If your forte is indie rock, then the closest thing right now to a required read is musician-turned-journalist Jon Fine’s new hardcover book, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), published by Penguin Random House’s Viking division and available in stores May 19.
Not familiar with Fine? He was the guitarist for Bitch Magnet, which formed in 1986 at Ohio’s Oberlin College, disbanded without fanfare in 1990 and then reunited for well-received shows in 2011-12 in support of its reissued catalog.
Never heard of Bitch Magnet? How about Vineland or Coptic Light, two of Fine’s subsequent groups? That really doesn’t matter: Your Band Sucks resonates on multiple levels, and it’s meant for musicians as well as music fans of many stripes. The New Jersey-raised Fine experienced personal and artistic change, growth, fulfillment and disappointment all while engrossed within the indie-rock scene, and his view of “what it was actually like at the lowest rung” (to use his exact words) is historical, hilarious and, at times, heartbreaking.
Fine, who these days is executive editor of Inc. magazine, took time out of his schedule last week to talk about conceiving, researching and writing Your Band Sucks, his upcoming book tour and more.
Medleyville.us: Did the Bitch Magnet reunion shows in 2011 and 2012 merely provide you with a no-brainer conclusion to an indie-rock memoir already in progress, or did they actually give birth to your book?
Jon Fine: “I was in touch with an editor at Viking, and we were supposed to have lunch in the spring of 2011 to talk about this book idea I had for him. … I do my spiel with the big ‘ta-da’ finish and ask, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And he’s like, ‘Ehhh.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be a really long lunch.’
“So he asked what else I was doing … and I said, ‘Here’s a weird thing that happened: I was in this band in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and our records are getting reissued. We broke up in 1990, but we got asked to reunite for this festival in England, and I think we’re going to do it.’ And his reaction was, ‘Oh, really …’
“[As lunch progressed], he kept winding back to that. He was asking me, ‘What was that scene like? What happened to it?’ And I told him what happened, that there was a mid-1990s collapse and people came back to it, and we’re all having this middle-age reckoning with it. And as we’re getting near dessert, he said, ‘Actually, that’s the book.’
“I left the lunch, called my agent and said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The bad news is he has zero [interest] in the book we’ve been talking about. The good news is here is the book that he’s interested in, and I’ll have a proposal in six weeks.’ ”
Of my rock ’n’ roll reading, I’d say the closest thing to Your Band Sucks is a 1995 book by Tommy Womack called Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock and Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Penguin’s press materials liken your insider view to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. What or who influenced the approach you took when you wrote this book?
Fine: “I should be savvier about it, but honestly, that Cheese Chronicles book is totally new to me. I was aware of [Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter’s 2005 book] So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. It had been recommended to me over the years, but I never read it. And by the time I got started on my book, I thought I shouldn’t read it because I thought it would be too close.
“The metaphor I was working with was probably closest to Kitchen Confidential. Because if you were a famous book editor, and I was a book agent, and I was trying to sell you Kitchen Confidential in 1990-whatever, I’d be like, ‘I got this amazing book for you. It’s a memoir written by a chef. But here’s the thing: He’s not a famous chef. He’s never worked at a famous restaurant. And honestly — and he’ll admit this — he’s not a particularly good chef. But what he’s got is this book that tells what it’s like to be working in that restaurant that we go to once a week: what’s really going on in the kitchen of this neighborhood joint.’
“My feeling was I couldn’t sell my book like, ‘Hey, I’m Keith Richards’ or ‘Hey, I’m Nikki Sixx.’ Not even in indie-rock terms could I pretend to be that: I’m not Bob Mould, Dean Wareham or Juliana Hatfield. So because of that, I could tell the story of what it was actually like at the lowest rung. This was a huge cultural moment; there were lots of people passing through this in one fashion or another. While there were actual celebrities who came out of this scene, this was actually what it was like in the clubs on close to the ground level. And I personally find that to be an incredibly fascinating American cultural story, and near as I could tell, it hasn’t really been told that — and for whatever reason, that [concept] worked.
“The great thing about this cultural moment — and I think it really started at that time even though it obviously continues to this day — was this was the first time you could be a band and do real band things with a fan base of that size [about 10,000-20,000]. And that’s super-important.”
Other than the two images of your Grim Reaper tour shirt, the book is all text. Why the lack of photos? Was picture quality or copyrights an issue, or was the goal to not have photos so readers could develop their own mental pictures?
