Straight to Vinyl, Finally: An Interview with Ron House of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
The TJSA vocalist talks about 'Straight to Video,' it's vinyl release (finally), and the feeding frenzy by major labels upon indie bands in the 90s.
You can’t blame arguably Columbus, Ohio’s finest guitar heroes, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments for signing to Onion, a division of Rick Rubin’s American label in 1995. Sure, by the mid-90’s, everybody knew, intellectually at least, that Steve Albini was right. Major labels were only there as cautionary tales to scare young Nirvana-be’s and Green Day-ers. They would grind your indie bones to dust and sell your mohair suit for scrap. Best stay away, major dudes. On the other hand, knowing something intellectually ain’t the same as knowing. And, hell, it worked for Nirvana sort of! And isn’t paying rent some bullshit? So Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, led by alternate universe poet laureate, Ron House, did what they did, and what I’d probably do, and signed. Then they released the much-lauded Bait and Switch. Then they got dropped.
To add insult to injury, TJSA’s next album, Straight To Video, after being denied by a number of the mid level indies, was released (by local label Anyway Records) on the rich man’s 8-track format of compact disc only. The CD product was largely ignored. The band had already released a number of fantastic singles, a beloved album, and House’s previous band, Great Plains, had recorded one of the best meta-commentaries on the music underground, “Letter To a Fanzine,” that dared to ask the eternal (so it seemed at the time) questions of “why do punk rock girls go out with new wave guys” and “isn’t Nick Cave a genius in a sense?” So Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments deserved far better than to be condemned to cut out bin oblivion.
Thank you to the fine people at appropriately named Straight To Video Records (order yours!) for righting this national wrong. On March 24th, almost twenty years later, the label released Straight to Video on vinyl, just in time for the great major label vinyl squeezing of smaller labels. Time is a stupid circle. But we rejoice all the same. Ron House was kind enough to answer (briefly) a few questions about the proper release, his place in the pantheon, and what he’s up to these days.
Noisey: First things first, why now? Is this something you were actively looking for a grace of fickle God thing? Has the existence of the LP only being on CD been a bee in your bonnet? Any expectations for the vinyl release, reasonable or non?
Ron House: I think the release of Straight to Video is directly related to the "vinyl renaissance" currently going on. I am fascinated by all rock and punk history except for my own. I hadn't listened to the CD in ten years so getting the test pressing was a real treat. It sounded better than the CD! My only hope for the reissue is that Kellie doesn't lose any money.
Do you have, if not residual anger, then residual bemusement over the major label frenzy of the time? Was there ever an expectation of riches of was it a "ride this till the wheels" come off situation?
The major label frenzy seemed as absurd at that time as it does now. I enjoyed getting interviewed a lot, playing Lollapalooza, and getting Warner Brothers checks for 29 cents. Straight to Video seems a characteristic second album: very band oriented, you can sense the camaraderie, we knew how to record and mix, and easygoing for the most part. Bob Petric shreds on this record. It is maybe his best record. My favorite TJSA record is Bait and Switch. My best work will be the next Counter Intuits LP and I am absolutely serious about that.
You've always had an uncanny sense for melody and, forgive the prevention, song raft, do you consider this your best work? Where on the scale? Or do you not really look at your art this way? Anything you feel like on Straight to Video that holds up or doesn’t more than anything else. Good thing people still won’t stop arguing about Lester Bangs.
Facile lyrics and bad rhymes abound on this record. I've never been accused of selling out but I definitely made a conscious decision to write about sex. “When The Entertainment Ends” could have been one of the best songs ever but to me the lyrics don't cohere. On the other hand I think “Outside My Scene” is perfect.
photo by jfotoman / Jay Brown
It could be argued that you’re a main influence behind Ohio acts and the Ohio-esque beyond such as Times New Viking or Psychedelic Horseshit...is this a source of pride, embarrassment? Do you listen to the (ugh) Lo fi music that came in your wake? Or do you see it all part of a larger lineage including Electric Eels and other Ohio freak scenesters? None of the above is also an acceptable answer.
Ohio music has a great lineage and I am very proud to be a part of it. Electric Eels are getting well deserved attention and I hope it cheers John Morton up! Columbus punk history has yet to be adequately rediscovered and people better not wait for me to do the grunt work.
Speaking of which, since you (I believe) still have the records store, anybody you’re listening to that you either think are doing what you were doing or that you just plain like?
I listen to WFMU pretty non-stop, especially the punkier stuff. um Life Stinks, Suburban Homes, Golden Pelicans, Manatees, Geno and the Goons, Yolks. Lotta good bands out there. On record at home I listen to KBD, jazz, private presses, and soul 45s before I sell them; I freelance these days. No record store. The only records I collect are Ohio records. The other 20,000 can all be had for a price. My daughter and I listen to Top 40 in the car and argue. I like Kesha and she doesn't. We both like that “Cool Kids” song and that “Take Me To Church” song is canny. I hate most of the guy singers though especially that dude who tries to sound like James Taylor.
Do you think the name could fly now? Do you regret it? I still dig it but “pointed” sort of gets lost these days. But what do I know. If you say "people are too PC now" I'll fucking die.
I am very proud of the name Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. After the band I was in before I wanted something flamboyant. I think it is politically correct theoretically not that I care. I don't try to piss off the liberals. I leave that to Unholy Two.
On the more progressive tip, people are people to come around to giving a shit about prison reform. That’s nice. “When the Entertainment Ends” works as both epic social commentary and a solid sequel to “Final Solution.” Where do you stand on, well, anything these days? Or do you just keep your head down and do the record store? Any plans for another solo album? Any plans for Ego Summit?
My biggest political fear is that the Religious Right will realize how much they have in common with ISIS and they'll unite. Old white guys suck. Ego Summit II has been bandied about but some people don't think we can do it without Shepard. Counter Intuits is getting my best these days.
photo by jfotoman / Jay Brown
Correct if I’m wrong but last reunion was 2000? Any plans for more? Seems like there would be a demand? Even if not Coachella millions than ATP thousands? I’d go.
TJSA has done shows fairly steadily since we broke up. We've played twice with the Clean!
In an Internet world where everyone can happily and forever exist within the walled communities of their own taste, punk rock girls can now only go out with punk rock guys, and for the most part do. The monkey’s paw comes crashing down. Do you regret your youthful wishes? I the same topic, Nick Cave really is considered a genius now. Dystopia or Utopia?
I think of Nick Cave and most alternative acts as driving fancy cars and living in a comfortable world that is extremely foreign and holds little interest to me.