As has been announced, Bitch Magnet are reforming to play at least one gig in December, at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK. Companion to that is an upcoming reissue program via Temporary Residence, 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, it is my honor to present an interview with Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine. Jon was kind enough to respond to my out-of-the-blue request to interview him, 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.
By Drew Crumbaugh
DC: 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…
JF: Basically I was an itchy underfucked 18 year old from New Jersey. 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 [Hüsker Dü’s] Land Speed Record, so you know, he had to be cool.
That was Sooyoung Park. He was playing in some bands. We started chatting. 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.
Yeah. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Tell me about Communion. How did you guys hook up with them?
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.
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.
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." 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. 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 to 3 weeks, 6 to 8 hours a day, in my parents’ basement in New Jersey.
[Songs] like "Americruiser" or "Douglas Leader" 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.
What was the reaction like to that record once you guys put it out?
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.
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 to 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. "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.
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 Records] 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.
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 organizer —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.
Does it feel right to be doing it?
It feels great. It feels fucking awesome. It feels amazing.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.
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. [laughter]
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]
The doubly long version of this interview is available over here.
And in case you missed it the first time, here’s the band’s Ho Cakes demo which we put up on the site a few years back. And finally, as a special bonus, here’s a couple acoustic Bitch Magnet tracks, a demo of "Crescent," and a particularly fun/drunk live show from the (Jon Fine-less) Bitch Magnet tour in Enger ’89. (They even do a Codeine song with Steve who was their merch guy at the time!)
Bitch Magnet – Where Eagles Dare (Enger ’89)
Bitch Magnet – I Just Wanna Go Home (Enger ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Buick Mackane (Enger ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Ziggy Stardust (Enger ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Pea (Enger ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Sea of Pearls (acoustic ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Sword (acoustic ’89)
Bitch Magnet – Crescent (demo ’90)
Bitch Magnet – Valmead (London ’90)
Bitch Magnet – Motor (London ’90)