Life on the road in an indie rock band can be rough, but that only intensifies the simple pleasures. A cold beer, the crack of a snare drum, the sunset on the horizon, the blue stage lights . . . It’s addictive, even when the show’s a total bust. Jon Fine still savors these moments. Now executive editor of Inc., Fine revisits his decades-long former life as an indie rocker, when he was a guitarist for Bitch Magnet, Vineland, and Coptic Light, in Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), a rock memoir that’s worthy of the underground’s golden age, or at least the tour van library.
Fine’s definition of “indie” is a throwback to the late 80s/early 90s when American bands emerged from hardcore with noisy, unruly guitars, pummeling bass lines, smart-ass lyrics, buried vox, challenging time signatures, and lean, mean production. These bands didn’t smile, they didn’t jangle, and they booked studio time with Steve Albini. Chicagoans know the type.
Your Band Sucks traces Fine’s life from his childhood in suburban New Jersey, where he felt like an outsider, to the indie breeding ground of Oberlin, where he founded Bitch Magnet with Sooyoung Park and Orestes Delatorre, through his years touring and recording with a succession of bands that would break his heart in different ways. For some additional perspective on the era, he interviewed fellow travelers from other acts including Mission of Burma, Pitchblende, Silkworm, the Poster Children, Helmet, and Mudhoney. At times, Your Band Sucks reads like a scene report from 25 years on.
It’s Fine’s intimacy with the underground rock ethos, though, and the way he evokes the seductive and satisfying nature of creating art on your own terms that make Your Band Sucks a compelling read.
I reached out to Fine via e-mail with a few questions about Your Band Sucks.
John Dugan: Did you have any journals or any writing from the 80s and 90s to draw on for the book?
Jon Fine: I did. Like a lot of us, I kept tour diaries while we were on the road. I was, then and now, fascinated with this whole experience and the whole American independent underground. I was also interested in writing, and so much was happening. I also kept irregular journals starting in high school. I prefer to use the term “archivist”—I suspect my wife would likely choose a different term—but I’ve held onto all that stuff through all these years and through all my moves.
Did you need to guard against nostalgia in looking back on your career in rock, particularly your college years? Or did you trust your memory of your early days of making music?
As I say above, I did have a fair amount of contemporaneous documentation from when it was all happening. I wasn’t too concerned about getting too nostalgic, for good or ill.
I would not want to repeat much of the feeling of being in my late teens and early 20s. The highs were very high and the lows were unbelievably low. I experienced the world having lots of sharp edges, and, to steal the quote again from Dr. Thompson, my nerves were pretty close to the surface and everything registered.
But there was no question, then or now, that the experience of being in a band and getting out in the world with it, and immersing myself within this culture was one of the most ecstatic things I’ve experienced. I was keenly aware of that at the time. It also thrilled me so much it slightly unhinged me. Clay Tarver of Bullet LaVolta and Chavez said this great thing to me when I interviewed him for the book: “Going on tour is so much fun it makes you crazy.” I know exactly what he meant. I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to miss any of it—the long van rides, the sleepy afternoons at the club, the drinking and conversation that happened after the show, the very beginnings of the day, whether they started in the morning or the late afternoon.
What accounts for renewed interest in 90s underground bands, in your opinion?
I don’t know if you mean in the specific sense of bands getting back together, or you mean there’s some kind of broader thing happening with music from that era. If the latter, I’m not aware of it—which is not to say it’s not happening—and therefore can’t speak to it. If the former, I blame the Internet. Fans can find fans, everything is on YouTube, music is omnipresent. It’s easier for the likeminded in any dark crevice of whatever sub-subculture to find one another.
But one really significant factor, honestly, was All Tomorrow’s Parties and festivals like that. Festivals can generally scrape together more specific and attractive (e.g. more financially appealing) opportunities. A festival show also makes a reunion more of an event, and can spur a band that’s kind of ambivalent or on the fence to commit—it adds a clarity that quickly does away with all the “well, are we gonna do this? Who’s gonna book the tour? Where will we play? How do we do this?”
