A prostitute, caught in a bear trap, gnawing at her leg deep in the woods. That’s only the first verse of “Half Off,” a lurid tale that could very well be considered the centerpiece of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments’ once-lost, now-found, second album Straight to Video. There were plenty of watershed moments in the fabled High Street renaissance of the 90s, but none as misunderstood or outright strange as TJSA’s sophomore triumph.
“I have a very specific memory of listening to ‘Half Off’ on a bus during a commute to work one day and thinking that it was the weirdest song I had ever heard,” says Kellie Morgan, who has just re-released Straight to Video for the first time on vinyl, on her own Straight to Video Records. “A few obsessive listens later, it was clear that the entire record was brilliant in terms of the vivid and sometimes surreal lyrics, as well as musicianship. Over the years, it seemed a total disservice to the record that it never was released on wax, and at some point I decided that it was something in which I believed strongly enough to change. ”
Ron House is legend in Columbus. Great Plains. Moses Carryout. Ego Summit. TJSA. Psandwich. April Front-Yard $1 Record Shows. And currently, Counter Intuits.
You don’t question his legacy or motives. Or how TJSA arrived at a perfect nexus of depravity and acerbic wit. House is nonchalant about any “impact” the Slave Apartments made on this city or the world.
“Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments started right around the time Great Plains ended,” he recalls. “It was really influenced by that late ’80s, seven-inch single renaissance. I wanted it to have that skuzzy lo-fi feel.”
TJSA would exist for four years, releasing a number of incendiary local singles, before the post-Nirvana boom started to invade the Midwest. Entertainment Weekly even deigned Columbus “the next Seattle.” Considering Columbus was then one of the most artistic and, perhaps, vulnerable scenes in the American underground, House’s band became a masthead.
“We played a Siltbreeze show in Philadelphia and Johan Kugelberg was there,” says House of the band’s eventually honeymoon with Onion/American records, which was funded by Rick Rubin, with Kugelberg as his development wingman. “By that time everyone else (the Strapping Fieldhands and the Bassholes) had turned him down, so we were what was left.”
House is modest and self-deprecating about any success in the ’90s, but the Onion signing in 1995 and subsequent recording of TJSA’s debut Bait and Switch are certainly achievements worth reminiscing over. Along with kindred spirits in V-3, who released Photograph Burns on the label the next year, TJSA foisted Columbus’ penchant for caustic-yet-tuneful sounds onto a national stage.
“I’ve always thought Bait and Switch was the best record I’ve ever done,” admits House. “Straight to Video is a great band record. Bob’s (Petric, guitarist) playing is amazing, but I don’t think I was that good. I kind of regret the last album (2000’s No Old Guy Lo-Fi Cry).”
In retrospect, Bait and Switch was the coup de grace of TJSA. It contained House’s most infamous commentary against the (then under-construction) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his most requested anthem—“Down to High Street”—but Straight to Video seems both calculated and loose, as is the Columbus motif. There’s also an urgency that screamed “this is our ‘major label’ record.” “Rump Government” is House’s poppiest moment by far, “Petty Thief” solidifies their allegiance to simpler, punkier vibes, and “Where the Entertainment Ends” is his most pointed, epic diatribe.
I ask guitarist Bob Petric if the band added anything to their formula knowing Straight to Video was initially intended for another major label release by TJSA.
“If we did, they were subliminal,” says Petric. “There was certainly nothing in the open rational intentional department.”
Indeed. The record doesn’t contain any extraneous gloss or cheap gimmicks. It didn’t kowtow to grunge or come with the hopes it would be landing in the stacks of suburban adolescents, even if it was a more authentic and pure form of “punk” than what Kurt Cobain and Green Day were selling to those kids. The Onion signing, and those records, were anomaly for sure, but it opened a door and soon bands like Scrawl and Gaunt followed suit. For House and company though, it was short-lived. Onion gave TJSA money to record a follow-up, but the label had folded, and the dream had died before they could even pass on Straight to Video—which they did.
“It was a time when vinyl didn’t sell, so when Ron came out of the back room at Used Kids and said Kugelberg didn’t work for Rick Rubin anymore, I decided to put it out on CD,” says Bela Koe-Krompecher, the head of Anyway Records, who first released Straight to Video in 1997. “Then again, CDs didn’t sell either. It’s nice now though to see these records being more highly regarded than they were back then.”
To that end, Petric speaks to the “honor, on a periphery level,” of having someone press it to vinyl for the first time. He tuned in to exactly why Straight to Video has endured and is still making new fans.
“I think the appreciation these days goes back to the fact that it’s one of those meat and potatoes, straight ahead rock records,” says Petric of the re-issue. “The attitude was punk, but it was straight ahead rock, and people still dig that.”