Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bitch Magnet (them again): 27 Oct 1989 Enger, Germany!

It appears that August is Bitch Magnet month, with the entirety of posts for this month consisting solely on or about this awesome band from (mostly) North Carolina.

The band, photo became the "Valmead" single.  Photo by Nico Laine
I wish the blogosphere paid more attention to this band.  In many ways they helped set the pace for the indie explosion in the 1990s, for better or for worse.  Ah well, at least with this year's news of the December 2011 reunion and catalog remasters in the fall, the band is starting to get a little belated attention at last.

So it is with thanks to Sir Chunklet (sourcing) and Jon Fine (band approval) that I bring you my latest Bitch Magnet offering, a stellar - and I mean fan-fucking-tastic - gig/recording from Germany in October 1989.  This gig, from the Forum in Enger, Germany, featured the 1989 touring lineup of Sooyoung Park (bass/vocals), Orestes Morfin (drums), Dave Galt (guitar/vocals?) and David Grubbs (guitar - formerly of Squirrel Bait, Bastro, etc.), with assistance from a bevy of friends/crew including Codeine's Steve Immerwahr, who ran sound for the band on this tour.

Note that this is a Jon Fine-free lineup, he of the behemoth interview on this very blog a few weeks back.  So consider this a minor excursion from the classic lineup, with the admittedly awesome Grubbs guitars giving a different feel to the set in combination with Galt's guitar work.  I have no quibbles with the songs, lineup, performance or recording quality here.  I would hazard a guess that what I am posting is perhaps the best audience recording of any Bitch Magnet set, of any lineup.  Chunklet's version (snippeted here) was pretty good in and of itself; I kicked it into high gear.

David Grubbs.  Photo by Nico Laine
The set encores with five covers - Misfits, Nick Drake, T. Rex, David Bowie and Hank Williams Sr.  The Nick Drake track is about an askew of a cover you'll find, I am a *huge* Drake fan and it took me several days to figure it out (Chunklet had it mistitled, no doubt because it's just so odd and un-Drake-like).  I honestly have no idea who the singer is on the Drake, Bowie and Williams tracks; I suspect Dave Galt but it's just a wild-ass guess.

So enough blabbering, onward.

27 October 1989
Forum, Enger, Germany

audience recording provided by Chunklet
lovingly restored/mastered by the Analog Loyalist

Dave Galt and Sooyoung Park.  Photo by Nico Laine

01 Motor
02 Goat-Legged Country God
03 Sea Of Pearls
04 Polio
05 Punch And Judy
06 Americruiser
07 Joyless Street
08 Big Pining
09 Joan Of Arc
10 Navajo Ace
11 Valmead
12 Douglas Leader
- encore begins here -
13 Pea (feat. Steve Immerwahr, vocals)
14 Where Eagles Dare (Misfits)
15 Black Eyed Dog (Nick Drake)
16 Buick Mackane (T. Rex)
17 Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
18 Why Don't You Love Me (Hank Williams Sr.)

Grab yer tracks here, lossless FLAC.

enjoy!  Prove me wrong that this is the best sounding Bitch Magnet set out there.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bitch Magnet: the interviews

Sorry for the rush posting earlier, the BM's were announcing the reissues campaign and wanted to know when the interview was going up live.  Being at work, and stuck doing it via iPhone's Mobile Safari, I had to post the rough version so at least I could get the URLs in place where the BMs wanted them.

I went ahead and cleaned up the posts, tidied a few things up.  Meanwhile some of you are coming over from Chunklet, which asked if they could host a "lite" version for the masses.  Of course, anyone that would consider posting my bit among bits with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross is completely awesome in my book, so of course I said yes.

So enjoy!  The bits are here:

Part I - pre-history to the precipice of Ben Hur

Part II - Ben Hur, the wayward years, and the now
(yes, I know this URL says part 1, it lies. Lies!)

Anybody want to fly me out to London in December?

EXCLUSIVE! Bitch Magnet interview (Part Two)

Here is the continuation of our extensive interview with Bitch Magnet's Jon Fine, continued from Part One.

So, desert island.  What's on the island with you if you just had to pick one of them, Ben Hur or Umber?

Umber's probably the better record, but side one of Ben Hur I'm incredibly proud of, and I'm not even on one third of it.  The first four songs of Ben Hur, through "Mesentery", I think are just really great.  I shouldn't really decide, but, I just couldn't imagine leaving "Dragoon" and "Mesentery" and "Ducks and Drakes" behind, and "Valmead" for that matter, even though I don't play on it.

Did the guys do anything besides "Valmead" and the Codeine song ["Pea"] in Lousiville?

They didn't.  If they did, I don't know about it, and no-one else knows about it.

What brought you back to the band after the double Dave [Dave Galt and David Grubbs] '89 European tour?

Sooyoung asked.  I was somewhat dubious, though intrigued.  He sent me a tape of what would become "Dragoon".  I was sold.

How come three different guys did the Ben Hur sessions?  I know you did a session with Albini, and "Valmead" in Louisville... [and two tracks with McMackin - ed.]

We recorded 30-35 minutes worth of stuff with Albini.  One song didn't really belong there, and as we thought it through, we were like "yeah, it's not really quite long enough, we're going to have to do some other stuff..."  I just remember getting "Mesentery" and "Crescent" together in the basement of my parents' house over the course of a weekend.  Seeing if we had the songs, and we kind of hashed them out.

I love those two songs.

