up with perhaps its most unlistenable record, replete with a purposely repellent cover. The cheekily titled Sweet Sixteen, all but ended their major label partnership.
The story of that band–much of it available online–is only a small piece of Brown’s musical life. Before he was of legal smoking age, the Jax Beach native had already recorded several noisy projects. At 19, he looked up Jeff Evans of Memphis-based garage-blues band The Gibson Bros and rang him up. He joined Evans new band, 68 Comeback, soon after.
Flash forward roughly 30 years and Brown, having shifted his focus from playing music to writing about it, was on the other side of a similar exchange when musicians James Toth (Wooden Wand) and Nick Mitchell-Maiato–both big Trux fans–asked him to join a new project called One Eleven Heavy.
In September, One Eleven Heavy is set to release its second studio album of cosmic Americana, Desire Path (Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records) and will tour the Northeast and Midwest.
As the tangents of our weekly phone conversations–Vedanta, Buddhism, psychedelia, the occult, David Foster Wallace, etc.–would make for an unreadable interview, Brown and I decided to discuss his new band, new album, new label, and (of course) some of that old sh** via email.
You joined this band One Eleven Heavy something like a year and a half ago and quickly recorded an album, which dropped in September of 2018. How’d you get connected with this group of musicians?
Years ago, UK guitarist-vocalist Nick Mitchell-Maiato sent me a FB friend request. By way of his excellent Golden Lab Records imprint, Nick released a limited-edition, swanky 3LP set of live NYC performances of the Neil Hagerty solo bands and I was featured on quite a bit of the performances. Nick made sure I got a copy and over the years we became Facebook buds. He and James Toth were fans of the Trux; including the stuff I played on, and wanted to start a band. I was surely flattered by the invite, since I had walked away from the whole indie music world nearly 15 years ago. I guess I was the next to join said band.
James and Nick were fans of Royal Trux but you all share a love for (gasp) The Grateful Dead, too, right? How was One Eleven Heavy pitched to you?
I don’t know if there was really a pitch per se, but everyone in this band definitely kind of grew up with mutual influences and the Dead are certainly one of those. I think their ultimate pitch was: let’s see what happens and if it doesn’t gel, so be it. You know, Black Flag were huge Deadheads; totally true. I think along with things like chocolate mint, a love of horses or yodeling, and skydiving, there’s not much “in between” with the Dead. People seem to “get on the bus” or they don’t. I got on that bus in 1985, when I was 13, and have kept my seat. Years ago, I gave up trying to defend the Dead from closed-minded indie-and-punk rock people. My love of the Dead is definitely not a “guilty pleasure”; that term is so American, Plymouth Brethren, and parochial. There is only pleasure. All Deadheads seem to have a favorite era: mine is 1968-1969; the Fillmore/ballroom-psychedelia era when they were unraveling the cosmos onstage and playing before a melting audience.
I want to ask briefly (maybe) about Royal Trux. They (Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty) recently put out a new album. And diggers, as well as the Pitchfork crowd, seem to have a renewed interest in the band. You, personally, were interviewed for a kind of retrospective piece in Mojo Magazine.What’s the legacy of that band in your mind?
Yeah, I was asked to chime in for a kind of overview in Mojo that was published earlier in the year. I think the Trux have a multi-tiered legacy. Neil had once noted that, unlike most bands, Trux did their “experimental” albums first and became increasingly direct; that’s pretty unique for rock bands. I think there are very few other bands that can draw from influences as divergent as the Faces and Albert Ayler and make it work. I think that’s an undeniable legacy. Royal Trux ultimately is Neil and Jennifer but I also think they were savvy in hiring specific players for specific projects. I think their sensibility permeated rock music.
Do you have a favorite moment in the Royal Trux pantheon; one that makes you most proud of that band at that particular time?
Just getting in the band was a huge moment in my life. I was a massive fan of Pussy Galore, the NYC band that Neil played lead guitar in. Royal Trux’s debut album was released in 1988, when I was 16, and I ordered the LP from Pier Platters in Hoboken, New Jersey. That record remains one of my favorite NYC Lower Eastside albums. It’s a very pure collection of songs and approach. I joined the band in early 1994, right after Neil and Jennifer had signed with Virgin Records. We all lived together in this house in rural Virginia and practiced and jammed constantly. So the whole energy was in the tradition of The Band or some 1970 German acid-rock band. The resulting album, Thank You, was produced by David Briggs, who had produced all of the crucial Neil Young and Crazy Horse sessions, along with Spirit’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I was 22 and a massive fan of Young, Spirit, and Briggs; and he really championed the Trux. So recording and then touring in support of that record was pretty rewarding and intense. Even the band knew that the Virgin Records “experience” was an ephemeral thing; we were MTV’s nightmare. In the early ‘90s, if you didn’t sell a million records, major labels dropped you. After two Virgin releases, guess who didn’t sell a million albums? But it was all pretty amazing.
