If you want to know how indie rock rolled in the forlorn and scorned mid ’80s and early ’90s, you won’t find a more vividly rendered, incisive, and self-deprecatingly humorous portrayal of it than Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear). Fine played guitar for cult melodic noise rockers Bitch Magnet and (briefly) for powerhouse math rockers Don Caballero, and later, to even greater obscurity, with Vineland and Coptic Light.
Through the prism of his largely unloved but excellent bands, Fine assesses indie rock’s evolution in memoir, lamenting that groups like Bastro and Slint's “odd meters” failed to significantly dent mainstream rock consciousness in those pre-internet years. Along with his astute observations about independent rock, Fine offers some of the most compelling and detailed accounts of a struggling band’s daily grind on the road and in the rehearsal space, mainly with Bitch Magnet mates Sooyoung Park and Orestes Morfin.
None of those bands had much commercial success, but Bitch Magnet engendered a rabid following that got them booked at England's All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2011. Feeling somewhat vindicated 20 years after their dissolution, Bitch Magnet decided to reunite and went on a world tour, which included a stop in Seattle in October 2012.
A respected journalist who has contributed to GQ, The Atlantic, and Details, Fine also serves as executive editor of Inc. magazine. He answered some questions about how Your Band Sucks came to be, indie rock’s aversion to the pleasure principle, and how hair loss affected his guitar playing, among other topics. He appears today at Elliott Bay Book Co. with Mudhoney's Mark Arm.
The Stranger: One of the most remarkable things about Your Band Sucks is that it got published at all. How did you convince a major publisher to greenlight a book about a band that had a rather small (if rabid) cult following and a scene that was largely overlooked by mainstream media outlets? I mean, the book’s extremely well written and super interesting to an über nerd like me, but beyond that tiny niche?
Jon Fine: For one thing, I didn’t sell this to a publisher. A publisher—or rather an editor at said publisher—sold it to me.
In the spring of 2011, I went to have lunch with Rick Kot, an editor at the publishing house Viking, with a (completely different) book idea that my agent and I had been discussing. We sat down, he asked what was up and I more or less immediately launched into this whole song and dance about this book idea. I finish, I look up at him all expecting-like, and he was, basically, meh. Then he asked, “Well, what else are you up to these days?” And I said, “Well, this thing and that thing, but you know it’s weird: I was in this band in the late '80s and early '90s. All our records just got reissued. And we just got asked to reunite for this festival in the UK called All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I think we're gonna do it.”
And he was like, “Oh, really?” And I told him about the whole underground music thing of that time, and how it changed and morphed over the years, etc. etc., and after about half an hour, he said, “That’s your book.” I banged out a proposal and he bought it.
But the way I always thought about Your Band Sucks was less like “guy from unknown band writes memoir” to “guy who was deeply into a very specific American subculture writes about it, after talking to lots of other people in it, too.” It is a memoir, but in order to present a fuller picture of that time, I did in-depth interviews with around 60 people—mostly musicians, but also label people, booking agents, etc.
This was a fascinating and very consequential cultural movement, and the way it struggled with itself and the mainstream and ultimately found a way to exist is really interesting to me. That, to me, is what the book is about, even if it’s told largely through the experiences of one guy who passed through a bunch of largely unknown bands.
In the ’90s, you note, bands that seemed like they didn’t care, projected no sexuality or interest in the pleasure principle, and displayed meager instrumental skills began to gain popularity. Underachievers were rewarded. Why do you think this happened?
I have absolutely no problem with meager instrumental skills. I had meager instrumental skills myself, for a long time! As did many who played in some of my favorite bands (Drunks with Guns, early Swans, and early Ramones, and early Stooges... I could go on). I was absolutely anti-proficiency. My thing was more that a lot of what “succeeded” commercially was kind of boring, and that, eventually, I wanted many bands in this generation of the indie underground to be more ambitious and, for lack of a better term, confident and proud than they were.
