When the annals for the rock scene of Agit hometown Columbus, Ohio are written, there are certain names that will stand out, their direct input and/or influence sewing a thread that cuts across decades and perhaps generations. Taking their cues from the “anyone can do it” ethos of punk, but losing some of the urbanity for distinctly Midwestern accents and skepticism, a close knit bunch of book-fed and alcohol-bred minds formed the nucleus of the indie-genous scene in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. Don Howland, Mike “Rep” Hummel, Jim Shepard, Tommy Jay, Ron House—among others, the contributions of these five to the Columbus pantheon (if there is one) can’t be overstated. Gibson Bros., Great Plains, V-3, Quotas, Bassholes, Slave Apartments—Columbus’ musical DNA can be traced directly to these bands.
But despite crossed paths in various combinations, it wasn’t until a weekend in 1997 that those five all got together so that, as Hummel put it, “some documentation to that fellowship (would) be recorded on tape before the participants doddered off into old age.” With Jay, Hummel and friend Jerry Wick (of Gaunt) manning a four-track, the group convened at Jay’s studio barn in the rural suburb of Harrisburg and recorded over two days. The result was The Room Isn’t Big Enough, an album released on Hummel’s Old Age/No Age label under the fitting moniker of Ego Summit. While the contributors’ credentials spoke for themselves, the album received little attention when it was released.
“There was virtually no interest when we first put it out,” Hummel recalls. “A major part of the problem is that we made a vinyl record at a time when indie distributors had no interest in LPs. Vinyl was considered officially and universally dead in the latter ‘90s. I remember joking to friends at the time that we just made the last vinyl album ever. The copies I sent to distributors were returned in 30 days.”
In the decade since it’s release, though, interest in the album has slowly grown. So much so that the Old 3C label, run by Great Plains alum Paul Nini, decided to reissue it as a limited-edition, full artwork CDR and digitally through iTunes, eMusic and Amazon.
“I’m surprised,” says Jay. “It was obscure to start with, but Mike told me some people thought it was pretty hot stuff. To me, it was a fun vanity project. Though I worked hard and spent a lot of time mixing, it was recorded in a kind of a helter skelter way. Maybe that’s why people like it: because it sounds thrown together.”
“It was definitely a situation where we did as time allowed,” Holland concurs. “It’s tough to get five guys in the same room when they’re in their late-30s, so time felt precious. We all went in with songs and we learned them and recorded them one-by-one, a couple hours apiece. It’s lucky it went that way because the very evident raggediness is its unifying element.”
House is a bit less contrite about the record. “I never ever do anything nice and easy,” he says. “We tried our hardest to make it good within the strictures our faults created.”
Of course that homemade aesthetic has long been part of the charms of all the parties involved. Or at least it has never done anything to diminish their ample abilities. The Room is further evidence of the latter, teaming as it does with some of each songwriter’s best material, some of it eventually reappearing elsewhere. House’s “Half Off,” sung here by Howland, became a Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments staple; Shepard rerecorded “Queen of the Underground” for V-3; and Hummel later remade “Black Hole.”
With this much talent, one would expect some battling of wills, even in such a laidback situation. “Though we joked about the ego summit, there were a lot of egos involved,” Jay recalls. “But everyone got along great. People just sort of settled into their niches. Everybody deferred to Jim; he played lead on whatever he wanted. Sometimes Don played bass and sometimes Mike did, and I was pretty much locked into the drum kit. So there was a good feeling among us and the egos got along.”
“Tommy and Mike had a lot of whisky around, as usual,” Howland remembers. “I think I also smelled a lot of that wacky tobaccy, but I could be mistaken. A lot of weeds smell like that in the spring and midsummer.”
“I am very competitive,” House explains. “The other guys, of course, were very positive and giving. I fed them acid in the vain hope my songs would rise to the top. Karma is cruel.”
The album is fairly evenly divided between the five members, though House ultimately comes out on top. For the reissue, there’s been one additional track added, Rep’s “Fuck the Clock,” which was not included on the original album but later appeared on the Shepard tribute, Matter Dominates Spirit in 2000.
“The only reason it didn’t get on was because of the time constraints of the vinyl,” Jay says. “There was a pretty nice Don Howland song that got left off and one of my tunes too.”
Unfortunately, two of the people involved with the making of the Ego Summit record are no longer around to see its new appreciation. Shepard committed suicide not long after the album’s completion, in October of 1998, and Wick died less than three years later after being struck by a car while riding his bicycle.
“It hit me really hard because I admired Jim so much as a person and a musician,” Howland says. “Columbus is a death town, though, so people dying seemed like the way it goes.”
Surprisingly, House puts a brighter spin on remembering his departed friends. “Both of them had incredibly creative lives and I’m extremely proud to have worked with them.”As such, the album really became the only recorded documentation of this talented group of friends together. “I can’t even remember, if after it was done, if we ever all got back together to listen to it,” Jay laughs. “I don’t think we did. I had a box of Ego Summit records under my bed collecting dust because nobody wanted them. Now people do.”