Monday, August 1, 2011

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!


  1. Fantastic interview. I was in a band with Peter Pollack (the extremely short-lived Bale), and it's great to get all this background on BM. I still like Hum, though.

  2. Shhhh… I like Hum too. I see where Jon's coming from though, the drums do try to riff off Orestes.

    I like Hum guitarist Jeff Dimpsey's contributions as second guitarist better on Poster Children's Daisychain Reaction record than any singular Hum track, though.