What the Hell is Indie Rock? A Conversation with Bitch Magnet's Jon Fine, Author of 'Your Band Sucks'

We talked to the former Bitch Magnet frontman, who has a new book called 'Your Band Sucks,' to get to the bottom of what all these genre words for guitar bands might actually mean.

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Jun 12 2015, 1:00pm


Jon Fine, photo courtesy of Jon Fine

Jon Fine, most notably formerly of Bitch Magnet (also, Vineland and Coptic Light), currently author of the memoir Your Band Sucks, is a fan of what he terms “body music.” Body music is music that is visceral and primal and makes the, well, body move. While it’s a natural fit for dance music and punk, this is not a musical aspect that is overwhelmingly associated with “indie” rock nowadays, but for a brief time, before “indie” became a dirty, eye-roll inducing word, it was.

This time, the 80s and mid-90s, is the subject of Fine’s excellent rock personal history. His best-known band, Bitch Magnet, was formed in Oberlin College in 1986 with bass player Sooyoung Park (later of Seam). They put out two albums, one EP, and a few singles in their brief lifetime. They existed in a weird state of mid-echelon Touch & Go/early Matador type aggressive/arty independent music: not quite at Jesus Lizard status but with a fair share of devotees (they were maybe the Rodan to Jesus Lizard’s Slint?). They broke up in 1990, only to reform (again briefly) in 2011 for the UK underground music and drug fest All Tomorrow’s Parties and for Temporary Residence to reissue their albums. Bitch Magnet was body music: a potent mix of art rock ambition and Big Black aggression. Bitch Magnet was semi-popular, relatively successful, and reasonably beloved. Your Band Sucks entertainingly and bracingly documents the band and the—for lack of a better term—underground culture that surrounded it. And what happened after it all fell apart.

Jon Fine, a self-deprecating, sweet, and dryly witty guy, interviewed me during the writing of Your Band Sucks, for the chapter on, of course, what it’s like to be in a band that nobody likes. He was kind enough to return the favor and talk with me about growing up indie, loving Voivod, and about how, as bad as indie may be now, at least it’s not college rock.

What in your mind differentiates growing up “indie” as opposed to hardcore or anything else?
This is the formation story for any music freak that grows up the weirdo in their town. It’s true for hardcore. I assume it’s true for all of them. I assume it’s true of some weird specific electronic dance music I don’t know about. It was true of punk in the 70s. This happened to be my thing. I did have an overweening interest in 80s hardcore. I kind of jumped straight from Springsteen in high school to weird stuff around it like New York Dolls. Then I heard Dead Kennedys, and I sort of went “OK I’m going down this route.” And it was hard to go down. There was no means to hear it and blah blah blah. There were two guys in my high school who were into hardcore, and they fucking hated me. They hated me because—I don’t know why they hated me. But they did. I’d wear my New York Dolls T-shirt down the hall all proud, and they’d sneer at me.

I got that too, but I made them like me by not leaving them alone ‘til they were used to me.
You clearly had more gumption than me. I was more into smoking pot with my pothead friends and staring into space. But yeah… I feel like it became for me a form of sort of aggressive indie rock. I don’t know if exists anymore. The thing with indie rock, and I know you probably hate that term.

I do hate it.
It signifies something different than it did, and I really struggled with the term for a few years. I’m not going to coin a new term because that’s idiotic. In the 80s, the people I knew, we used indie and punk interchangeably. Now the people I know, you say “punk” and they think of glue and GBH on jackets. But if you say “indie rock” they think of car commercials. So I don’t know what the fuck works. I like “underground,” but that doesn’t work.


Bitch Magnet performing in New York in 2012, photo by Fred Pessaro

I think nothing does. And that’s a good thing. It can never be correct because we’re not talking about strictly genre things. Punk encompasses a lot of things— Mohawk stuff and the Slits and Downtown Boys—and yeah, indie now means car commercial but—
So I am right about that? I feel like indie means ineffectual jangly earnest white collegiate stuff now. I mean am I right?

Yes. Absolutely.
So yeah for us, in the 80s we just called that College Rock. Like REM and stuff. That wasn’t enough to sustain me. I’ll stand up for some early REM. Their influence was malignant, but you can say that about Joy Division, too, and they were one of the greatest bands of all time. I don’t know. I don’t blame Joy Division that a lot of bad goth bands got the wrong idea from them, but I do blame REM that a lot of bad jangly bands got the wrong idea from them.

I think that’s reasonable.
Because you agree with me.

Because I agree with you. It is a weird differentiation though. The term “indie” is entirely now divorced from “independent rock.”
When that stuff started getting big, and even worse with indie pop got big. That was really dreadful. But in the mid-90s there was a coterie of weird aggressive bands, but all the attention was paid to, like, Tsunami. And that happens.


Bitch Magnet performing in New York in 2012, photo by Fred Pessaro

So where does something like Lungfish fit?
They’re weird. I was talking to a co-worker about Six Finger Satellite because one of their members sadly passed away, and I asked him what he thought of them and he said “I admired them more than I enjoyed them.” And that’s how I felt about Lungfish. I admired them more than I enjoyed them. They were a strange and unorthodox band and I dig that. Enough of my friends love them that I should probably check them out again. But I also have friends who really think I should check out five Jethro Tull albums. And I don’t think I have time for that.

You have some really strong ideas of what is aggressive and what is not aggressive. The guitars on Bitch Magnet are aggressive, but the vocals, except the first album, are not super aggressive. But to maybe someone who likes hardcore or metal they wouldn’t find—
Could be, but then I would suggest they pay more attention to the rhythm section. When you get into something you can hear all the gradations. Look, I have nothing against hardcore. And a lot of metal. I mean I had the opportunity to get Gore (who you should really get into) and Voivod mentioned in Vanity Fair. So I’m done. I mean Voivod is one of my absolute favorite fucking bands ever. Are they metal metal? They’re really fucking weird, but their accruements are metal. I can say accruements because they’re French Canadian.

What’s the premium you put on weirdness? It’s not like you’re a Zappa fan.
I’m not a Zappa fan. The drummer of Bitch Magnet always tried to get me into Zappa, but I just couldn’t do it. It’s hard to explain. When I say, “weird” I don’t mean “whoa we’re wacky!” I mean non-traditional approaches. It’s easier to say weird or non-traditional. I’m not that into rock music that is heavily influenced by the blues. I’m not, with the possible exception of the first Sex Pistols album, that into rock music that is heavily influenced by 50s rock and roll structure. I’m not a big garage rock guy. Though, with any genre, any of the extreme examples are interesting because they’re so extreme and wound up and crazy sounding. I could talk to you about rhythm sections and low end all I want but—OK, High Rise isn’t the best example, but High Rise were a Japanese band in the 90s who were completely blown out and in the red and demonic. But they were essentially a garage rock band with every amp set to 12 and everyone on speed. They’re very exciting records. It’s not usually my thing, but they do it with such extremity that you can’t help but admire that. AC/DC is the exception of everything because they’re perfect.


Bitch Magnet performing in New York in 2012, photo by Fred Pessaro

Your book is a mix of memoir and polemic. This is sort of a throwback to the “this is real rock and this is not real rock.” You’re inviting argument but in a fun way.
I hope so. Rock And The Pop Narcotic has already been written. I’ve gotten to be friends with Joe Carducci. We don’t agree much in the way of politically, which is fine. We all shouldn’t be agreeing. I think he put his hand on something that was fairly important. I disagree with a fair amount in the book, but at the same time he started me on a rabbit hole of obscure crude and non-commercial 70s hard rock that I’ve been diving into for 20 years now.

Are you done playing music? You still play guitar.
I… have guitars. I haven’t touched one in a while. I don’t know. I’m 47 years old. I have a job that I really like and a wife that I really enjoy seeing at night. The drummer of Bitch Magnet and I have been talking, but he lives in Tucson, so I don’t know how that would work. It just seems easier to say “I’m done” than to say “I’m not” and then never do anything again. At this stage of my life it’s unlikely I’ll play in a band again. And I miss it. It was an incredibly important thing for me. But I’ll live. I mean with this book it was an incredible privilege to write about an era that I cared about and from a point of view that I don’t think has been heard, from the non-famous band. This isn’t from the point of view of an indie rock luminary. This is what it was like for a lot of people who passed through it. And, by the way, this still continues. It continues in the hardcore scene, in the underground metal scene, whatever we want to call unusual lefty of center rock bands, it continues to this day, and to me it’s a great ongoing cultural story. I hope I haven’t fucked it up too badly.

Though you’re very opinionated about music in the book, I like that you don’t fall into that trap of “people who like ‘bad’ music are dumb and bad people.” You are always just focused on the aesthetic.
Thank you, but if I’d written the book 20 years ago I’m sure I would have fallen into that trap. I was much angrier then. I read and reread the book carefully. I wanted to take all the cheap shots out. I hope I succeeded. But, yeah, I used to be so angry about this stuff. I can still get a good head of steam going.

It’s one thing to be self righteous about your taste in your 20s, and it’s another thing entirely, later on, to think one thing has anything to do with the other. You know, I know a lot of social workers who don’t listen to punk. Anyway, I do want to say this without giving offense, but you’re not afraid of coming off like a jerk in the book.
Thank you.

Sometimes you draw attention to it and other times it’s more the punch line. Like, you’ll say something cold or abrasive and just leave it there. Am I misreading this? Was it intentional?
It was somewhat intentional. Look, the first real band I formed I got kicked out of. There were three guys in the band, and I got kicked out. This was in large part personality driven. It was also that we were effectively overgrown children, and we couldn’t talk about things. I was more verbal, but I was also more verbally aggressive. It goes both ways but, yeah, I was a dick in a lot of circumstance. My (later) band, Coptic Light, we broke up in 2006. In writing the book I realized I handled that break up really badly. Like, I handled it really badly with the drummer and, you know, I was 38 years old. What the fuck is that about? It’s incredibly aggrandizing to write a memoir. The least you can do is admit to the warts.

Now, in my defense: Yeah, I was a loudmouth, but when the promoter is trying to get squirrely about paying the $200 guarantee, I’m not going to be all indie rock modest and walk away. There are three people who aren’t going eat unless you pay me our goddamn money.

But yeah, I was kind of a dick. When I first discovered this, the power of the music went to my head; the attention went to my head. I hadn’t really done anything with my life. It was the first time girls were talking to me. It was the first time anyone was talking to me.


Bitch Magnet performing in New York in 2012, photo by Fred Pessaro

Speaking of girls talking to you, the way you talk about women in the book: It’s not misogynistic, but you’re real horndog.
Really?

Well, the thing that redeems it is that even though you talk, outside of music, about wanting to get with this girl or that girl, when you talk about any band that's female fronted or has a female member, you don’t describe them by gender. You never say “girl band,” which critics embarrassingly do to this day.
Is there a question?

No, I just wondered if you’d thought about that.
I hadn’t. Look, in each generation of rock music you see women taking a more central role. In the 70s, at least in “rock” music, there seemed to very few. In the 80s and in this world you saw more and more coming through but that really accelerated in the 90s. This was a very male milieu (at the time).

I feel kind of bad. I saw Mary Timony of Helium give a very bad show that infuriated me. But I mainly blame Ash Bowie from Polvo, who was in her band at the time, and looked like he was falling asleep. And not that sort of “I’m on drugs and falling asleep” but “I’m bored and falling asleep.” And to me Mary Timony has made all this beautiful intense music, so I expect more. I still feel kind of bad about that inclusion (in the book), but I was really infuriated by that show because her track record is so killer. And that doesn’t have anything to do with her being a woman. It has to do with her being a singular guitar player and songwriter.

I don’t really know how to respond.

That’s ok it wasn’t really a question, just an observation. Now, you can imagine the shit you would get now if you started a band called “Bitch Magnet.”
I don’t know. Some people have said that it wouldn’t even be an issue.

Those people are wrong.
Yeah, I would think so. But I honestly don’t know. If I were naming the band now, maybe I’d name it something else. But I’m not going to walk away from it just because it causes the occasional uncomfortable social interaction.

If you listen to a band enough, the name becomes meaningless. I think when I listened to Bitch Magnet when I was younger, I don’t think it even occurred to me that they were two words that meant something. Until years and years later.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t talk to your mom about Fucked Up.

My mom would roll her eyes. She thinks punk is corny. Anyway, in your reminiscences about Kokies—
Oh yeah my mom was really not into that too.

How is your mom responding to the book?
She’s enjoying the hell out of it. She didn’t enjoy every thing about it. Like, I don’t think she liked that chapter very much. But she’s thrilled: you know, telling her friends about it. It’s very sweet.

Has everyone in the book read the book?
No. I’m sending out galleys now.

Oh.
Yeah.

I guess we’ll follow up on that.
OK.

Are you nervous about that?
Ummmmmm… I don’t know. You never know how someone is going to take something, but all the central players were interviewed at length. By dint of timing, the drummer is in America, so he has seen it. It’s in transit to the bass player (in Singapore) thanks to Fed Ex screwing up. The drummer has read it. There was some late night texting back and forth, but he is totally fine with it.

I think you’re harshest on yourself of the three.
Thank you.

Zachary Lipez is in a band called Publicist UK that doesn't suck. Follow him on Twitter.