Don’t miss this opportunity to catch self-proclaimed, semi-legendary Bitch Magnet guitarist, Jon Fine at Aquarius Records this evening. The New York author is in San Francisco for an in-store appearance to promote “Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)”.
This fine opus tracks that peculiar time of rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when bands like Bitch Magnet, Slint and Mission for Burma were starting a revolution. Rebelling against music in the mainstream, these bands would not have been caught dead in the spandex of the hair-metal heads or the fluffy pirate shirts of the British New Wave.
Fine whose band played a complex mix of Math Rock – odd time signatures, soft and loud, vocals barely audible and sometimes with 10 minutes-long instrumentals – would go on to be a precursor to the Grunge movement. The music may have sucked to most listeners of pop back then, but if you took the time to listen you can certainly acquire a taste for it. Opening your mind to crates of forgotten music of that era.
Fine was sure his band and the independent music community heaving around it would overthrow the bloated major-labels establishment. Most of these bands however, never broke into the mainstream consciousness at the time. The support structures for independent touring bands living on a dime were barely existent. Yet, over time a handful such as Sonic Youth, Huskur Du and Slint did go on to endure in the scene and achieve status beyond it.
Fine’s Bitch Magnet did not. “Your Band Sucks” is a great book in spite of its failure. You don’t even have to like or know the bands, the writing is rich and the story Fine paints, compelling. In parts, heartbreaking and tender – like his shout out to Boston legend Billy Ruane (…though in fact we barely knew each other, when I tapped his shoulder, he recognized me, grabbed my cheeks and kissed me on the lips. I miss him) and others, laugh out loud funny (several friends ask if I would wear a wig to these shows. Ha ha. Dicks). He could almost try stand-up.
He bears all scabs from having ‘piss bottles’ in their vans, to the one that reveals himself as an utter prick getting so big for his britches that just when he thinks his band is going somewhere (press from NME, an album to record and an upcoming UK tour) and the cusp of an exciting new life (moving to Brooklyn with his band from Oberlin) the other two members – Orestes Morfin (drummer) and Sooyoung Park (singer, bassist) call him aside and Park says: “Orestes and I want you to leave Bitch Magnet”. Like that, he was effectively kicked out of his beloved band.
Fine’s devotion to his music and deep believe in what he had embarked barely out of his teens and would spend 30 years of his life toiling, is palpable. After three albums with BM, he continued to chase the dream with his other bands such as Coptic Light, Vineland and Don Caballero though it was partially because like a junkie, he could not quit. In 2011, BM even formed for a sold-out reunion tour in the US, UK, and Asia with stops in Japan, Singapore and Manilla.
Everyone with even a passing interest in any genre of music should read “Your Band Sucks”! For millennial bands starting out it should be made required reading. For bloggers and music writers, it’s almost academic as you can see the traces of this strain of rock in grunge bands of the ’90s and a slew of younger bands today. And for anyone who has picked up an instrument or harbored thoughts to sing in a band – middle-aged or otherwise, Fine through his book just cheers you along, telling you to do it despite its vicissitudes!
Speaking to us from his hotel room in Seattle yesterday, Fine revealed why he is excited to be at Aquarius Records, what are the ‘three O’clocks’, explains his fashion choices and answers if the Internet can save his revolution?
You wrote a book about bands I hate but I loved it?
(Laughs) I guess that’s the nicest thing that anyone has said about the book.
You do refer to this music as ‘indie rock’ but it’s not really what I perceive as ‘indie rock’ these days – what’s your definition of ‘indie rock’ and how has it changed since the late ’80s?
I’m in Seattle and last night I did a book event with Mark of Mudhoney and he said “that ‘indie’ was a terrible sounding word – who would call it that? I would call it independent.” I said “using two syllabus meant it was significant”. It was a joke. We called it punk rock and as the ‘80s became the late ‘80s it became indie rock. For me it meant, usually pretty strange music, significantly off-centre in one or more ways. For example, strong structures with no chorus; being 10minutes long with no singing; essentially using rock instruments and being classified as rock but not sounding like Chuck Berry. These days indie rock seems to be a trademark sound of jangly, dreamy and more pop than the music I like. To me, it’s a catch-all term for these bands that I talk about in the book. I do also use ‘underground music’ to describe it. It’s impossible not to use ‘indie rock’, for me it was part of a continuum of bands using rock instrumentation – oddball bands that I can draw a line going back to the ‘60s. There was also this structure of record labels, college radio and touring, a grouping of them like a community in the late ‘80s. There was a show called “120minutes” on MTV that played a lot of New Wave stuff but sometimes towards the end they would play Sonic Youth or a Chico, California band called Vomit Launch. The latter was more pop than their name implies. Once they even played part of a music video that we did for $100 on expired black and white film. Distribution is definitely kinder these days than it was back then.
I think it was more interesting that these were bands I had never even heard of – then one could Youtube the various bands, and discover that some of them had tracks that really weren’t too bad? You did make obscurity work for you and then these days, the Internet and Youtube can do the rest. From your perspective as an insider, how do you think the Internet has changed the music business?
