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Your book rules: a conversation with writer and musician Jon Fine

14 July 2015

Part history lesson, part memoir, part rant, Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks fills in the blanks about a time period a lot of music fans would rather forget — the mid-to-late 1980s.

That was when Fine and his Oberlin College cohorts Sooyoung Park and Orestes Morfín came of age, finding themselves with plenty of bad mainstream music — hair metal, soft rock, teen pop — to rebel against in their band, Bitch Magnet.

From ’86 to ’90, the trio embodied the “independent” in “indie rock,” recording three LPs on the cheap and logging hundreds of self-booked shows, connecting with like-minded bands and people across the Midwest and East Coast. Bitch Magnet had no delusions about getting “big” and their sound — dynamic, mathematical and very loud — ensured they didn’t have to worry about that. Nor did they care, fully believing their tight-knit community could one day topple the corporate rock overlords.

That didn’t happen, and worse — as Fine tells it — not only did they see the major label machine chew up and spit out so many bands from their own scene after Nirvana’s surprise breakthrough in 1991, they watched the term “indie” slowly but surely lose its meaning over the next two decades.

For the few who beat the odds and carved out a living on their own terms — Sonic Youth, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr — so many more musicians at some point or another had to put their instruments down and stop living the lifestyle, be it because of marriage and kids or simply surviving.

Your Band Sucks tells their story, the author deftly interspersing his own anecdotes with quotes from interviews with members of other bands who let go — but readily admit they miss it all. Fine’s funny, sincere writing belies the book’s flippant title, articulating the addictive feeling of being in a band with your friends in a way all musicians know and that non-musicians, too, can understand.

Anyone who’s ever been on the road will be nodding in agreement reading the chapter “What I Liked,” which nails the intricacies of band dynamics and the joys of traveling and playing shows for the love of it, from inside jokes between band members in the van to little moments of beauty like watching a pretty sunset while stuck in traffic, or a gig that one person came to being totally worth it because you stayed up all night at that person’s house listening to records and hearing about their town — and still keep in touch today. “It’s how I learned about the world,” Fine writes.

Bitch Magnet

But bands don’t always last — and for Fine, a New Jersey native now living in Brooklyn, the comedown was especially harsh. Bitch Magnet broke up over the usual trivial early-20s drama — the kind of thing where, years later, you can’t remember what you were even fighting about — and his next group flopped, despite his best efforts. He’s since found his second calling as a journalist, but only after spending much of the ‘90s in the wilderness, drifting from job to job, partying too hard, hating on everything in sight.

That’s where Your Band Sucks delivers on its title, slagging off sacred cows like Beat Happening, the Pixies and many more, yet it never reads as empty-headed shit talk because Fine isn’t above laughing at himself too. He doesn’t sugarcoat or embellish his own bands’ importance, spending as much time on the lows as the highs, readily admitting the flaws in his personality and attitude, ultimately realizing just how lucky he is to have met these people, gone these places, had these experiences.

And as the feel-good final act shows, even if he and his peers never saved the world, they stuck together. When Bitch Magnet briefly re-formed in 2012 to commemorate the vinyl re-release of their catalog on the Temporary Residence label, all their old music friends came out of the woodwork. The shows didn’t sell out, but every one was a love-fest.

Now Fine is back on the road, again reliving his past — albeit in much quieter spaces, without his trusty Les Paul and Hiwatt stack. He’s spending the summer doing readings at good bookstores across America, talking shop with old buds like critic Douglas Wolk in Portland, Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm in Seattle and Mission of Burma singer-bassist Clint Conley in Boston. Your Band Sucks is available at all said stores.

We caught up with Fine mid-tour and, to the surprise of no one, he had lots to say.

Jon Fine


JON FINE: I wrote a book?

CZ: (laughs) I picked it up last Thursday, a week ago, and tore through it over Memorial Day weekend. I loved all of it. I’ve been talking it up to friends, because I feel a lot of us can relate to… I don’t know if you’d agree that this is your thesis, but… music that doesn’t make you feel something — physical, emotional or both — is just pointless.

JF: Sure, I’ll buy that. God, you’re striking a nerve. In my real-life job, I’ve worked in media like you, but magazines primarily. In New York, magazines tend to draw interesting, smart people, but who’ve got predictable taste in music. Magazine-editor rock, I call it. Shit like Luna, or if they want to get crazy, Wilco. When I was more actively an asshole about this stuff someone at one of my last jobs [asked] “hey, so you’re into weird music, do you like Wilco?” I said “nah, not my thing.” And that guy was like “oh, they’re too weird for you?” I’m like “I’m glad you brought that up. They’re nowhere near weird enough. If you want to get weird, dude, let’s hang out right now.”

CZ: Safe music.

JF: Yeah. I mean, some of that is really good. Yo La Tengo are always getting written about, and they deserve it — they’re awesome. But it’s sort of like how, in one of the many oral histories he was in, Iggy Pop had this line about the crowds the Stooges drew: “It was like early Christianity, the dregs of society.” [Now] everyone wants the nice music, that can be foreground or background. But I don’t need for background music. I want something that grabs me. Some people have not been thrilled with this [opinion], but I’m sorry, I’m not excited by the Pixies. When they were coming up, I was actively upset about it. There are all these great American guitar bands — and this is ’88, ’89 — and you guys are going for this? Really?

CZ: Tell me how you really feel about the Pixies!

JF: Well, I had to make that dig at them, because — I guess they’ve made actual records now, but — they toured for ten years having written only one new song. And that’s kind of distasteful. I get having to make a living, but if you’re going to be a band, be a band. There were songwriters in that band. It shouldn’t be that hard to put something together. There’s probably some complicated backstory, but I don’t know, don’t care to. It’s not interesting to me.

CZ: When Bitch Magnet re-formed, then, was it a conscious choice from the get-go to not go full-bore back into it? Or did you consider writing new songs?

JF: We thought about it a bit, but we were in different places. Listening to Sooyoung’s later band Seam, it’s interesting and very different from Bitch Magnet. I just realized “OK, yeah, he’s [got] the pop sense, and I probably secretly want to be in a metal band.” There’s this ground we tread together, and it’s great — that experience was great — but at the same time you get into it and you know this isn’t going to be something [that lasts]. And as I say in the book, that turned out to be fine.

CZ: That was such a cool thing about the book. It’s a really good explanation of how bands get along — or don’t.

JF: Yeah, I talked to 60 or so people, the majority being musicians in these types of [obscure] bands. It was fascinating finding out who was making the decisions, driving the bands, had the veto power. Was it weird? Were there fights? And there’s a wide range. One band that evidently — shockingly — has gotten along for 20-some years is Mudhoney. In 1988, we were taking bets [on] what was going to happen to the first wave of Sub Pop bands. Like, Mudhoney’s going to get really big and they’re going to blow up in some crazy way, just blow up hard. But it turns out they’re on tour right now. And then you have people like Lou Barlow from Dinosaur Jr, who got kicked out of a band he basically helped start, who, now, is just like “we reunited, we’re making records again, we’re touring and people are coming to see us, and (sighs)… it’s still really hard trying to get along with J [Mascis].” So I’m always curious. What was the dynamic like in the band? Did you talk? Did you not talk? Did you day-drink? Did you talk to yourself? What did we do before digital distractions? Looking back, [Bitch Magnet] had an odd dynamic. We came from vastly different backgrounds. To be clear, to varying degrees, we were children of a comfortable class. Orestes was basically raised by his mom and grandparents, I was the son of a doctor, I grew up in a nice house in the suburbs, I was lucky. But we met in college. And for some reason or another a lot of the bands we ended up hanging with were the smart weirdos. The first time I met David Grubbs [of Bastro] I was like “whoa, this guy is really smart.” His music, his elusiveness, his wit… those are the people I want to hang out with. But in the ‘90s I did go through this phase of being like “I’ve had it with indie rock, I’m done, fuck it.”

CZ: Like the twee bands, or…?

JF: I stand by what I said about [those]. I might’ve been too mean to the sort-of new wave of heavy hard rock bands — and I do not like this term, but the stoner rock bands — but there’s major quality control issues within that little subgenre. Once you get past Sleep and Kyuss and three or four others, it goes way down.

CZ: You were also saying that a lot of those guys, no knock on them, but they aren’t… intellectual. Usually.

JF: Yeah, exactly. Which, by the way, is fine. Sleep is one of my favorite bands of all time. That album Jerusalem is so bonkers and amazing on so many levels. It’s three extraordinarily stoned dudes — like, dude, they were extraordinarily stoned — writing a symphony. And it’s super minimal, with this giant C drone throughout… so deep and beautiful. I’ve met Matt Pike, I’ve interviewed him and yes, he’s… we’re not going to talk about Faulkner. But it’s fucking rock music. And maybe we were doing it wrong. I kept getting drawn to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, especially once I got past any punk prejudice. Even Black Flag, that’s pretty physical, not intellectual music. Well, we could argue that in a couple directions, but… I just wanted that gut punch. I wanted to feel it. I wanted a rhythm section. I wanted sound to be there in the room with me.

CZ: Another thing I liked about Your Band Sucks is that it’s set in an era that hasn’t been written about much — between Our Band Could Be Your Life [by Michael Azerrad] and Nevermind, basically.

JF: Thank you. I mean, some of those bands overlap. Fugazi was around then, and Mudhoney definitely was. But what Michael wanted was to tell specific stories about specific bands, get at different aspects of “the scene,” and that was great. You do want to hear as much about the Butthole Surfers as possible. You do want to hear the ways the completely socially inept 20-year-olds in Dinosaur Jr were trying to relate to each other and failing. Or what it was like being in Hüsker Dü in 1982, a time when people didn’t know how to react. You got strange, extreme and kind of frightening responses, but you did it anyway. That’s a very long way of saying thank you, by the way.

CZ: Totally. I also felt you’re offering a perspective that we haven’t heard yet, that of working-class musicians who’d love to still be doing it but just couldn’t make ends meet and would sooner quit than compromise.

JF: Yeah. There’s people who are still doing it — the guys in Mudhoney, James Murphy, Mission of Burma — but I was fascinated by [those] who had to [ultimately] make a decision. You have to move out of your house, pay more rent, it suddenly becomes unaffordable and at that point you’re three or four albums in and kind of know what it’s going to be and what it’s not. It wasn’t about making it big. It was just about persisting. Sonic Youth found a way to persist without selling a million records, and quite nicely. There are worse jobs to have for sure, but someone like [Stephen] Malkmus, he’s got to make a new set of calculations now. I believe he has children. I love going on long rock tours, but I don’t have children. Maybe I wouldn’t be so keen on having to go on tour for four months to keep the roof over everyone’s head if it means I’m missing my children. These are all working musicians, maybe jazz guys in a different age. They’re doing well, they’re known and they get recognized on the street, but if one little thing goes wrong in the equation it gets hard. I’m sure Lee Ranaldo’s found stuff to do — he always had a very good out perspective, as in “out” music — but without question, Sonic Youth was the paycheck. And as we know, that’s gone now. Which is crazy. That’s a whole other thing. But I mean, shit… Mark Arm has a day job, you know?

CZ: I have to ask, by the way — his cameo at Bitch Magnet’s Seattle show in 2012, where you covered “Filler” by Minor Threat… was that unplanned?

JF: Mark and I are pretty good friends. We were both on this music nerd listserv together in the mid-to-late ‘90s. He had a very odd email address so I didn’t know who it was [at first], but we were the only people [on it] that were both getting obsessed with obscure ‘70s hard rock, so we just started having these long email conversations about [that] and just stayed in touch. He’s awesome. Basically, I emailed him a couple weeks before the show to ask [about “Filler”] and he’s like “yeah, let me just run through the song with you at soundcheck.” Done and done.

Watch more Mark Arm videos on Frequency

CZ: One band that was mentioned a lot in the book as one that you loved, but who I kept waiting for an anecdote about that never came, was Slovenly. Did you know them personally? I adore that band.

JF: That’s a major dog whistle. Deep nerd stuff. What a beautiful, singular, fabulous, evocative band. Sounds like nothing else. I met a couple of them once when they played Oberlin, touring with fIREHOSE, and I saw them two or three times. I don’t really have any anecdotes about them because I just didn’t hang with them… but they were one of the bands that, as I got deeper into the writing I just kept throwing them in when I wanted to pull out an example of “here’s an amazing band that you, average human being, probably don’t know about.” If I’m thinking about singular, left-of-center bands that you just can’t classify, they tick every box. I love them. They seemed very clean-cut and earnest, but the guitar playing… Jesus. I can’t come near that shit. Are you kidding me? I need distortion, I need volume. I got my thing. That kind of precision… [I] can’t.

CZ: Funny, since you mentioned Wilco earlier — I actually first heard of Slovenly when Jeff Tweedy dropped Riposte on a similar list. Records that changed his life, in SPIN I think, about ten years ago.

JF: Ah, good one. Cannot hate on that. I take back what I said. (laughs)

CZ: One chapter in Your Band Sucks I didn’t quite get when I was reading it, but that kind of makes sense in the greater context of the book, was the Brooklyn in the early 2000s chapter [“This Is Me, I’m Dancing And I Like It”]. I was wondering if the reason you put that in there was… well, my guess was that was when your cynicism got a little less extreme and you let yourself go have fun again.

JF: Yeah, I got that second adolescence. That was an important time because I learned not to take all this indie rock bullshit so seriously, and to understand that there’s different ways of dealing with music, different ways to get at a physicality with music. It turns out there’s some dance music that’s great, that’s not stupid Top 40 dance music. There’s some disco shit — and I’ve gone deep into that YouTube K-hole — with great, long grooves that are so bonkers and transporting. I didn’t know any of that existed, [so] it was an important time personally. I always envisioned part two of the book ending like that… “and, onward. This is the transition period to the next part of my life.”

CZ: “The days of aesthetic warfare are over.”

JF: Well, they’re never really over. (laughs) But yeah, I met bands who were on the DFA label, like Holy Ghost!, Museum of Love… they’re a lot younger than me, but they’re doing cool music, and they didn’t even pass through punk rock. That’s interesting to me. I’ve got to sit down and nerd out with them, find out what their formative experiences were. They just nerd out on dance music. But they’re also my bros. So I don’t talk about Slovenly and Bastro with them. That’s fine. It’s cool.

For more on Your Band Sucks, visit the publisher’s website or Jon Fine’s Facebook page.