One last somewhat-related Trux-related question, I swear: There was a time when you were one of three Jacksonville musicians in that band. Can you talk about how that came to pass?
It can all be sourced back to my old friend Mike Kaiser. In 1989, Mike, Robbie Armstrong, and myself had a garage-only psychedelic-noise band. We recorded hours and hours of music on a four-track recorder. Mike joined Royal Trux in 1992 and played on the following year’s Cats and Dogs, and also toured with the band; including playing at Lollapalooza. Mike got Robbie Armstrong and Chris Pyle in the band and then Mike was out. The latter two got me in the band; then Robbie and Chris split. In 1996, I got Kenny Nasta in the band and then I was out. Kenny then pulled Timothy McClain into the band. Eventually I was kicked back in and played with the rhythm section of Chris and Kenny. Got that? So all of the above were Jacksonville musicians. So minus a brief reprieve, from 1992-2000 Royal Trux usually featured someone from Jacksonville in the line-up. I think it’s somehow tied into Duane Allman leaving some spiritual blessing here before he headed up to Macon.
How did growing up in this town influence your musical tastes? Who were people, when you started playing music locally, that you looked up to, or were at least inspired by?
I’m a product of Jacksonville Beach, and when I was 13 I started playing out in local bars like Pier 7 in a band of dudes mostly in their mid-twenties. My parents were really encouraging of my playing music and I never called them from jail, so I honored their trust and support. The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Riverside-born Allman Brothers Band had a huge impact on me, especially Duane Allman. I lived one mile from Einstein A Go-Go,and eventually worked there. I’d been a metal child, then a total hippie, and then finally surrendered to what was then “underground” or “college” rock. I’d seen bands like Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne at the old arena and it was always this kind of untouchable spectacle. At Einstein’s, one of the dudes from the Meat Puppets would just walk right by you and step onstage. That was a total paradigm shift, since it made being a touring musician feasible. You could actually talk to the bands and they’d tell you how they toured. What a revelation. When I was working there in 1989, hours before the club was open and after his soundcheck, Mike Watt gave me his entire bass guitar-and-amp history. That was pretty intense. In the mid-to-late ‘80s, the bands I thought were “definitive” were Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades, Beggar Weeds, and The Creeps for sure. Rein Sanction were on fire; they were just teenagers at the time. They’d open for touring bands at Einstein’s and just annihilate. I can remember them opening for the Flaming Lips in 1986 and after they played, Wayne Coyne walked onstage and said, “That first band was f***ing incredible. Damn, Jacksonville!”
What’s different about One Eleven Heavy’s second album Desire Path?
Well, the absence of drummer Ryan Jewell definitely changed the dynamic. He’s a truly in-demand player and rightfully so and couldn’t turn down myriad offers. So Hans Chew did triple duty: drums, keyboards, and vocals. He also wrote two stellar songs for this one. Hans is a beast. We recorded the rhythm tracks to two-inch tape so that added some nice thickness to the mix. When we recorded Everything’s Better, that five-piece lineup had never even played together. This time around, the songwriters of the band emailed demos, so we had a better sense of what we might play. We’ve all done this for years, usually with modest recording budgets, so we work quickly.
You all toured the first release, Everything’s Better last year. You’re headed out on tour soon. How has it been for you to be out on the road again playing clubs and record stores and such, sleeping on floors, etc.?
Well, now it’s usually a nicer and clean floor. We are all in our forties and our peers and rock friends are generally the same age; now it’s more about not waking up their kids rather than sneaking past the landlord. I started touring 26 years ago so it involved booking the tour yourself and having plenty of quarters so you could finda payphone and call the promoters. In the early ‘90s, the main format was 7-inch singles. Now you have digital files. Everywhere you go the food and coffee choices are ridiculously better. All that being said, the energy of the underground music community feels the same. But most crucially for me, I finally got clean and in recovery so just being coherent and present is a gift. That’s a total God shot.
Desire Path is available via Beyond Beyond is the Beyond Records this fall. Learn more about One Eleven Heavy here.
Go a little deeper into Brown’s musical roots with this playlist of Euro Psych/Prog/and art rock from the mid-60s and 70s.
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine, Vol. 10, Issue 5.