Bitch Magnet’s getting back together was complicated by our geographics. I live in NYC. Orestes [Delatorre], our drummer, lived in Calgary at that time. Sooyoung [Park] lives in Singapore. It would have been very hard to envision getting back together without a big tentpole event like ATP to get our attention, especially given the substantial costs associated with just getting the three of us in the same room together.
All Tomorrow’s Parties has significantly scaled back its ambitions, though, so we’ll see what will happen next.
Are you still irked by cuddly punk? Twee pop?
I am not sure if this is what you’re referring to, but going back as far as the Descendents, I never got into the very pop-oriented bands in punk. Twee pop never went over big in my household and still doesn’t now. Then again, I’m a huge fan of Young Marble Giants. (I don’t consider them twee but I’m sure some people do.)
You query members of like-minded bands from the 90s: Silkworm, Poster Children, Pitchblende, on their experiences as touring musicians of the era for this book. Did you find many disagreements with them? What kinds of things did they have a different take on than you?
When I interviewed the 60 or so bandmates/musicians/label people/booking agents/etc. I spoke to for the book, I was mostly looking to hear their own accounts of what they saw and what they did. I was interested in everyone’s story along the lines of the general narrative arc of the book: what were you like as a kid; how did you find all this stuff and how hard was that process; how did you form your first bands; what was your experience of the first time your band had a modicum of success in this world, what were your favorite and grossest tour stories. And, of course, what’s your relationship to music now—if you left, why did you and what drove that decision; if your band reunited, how did that happen and what was that like; if you’re still active now, how is it different now versus then?
So I wasn’t really looking for, say, arguments over aesthetics or anything like that. People came from vastly different backgrounds and had vastly different paths and outcomes, but I’m not sure that qualifies as disagreements.
- Gary He
- Jon Fine
I sometimes wonder if those of us who participated in this underground culture acquired all kinds of traits along with it. A kind of confidence, maybe. What did we come away with?
I’m accustomed to taking on a lot by myself, and getting things started with minimal resources. I retain an enormous fondness for long car rides. I also retain the sense that anything less than 300 miles is an easy day’s drive. I have been reminded, many times, by people I’m close to who were never members of a touring rock band, that the latter is not a common opinion.
Obviously you were heavily personally invested in this music, this lifestyle. Do you think your intensity also made it hard to be in a band with you?
At times, sure.
I wanted all my bands to be the best version of what we were and I wanted to do as much as we could. I was always aware of bands who had a rep for never practicing or bands that never seemed to try particularly hard onstage—to be willfully shambling—and I never understood that. If you set out to do something and you love to do it, then fucking get to it and do it, you know?
At the same time: I made sure stuff got done. Tours booked; record contracts vetted for any screw-you-the-label-owns-the-record-forever clauses; and signed; seven inches put out if no record label wanted any part of us; reluctant record labels shaken down when they weren’t paying us or if they were dragging their feet on something.
I’ve used this example before but: if some promoter was trying to stiff us on a guarantee, they were gonna get a very hard time from me about it until we got paid. This led to certain situations that, in retrospect, weren’t so wise. Once a band I was in was playing at a club where the owner was said to be, shall we say, in with certain kinds of people and to carry a gun. The promoter was being a total dick and trying to screw us out of our $200 or whatever it was. I am still not sure how I did this, but I very gently went up to the owner, acted nice and sort of concerned, and actually said something like, “Look, this place is great. Everyone should want to play here. Wouldn’t it be a real shame if word got out that you weren’t paying bands?”
I still have no idea how this happened but: He paid us.
Jon Fine will be talking about Your Band Sucks with Rose Marshack on Sat 6/6 at 4 PM at Reckless Records, 1379 N. Milwaukee, 773-235-3727, reckless.com.