"Crescent",  I frankly despised when it came out.  I thought it was really kind of a throwaway, a weak, sappy pop song.  It's not one of my favorite songs, let's put it that way.  But I think "Mesentery" is really great, [and is] I think Orestes' favorite Bitch Magnet song.  Orestes had gotten a tape of a rough 4-track of "Mesentery", and when we first started playing it, he was playing something different and really kind of crazy for the first part of it.  We actually had to ask him to play something different because we were losing the thread of the song.  I wish now I had a tape of that, because God knows how amazing that was.  Not that what he's playing isn't good, but it was this insane, beautiful thing lost to history.

Maybe he still has a tape somewhere.

Nah, he doesn't.  Believe me, we've scoured the fucking archives.  It might be at my parents' house somewhere. 

Where did "Arden Geist" come from?  Was that Albini just being Albini?

That was us being difficult and not wanting to use his name, being really weirdly stubborn about it, to the point where we would do interviews in Europe and talk about how awesome a guy Arden Geist was.  It was kind of silly.  In that time, Britt Walford played on that first Breeders record and they called him "Shannon Doughton".  There were those weird kind of in-jokes.  I don't know if we should have recorded with Albini again.  He did a perfectly good job, but the association kind of dogs us in a weird way.  There's Big Black... Occasionally I'll read something and they'll talk about Big Black and I'll think "no, there's a drummer here, and entirely different songs, entirely different guitars..."  I just really don't get that.

I don't get that either.  Trouser Press calls you guys "Little Black" which I think is insane.

Eh.  What can you do.

What's that thing in the jar on the
Ben Hur cover?

That is a little plastic model horse, floating in some liquid.

A model horse [surprised].  I don't think anybody could figure that out.

Jesus, really?  I thought that was pretty clear, actually.

Well, maybe it is on the vinyl, but on the CD, since it's so shrunk down...

I don't have the CD here, so... It's a horse.

How did you guys hook up with Bob Stanley, of all people?

Bob Stanley was one of the people who liked us right away, and wrote incredibly nice reviews of us.  We stayed with him on the second tour.  He was doing the singles label [Caff], and we were like, "Sure,  here's a song, and here's a live song."  At that point it was 1990, and he was saying "I'm starting this band called St. Etienne", we'd think, "well whatever".  Now I hear St. Etienne and wow, they're quite different from us.  He was in Melody Maker then, he had some interest in this kind of music, but it does seem that Bitch Magnet is kind of an outlier in the stuff that he likes.  He was pretty helpful to us in Britain back then.

That's a good song, too, "Sadie" [the A-side to the Caff single].  Did you guys hold that back intentionally for something other than an album, or was it just a leftover, or...?

We had it in the repertoire for years.  We were playing it in 1988.  But it just never really seemed to fit.  It was always kind of an outlier.  I think had we done Umber in January '89 it might have showed up on that, it might have made sense.  As we got into thinking through Umber, we realized it didn't fit on that, and then we realized it definitely didn't fit on Ben Hur, it was just the swords thumping.  I like that song a lot.  It just never really fit on anything, it was just kind of a leftover.

It sounds great live, too.

Thank you.  But wait - when? From 1990?


Oh Jesus.

That Ravensburg gig (December 22, 1990, which recently surfaced online).

Oh my God.  I guess Pete was probably using a double kick.  I don't have the guts to listen to that yet.  There were a lot of really really bad shows on that tour.  We got our gear ripped off on the second night, I think.  I had to buy guitars, it was a fucking nightmare.  We kind of made shit up.

Did you get any of that back?


That sucks.

Yeah, what can you do.  It was insured, so I basically replaced it when I got home.  There were just a lot of really bad shows on that tour.  It was clear that Pete wasn't working out, that the whole thing wasn't really working out at that point.

After the last show, was it like "well, see you guys later" and it never happened again, or was it "that's it, guys, I think this is the end"?

It was pretty clear it was the end.  We toured the US with Pete, and we came back and realized when all was said and done we'd lost $50.  I think Sooyoung had decided to go to grad school in spring of the following year.  We were all down in North Carolina, and I said "well, I guess I'm going home then" and Pete was "yeah, I guess I will too."  We kind of knew that was the last go-round.

Were any of those early Seam songs leftovers from Bitch Magnet, or were those all Sooyoung's stuff entirely written for that?

No, it was entirely written for that.  Sooyoung generally had other stuff that he was writing that turned up on different one-off projects, he would just make a 4-track tape at a friend of his.  If I remember correctly, I'm pretty sure that Seam was happening simultaneously as the last Bitch Magnet stuff.  I'm pretty sure that he was playing with Mac [McCaughan, Superchunk] and Lexi [Mitchell] at that point.  It wasn't like he hopped from one thing to another, the other thing was already happening.

What do you think of Seam?  What did you end up thinking of that band?

I didn't really hear a lot of them until much later.  I ended up hearing them live much more than on record, I thought they were a really solid live band.  It was great to watch them.

I saw them a few times in Chicago and I can't remember ever seeing them put on a bad show. But... obviously this is about Bitch Magnet and not about them.  Going back to Bitch Magnet as a band, after it was all said and done, did you guys hear yourselves in anything in the '90s or '00s, amongst all the chaff there?  Did you guys hear any bits of yourselves or anybody dropping the band's name as an influence?

I remember driving around in 1995, in this band called Vineland at that point, and I start hearing a song by a band called Hum on the radio all the time.

What song?

"Stars".  It's their one song. [laughing]  I knew Hum, every time we played in Champaign or whenever they were in New York, the drummer of Hum would corner me and ask me these incredibly obscure questions about Orestes' kick drum technique.  I heard that song and I would think, man, I'm sorry we're an influence on this, I think this is really shitty.  I don't dig this.  It astounds me that the crack in the wall is wide enough that these guys can get a pretty big hit out of it.  I didn't think that they were any good at all.