It’s important to remember some of the dominant musical cultures of the '80s: hair metal (Poison, Warrant, etc.), which was preceded by mostly British synth pop (Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, etc). Both were extraordinarily image- and style-conscious. Hair metal in particular was all about the party and the girls and much less about, you know, the actual music. Sensibly, we all hated that stuff, and wanted to be as far from it as possible. It’s impossible for me to separate the seriousness of early indie rock with the idiotic hedonism of what it was essentially in opposition to. It wasn’t until much later that all that anhedonia started to wear on me. (I want to note here the degree to which hair metal disappeared from the planet—are there any actually serious new bands in the past 15 years that are explicitly ‘80’s hairstyle-candy-metal?)
I’ve had people unfamiliar with the general indie milieu make jokes about how all musicians are only doing it for sex and drugs, and I always have to say something like, “No, no, no—you’ve got to understand that for us, the music was the sex and drugs.” And by the way, while I wish I’d been less socially inept with the opposite sex back then, I don’t regret that it was a pretty chaste time. It was useful to be in a musical scene that was basically serious, and in which few did any intoxicants harder than whiskey. (I grant that my experiences in the Midwest and Northeast may differ from what others experienced elsewhere.)
Do you think the ’80s/’90s rock underground in which you operated is superior to today’s version of it? Please supply reasons.
I honestly don’t know enough about today’s underground to judge, but my basic feeling is that if I sat down for a week and did nothing but go into a YouTube and Bandcamp and Soundcloud k-hole, I’d find a ton of present-day bands that I’d be really excited about.
Why is music played in odd meters such a hard sell to the public?
Well, let's see... Pink Floyd’s “Money” is in seven, as is Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” and while I’m not sophisticated enough to tell you if it’s in 11 or 22, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is also in a really odd meter, and these are just what I can think of off the top of my head. Also, the entire career of Rush, and a decent amount of Led Zeppelin. But maybe it’s that almost any drummer and bassist can make 4/4, or even 3/4, time sound decent. It gets trickier to make fives and sevens groove.
Can writing about music ever usurp playing music as the ultimate power trip in your mind?
I don’t want to underplay the intense satisfactions that come with writing something long, like a book, but: no. The fix and rush of playing live rock music is just so singular. Maybe because it’s so multi-dimensional: the communion with the audience; the communion with the other musicians; the volume; the lights and the atmosphere; the music and the sense that it’s taking you somewhere but that you can also shape it. All of that make it really impossible to replicate.
Did going bald improve your guitar playing?
Way to go, Dave. Make fun of those less hair-fortunate than you are, why don’t you?
The only way I ever got better at guitar was by playing with other people: Bitch Magnet, Down & Away (a band I briefly played in with the rhythm section of Phantom Tollbooth, both just ferocious players), Vineland, Don Caballero, in the brief interval in which I played with them. I did make a quantum leap forward in the early 2000s, playing with Coptic Light, a super-out all instrumental band I played in with Jeff Winterberg on bass and Kevin Shea on drums. They pushed me to play in a much different direction than I ever had before. This meant, for the reunion, I was finally on the same level as Orestes and Sooyoung in terms of playing ability. Not sure hair had as much to do with it as practice and experience did.
Your memory for details about events that occurred two to three decades ago is impressive. Were you taking notes all that time?
For the events discussed in the book, largely yes. Like many at the time, I kept a tour diary whenever we went on the road, and often made notes about stuff going on while it was happening even if we weren’t. I did a couple of independent projects at Oberlin—there’s a January term in which you do a single project for academic credit—that were explicitly about playing in a band, both of which had a big writing component.
Plus I’d always been interested in writing, and the instinct to keep a journal, even irregularly, was ingrained at a much earlier age. And, as my wife will tell you, I kept everything—not just old journals but also lots of old flyers and set lists and just random scraps of paper with people’s names and addresses/phone numbers on them. All of that stuff is incredibly evocative of a time and place—literal physical artifacts, you know?
Did you know the paperback advance copy of Your Band Sucks spells your name as Jon Fin on the spine? On the back cover text, Anthony Bourdain’s last name is misspelled, too. These errors make it a collector’s item, right?
Ah—no. And yes, I did notice the name on the spine of the promotional galleys. Good on Jon Fin! He was working on this book for so long.