Perfect Sound Forever

Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments

Rock stars: Ron House, Bob Petric, Craig Dunson, Ted Hattemer

Interview by Jason Gross (June 1997)

After indie legends Great Plains dissolved in the late '80s, brainy and boozy Ron House decided that he still had some juice left in him. TJSA became Rick Rubin's darlings for pissing all of over the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame (in their own back yard, literally). Later though, they got the boot by American Records when lame-ass boogie bands and rappers on the labels weren't making enough money for the rest of the label. The Slave Apartment crew soldiered on with Anyway Records and a tour with Guided By Voices. Ron House was nice enough to share his wisdom (if not his beer) with the world about the coming millenium, free jazz, his aerobic dancing and William Blake in between innings of a Cleveland Indians game.

PSF: Going way back, how did Great Plains get started?

RON: I'd been in a couple of bands before that. Then around '82, I think things were returning to sort of an anti-English thing, more of an American roots thing. We were really influenced by the Embarrassment and the Gun Club. It was a really fun era- we got to open up for the Replacements a couple of times.

PSF: What happened to the band?

RON: I noticed that the momentum had gone. We never really got to be that famous. Like when we went to New York in '88 or '89, the buzz was just not there. It just seemed like we were doing it out of pure will as opposed to excitement.

PSF: So what was different then?

RON: You get used to people playing a certain way and it's also a stylistic type of thing. They got fed up with the indie rock scene I guess. The Replacements got worse around then and you only had the Pixies and Sonic Youth otherwise. That's where we had pitched our tent. I could try to make it a larger context but mostly things were just getting worse. On a personal level, the shows just weren't that fun. I don't know what Homestead Records was like but I don't think they cared as much about us as they did in '85. I was ready to give up music right about then actually.

PSF: How did Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments come about after that?

RON: Before, it was kind of like a pure nihilism type of thing. Now, I've returned to my roots or probably I've just found a new drunken depth. I thought it would be fun to make music without caring what everybody thought about it. And of course with the Slave Apartments, I care what everybody thinks about it again. This is what happened with Great Plains before and it's not that bad. But when we first started with Slave Apartments, our ethos was 'let's get drunk and not worry about what everyone else says.' Nobody else in the band was really getting that drunk besides me actually.

PSF: So do you think you're more cerebral or inebriated?

RON: (laughs) We're trying to find cerebral ideas about inebriation.

PSF: You gave away hundreds of copies of the 1st Slave Apartments single, right?

RON: No, actually we had two singles and we gave away a free 12-inch. It was a real thrill too because that's when it seemed like people actually cared about it. I probably liked them better than the Great Plains albums. It's weird because I also thought there was so much more energy involved in the Great Plains stuff.

The single sold well. Then we did a freebie 12-inch because I spoke to Tim Adams from Ajax. He thought that 12-inch's didn't sell as well as singles anymore. This was around '91. So I thought 'let's just give 'em away.' So we had it that you had to write (us) to get the 12-inch. It was really fun. We got hundreds of letters for that. It was from a lot of people that I still keep in contact with.

PSF: That was good marketing.

RON: Yeah, it added to that. It enhanced our value. But we weren't really trying to make money back then.

PSF: What were you trying to do then?

RON: Well, why is your magazine called Perfect Sound Forever?

PSF: I made it up all by myself. Actually, Sony/Phillips came up with it in the 80's as a slogan to promote compact discs when they were first coming out. Pavement later used it as the title of one of their early records. It's just a great name- I heard it and thought that I had to something with that title.

RON: That's a great record- one of my favorites of all time. Anyway, I guess what we were trying to do was... blend into an eternity so we don't die. But it won't happen I'm sure.

PSF: Well, you can always try. On BAIT AND SWITCH, the one song I really love is 'Turn It Up'. How did that song come about?

RON: It's kind of a cul de sac. I had it so that the song would reveal 'my mysterious death' at the end and I just kind of ran out of space. I just kind of took the easy way out. Ultimately, I think it's a failure as a narrative.

I'm a big Robert Johnson fan. He talks about all of this death stuff like 'Hellhound on my Tail.' I like to play with all of this stuff with death as a real being, right behind somebody. Then there's the strategies that you take to avoid that death that's right behind you. You cheat, you lie and you're dishonest, which I admire on that theoretical level.

PSF: What about 'You Can't Kill Stupid'?

RON: Sometimes I say that's about my cancer. But I really don't like that song that much. There's some logic there but I don't think it's one of our best songs. It's more of a song for Bob (TSJA's guitarist) than for me and what I've tried to do. I like the first line but I think it's a failure. (laughs)

PSF: It's got this great line though: 'you can't kill stupid with your dreams of peace.'

RON: Well, I guess it's that the same thing that keeps me alive is the same thing makes people think that civilization isn't all that established in the world.

PSF: Are there any authors that are big influences for you?

RON: When I was younger, I read a lot of Nathaniel West. When I read MISS LONELYHEARTS and DAY OF THE LOCUSTS, I would think 'that is so smart and sharp.' It's so cynical too but you could snap your fingers all the way through those books. And William Blake, I feel like I have ultimate respect for him. He knows that there's an intellectual system going on that he's against but to battle it he has to use certain tricks. I've been in kind of a slump lately- I just read the New York Review of Books to try to keep up.

