Jennifer Herrema stumbles up a laurel canyon side road wearing a poncho and stacks, her RTX bandmate Kurt Midness (bass) strolls behind her carrying a sixer. Herrema’s husky, long-time Californian drawl bleats out, “Perfect timing!” She grins. It’s an hour after we were supposed to meet up, but both of us have arrived at the same time: Laurel Canyon Standard Time. Up in artists Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman’s abode, we sit down for a roundtable discussion.
I call her the last American rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman. “Frontperson,” she says, her eyes locked onto mine, or so I think they are. She’s got shades on perpetually. She pops open some “7-11 wine” and settles in. “I would hope that’s not the case,” she says about being the last of anything. “I expect there to be a lot more to come. I don’t know what is going on. Guns N’ Roses defined an era of commercial, big Sunset Strip rock ‘n’ roll. It was when that shit was so mainstream and acceptable and par for the course. It was a time and a place. It so doesn’t exist now. Listen to Axl Rose now, Slash’s Snakepit, it’s trash. It doesn’t feel genuine in any way. It’s all just strained muscle memory—they’re just parroting themselves.”
As Herrema and her band of merrymakers (that’s guitarist Brian McKinley relaxing in the photograph accompanying this story) prepare Rad Times 4, RTX’s latest foray into heavy licks and howls from the soul, what does the last real frontperson think rock ‘n’ roll is? “If there’s a guitar in there, it’s rock ‘n’ roll,” she says matter-of-factly. Justin Lowe wants to know if there’s something about a community spirit. Kurt Midness, a cigarette dangling from his lips, agrees that it is. Herrema insists it’s more personal—a band just has to get it. “And if the content’s great, more power to them. I go to bands and they play their fucking sets, like it’s ‘Night at the Roxy,’ or there’s A&R guys there. It’s almost better if I never see the opening band [at our shows], because I always end up acting out against them.”
To coax Herrema away from the negative space of the sad state of music, I ask her how she does it. If I’m venturing to suggest she’s rock’s last frontperson, then we need to know her on-stage psyche. “When I’m in the moment of it, I like to be impulsive and raw,” she says. I imagine her growling, screaming, writhing on the stage. “I’m allowed to do that. I let myself go. People will say it’s selfish, because it’s a self-centered act. It comes out differently every time. If I’m not enjoying myself, and I’m not letting myself go, then I’m just one of them.” Herrema waves off an imaginary group of soulless “rock ‘n’ roll” douchebags. “When you’re on tour, there’s no way to become that thing again on cue every night,” she explains. “I get zen about it. I have to start out in yoga position on the floor, or I just drink a fuckload. There were years I performed when I didn’t drink at all. You take one thing out of the equation and the other thing takes over.”
She raises the question of the age-old relationship between rock-making and drug-taking. “When I was a little kid,” Herrema recalls, “listening to my dad’s records—The Stones, Lovin’ Spoonful, Cher, whatever, I wasn’t getting high, and it was whatever. But it wasn’t ‘til I started getting stoned a couple times a week, that was when I decided I wanted to be older—and I was taller, so I got to hang out with older kids. I got to suck in the experience of super loud music. But, sometimes the external substance is the thing that could quell and placate the peaks. Naturally going to another place without external substances is way more rewarding, when you’ve gone through it from start to finish. We never play more than 35 minutes and I get into a headspace.”
Kurt Midness lights another cigarette and the attention turns to him: “I get drunk. It adds to the communal vibe. If everyone’s drunk and you’re drunk, it’s like ‘Let’s go through this together.’”
So, does all this mean rock is dead or maybe it’s on life support? “In order to continue to think of it as alive and well,” says Herrema, “if there’s anything fresh, quickly name it rock ‘n’ roll. Therefore, you ensure rock ‘n’ roll is never dead. See, rock ‘n’ roll is more of a philosophy of letting loose and doing what you want. They called Elvis rock ‘n’ roll, but he was fucking tame compared to Little Richard, but that was rock ‘n’ roll, because it was breaking all the rules. It seems absurd today to think that that was rock ‘n’ roll, but it seems absurd to think that black people couldn’t ride the bus.”
It’s a very poignant thought, to remember that the world has changed so much, and music has changed so much, too. “The way that people express themselves externally is very cyclical,” says Herrema. “There was ‘70s music, and then there was this whole ‘70s revival—past is prologue. The only thing I ask is that it propels itself forward instead of standing still. There’s an opportunity for people to take it and do something interesting. Rock ‘n’ roll, all it is is raping and pillaging. It’s the bitch’s brew. You wanna be the greatest baseball pitcher in the world? All of your moves are completely dictated. You copy all the wind-ups, and you’re just best at it. That takes a lot of commitment, but it’s just what other people did before you.”
Kurt Midness chimes in: “When people say a sound is their’s, it’s a dumb argument. Oh, I have an e-cord in my song.’ ‘Oh, well I have an e-cord in my song.’”
“That’s my e-cord, and that’s my cowbell too,” says Herrema. She regales us with a tale of the greatest rendition of “Free Bird” of all time, and we echo spirit-drenched laughter up Laurel Canyon with the rock ‘n’ roll gods bellowing along from the clouds.