Neil Michael Hagerty: Always Pushing Boundaries
Neil Michael Hagerty creates songs as a means of communication and uses instruments to do so. Having been in bands for years as a member of Pussy Galore, Royal Trux and The Howling Hex, he’s never played to or for the idea of recognition or idolatry. He’s mainly played to convey ideas, but he isn’t concerned with being the reference point of your childhood, a signpost of a time or sound, an extension of an idea about — the purpose is communicating through the song. The rest is incidental, but not necessary.
“I dislike music; I have contempt for it for the reasons you alluded to above and many others, but I love music more than life, or you might say music is what feeling alive is to me,” Hagerty notes via email. “So, I need to keep myself viable enough to be able to continue playing music and at the same time I want to discard everything false about it. Actually, I want to subvert it because I need to do certain things and I need to take advantage of what I can to keep playing, but I must do it in a way that undermines the destructive effects of everything involved with music except music. The one good thing about this problem is that I don’t have to keep my self-identity intact in order to brand it and push it.”
Released April 15 on Drag City, Neil Michael Hagerty & The Howling Hex’s latest album, Denver, is a return to a form in some ways. The album is arguably one of the most accessible pieces he’s done in terms of its immediacy and form, it fits tightly inside or under an hour, and the songs could appeal to the novice, but even that is opinion. Without presuming intention — in the subjective sense — this album is fucking boss and I believe most would agree. Out of the gate, “City Song” establishes a great premise, “Canyon” is pure gold, “Guided Missiles” is soul and heartbreak. Over the last few years, Hagerty has introduced and established the ‘New Border’ sound, perhaps beginning with the album Earth Junk and progressing throughout albums until his most previous work. The ‘New Border’ sound owes a lot to the Norteno music of Spanish origin and it’s mainly a song form that, like Norteno, has allowed Hagerty to craft narratives and stories of various characters and ideas, all while still playing and experimenting within a form, much like Royal Trux did with the rock n’ roll form.
“It’s an all-encompassing world now, Conjunto Norteno music, with roots in the State of Chihuahua specifically,” says Hagerty. “It really satisfies all my curiosity about cultural theft, globalism, the U.S.’s foundation of white supremacy and I feel at least empty about those things. I think I’ve always written songs around those things, but by focusing on the border music it gives the music a palette that supports the concept correctly. Living in New Mexico for a decade really opened me up to doing things in a better way and I feel like I learned the true functionality of this music, the history of it in the U.S. and its purposes in terms of communication and spiritual continuity. I got to a point where I was ready to go back up north and pick whatever strands of my earlier work and take this music with me and share it because the story of it is about survival and work, which is something the people I would play for could benefit from.”
This album also has Hagerty playing with a set band, which is something that he hasn’t done for several albums. There’s a continuity in sound, as there has been with all of his albums, but more of a Otis Redding/Booker T. and the M.G.’s thing. Hagerty usually gets an idea and plays it through, but as lineups and musicianship changes, so does the adjustment of sound and theory in presentation. It’s great in the sense of an era — like rotating jazz lineups — with each Howling Hex album representing a particular stage, which may possibly continue, but at this moment he seems comfortable with this set of players and Denver’s songs benefit from this comfort.
“I’ve been trying to have a steady band for the last few years; that’s a different approach for me but since I’m living in the city again I have been able to find people who are good with the concept as long as they get regular work playing and recording,” says Hagerty. “In the past, [I was] working with different people every time and the best thing about it was getting people who were amateurs or at least pretty inexperienced and then having to pare down my concept to get it across to them quickly and clearly enough where they could fulfill the demands of the material within the limitations of their abilities. But it was a risky and exhausting process. I just needed to do it because I lived so far away from where I could play I had to get musicians together for each project I did.”
Hagerty has also — surprisingly but thankfully — been playing with original member Jennifer Herrema in sporadic Royal Trux shows, which is something most thought might not happen. Royal Trux will actually be playing Levitation Fest in Austin on Sunday, May 1. Revisitation — in some ways — is a tired trope, but only if seen in a derogatory light. Royal Trux is one of the greatest bands ever (emphasis mine) and neither Hagerty nor Herrema (who also played in the fabulous Black Bananas) have been around hawking Royal Trux bands with new lineups or any of that ‘Greatest Hits’ type shit. They’ve been making relevant, challenging and groundbreaking music since the band’s departure. Still, it is good to see and hear the songs and see the band again in all their glory.
“For the Trux shows, I’ve been using old guitars that I only used with Royal Trux, even switching them out to use the exact guitar I used on the original recordings or for the live shows from each period,” Hagerty says. “That helped, but my main approach was just playing the songs right. I was nervous about how I’d feel doing the songs, but I was pleased to find I’m far enough removed from it now I could just appreciate them. The truth is there’s no real magic to the Trux thing, it is basically just if Jennifer and I are playing together. That was another relief: I didn’t need to get into some state of mind for this. So, what I do now and Trux are really far apart and that was nice to find out.”
Ultimately, music is best when it’s about the work. While much of Hagerty’s work can be pontificated on with complimentary adjectives and claims of superiority, but these are the ideas and judgments of others. Hagerty would rather you put that energy into listening to the music in whatever capacity of appreciation you apply to it. Long ago, I interviewed Hagerty in a rare phone interview and waxed poetic about the greatness of the sound and possible influence of his latest album. When asked about an opinion of critical response or audience appreciation, Hagerty responded, “It really doesn’t matter, because there will be another one.” And that is the thing that is best about his work, that in whatever incarnation, there will be — maybe next year, maybe 5 years later — “another one” and that is what I most come to appreciate: the many forms and versions, the ideas and conceptions. We don’t need new gods or saviors or saints because worship and praise isn’t the reason we love this game, or at least me, anyway. It is the knowledge and assurance that in all of these great moments, in all these great songs, there will undoubtedly be another. Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Hagerty.
Royal Trux will perform at Levitation Fest in Austin on May 1.