Feature: Tommy Jay and Friends

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From the March 14, 2013 edition

With Saturday’s show at Double Happiness, generations of Central Ohio DIY rockers continue to intersect

About 10 minutes south of Columbus on I-71 stands a miniscule town called Harrisburg that amounts to little more than a few quiet streets lined with big white houses. One of those houses belongs to Tommy Jay, who’s been making DIY records with his buddy Mike “Rep” Hummel for nearly four decades.

Upstairs at Jay’s place, there’s a room filled with instruments, its walls lined with old flyers. One of them announces Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance Fall Tour 1974, which, according to the scrawled words at the bottom, stopped at the Agora in Cleveland on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Others advertise some of Jay and Rep’s projects from over the years, including the early Ohio punk bands True Believers and Mike Rep & the Quotas.

Rep, Jay and Harrisburg buddies like Nudge Squidfish (born Al Martin) have been making oddball rock music in that room since the early 1980s, though their endeavors in sound stretch back years before that to a teenage friendship forged over basketball and Desmond Dekker in the nearby village of Timberlake. Occasionally the Harrisburg crew makes its way up to Columbus to perform in one configuration or another, sometimes with a rotating cast known as The Harrisburg Players.

“It’s totally protoplasmic or whatever,” Jay explained.

They were already DIY pioneers by the time Jay moved to that house in Harrisburg. While working at Magnolia Thunderpussy in the 1970s, Rep had his single “Rocket to Nowhere” pressed to vinyl and released on California bootleg label Moxie Records years before musicians were ordering small runs of their own records. (It was a lengthy process; the song was recorded in 1975 but not released until 1978.)

But Harrisburg is where they solidified their reputation as key players in Ohio music history. Rep’s New Age label helped early Columbus punk bands like Screaming Urge and Vertical Slit get off the ground. Seminal underground bands from Columbus (Gibson Bros.) and elsewhere (Strapping Fieldhands) made records at Jay’s house. So did Ego Summit, Rep and Jay’s one-off project with Columbus music icons Ron House, Don Howland and Jim Shepard. At this point, the music blaring from that room is a part of the fabric of Harrisburg.

“They can hear us three blocks away,” Rep said. “Nobody in 30 years has called the cops on us.”

It hasn’t been three solid decades of uninterrupted productivity, though. The surges of creativity have come and gone, often sparked by fresh creative energy from later generations of kindred spirits. He’s helped Ohio rockers like Guided by Voices and Mount Carmel get off the ground and been a mentor to cherished record labels like Anyway and Columbus Discount.

“The only way I look at it is, I’ve lived such a decadent, debaucherous life that it’s my way of giving back,” Rep said. “I like helping the bands get started out.”

Consider Times New Viking, whose 2004 demo tapes reinvigorated Rep. His abrasive mix of the recordings became Dig Yourself, an album that inspired Rep’s friend T.J. Lax to bring his influential Siltbreeze Records out of retirement.

“They got me out of my creative coma, and they got T.J. out of his,” Rep said.

Rep never produced another Times New Viking album, but his relationship with the band endured for years. In 2008, they were his backing band at Austin’s sprawling music conference South by Southwest. A year later, more generational bonds were forged in Texas as Jay made merry with Times New Viking’s buddies Psychedelic Horseshit.

“We partied Motley Crue style,” said Rich Johnston, who drummed for Horseshit at the time and now performs with another group from that wave of Columbus DIY luminaries, Pink Reason.

Last summer, Jay drove up to Columbus to see the experimental Pennsylvania band Blues Control at Ace of Cups. He ended up partying at Johnston’s house, reigniting a friendship forged in cheap booze and obscure records.

So when Jay was tapped to open for Blues Control’s next Columbus show this Saturday at Double Happiness, he decided to invite Johnston and Pink Reason’s singer-guitarist Kevin De Broux down to jam with him, Rep and Nudge. They began playing together on Sunday afternoons early this year. As they rehearsed each other’s songs, camaraderie developed quickly. It’s mutual appreciation, not hero-worship — “a sharing,” as Rep put it.

“These guys are do-it-yourself guys,” Jay said. “We’re older, but (they’re) the real veterans.”

Indeed, De Broux and Johnston have released a lot of music, and it doesn’t appear to be stopping. Johnston has a rap album coming out, and De Broux is running his new Savage Quality label. Rep and Jay are working on new music and archival projects too. The whole band is busy, but this lineup, originally conceived as a one-off collaboration, might extend beyond Saturday’s show.

“We’re having fun,” De Broux said. “I think we’re all open-ended people.”