You don’t expect Neil Michael Hagerty to want to talk about discipline ... but he does.
Since the late 1980s, the bands Hagerty has been in have pretty much epitomized Dionysian abandon, from the noise-infected, strung out, Stones-y blues glories of Pussy Galore, to the even druggier psychotropic excesses of Royal Trux to the splendid decadence of his current project, Howling Hex.
Still, you don’t make five albums in two years without a certain amount of work ethic, and when you cut through the haze, Hagerty is all about getting things done. Here’s a guy who practices every day with a metronome, who pulled together a tour with an almost completely new band and new material in a month and who recorded XI, the Howling Hex’s latest album (out now on Drag City) in three days.
In fact, Hagerty sounds more like a mid-level manager than a rock ‘n’ roll rebel when he describes recording XI. “We started out basically knowing what we were going to do and then I just had to make sure that it got done,” he said. “It was just working with various people, making sure they finished their parts. You know, it’s hard to describe it someone who hasn’t really made a record before. You get in there and if you’re ... especially the older you get, it’s like going to rock camp, you know. It can be a curse that way. It’s work trying to make sure that everyone stays on track.”
Yet paradoxically, this discipline appears to free Hagerty to take chances others might not. The skill and speed that he hones in practice session feeds the free-form improvisations on guitar and bass that make his albums instantly recognizable. The focus on hard work and rehearsal allow him to rotate people in and out of Howling Hex, without changing its core sound. And because he’s able to get the best out of people, on stage and in recording sessions, he’s able to let them be who they are, incorporating multiple styles and ideas into the music.
“I envision Howling Hex like a radio station in the 1940s,” he explained. “We’re just broadcasting out into the hinterlands, not really knowing who’s listening. We have these 15 minute shows, each being sponsored by ... instead of a product, it would be sponsored by someone trying to say something or reach someone.”
Hagerty has been playing music nearly all his life, starting at age three when he picked up an acoustic guitar his mother had stuck in a corner. Almost immediately, he began writing songs and playing them for his parents ... his earliest run-in with critics. “They hated them,” he recalled. “They were completely mean about it. They said I just plagiarized other people ... and I was like six years old, you know?”
Later, Hagerty said, he realized that nearly everyone copies other people’s songs at first. But still, it’s interesting to speculate that his very unusual guitar and songwriting style, which sounds like nothing else, might stem from this early criticism. “I would have to sit down and write and then I’d say, ‘Nooo, I’ve heard that before.’ You know, using indefinite articles, that’s out…” he said.
An army kid, Hagerty moved around a lot, spending his childhood in antiseptic enclaves of California, Colorado, Virginia, and Connecticut. He connected with the blues, a thread that runs through all of his music, almost by accident, through the movie Sounder.
“Lightning Hopkins and Taj Mahal were in that movie,” he recalled. “They’re actual characters in the movie. They go visit them or something, and they sing sort of like a Southern hymn.” His parents bought the soundtrack, and Hagerty was hooked. “So it was just by chance. There was no cultural influence at all. Even the music that I’d heard on the radio that was blues-based ... it never dawned on me, that that’s what it was. I didn’t even understand where the music came from.”
Hagerty began playing in bands early on, but didn’t really find a groove until the mid-1980s when he started knocking out untutored blues-rock with Jon Spencer, Julia Cafritz, and ex-Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert in Pussy Galore. The band became a love-them-or-hate-them cult favorite, rampaging through a raft of distorted, trash-rock albums before disbanding in 1990. From there, Hagerty went on to Royal Trux with Jennifer Herrema, his most commercially and critically successful project to date. Early recordings were rough and sloppy, showing the marks of both principles’ heroin addiction. Yet the two pulled themselves together and, by the mid-1990s, were making revelatory, if still loose and unstructured rock ‘n’ roll. They even got a shot at the majors. The band’s mid-1990s Thank You was released by Virgin and produced by Neil Young mainstay David Briggs and, for the first time, Hagerty said, he was making enough money to impress his father.
Yet the band’s demise in 2000 left Hagerty burned out and aimless. “The Royal Trux thing ... was just big enough to be smothering and not big enough to lead to anything,” he commented. “After it broke up, the only thing I could think of was, ‘I’ve got to get out of this racket.’ And then sort of rebuild it.”
The Howling Hex is cast
Hagerty recorded a couple of solo albums in the early ‘00s, work that he now says should rightly be included in the Howling Hex continuum. The first release to use the name, however, was Neil Michael Hagerty and the Howling Hex, out in 2003, followed by two more in 2005 (All Night Fox and You Can’t Beat Tommorow), and two again in 2006 (1-2-3 and Nightclub Version of the Eternal). (This year, so far, there’s only one record, the ecletic and fairly fantastic XI.)