They actually did pretty well for themselves, for a while there.

They had one record that went gold, the next record disappeared pretty quickly.  They had one song that was a radio hit, got them on MTV, I was just astounded.  I remember playing college dining halls with them in front of 25 people and I didn't think they were particularly good.

How about the reissues?  How did that whole thing start?  Have you guys long thought of getting that stuff back in print?

People had approached me or us, at various times.  Jeremy [of Temporary Residence, the label reissuing the Bitch Magnet records - ed.] was persistent and has a really good setup, and I guess the timing was right.  Enough time had passed, and we were just in a place where we could focus on it enough.  So we were just like, "yeah, sure".  Not much of a story, I admit.

It's one of those things that just sort of organically happened, well that's pretty cool.  You said Jeremy kind of pushed it, so that would explain why it's not on something bigger like Touch and Go, or something like that?

Touch and Go doesn't really exist anymore.  We didn't seek this.  We didn't call people up and say "Hey!  We want to reissue the Bitch Magnet stuff!"  It was just that Jeremy came to us, other people had mentioned stuff in passing, and he was just quietly persistent.  Clearly he was a really solid dude, doing it all right, super organized.  There aren't a lot of labels left.  It's not like we called up Merge, or we called up Sub Pop, and I mean no dis on those guys, I know those guys, it was like "this is fine, this makes sense, let's do it."  The reissues are going to be a cool package, I'm excited by the idea.

What about that session, that newly-discovered session mentioned on your Facebook page, that you didn't quite finish at the time but finished up last fall?

I don't really want to get into tracklisting, and it's not 100% settled yet, but it's a good bet that all the studio stuff will be on it, and we have some unreleased studio stuff that hasn't really been heard, that we mixed and mastered then.

In general, when was that done?  Was that done in between the albums, or was it an EP that never got finished, or...?

All I'm going to say about that now is that it was done in between the albums.

How about the reunion itself?  How did that happen? Did that come from ATP or was that an outgrowth of working together on the reissues?

It was sort of an outgrowth of that.  We were talking about it idly, then we got an offer from All Tomorrow's Parties that was pretty inspiring.  We were just like, yeah, it pretty much feels right.  It was more important that we had enough time to get it together, because we live in three different countries now.  It's not like we meet at the practice space, it's fucking complicated.  We got asked in March, for December.  They made it pretty much worth our while, they've been really great to us.  We're like, "shit, why not?"  Battles is curating it.  I see Ian Williams pretty frequently, he's an old friend of mine.  He asked, and then I got a call from Barry [Hogan, ATP dude - ed.]. 

When you guys first got back together in rehearsal, did it take much time to get back into playing the songs, or did you kind of remember them by muscle memory?

Yeah, there's some muscle memory.  There's a constant sort of discovery and us working on it on our own.  I did some serious listening before we started playing, and I realized...  I played "Valmead" on the 1990 tour.  I thought I was playing the record and I realized I was doing it completely wrong, or at least wrong in a bit.  There's always little things like that to tweak.  Some stuff I have to go back and learn, and some stuff I *really* have to learn.  If we were to get really deep and play everything, there's some stuff that I'd really have to go back and try to remember.

Even bands like R.E.M., you'll talk to Mike Mills and they'll decide to pull out a song they hadn't played in 20 years or whatever, and they'll sit down in their tour bus and learn it note-for-note off the record.  Or they'll send out one of their guys to go buy the music book to remember how to play it.

It would have been a help on certain songs.  A lot of it I pretty much remember, but then I thought I knew it and then I started playing along with it and was like, wow, Jesus, no that's not right.

Does it feel right to be doing it?

It feels great.  It feels fucking awesome.  It feels amazing.

Is that a shared feeling amongst the three of you?

I hope so [laughs].  I think so.  I mean, we're doing this...

That's true...  I know you can't say anything until anything's official, but are there any plans for stuff outside of that single date?

We're looking at doing stuff, but we don't know what's possible, we just don't have anything yet.  We're not averse to playing other shows around that, no.

How about any surprise warmup dates in Vancouver, or something like that, after rehearsal?

[laughs] We'd have to be really on it at that point, and it hasn't really come up yet.  Let me put it this way:  We haven't done it yet, how's that? [laughs]

There you go.  Any thoughts to taking this further after this winter, obviously after seeing how things go over the winter when these dates happen, but any thoughts to taking this further and taking a month off or so and doing a small tour in the States?

Lives are complicated.  There are full-time jobs, different countries.  Orestes has kids and he's working in a different place from them now.  Unfortunately our lives aren't that flexible where we can be like "yeah, screw it, for six weeks we're going to be in fill-in-the-blank and not working."  You know, we're grownups, there's Shit We Need To Do.

Gotta pay the mortgage...

It would be great, we've certainly kicked it around, as like "boy, it would be great if we can do this for a month" and then we just knock it out.  But, it's just not really feasible with the geographic distances that are involved.  There's not really an app where we can all practice together online.

So right now it's kind of the early Mission of Burma reunion path, just one day at a time, see what happens, see what falls your way.

Sure, yeah.

Remember, when they first got back together, it really was just that one-off show.  I think they just realized how good it felt, and, well, they're still back together 9 years later.  That's an ideal path for...  If you're going to point to a band that hadn't been together in God knows how long, to do it again, I would point to that band.  Because I don't think they lost anything.

