In a matter of a few years, Jon Fine, formerly of the band Bitch Magnet, went from an indie rock lifer cavorting from Williamsburg warehouse party to coke-soaked dive bar and barely making enough to make rock bottom rent on his train-side apartment to contributing on air to CNBC and writing columns for BusinessWeek. Clearly, those were different days– that same Williamsburg apartment would cost a small fortune to rent now and Fine suffers from permanent hearing loss, though he’s happily married and is the author of a new book Your Band Sucks. Fine’s memoir traces his rise to indie fame as the guitar player for Bitch Magnet to ultimately, what he calls, “the failed revolution.”
Bitch Magnet may not ring any bells– it didn’t for me, admittedly– but the band’s music is instantly recognizable as the sound of the early ’80s, when kids raised on hardcore and punk were defining the boundaries of their own movement while continuing the tradition of rejecting mainstream major label rock. The band sounds a bit like a slicker Rapeman to me.
I don’t know if Fine would appreciate the comparison, seeing as in 1991 the famously caustic Steve Albini referred to Fine’s band as “three college bozos” and called their record, Star Booty, a “sorry class-project.” (Steve was peeved that Bitch Magnet had, according to Fine, mistakenly credited him as the producer instead of sound engineer.)
It’s hard to imagine a similarly passive aggressive battle going down in indie rock today. Sure, TV on the Radio made some cracks at the J. Crew store’s expense, but it’s hard to imagine, say, Arcade Fire ripping on another band. Hell, you can’t even say Belle & Sebastian out loud without immediately losing street cred. Today, indie rock is all Kinfolk haze and Wes Anderson whimsey. It’s about as edgy as a butter knife, as daring as a CBS sitcom. (Wait, actually I’m pretty sure both TV on the Radio and Arcade Fire have been on CBS.) This is what indie rock hath wrought.
But with Your Band Sucks, Fine takes us back to a time when indie rock wasn’t so… lame, is perhaps the best word to use here, to a time before indie rock was co-opted by the mainstream, and when “indie” actually meant something. After reading Fine’s book, I spoke with him today about growing up without Spotify and what Williamsburg was like before it was full of bros.
In the book you talk about being a kid in junior high in the late ’70s without access to cool music in small-town New Jersey. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like.
Yeah, it was fucking impossible. You had a vague idea, but there was no Internet, no channels. The big music magazines of the time had absolutely no idea about this kind of music. Once a year Rolling Stone would, like, mention Hüsker Dü or the New York Dolls and you’d spend six months trying to find the fuckin’ record. It required an enormous amount of spelunking, time, and patience.
And by the way, I was a lucky kid. I grew up in a well-off suburb not far from New York City. There were people I interview for the book like Anne Eickelberg of Thinking Fellers, she grew up in a small town in Iowa and her record store was like a bin at the hardware store. I mean, this is what you had to deal with. It was crazy and I know it sounds crazy now.
I wanna be clear, it is better now. I would never argue against more access to information, media, music being a bad thing. But the way you hard to work for this stuff bonded you pretty tightly. On a personal level I gave ’60s garage rock much more of a chance than I should have because it was hard to find the Nuggets compilation and I was all excited about it.
Do you think back then, when someone liked a certain band that it was an automatic indicator of their coolness? Whereas now everybody knows who Black Flag is.
You obviously work with much cooler people on a day-to-day basis than I do. But I feel like my mom should know who Black Flag is by now, but it’s not quite like that. But for several years, you know yeah, there would be all these visual dog whistles put out there. Like there would be a Minor Threat sticker. Someone would be wearing a Green River T-shirt. Someone would be walking around a college campus carrying a Hüsker Dü record. Things were small enough that if you saw that, it was like “Okay, this person is part of my tribe. I don’t know their story, but I kind of know their story.”
One of the things with any movement, and I do think this is a cultural movement, going from a small sub-culture to a more established thing, it starts splintering, growing, and creeping toward the mainstream. New people come in with different ideas than the very specific thing you had in mind. As a grown man, I get that. But at the time it was kind of upsetting because to a degree the music went in a direction that I was not thrilled about.