Wow that’s a big question. It’s clear that MP3s, file-sharing and the omnipresence of music through Youtube and Spotify has had massive implications for the music business. It’s reeked a lot of destruction on the giant music labels, making trillions of dollars – that may be an exaggeration but not by much. In 2005, I wrote a media column for Business Week, some of it might be dated but there were still bands back then that sold platinum records. There are fewer platinum records every year. In the ‘70s, essentially really mediocre rock bands such as Foghat and Grandfunk Railroad – generally despised band would go gold or platinum. They sold millions of records to fans in the heartland. Those bands do not exist anymore. Bands I write about, of the ilk in this book, there are working musicians who make adjustments to their lives – they are not driving the fancy cars or living in a big house, the Internet has made discovering their music much easier. Communities of fans can gather around their bands and support them. In the book I discuss Slint who play bigger venues to more people in one night these days, than they ever did all their time touring back then. Bands have to be really savvy about how they promote themselves on social media to cultivate and stay connected to their audience. You can do house shows and perhaps charge a premium. Lots of things that you can do. I love musicians and some of my best friends are still musicians but not everyone can do the business side of being in a band. And the ongoing digitization of music is destroying record stores. Sure vinyl records are coming back and thankfully some record shops and book stores are still thriving but there are so few of them. When I was growing up a million years ago, there was a really interesting culture around record shops and book stores. I will never argue that more distribution is a bad thing but you can’t underestimate the Internet’s impact on the music industry.
Yet, the record industry has had it good for the last 30 to 40 years probably reaching its zenith in the late 80’s and ‘90s where CDs cost less to make but were sold for so much more.
At various times, I have put out records and they did sell CD’s for twice as much as vinyl which costs more to make. And they managed to convince everyone to buy everything they had on vinyl on CD! I had some good friends who worked in the record industry in the ‘80s and there was lots of money. Sometimes, I would tag along to these dinners and there would be bottles and bottles of drinks and this would be on a Tuesday night in New York.
So perhaps we aren’t going to have all those multi-platinum bands in six territories anymore but there was also so much excess, surely the industry will adjust itself.
It has. Yet at the same time, Taylor Swift is pretty big. Really big stars are still really big and making money off their music, Spotify hasn’t changed that for them.
In the end what became your motivation to write this book, I know in the beginning it was about an idea that your publisher loved but through the course f it, you must have felt it had some higher purpose?At the very least, an editorialized f***-you to the people at work, the ones who want to introduce you to their cousin who also plays in a band so you can jam together?
I want to make it very clear that those are not the people I work with now. And when people say things like that it usually comes from a well-meaning place. You’re right it wasn’t my idea though I had thought it might be fun to write. Look, I have been a wise-guy throughout this interview but really I was very conflicted about this time in my life. It was a really meaningful time for me and helped me transitioned to a reasonably semi-functioning adult.This culture of building with your own hands was an important time. Yes, Keith Richards’ life in the Seventies is amazing to read about. He’s amazing. I wanted this book to exist and not in a ‘by the way Kurt Corbain came out of this’ manner but to highlight the low-grade day-today heroism from these people. I loved it so deeply, no matter what I said. I wanted this time to be remembered and written about. To try and get it right, depicted in all it’s glory and shittiness. On a personal level, the final motivating factor was if someone was going to write this book then I wanted it to be me. The entire arc of it till now because I still feel so deeply and I’m not an active musician these days. Enough of my friends are, that I know picking up my guitar every other weekend does not qualify me as one. But anyone can do it. We mythologize the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. The Ramones, even they were out of reach back then but good bands playing at house parties, writing good songs, there is nothing like seeing someone who is just like you doing it.
“I hope we don’t suck” was my favorite chapter – it just had so many LOL moments for me – like saying you were now going to wear pants that fit cause after losing your hair, skinny was all you got – what was it about the way you dressed back then? And for all your love of math rock – you wore a Thompson Twin’s shirt to perform in – pretty incongruous, explain yourself?
That was all a joke. I wore that Thompson Twins shirt when I performed in Coptic Light which was made up of three really profound music nerds. And I did it to piss the bassist off. Or I would wear the super-garish Rolling Stones t-shirt. I talk about how serious it was but I’d like to think there was a lot of wit in there too. Those baggy jeans … I am 5 feet 8 and I still have 40 t-shirts of obscure bands that I am never going to get rid off. But they are all Large and XL when I put them on and the shoulder seam is half way down my my arm (laughs) and I think ‘WTF’. We really didn’t put any thought into our style. That generation of underground bands, we were against British synth bands and hair-metal. So we weren’t going to wash our hair and definitely not wear spandex. We were wearing flannel shirts, anti-fashion was our thing. I would have two flannel shirts on tour and just change out my t-shirts. Plus, I didn’t want to spend money on clothes, I wanted that for records and the music.
Of all the bands you’ve been in which was your favorite and why?