They were one of the bands that I pointed to:  "Well, Black Flag never got back together.  Mission of Burma never got back together."  And then they did... They've all lived in Boston all these years.  I don't know if you've spent time in Boston, but Boston's fucking tiny!  They probably trip over each other on the way to the fucking deli.  "Oh hey Pete, what the fuck, how you doing? Blah blah blah blah blah."  No dis on them, they are a really important band to me.  One of my favorite Burma songs is on their second reunion record, "2wice", the first song.  I think that's a really great song.

I love "Donna Sumeria", I think that's a classic song.

That's a really good song too.  I guess I like Clint songs better than Roger songs.  "Donna Sumeria" is Roger, right?  It sounds like a Roger title.

I think it is a Roger song, yeah.

No dis on Roger.

You guys writing anything while rehearsing, or is it strictly just "hey, we gotta remember these things"?

We just haven't had a chance to do that.  Some of these songs are fucking complicated!  It's more important that we get that right than we start writing five new songs.  We've got a finite amount of time, and God knows we don't want to do this and suck.  That's really not acceptable.

You gotta start wearing that Your Band Sucks T-shirt on your next CNBC gig [laughs].

We stole that from a Thrown-Ups 7", actually.  Sooyoung came up with that flyer and I just adored it, for quite obvious reasons.  It was a good thing to put up on the wall at Oberlin, with all of their bands.  It was a good thing to throw down.  I think we also had the advantage that we were probably the only people at that time who knew about that Thrown-Ups song, so it looked like we were being original.

I nearly forgot the biggest question, what are you going to do about the hair?  Gonna go buy a wig? [laughing]

Oh Jesus Christ man, I wish I knew.  When my wife first saw me play music, she said "yeah, you do this weird thing where you shook your head around, what's that about?"  When I first started playing on stage, when I did that there was a dramatic thing going on, but now it just looks like I'm having epilepsy or something.  I don't know.  I'm going to have to relearn it.  It's a problem, it's really a problem.  Maybe I'll go in a neck brace so I'm not tempted.  Someone told me that Jason Newsted of Metallica actually can't headbang anymore, he's fucked up his spine so much from doing it.  So maybe I'll just have to pretend I'm Jason Newsted or something.


Or just have someone on the stage do it for you, have a minion just do the headbanging for you.

Yeah, if [Slint's] Brian McMahan can get someone to play guitar for him, maybe I can get someone to headbang for me!  [laughter]

Thanks Jon for the time, the stories and not least the music!

EXCLUSIVE! Bitch Magnet interview (Part One)

As has been previously announced, blog favorites Bitch Magnet have reformed to play at least one gig in December, at All Tomorrow's Parties in the UK.  Companion to that is an upcoming reissue program, news of which was briefly on the band's Facebook page until disappearing into the ether, until today.  With today's formal announcement of the reissue program on Brooklyn label Temporary Residence, it is my honor to present another blog exclusive, a very lengthy interview with Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine.  Jon was kind enough to respond to my out-of-the-blue request to interview him or the band for the blog, as we'd already initiated a semi-coherent series of email correspondence, but even then the graciousness in giving me more than an hour of his time - on the hottest day of the year so far, for most of the Northeast, is not forgotten.

photo: Lexi Mitchell
Thanks to A) Jon, and B) my iPhone's Google Voice app, without which A) there would have been no interview, and B) it couldn't have been recorded.

I daresay this is - without question - the most detailed, lengthy, and nugget-filled bit about Bitch Magnet on the Internets.  I'd also suspect that in the entire universe of Bitch Magnet articles/interviews/tidbits, this is up there at the top too.  So enjoy!

For readability's sake, this is split into two (simultaneously-posted) segments. This is segment one.


Interviewed late July 2011
Interview and transcription by Analog Loyalist 

[Google Voice: This call is now being recorded.]

Well I guess we're being recorded!

I'll try not to say anything too fucked up!

Ah that's OK, I work in liability claims so I'm used to the two-party consent crap.

That's actually a state-by-state thing.  You know, I'm a journalist, or at least I was, I'm kind of a recovering journalist now.  I think it's actually state by state.

It is.

But we're both in New York State, which I think is a consent state.

I deal with New England, and half the states in New England are two party consent states, so you just say it all the time, that way we always cover our butts.  Anyhow, well thank you for doing this, I appreciate that, I think it's pretty cool.  You guys as hot out there as we are?  I'm out here in Buffalo, not that far from you geographically, so...

I'm in upstate New York, about two hours north of the city right now, and it's pretty fucking hot, actually.  The city, where I was earlier, was truly astonishing.  But you know, we're grownups, we have air conditioning in our apartments now, you go outside, you get a little Southern, you walk a little slower, you drink water, you try not to whine too much.

Being from Chicago I'm used to that heat, unfortunately.

In any city when there's over the course of the year a 110-degree temperature swing, I'm pretty impressed with that.

Anyhow, I guess might as well get started from the beginning.  I was just curious how it all came together at Oberlin.  That's such a small scene there if anything, you guys and Liz Phair...

Oh my god you're really going back!  This all happened a long time ago, I'm not sure I can correctly fact check everything, but basically I was an itchy underfucked 18 year old from New Jersey.  There was a really impressive campus band at the time called Pay The Man, the drummer was named Orestes and the guitarist was named Chris Brokaw, whom you've probably heard of...

Of course, yeah...

I was into punk rock, this was the first band that was in front of me doing that, they didn't have any records out.  For a lot of stupid reasons they didn't get to do a proper record.  You would go and see them every weekend playing in the lounge of a dormitory or someone's house on campus and you'd be like, "wow!"  You grow up a hundred years ago and you think you've got to be like Bruce Springsteen to be in rock and roll, and then you think OK, I can be in a big punk rock band like the Replacements, but with Pay The Man it was like you can really do this.  I had an itch, I was trying to put together a band with some friends of mine, but there was also this skinny Asian dude walking around campus, who was always wearing jeans and a big fucking white T-shirt.  Half the time he was carrying [the Hüsker Dü blistering hardcore debut] Land Speed Record, so you know, he had to be cool.


That was Sooyoung Park.  He was playing in some bands.  We started chatting. 

Would this have been '85?

Sooyoung and I got to college in '85, I guess this was spring 1986.  I meet him and we start talking about music.  We try to play in my dorm room with his bass and my guitar running through my Marshall 10-watt amp.  He was in another band, he was writing songs, [but] they weren't that into them.  Early sophomore year, really early, it just became clear that we were going to play together.  He knew this drummer that was kind of a hippie, but we just started playing under the name.  This was fall '86, I guess.  We weren't particularly good, I in particular was not good at all, and the drummer wasn't right for the band.  I desperately wanted to play fast, that was my one thing.  I wanted to be a really fucking fast hardcore band.  Our drummer liked the Grateful...  You know, we just couldn't quite do that.  About six months in, after recording a demo with another drummer, we precipitated the drummer quitting.  Orestes was playing with another band at that point, but we just grabbed him and he was into it.  Almost immediately it got a hundred times better.  This was now spring 1987.  We recorded a demo with him a week after we started playing with him, that no-one's ever going to hear...  We really hadn't got it together yet.  The summer of '87 Orestes was going to be in Atlanta.  Sooyoung and I had nothing else to do, so we went down to Atlanta too.  There wasn't a lot to do in Atlanta, but we practiced a lot and we really got it together and Sooyoung's songwriting took a quantum leap.  At that point Sooyoung started writing the songs that turned up on Star Booty.  Summer 87 we're playing "Carnation", we're playing "Polio", "Cantaloupe"...  We played one show summer of '87, in Atlanta, with a crappy band called Rotten Gimmick.  It was at this guy's loft.  At one point during our set there was nobody in the room.  And when I say that there was nobody in the room I don't mean there was the sound guy, and the guy tending bar, and someone asleep.  Everybody was outside including the guy who owns the loft, including his dog.  Nobody was in the fucking room.  So we just kind of looked at each other, and we said "you know, it's a practice so we're just gonna play it."  So that's the summer of '87, and from there on it's a gradual process of getting it together.  We recorded Star Booty in January 1988.

That was by yourselves, right?  At Oberlin?

Yeah, that was Oberlin.  There's a conservatory at Oberlin, they had an 8-track recording studio.  The recordings were super dirty and weird, as anyone can tell from looking at it.  We dragged them to Chicago to get them remixed [by Steve Albini - ed.].  There were enormous efforts placed on it, and it still sounds like a fucking botched abortion that was recorded terribly.  I have a real fondness for it, but it's a really strange sounding record.

I would agree, there's some parts of it that I think are fantastic and that completely look forward to what came next, but there are parts that are hard to hear through the muck.

It's a ridiculous thing.  I'm really fond of it.  I like more than half of the songs, easily, but...  Jesus is it a weird fucking thing.  We just didn't know what the fuck we were doing.  We recorded an album, we had the studio for $100 a day for three days.  They weren't really set up to record a loud rock band, the room was ridiculous, but it is what it is and I'm oddly proud of it.

I think a lot of bands say that too, about their very first ever record.  It's always going to be the first, always got that spot [in their hearts]...

Okayyy, let's see here.  All the bands I'm thinking of have pretty crappy first records too.  Led Zeppelin's first record, which I think they recorded maybe a year after being together, is pretty fucking impressive.  Look at Minor Threat's early records.  They came out of the gate and it was like, bang!  Black Flag is a really important band to me, and they took a long time to get up to full speed.  I like the post-hardcore stuff.  I like their metal stuff, basically.  

How did you hook up with Albini in the first place?

We sent him a demo tape of the session we recorded at Oberlin, with a stamped postcard for comment, and he actually responded.  This was a very, very, very long time ago. 

Did Steve improve the record?

Yeah, yeah he did.  We're in the studio, he'd say "you realize on this song, the guitar track is recorded at about the level of the ambient noise in the room..."  That's how poorly it's recorded.  What the fuck do I know, I'm 19, I had my head up my ass.  "Just do what you can to try and make it sound like something."  And he did.  Somewhere presumably I have cassettes of it before he mixed it, but God knows what that shit sounds like.

Well, it's always something to put on the box set.

Assuming we can actually find it.

Going back to the Oberlin thing.  There weren't very many tiny... I mean I went to a small school too, I went to Colorado College right around the same time, a small liberal arts school in Colorado Springs.

Oh yeah, yeah.

There wasn't shit there either, there were the tiny campus bands and that was it.  Their biggest aspiration was to play the next party...

There was actually something going on at Oberlin.  Pay The Man was a big deal.  They recorded some stuff, it was number one on the college radio station.  My freshman year alone there was another band that Chris Brokaw was in called The Full-Bodied Gentlemen, there was a band called What Fell that was kind of a pop band but kinda grimy, there were a couple of weird bands.  Being in the middle of nowhere, with the closest major city being Cleveland and maybe 3000 people on campus, there was a shocking amount going on.  Every weekend you could go out, there would be keg parties and bands playing.  I'm not saying they were all great, but they were doing stuff, you would learn songs and it felt like something real.  It wasn't like a Battle of the Bands in high school.  When I would go to the Battle of the Bands in high school, there would be eight bands, and five of them would do the same Quiet Riot song.  These were bands writing their own material, having some level of ambition.