Obviously indie rock and punk culture has been majorly co-opted by fashion and a lot of mainstream garbage. But what was the first indicator for you that your specific scene was being co-opted. The first thing that was like whoa! what is that doing there?
As I make clear in the book, the music I like is much more difficult. I don’t think bands like Slovenly, Six Finger Satellite, Slint are ever going to get co-opted. Although Slint was definitely the most influential out of all of those. By the way, those are just bands with the letter ‘S’ I’m thinking about.
But I’m trying to think, even before Nirvana got really big, all the sudden Bloomingdale’s had grunge fashion in their store windows. There were all of a sudden expensive flannel shirts. Suddenly it wasn’t something that you bought at the Army / Navy store for $10, you could buy it for $200. It was just like, I don’t even think I was upset, I was just like whoa, what’s happening?
Also, certain bands getting big. Nirvana was one. Helmet was another. Major labels got interested in these bands and, honestly, it worked out pretty well for some of them. As I say in the book, Poster Children they signed a major label deal. They took all their advances and built out a home studio and they left their major label with a new level of independence because all of a sudden they could record stuff on their own and release it on their own. That worked out pretty nicely. It didn’t work out so well for a lot of bands.
At the time all this was weird and complicated and upsetting. But I don’t want to say upsetting. I mean, was it terrible friends of mine were on MTV? Was it bad that friends of mine were making records, that maybe I didn’t like as much as their early stuff, but wasn’t it still better than the terrible hair metal that was all over MTV five years before? I mean, yeah they were. Was this in some way the narcissism of small differences? Sure, whatever. I was 25-years-old and angry.
It seems like bands like yours and some of your predecessors really set up this DIY network that still exists today. Obviously there are some huge differences with how bands are getting started now with the advent of the internet, but do you think the same kind of spirit remains?
I think you put your finger on something really important and something that’s also really close to my heart. What I wanted to happen from this stuff, didn’t happen. I was crazy. I wanted to take out the existing music industry. Like, that was never gonna fuckin’ happen. It was upsetting when that didn’t happen and when all this stuff collapsed in on itself. But, I hope I make clear in the book, this DIY circuit remains. There’s this idea that you can be a band like that. Which wasn’t really understood when I was 16 years old. And that’s huge.
I find it incredibly moving that that’s still around. I don’t want to make any grand claims for where it stands in the culture right now. It feels to me like hip hop, long ago, eclipsed rock n’ roll as the dominant music culture in America and probably the world. And that’s fine. It’s just different than it was.
But there still are hardcore bands. There are still punk bands. And this is the most important. There are still bands you can’t put an easy tag on because they’re doing this weird thing. They’re getting their music out there. They’re playing to 50 or 100 to 200 people in cities and towns everywhere. That’s an amazing thing because that didn’t exist for a long time and I think that really sucked.
There were two bands in the late ’70s, when it was just starting to be possible to do this, one was called Debris from Oklahoma and the other was called MX80 Sound from Indiana. Really crazy weird, very important seminal bands. But no one knew what the fuck to do with them in 1977 and at that point if you were a band like that, you would send your tape to a major label. That was the only way you could get a record out. They generally got no responses and one of them got a letter back saying, “You guys are the second worst band I’ve ever heard in my life, don’t ever bother me again. And by the way, the worst band I ever heard in my entire life is called Debris.”
The bands got in touch with each other and were like, “Oh my God, you must be totally cool, you’re weirdos like us!” I mean the connection at that point had to be some letter from some asshole in Los Angeles. It’s an incredibly important thing that you can do it differently now.
By the time my bands were playing, all the hard stuff had been done. The really hard stuff was done by the first-generation bands: Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Mission of Burma. It was the late ’70s, early ’80s when people were really trying to figure this out. It was really hard. If you read Henry Rollins’ tour diaries, it was crazy. They got really violent reactions from cops, red necks, people in the audience. People didn’t know how to deal with music like this. They were crazy committed to it.
