Black Bananas’ Jennifer Herrema: A Real-Deal Rock Chick Talks Nostalgia & Millennial Narcissism

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jj1Photo: Sasha Eisenman.
Nothing stops invention, creativity, discovery, and forward progress dead in its tracks quite as swiftly as nostalgia. Which is why most self-respecting artists — and those of us who cover them — have little use for it.

Jennifer Herrema is not only a self-respecting artist, she’s a well-respected one. So, while she’s got plenty of “past” to be proud of, tearing through the '90s with the mercurial Neil Michael Hagerty as the unpredictable, prolific (10 albums in 14 years), raggedly experimental alt-scuzz act Royal Trux, Herrema would rather focus on the here and now. And, that means her current band, Black Bananas. It grew out of RTX, Jennifer’s first post-Trux outfit, which she began in 2004, and which has significantly expanded its sound in the past decade.

Black Bananas are still, first and foremost, a raucous rock band — Herrema could hardly front anything else. With her raspy charisma, mane of hair, and love of leather, denim, and snakeskin boots, she is pretty much the definition of "rock chick." But, on the latest release, Electric Brick Wall, Black Bananas are just as open to funk and even synth-pop sounds, typified in the recent eyebrow-raising single “Physical Emotions,” which has even elicited Daft Punk comparisons. From her California home, the charmingly unfiltered Herrema talked to me about the band’s latest release, millennial narcissists, and a recent rapprochement with her old partner Neil Hagerty.

Jennifer! This is the second album by Black Bananas, but it was essentially the same lineup that previously released three albums as RTX. So, is this the second, or the fifth album as far as you’re concerned?
"Yeah, in a sense it is the fifth record by this band. The only thing that’s different this time is that Jaimo [Welch] is not on this album, and I started the thing with Jaimo."

Why did he decide not to do this record? Or, was it your decision?
"It was just a situation where when we started, Jaimo didn’t know a lot about music. He was young and untainted, with no expectations and that intrigued me. That’s how RTX started, but then we started to grow as a band, and he didn’t really grow with us. I don’t think he really understood the transition. He just kind of faded out, in a way, 'cause we kept moving forward."

And, on this record it seems like the direction you’ve moved in is incorporating dance and funk more than ever — on the song “Give It to Me,” which has this pop thing to it, and especially on the single “Physical Emotions.” When that song came out a lot of people viewed it as a real departure for you.
"When you listen to the whole album, I don’t think it’s a real departure, in any way. I mean, going all the way back to Royal Trux tracks like 'Shockwave Rider,' a song you can dance your ass off to. So, I don’t think it’s a real departure. I mean 'Physical Emotions' as a single, if you don’t hear it in the context of the album, then, yeah, maybe it comes out of left field. But, if you know me, or read any of the interviews I’ve done over all the years, then certainly you’ll know that funk has been a huge influence. But, whatever — as long as people like it, it’s all good."

You’re not one to repeat yourself record to record. With Royal Trux, you guys never did.
"No, we didn’t. And, I mean, especially growing up, and I guess it’s this way now, but what I see in music is that a lot of bands hit a sweet spot where they know they’ve got their audience — then they don’t change. They make new records, but they really stick to the sound that they think defines them. And, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but from the very beginning I’ve never wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to try something new."
jj2Photo: Sasha Eisenman.
Where are you on the whole retro-mania that seems to fuel pop culture and can kind of try to drag you back to the past? I love Neil’s quote about nostalgia, where he talked about how destructive it can be…
"Yeah, yeah: The 'beginning step toward fascism,' he said. I totally agree. But, our publicist was saying the other day that on Facebook the demographic for Black Bananas, it’s like 85% are under the age of 30, and I was like 'Wow, that’s cool. They’ve probably never heard of Royal Trux. And, that’s totally cool.'"

You don’t do Royal Trux songs in your shows, do you?
"Oh no. Hell, no."

So, how did you feel a couple of years ago when Neil performed all of [RT’s druggy, wildly experimental second album] Twin Infinitives in Brooklyn with a group of young musicians?
"Well, the thing is, that honestly was a total shock. Because he had told me, you know, that he was in the mindset that once we broke up, he wanted to erase everything, as though Royal Trux never existed. He refused to acknowledge it. And, we didn’t communicate except for an email once a year about the cats or something. That’s where I thought he was at. And, then all of a sudden that happened like out of the blue, and I was all like 'Wow, what the fuck?' You know, but it was already happening. So, I wrote him, and he immediately wrote back and he was like 'Jennifer, this is what we always talked about.' Because we always used to fantasize about just having like KISS armies, just like having different Royal Truxes, like legions, one on the west coast, one on the east coast, one in the UK, and sending them out to perform our songs. And, that was always a fantasy I had. So, he was like, 'It’s conceptual!' And, I said 'How’s it conceptual if you’re in it?' And, he says, 'I just really wanted to deconstruct that album.' That was his thing, teaching kids how to play it like note for note. I was like 'What the fuck?' — that’s a real undertaking in itself, and that’s a real Neil thing to do. But, I didn’t resist it. I was like 'Yeah dude, do whatever you want.'"

And, then he ended up contributing songs to this Black Bananas album?
"Yeah, the tracks 'Powder 8' and 'Eve’s Child.' After that, we kind of stayed in touch, and I was like, 'What are you working on now?' and he put out there that maybe we could do something together again. It was kind of up and down, like maybe we would play again, maybe not…and then he was like, 'I’ve got a couple songs that you might be interested in.' He sent over these rough recordings, but they were absolutely inspired."

One of my favorite tracks on Electric Brick Wall is “Dope On An Island.” What can you say about it?
"It’s about, I would say…entitlement. More and more, I’ve just met a lot of people that — and I think it’s a part of the Internet, because everybody has social-media pages, they feel like they have actually done work. There’s this entitlement, that they should be famous, or recognized for doing nothing."

It’s true. We certainly live in a time of fame for the sake of fame.
"Yeah, and it’s created this narcissism along with it. And, I’m not mad at anything or bummed out about it, but it’s just a really weird phenomenon. Everyone is so comfortable and confident with their accomplishments. I feel like there’s no humility, there’s no shame."
jj4Photo: Courtesy of Drag City.
I know you know Kim Gordon, and I am curious what you thought of the Nirvana “reunion” earlier this year for the Hall of Fame. I’ve gotta say, when I first heard the guys were gonna play those songs again, I was really skeptical. But, once I saw the way they did it, with these four rad women, I was really impressed.
"I actually wrote Kim when I saw it. And, yeah, I thought it was good. I mean, I think Nirvana is a band that was so important to so many people, it touched so many — it was one of those things that crossed all sorts of genre barriers. Everybody loved it, whether you were a metal head or into pop or whatever. So, no, I didn’t have any distaste in my mouth about that at all, and I thought Kim did a great job."

Are you still working on visual art as well?
"Yeah. I was supposed to have another show in the fall, but I’m gonna be in Europe now, and I’m not sure if I am gonna have everything done by then. But, I’ll have another show sooner than later."

I am sure you hear this a lot, but I have long thought Royal Trux — as loved and respected as you were by a certain group of people — deserve to be known by a larger world. I imagine it’s not the sort of thing you dwell on, or think about much?
"I do hear that, and I recognize the influence and know it’s widespread. But, it is what it is. The stuff still exists, and who knows what types of people will listen to it 20 years from now? I don’t know."

Black Bananas’ Electric Brick Wall is out June 24th.