PSF: That's always good- you can just read the summaries/reviews and know about the books then.

RON: (laughs) Now, I feel really bad about that. What have you read lately?

PSF: ASCENSION (by Eric Nisenson). It's a great book about Coltrane. It's amazing to hear how he was put down for years for his music and after his death, he was sort of vilified. Same thing happens with pioneers in any type of music.

RON: I'm still kind of pissed about what happened around '65. I think most of the guys doing free jazz really blew it then. It's like they went to the end of a pier and jumped off. I think that a lot people either went to the free thing or they left.

PSF: You mean the audience or the musicians?

RON: That's a good question. I think it was more the audience than the musicians who gave up on it. There was a period when there just wasn't any good jazz being made at all. I mean, Miles Davis was the one who was still really influential for a long time alone.

PSF: That's true. During a lot of the '70s, it was Miles and Ornette who were still making really innovative music and not the younger generation of players.

RON: Right. 'Bitches Brew' and 'Jack Johnson' especially. I didn't like Coleman again until 'Dancing In Your Head.' Then after that, you had a lot of bad fusion going on. People like Weather Report and Zappa where doing a different type of fusion than Miles.

PSF: They didn't get into any of the exotic stuff Miles liked- African rhythms, Stockhausen, hard rock. OK, to back track a little, what happened with your old label, Onion/American?

RON: I think what happened was that they signed a lot of bands in that post-Green Day wake where they thought they could buy a lot of bands as long as they had a couple of hits on the big level. Then I think the whole post-Green Day thing people hurt a lot of people. Then Black Crows didn't have another big hit. Sir Mix A Lot didn't have another big hit. They were hoping that these big bands would be helping to pay for all of us small fries. We're not pissed off at American- it actually ran a little bit better than I would have expected. We got a lot more attention than I thought we were going to get. They dropped us but no bitterness on our part- they did give us some money when we left.

PSF: How you think STRAIGHT TO VIDEO is different from the first CD?

RON: I think I ran that whole 'angry punk' thing into the ground even though I think there's a lot of that in there still. It's more like Great Plains in certain ways because it's a record about having sex.

PSF: That's a good subject.

RON: Well, not in the indie rock world. I think it's more of a band record too. I think I'm smarter on this record than I've ever been before. You know, this is the record I always wanted to make. Hey, use that as a quote! (laughs)

PSF: Got it- 'I always wanted to bake...' Since you grew up in Cleveland, what do you think of music scene there now compared with what was happening there in the '70s with Pere Ubu, the Eels and other great bands?

RON: I think that even back then you could feel the tragedy of that era. Post-industrial. There were few people who could find tragedy in that. I know I'm trying to be big here but it's true. I was up there for a lot of shows in '78. Pere Ubu, I think, is still the best band of all time. I'm still pissed off about how they failed to develop as a band. It was what Coltrane failed to do after '64. You know, just like jumping off instead of standing on the edge. I do love the first two Pere Ubu albums though.

PSF: They did get pretty arty after that.

RON: Yeah, it was going up your ass, I think. You could break it down to the reasons why they did that.

PSF: You really think it's the same for Coltrane too though?

RON: I think he lost faith in the world. I think he also retreated into himself, like an inner sanctum.

PSF: One similarity was that Coltrane was very religious in everything that he did. David Thomas also got to be religious a little while after Ubu started.

RON: You look at Coltrane's OM album- he didn't even want that to come out.

PSF: That's right. Why do bars come up so often in your songs?

RON: There's an early sociologist who talks about the three places of life- work place, family place and that one other social spot. You need to maintain an adequate social life and I guess I found it in bars. I guess it's churches for most people but probably not anymore. There's the idea of a community beyond a family and the work place. And also, there's something about getting drunk that I really like, as I am getting drunk as I talk to you right now.

PSF: You think that the Slave Apartments' tour is going to be sponsered by the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame?

RON: (laughs) I think Neil Young's madder at the Hall of Fame than I am with all that stuff he's been talking about lately. He think it's all a VH-1 conspiracy. It might be. Who knows? It's just one of those things- we really didn't give that much of a shit about it. If American Records was going to turn it into a big media thing, I was ready to be a spokesman. I did 12 interviews about this in a couple of days about this. We were on World News Tonight with Ted Koppel, talking about this. That was fun. I mean, they aren't any worse than a million other things going on. It was fun to have fun with it.

PSF: You talk about politics on the latest CD. Are you going to running for elected office soon?

RON: (laughs) All the things in my past that I got away with will probably come out. I don't know. I'll have an influence on the past and future I'm sure.

PSF: What kind of influence?

RON: I just hope that people analyze things a little bit harder and know that there's good music being made. I don't know. You got a little too big for me for a minute.

PSF: Sorry, won't let that happen again. You're the band member responsible for 'dancing.' How's that coming along?

RON: I'm very aerobic.

PSF: Where do you think Slave Apartments fits into all of this 'alternative' jazz?

RON: The worst part about music today is that it's not magic anymore. The worst part about the writing is that people can't give any context anymore. There's just too much music being made. The desperate, the dedicated and the crazy are still going to make good music though. It'll be enjoyable even if it retreats into its own little sub-culture.

PSF: Any long range plans?

RON: I think a lot of people are going to try to make meaning out of meaninglessness as we enter the millenium here. I think it could be really fun to watch people make meaning out of nothing.