You talk about buying records in the book as almost a religious experience, do you think that feeling is completely lost now that music is widely available on the internet?
It’s not lost. It’s gotta be different. I don’t know if new generations of music listeners are conditioned to get excited about the smell of a new vinyl record. I don’t know if that exists anymore.
It’s a net good that more stuff is available now, in a huge way. But at the same time, a really lovely culture formed around the nodes of distribution. Clubs, mom-and-pop record stores, and to a varying degree there is just less and less of that. If you’re my age, that’s kind of sad.
I still cherish record stores enormously and I miss being able to go to like eight in a three-block radius in East Village. This city’s unusual, there are still a fair amount of them.
Your description of Williamsburg in the early aughts seemed like a really depraved and ridiculous time in a lot of ways. But do you think what’s going on now in Bushwick or anywhere else in Brooklyn compares at all to that, or do you think it’s totally different?
I don’t live there anymore. I was in the middle of Williamsburg while this was happening and I was staying out till 4 a.m. doing various unspeakable things every weekend night. The thing I find really encouraging about New York City, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ll love it forever, is that no matter how brutal the economics are and they are indeed very brutal right now, there are still people who come here to do art and do creative stuff and somehow they find a way to do it.
I though that with my generation, we were on the absolute edge of being able to afford it. Somehow the money is much worse now and it’s still happening. I find that incredibly inspiring. To me, that’s the most important thing. I don’t think there is the same kind of outright lawlessness in plain view now as there was then. At this stage in my life, I wouldn’t know if there’s an equivalent to Kokie’s. I’m guessing there isn’t.
If you go back to the earlier generation, I’m sure there were people in Williamsburg in the ’80s and ’90s who would say I came too late. It was really crazy back then. And I’m sure they’re right. The streets were absolutely deserted, you could get a huge space for nothing. It was also not kind-of-fun lawless, but legitimately-terrified-for-your-life lawless. So, what can you do?
You write that Kokie’s turned into the Levee, and I’ll never look at the Levee the same again. I’m trying to imagine, where was the do-it-and-go coke room you describe in the book?
You walk into the Levee and you go to the left and go around the bar to the other room, right? So the other room, the farthest corner to the right– that was where it happened.
Steve Albini appears in the book…
He does? Where? Oh yeah, because we recorded with him.
You don’t really cover how you met up with him, so how did that happen?
Honestly. We sent Albini what was quaintly called the demo tape then because it wasn’t yet a cassette, the first really crudely recorded songs that were going to be on the Bitch Magnet record. He actually wrote back. I don’t remember exactly what he said but he basically wrote, “I don’t really put out records anymore but I am still recording bands if you’re interested.”
People have many complicated feelings about Steve. I’ve certainly had my moments. We’ve both said things about each other. He’s mostly said things about me, which is fine. He still does a lot of really noble things for musicians who are starting out that he’s really into and also for the community in Chicago. So you know, props. I haven’t talked to him in a really long time.
I couldn’t help but notice that women are very much in the background throughout the book. Is that a result of the music scene in general, especially rock, being traditionally closed off to women?
I think you definitely see more women involved now. I’m tempted to say it was more common in the ’80s to see a strong female figure in a band, like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth or Rosa Marshack of Poster Children, it was more common to see that than a band full of women. But at the same time, I was really into the band Scrawl, which was from Columbus and an all-female trio.
Make of this what you will, but I tended to be attracted to what my girlfriend in college called “stupid boy rock.” There were two kinds of music we liked, there was “stupid boy rock” and “smart girl rock.” Smart girl rock was Patty Smith, Scrawl and stupid boy rock was all the kind of loud, sort of metallic, aggressive. Black Flag, stupid boy rock. I wanna be clear, this is her terminology, not mine. It was a largely male milieu. It’s slightly different now, I’m sure it’s not equal by any stretch.
The way recording studios treated women in the ’80s was majorly uncool and I hope that comes across clearly in the book.