Bands are like your children and even if one of them drools or talks funny you love them all. But that relationship you have with your first band that’s always going to be a special one. I did the most with Bitch Magnet, it was the most popular we got to travel Europe. We got to do the reunion tour. Yet with Coptic Light it happened when I thought I was done. To have those five years and go to Japan twice. Each band kind of massages a different part of my brain. In Vineland, I was the main songwriter and singer. I was learning to breathe in time with playing my guitar it was a whole load of other skills and you develop a different relationship with the music.
Bitch Magnet had a yearlong reunion – could you ever do another one, after all you do still love the music, and look Mick Jagger is a grandfather, maybe great-grandfather but he is still putting those sneakers on and rocking those tight pants?
Hmm perhaps we don’t want to look to that. I mean, I don’t know. Number one – Never say never. Number 2 – For our reunion tour, we practiced, toured for a year-and-a-half and did shows in Asia, America and Europe. At the end of it, I was happy to say ‘ok I did this’ and now it’s time to walk away.
Does this book tour feel anything like your band tours?
I find my body reacting to the events like it is – getting those jitters. But there is no outlet of jumping on stage with a guitar and playing music at 120 decibels. Yet, the people that have come out have been great and asking intelligent questions, making me think about this stuff in different ways. Last night in Seattle we had quite a big turnout which is so gratifying to see. Then I have to go up there and be coherent – you’re pretty naked, there’s no guitar to hide behind. No amplification. If the audience is talking you can’t hit the E chord and blast it. You do, however, get to meet people who did like your music, or didn’t even. That’s been great.
Tell us what’s the ‘Three o’clocks’ and do you still get them?
On tour, I found a moment in the day that would crystalize all the jitters, it was like some kind of inverted Circadian rhythm thing and it would always be around 3pm. I think it might have to do with the slow wake-up, or that hang-over after a big night and you knew the show was approaching but you couldn’t do anything about it. It was not time for sound check yet. I would be freaking out. But no, in my every day I don’t get them.
In the book there is a car pile up and you talk about that crash like it was magical, a kind of Cronenberg thrill that nothing else could match, (ok maybe without the sexual pleasure) – what was that really about? Do bands consider the reality of accidents, the odds are high considering the sheer lengths they have to drive and music history is peppered with those we have lost that way?
It was a very strange visual and sonic experience. Basic laws of gravity and motion were suspended. There was a sheet of ice and cars stopped behaving like cars. Between Fall and Spring that semester, I did an independent project, ‘I’m Going On A Rock Tour’ so I wrote about this a lot. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed amazing. Visual glass shattered, street lights twinkled like diamonds but in a really awful way. Someone had died in this pile up. Still, the way it sounded, the wonder of it and the slow motion – we were unbelievably fortunate. When you’re young you don’t think you can die.
San Francisco must have a special place in your heart – how often have you played in SF? What are you looking forward to most at your Aquarius Records in-store appearance?
I’m really thrilled to be doing the in-store at Aquarius. It’s been around since 1970. It’s one of the places that has been really important for bands like ours. It is small, independent and deeply-curated by music lovers. They have a newsletter which they send by e-mail and they talk about music in a completely unjaded way. I am thrilled to see that they still exist. I have spent a lot of money there over the years. However, I think we only played there once during the Reunion tour. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a band starting in the Eastern part of America to get shows between Chicago and Minneapolis, and Seattle and San Francisco would be expensive. Of course, we wanted to go to the West Coast to play SF, Seattle and Portland but it would mean four days without playing and we would be losing money. By the 2000s I had a real job and couldn’t take enormous time off to tour neither could the other guys. It always nagged at me that I couldn’t play there as there were all these bands – Thinking Fellers, The Sleepers, Toiling Midgets, small bands that I adored. And Slovenly, I deeply, deeply, deeply adored them. They were all from San Francisco and Aquarius would write about them . Even today I would just give them my credit card number and get them to send me a bunch of CDs.
You still buy CDs?
Yes. I still have all my vinyls but no working record player. I should do something about that.
When you started Bitch Magnet, you looked around and thought it was going to change everything but it didn’t – do you think now years later maybe it did, or it is still doing its thing? You’ve seen for yourself how it’s affected fans as far-flung as Macedonia and Manila, and today with that internet the revolution can continue?
It actually is. I had an idea it would replace the big music industry, my beloved little group of wierdos – that was preposterous! In the early ‘80s there was nothing, no framework for indie bands then by the late ‘80s there was something. Unlike Black Flag and Mission of Burma who were groping in the dark, bands now had a community and a way to do their own thing. We didn’t take over but we did build something that will last.
Jon Fine will be in Aquarius Records at 6.30pm this evening, in conversation with Andee Conors of A Minor Forest. You can watch the live stream on www.pressuredrop.tv
He will also be LA tomorrow, June 11 at the Book Soup and in Washington DC, June 23 at Busboys and Poets – click here for more information. To buy the book, “Your Band Sucks” please click here. To purchase the three BM albums – “Star Booty”, “Umber” and “Ben Hur” please visit Temporary Residence or click here.