The idea behind the new project was loosely defined collaboration, with members coming and going and no sound defining the band. “In my other bands, there was always a strong ... I don’t know what you’d say, like a front,” said Hagerty. “You could do a lot of different stuff, but it all kind of resolved back to the image, whatever it was. With this one, I wanted it to be more open-ended.”
Part of that involved allowing other musicians to help define the band’s music. Hagerty explained that as he’s gotten older, he’s found himself more able to cede partial control. “You know, at the very, very, very end point, I can completely kill something,” he said. “But I used to try to push my own narrow ideas, when I was in my 20s, and I started to ask, ‘Why am I not thinking any broader than this?’ Now that I’m older, I can. I don’t have to force it. Instead of wanting to go back and be in the 20s, god, it feels pretty good to be able to sort of, like, let the stuff pass through.”
The new album, for instance, credits every member of the band with writing at least one song, their distinctive styles and strengths making XI an extremely varied listening experience. Hagerty explained that he had worked with some of the band members before, but found others by advertising in alternative weeklies. For instance, Phil Jenks, a college professor and poet whose “Let Friday Decide” spoken-word piece bisects the CD, submitted a demo tape. He had performed as a poet and always wanted to try life as a touring musician.
The band wrote and practiced new material for about a week, then headed out onto the road to perform them. “Basically, our live set was all new. We played four songs from the previous record, but everything else in the middle of the set was new,” said Hagerty. “We just wanted to make it obvious to people, you know, that it was a group collaborative effort.”
Hagerty said that the results were often surprising. Audiences latched on to different songs in different venues ... often choosing a new band member’s effort over Hagerty’s own pieces. “It’s really interesting, because you respond to what the audience is doing and how they respond to you. Sometimes the guy who has only been playing shows for three months becomes the center of attention, suddenly, in this one town, randomly, one place.”
After knocking the songs into shape night after night on the road, recording was surprisingly easy. “We had three days, so we ended up just doing it,” said Hagerty. “The rehearsal element of it was that we’d been playing every night for two weeks.”
Pick a stringed instrument ... any stringed instrument
Hagerty’s distrust of hierarchies extends even to his choice of instrument. Long considered one of rock music’s most innovative guitarists, he has recently switched from baritone guitar to six-string bass ... though admittedly, he plays it like a guitar, even pounding out the occasional power chord. “It’s interesting, just performing like the full power chord ... like you would do on the guitar,” he said. “It’s like the land of the giant guitar ... just trying to get my hands around it, the veins were really popping out.”
Hagerty who also plays violin and cello said he felt he could play any stringed instrument. Moving from guitar to baritone to bass guitar was like playing the different parts in an orchestra, he said, getting different tones and sounds from each.
Whatever Hagerty is playing at the moment, you can tell he’s serious about his instrument. When the conversation drifts somehow to Van Halen, he lets it slip that he practices his guitar with a metronome every day, trying to get and retain what he calls “metal speed”. “I have to be, at all times, at the level where I could play metal. That’s my mental condition,” he said. “I need to be able to go at any time and be able to play super fast.”
Producing for Callahan
That surprising—and unconventional—discipline spills over into every aspect of Hagerty’s musical endeavor, from writing to touring to recording and producing. It was one of the reasons songwriter Bill Callahan picked Hagerty when he was looking for a producer for Woke on a Whaleheart. Callahan had been a fan since Hagerty’s Pussy Galore days, searching out the cuts credited to Royal Trux on the preceding band’s albums. The two became friends during a Royal Trux/Smog tour in 1992, and today, Callahan calls Hagerty “one of the few working musicians I admire”.
Asking Hagerty to produce, Callahan said, “had been something in the back of my mind for several years. I was just waiting for the right time, for what I thought was the right batch of songs.” He added, “He’s a complex feller. I knew that he was fast, from working with him on the Tramps, Traitors record. [Note: a 2001 ‘Drag City Supersession’ that featured Callahan, Hagerty, Edith Frost, Jim O’Rourke and others.] I wanted someone fast who kept things moving.”
One of the reasons Hagerty could work so quickly, Callahan explained, was that he had done so much preparatory work on the songs. “That was what I wanted—someone to do a lot of work on the arrangements of my songs before the recording, because I had done a lot of work on the writing of the unaccompanied songs,” he said.
Hagerty said that he viewed producing as a fairly simple undertaking, “At least with Drag City, it’s really just a job. You want to get it all done and do it right. Instead of that sort of now ... in the really big business, it’s more like a vibe thing. The dude for this year ... the person that all hits have to go through.” He added, “I like more of a Chet Atkins type arrangement, where you take somebody, and they know what they do and how they write and what kind of people listen to their music ... and yet at the same time, they want to continue growing. And you help them do that.”
With the Callahan disc out in stores, Hagerty has moved on to remixing some songs for Bonnie Prince Billy, and he is in the midst of preparing for an album release show on September 22 at Hemlock in San Francisco. And, then, who knows, maybe some more shows? “The only thing is that I want to try to tour more every year than the year before,” said Hagerty.
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