That's what I meant, for such a small place, to have that going on is pretty unique.

I guess.  I don't really know what to compare it to.  But '85-'86 is when you have the SST bands really established, the major ones are coming out with their big records.  '85 was [Meat Puppets] Up On The Sun, '85 was a year or so after [Hüsker Dü] Zen Arcade, New Day Rising.  Black Flag is obviously really established.  The seeds had been kind of sown, and shit, it's college in the eighties.  What are we going to do, go to class and study?  Don't you want to play in a fucking rock band?  It was a pretty easy decision for me to make.

To get a guy like Orestes there with that kind of talent, from the beginning... There were very few of his caliber in that scene that I can think of offhand.

He's basically ruined me for... I've had really amazing luck with drummers, historically.  The first fucking band I was in was with Orestes.  Very briefly in New York I played in a band with the drummer from Phantom Tollbooth, who was a fabulous drummer.  I played with Jerry Fuchs for years.  I was in a band with Kevin Shea.  It was crazy.  But Orestes is the best.  Even my dad, who doesn't know a lot about punk rock, would see Bitch Magnet and to this day he'd say "you know Orestes was really something."  It's true... I've just never experienced anything like this.  We'd come to practice and Sooyoung would say "here's a new song."  Sooyoung would play the bass, Orestes would nod his head and play something.  Sooyoung would say "here's the chorus" and he would play that, Orestes would nod his head and play something, and we'd play the song.  It was literally like that.  When we were putting "Dragoon" together for Ben Hur, Sooyoung would send a tape and he showed up and we would just blast it through.  It's ridiculous.  At the time, Orestes was a replacement drummer for Pay The Man.  He replaced a guy named Pete Pollack, which may be a name that's familiar to you if you're really sneaky.  When he replaced Pete Pollack, we went "oh I don't know, Pete's this really amazing drummer, Orestes, I don't know, he plays fusion or something..."  He's had an interesting background, he's been drumming his whole life.  He was out in Arizona, he wasn't playing any rock music but he was playing with a bunch of Brazilian bands.  Brazilian percussion is a fucking bitch.  Bossanova, it looks very simple, but it's like doing sixteenths with one hand and something different with the other hand, and there's no action, it's got to be really smooth. If it fucks up it feels really bad, and if it's good you just notice this bed.  But you don't understand unless you know how hard it is to play.  That's basically what he plays, and he's incredibly strong.  He just warms up on the kit and he's musical.  The only other person I've known who's done that has been Jerry Fuchs.  They just start playing and it sounds like a song.  It's unbelievable.  There is a music school at Oberlin, but Orestes wasn't there for that, none of us were in the music program.  That was classical and was hard-ass.

Who would you rank him with among other people of that same era?  Like maybe Rey Washam?  He'd be up there...

I think Orestes Morfin is the greatest drummer in the world.  He's just the best.  I'm serious.  Nothing against Rey Washam, he's a fucking unbelievable drummer.  Orestes is like fucking John Bonham if John Bonham could play crazy percussion.  I'm really serious about this.  This was my first band, this was Sooyoung's first band that did out of town shows.  We just found this fucking guy.  Also, it turns out that Sooyoung was an incredibly skilled songwriter, and I guess we had a thing going. We got lucky.  I'm honored to have played with Orestes.  When I started playing with these guys, I wasn't anywhere fucking near them, I was kind of riding their slipstreams for a long time, and still probably am.

Not a knock on the other guy, but you listen to the recordings of you guys that are out there from late 1990 vs. the recordings from before that, and there is a clear difference.

There is, and that was Pete Pollack.  Pete Pollack became the replacement drummer for us [in 1990 - ed.].

He's good, you can't deny that...

He's more than good, I think he got a Ph.D in percussion.  He is enormously good.  His orientation was a little more metal, which at the time I thought was great.  When we had to replace Orestes, we tried out him and we tried out Damon Che [later of Don Caballero - ed.].  We were desperately trying to find the drummer from Gore, the Dutch band, [but] we had no idea where the fuck to find him.  We got both Damon and Pete down in North Carolina.  Damon couldn't really assume with time signature standards on.  For the 4/4 stuff it was unbelievable what he played, but he just couldn't do the other stuff.  Pete ate that shit up, he was really good and he is really good.  But he was a different drummer, it's a different style, and it turned out that Orestes was really irreplaceable.

Damon Che, though, didn't end up doing too bad for himself anyway, when it was all said and done.

No he didn't.  At that point, this is 2 years before Don Caballero did anything.  Pittsburgh was a small, really fruitful scene, but everyone thought Damon was a weirdo and nobody could be in a band with him.  I was like, "you guys are kinda fucking up because clearly this is an enormously talented drummer beyond anything."  If you want to be in a band with your best friend who's maybe not that great a musician, well that's fine, but don't you want to do this to do it, don't you want to get the best shit you can get going, and hopefully it all works?  I didn't get that.  Damon had to form his own band, and yeah, it worked out alright.

Tell me about Communion.  How did you guys hook up with them?  You look at their discography and a lot of it's like the Shamen and all sorts of weird UK stuff.

It was really complicated at the time.  I think when Gary Held got in touch with us, it was technically Fundamental, which was a distributor that also had a label that was putting out a ton of stuff, most of which wasn't super distinguished.  It was nothing more complicated than we put out the record ourselves, it sold out, it was easy then.  It sold out really quickly.  We got some good reviews.  People came around and wanted to do something with us.  He courted us in the US, he checked out alright, and we pretty much did it.  I think Communion was something that he did himself, I think at a certain point Communion reflected his tastes a little more. 

Did you guys have any problems getting the stuff out in stores?

We had really good luck.  We kept running into people who were immediately really good to us, who wrote really nice things about us, opened a few doors for us.  I was a college radio nerd, I desperately wanted to be on Homestead Records because this was 1988.  Gerard [Cosloy, Homestead label dude] was like that wasn't going to happen, but he was great to us.  He did a lot of shows with us, he helped us in innumerable ways.  You were kind of going from handhold to handhold, and there was always someone sticking their hand out.  Here's someone who wants to distribute 250 records, here's someone who wants to distribute 500 records in Europe, and they're going to introduce you to someone who wants to put out a record.  And here's someone else who wants to put out a record.  Here's someone in Chicago at some distributor, here's a writer who wrote something really nice who's going to introduce you to this guy... It happened really quickly.  We pressed a thousand fucking records, and it felt like in 2 or 3 weeks they were pretty much all gone.  By fall break of that year, we were talking to people about the next record, plus pushing the other one, it just happened really quickly.

Is that around the same time that you hooked up with [Mike] McMackin?

Mike McMackin had gone to Oberlin, he'd recorded a Pay The Man session that ended up not getting released.  I think Steve Immerwahr, who went on to form Codeine, had some connection with him.  Initially we were supposed to record Umber in January 1989 with Albini, but Orestes had a death in the family and we had to cancel at the last minute.  Albini ended up giving that studio time to Slint, and that's when they recorded the session that became the 10" on Touch and Go.  So, I'm happy to have contributed to some significant rock history, as well as playing in this band.

Those are two of my favorite recordings of theirs.  It's a nice little touchpoint to where they could have been, had they stayed with Steve.

I think their orientation was changing.  We were really into Tweez, we were totally obsessed with that record.  When Spiderland came out, a bunch of us said, "oh, well, I don't know about this..."  That's pretty well stood the test of time.  I've heard that record a few too many times, for sure, but side one of that you can't even touch.  It's just really spectacular.  And they did that when they were 20?  They were really young when they did that.

They were teenagers when they did Tweez.

By the way, Tweez, that's not a bad first record to have...

Very much underrated, too.

I haven't listened to it in a while, I should listen to it again.  We listened to it a lot.  A lot.  That was when you had three or four records and you just played it all the time, because there wasn't the volume of stuff that there is now.

Do you think Umber would have been any different had you stuck with Steve [in January 1989]?

That's kind of impossible to tell.  I'm trying to think of any songs that ended up on Umber that we wouldn't have been able to record then, in January.  I think we pretty much had the track selection...  I'm really proud of Umber.  Actually, here's a big difference.  There would only have been one guitarist there on that, and not two.  It would have just been me, not me and Dave Galt.  You know, who knows.  Mike was really good to work with.  I was disappointed with the sound of it when it came out, because it still feels a little too bright.  Hopefully with the remastering we've tweaked it a little bit.

You know, I've noticed that too, it's pretty high in the upper mids.

Yeah.  "Motor" was an incredibly complicated song for [McMackin] to mix.  This was 24 tracks, and there's ten tracks of guitars, there's constantly things double-tiered, things being flown in, it was crazy complicated then.  Now of course, I talk to Ian Williams of Battles and I say "You know, Motor's a really complicated track.  There's ten tracks of guitar."  And he looks at me and he says, "dude, there's like a hundred different musical tracks on any song on any record."  I can't answer that [about the difference].  All the songs were there.  On balance it's probably better that we had six more months to hone them.  We had a concentrated period of two weeks of playing all day, really working on that stuff.

Where did Dave Galt come from?  Was he a friend of yours from Oberlin?

Yeah, we all went to Oberlin with him, he was really good friends with Orestes.  He and Orestes formed a band post-Bitch Magnet called God Rifle, some of their stuff is floating around.

Was there some point where you guys said "hey, we need to get another guitarist in here, it's too much for Jon Fine to handle"?

The sequence of events went like this:  "Jon, we want you to leave Bitch Magnet."


Really.  For a variety of personal bullshit, primarily.  I was not an easy person to be around.  You're just talking to me on the phone, you can tell I talk fast, I'm gesturing with my hands, I'm pretty high-strung now.  When I was 20, I was out of my fucking mind.  Orestes and Sooyoung, they have their own version of this, but they're much mellower, quieter dudes.  We're remarkably different people.  I was not an easy person to be around.  I wasn't.  So they said, "We want you out.  We're doing this record."  About three days after this conversation I pulled Sooyoung aside and said "look, I get it, that you don't want me in the band anymore, that's fine.  But we should record this album.  We worked it out, if someone else is on it, fine, but I think this is really the thing to do."  He said, "yeah, you're right."  I want to just double-emphasize this is my side of it, they have a different side of it, this happened 22 years ago.  So we graduate college in May of '89, and then at the end of June '89 we record Umber after woodshedding for about 2-3 weeks, 6-8 hours a day, in my parents' basement in New Jersey.

So would that explain that tour that fall in Europe, where you weren't there?

That would explain it, yeah.

What did you think of those songs, the way they were performed then?

I wasn't at the shows, and I haven't listened to that stuff a lot, I feel like I kind of can't judge.  They were doing a slightly different thing then, and you know, fine.

Of that era, what about "Valmead", there's a lot of people that might call that one of your band's best songs?

That's a fucking amazing song, that's a beautiful song.

Did it ever have lyrics, or was it always an instrumental?

Never had lyrics.  That was written during the period when I wasn't in the band, which was 7 or 8 months.  As far as I know it was always instrumental.  In all the times I've played it with Sooyoung there was never any vocals.  By the time you get to Ben Hur you see that there is a willingness to basically not sing for extended periods of time.

Going back to Umber.  A lot of that stuff kind of predated, I'm not even sure if you'd call it post-rock, really, because it really wasn't, and that's such a retarded term, anyway.  Things like "Americruiser" or "Douglas Leader", those tracks stand out from that record.  Do you think they still stand out?

I really like that record.  "Douglas Leader" is very special, and I say that as someone who is barely on it.  When you're doing something that minimal, it's gotta really hit right, or else it's just completely a failure.  And that is hit perfectly right.  "Americruiser" is funny.  Notionally I don't love it, because structurally it's not really that interesting, and the parts individually aren't that interesting, but when I started playing it again with Orestes, I was like, "oh yeah!  I remember!"  He just fucking elevated it.  The conversational aspect of it was nice.  It's all feel.  The feel of "Americruiser" is really right, and just came out really nicely in the studio, almost accidentally.  At the end, it was 5 or 6 in the morning, I was alone doing overdubs, and I just jammed my fucking guitar up against the speaker and let it go "wrurrrrhhrhrhhhrrrrr" and it turned out to work.  There was no forethought to it.  It was the feel, that Orestes was kind of hanging back a little on the beat, the control in his playing, little weird rhythmic fill-ins here and there that really make it.  The bass part's pretty nice too...  The soft-to-loud thing is kind of idiotic.  God knows you had all those fucking alternarock bands in the '90s just grind that shit into the ground.

But, they weren't really doing it when you guys were, that's the thing.  You guys were among the initiators of that.

I guess that's true.  For instance, "Clay" has a similar structure.  That was kind of a leap-forward song, we were like, "wow! We can turn off the distortion boxes! How about that!"  It's not super sophisticated.  I don't understand post-rock.  It's one of those terms like grunge that I feel is not descriptive of anything but has gotten applied to stuff.  To me, I thought post-rock was supposed to be like Tortoise, and I don't think that really has any bearing on what we're doing.  I just hoped people dug it and that it was meaningful.

Another track from
Umber that stands out, at least to me, is "Joan Of Arc".

Oh my god, I looove that song!  Ummph!  Oh my god do I love that song.

If you didn't have Sooyoung's vocals on there, I think... I can't fault anyone for thinking this, but it sounds like a Scratch Acid song.

Look, I love Scratch Acid.  I saw Scratch Acid and they were fucking fabulous.  Not to take anything away from Rey Washam, who's just a supreme fucking drummer.  But what Orestes is doing on the verse, he's basically playing an entirely separate line that's not really connected.  He's not in 3/4, he's not playing with us, and when he comes back with us he starts playing in a different time signature against us.  I don't think Rey really did shit like that.  Rey had a different kind of attack and a different way of going about it.

It wasn't the drums in that song that made me think that, it was the guitars.  It sounds a lot like Brett Bradford on that song.

OK, but Brett played a Strat and I didn't.  Shit, I'll take it, whatever.  I don't get that.  I love that song, it's actually one of my favorite Bitch Magnet songs.  We recorded it a couple times, and I don't think it ever sounded on record the way it sounded to me.  On Umber it's kind of idiosyncratic, I don't really care for the way that the guitars were mixed and produced, it's slightly different from how I actually play it.  But the way I played it was hard to record, because I was just fucking playing straight up-and-down eighth notes or sixteenth notes, grinding at it, and made it sound like poo.  But I adore that song.  Adore, adore, adore it.

It's an amazing song.  It's no scratch on you guys, or anything, it's just what it sounded like to me.  I remember when I very first heard the song, I thought, "this sounds like Scratch Acid."

Kinda slow, though, for them, right?  I always felt that the guitar in Scratch Acid was more note-based than chord-based.  Like there would always be the breaks where they would go [twanging guitar line], or whatever.  I thought ["Joan Of Arc"] was my gem, I wanted to fill up a lot of fucking space.

What was the reaction like to that record once you guys put it out, what was the general critical reaction of the teeming millions?

People seemed to like it, it got really good reviews.  I knew it was a really good record.  I knew that after Star Booty we had something really powerful up our sleeves, I just knew it.  We all knew it.  It didn't matter that no-one else knew, and it didn't matter that we were playing some godforsaken show in Youngstown and 20 people were there, we knew that we were on fucking fire.  That's a really powerful thing to feel.  I was glad that there was some reaction, that people seemed to like it, but I can't sit here and quote reviews to you.  We had better distribution, but it wasn't like Rolling Stone.  Nothing happened that vaulted it out of the post-punk or the post-hardcore underground, which by the way is fine.  I had a lot of weird feelings about it because I really didn't like the way it sounded, but I was young enough and aggro enough to be kind of pissed off about it.  I don't think any of us really liked the way it sounded.  But, as I say I just knew it was an incredibly strong record.

Any thoughts at that point of moving to something bigger label-wise, like a Homestead, or any approaches to you guys to do anything?

Our label in Europe went under, and we got picked up by Glitterhouse which at that point was a pretty prominent label.  If Homestead or Touch and Go had called us, we probably would have done our third record with them. I don't think we were under contract in the US, and you know they didn't, and that was fine.  It was a little more "rawk" than what those guys were doing, and that was cool.  So we did Ben Hur with Glitterhouse there, and Communion in the US.

Part Two (yes, I know the URL says Part I....sue me.)