Fine: “There were no real copyright issues. There are two answers to that question. Number one, rightly or wrongly, I assumed that the reader might not need big visual cues for this story. The visual cues aren’t that interesting because readers don’t know what these bands look like in the first place. And number two, there were not a lot of photographs taken of us. There weren’t a lot of promo shoots; we just didn’t bother with that.
“For the Bitch Magnet reissues, I was trying to track down the one decent promo photo of us, which was shot in 1990. I didn’t have one, the other guys in the band didn’t have one, and the guy who took the photo didn’t have one. I had to go to [someone at Bitch Magnet’s former] record label … and somehow, he dug it up. I mean, there just wasn’t an enormous amount of documentation of a lot of bands.”
What personal materials did you refer to for details and facts? Did you keep a diary or a tour journal whenever one of your bands hit the road?
Fine: “It was kind of a thing — or at least I thought it was a thing — to do a tour diary, so I was usually pretty good about that. I also had aspirations to writing, so I was keeping an irregular journal — and because I’m a packrat, I kept all that stuff.
“It’s funny what certain physical relics will bring back. I had a lot of stuff from that time. On the reunion tours, I did a lot of writing while things were happening.”
Of the musicians you interviewed and included in the book, who was the most eager to participate? And who at first was reluctant for whatever reason but eventually gave you some good quotes?
Fine: “There were a couple of people who declined to be interviewed, and I get that. I don’t know if anyone was really reluctant once they agreed. Generally people were quite willing to talk.
“And also, I wasn’t going into it entirely cold. With most of these people, I’ve met them, or at least we know each other reputation-wise. I got used to approaching people who I hadn’t actually met.
“The [Bitch Magnet guys] were really good about sitting down and giving me a lot of time. … I basically asked them, ‘You kicked me out of the band. Why did you do that?’ So that was interesting (laughs). They were both pretty straightforward and really great about it, but it’s a weird conversation to be having. We were actually playing music together again [when I interviewed them], but I had to go back and do this.”
What is your relationship with music these days, both as a guitarist and as a listener?
Fine: “I used to be obsessively current, and that really fell off sometime last decade. The work I do now, for good or ill, when I’m writing or editing, I can only listen to certain kinds of music. The stuff that works is droning and repetitive — instrumental really helps — or dance music with really long grooves. So a lot of the music I most treasured — really aggressive, kind of jagged, lots of time-signature shifts — [doesn’t fit the bill]. I can’t listen to King Crimson while working. And like everyone else, I suspect, I go down these weird YouTube rabbit holes every day.
“I still go back to Wire a lot, and I don’t know how this happened, but for some of the last round of writing and editing of the book, Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record was great. It’s like this giant wash.
“I play guitar occasionally. I have friends who are still musicians, and I respect people who are active musicians enough to not say that I am one. I’m not in a band, and I know what it’s like to really be in a band and really be pursuing music. And at this moment, I’m not doing that. I miss it to a degree, and I don’t know if I might come back to it. I work really crazy hours, and I have a wife I like to see at night. My value system is no longer based on staying out until two in the morning, drinking and seeing bands. I have to wake up early in the morning, and I don’t mind waking up early in the morning.”
Is there anything that you mention in the “What I Liked” chapter that you especially miss?
Fine: “All of it — I’m serious. I was getting really ample signals as I got deeper into my 30s that I should step back from this, and I couldn’t. I wasn’t in a band that was touring, but I missed it so much. I wanted to get back into it.
“It was unbelievably great to do it a couple of years ago, but at the same time, because of the way we had to set up the American shows, we weren’t going to be in a van. And I thought, ‘We’re not going to be riding in a van in America? I really miss that.’ Some of my favorite things were these long, endless, empty drives in the middle of nowhere — the randomness and beautifulness of being outside of Kansas City when the sun is going down.
“I miss everything about the ritual of showtime. … I wouldn’t want to do this part again, but I miss meeting the people whose house you’d crash at after the show. I miss staying up until 4 a.m. talking to them about all the weird stuff going on [in their town]. … I could go on forever. This is how I learned to understand the world.”
Are you approaching your upcoming book tour like you would a band tour? And do you think you’ll get a similar rush from everything involved?
Fine: (Laughs) “The cues that I’m used to for performance are very rock ’n’ roll — you get to act out in a very big way. I have the feeling that my energy is going to be completely inappropriate for these settings.
“I’m already looking at the tour dates and thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe I can do more in the fall.’ But I realize it’s not a rock show.
“I’m totally thrilled to do the tour, and I’m [also] terrified: Will people show up? It’s not the same thing, but the logistics of putting it together are making me almost as insane as the logistics of a rock tour.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior