Monday, August 1, 2011

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.)

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