You know you’ve taken your relationship with an indie bookstore to the next level when you walk in and the owner says, “Nance, I’ve been holding onto this book for you to read, my contribution to your music memoir writing process,” and hands you a book over the cashier desk. (Don’t worry, I proceeded to buy enough other books for the kids’ care package fodder that she still came out ahead.) But my indie bookseller Kathleen and I share a love of alternative music and music memoir, and Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) (Penguin, 2015) by Jon Fine is a terrific addition to the genre.
Fine was a guitarist with a series of bands that he cheerfully admits in the opening pages never came close to mainstream popularity or commercial success, and as you read the book it’s clear that fiduciary compensation was never exactly his end goal. (Although he probably wouldn’t have minded a few more coins toward the hotel fund, so he and his two bandmates could have had their own beds or even rooms once in a while on tour.) The bands, including Bitch Magnet, Vineland, and Coptic Light, made music characterized by unusual time signatures and high volumes, and lyrics were secondary (tertiary?) to the listening experience. It’s sometimes called Math Rock and if you took the record store clerk played by Jack Black in High Fidelity and the captain of the Mathletes team in your high school, their bastard love child would be a Bitch Magnet fan.
Here’s something I love about music fans (and musicians themselves have to be counted first in that number): I may completely disagree with their opinions, but I recognize and respect their conviction. Given the derision Fine has for bands that tiptoed just slightly away from the “indie” label in pursuit of more conventional forms and the dollars that follow (he hates the Pixies something awful,) I imagine my long held, unapologetic love of all things Neil Finn puts me beneath his contempt. I get that. Before this book, I didn’t even know what math rock is. But I love how Fine loves it. “…there weren’t that many fans of this music—only those really deeply into it will recognize most of those names—because few normal people care enough to spend time parsing which measure is in five and which is in seven.” Not that many normal people have actually visited the New Zealand town of Te Awamutu to see the Neil Finn museum either. The expression of our musical devotion may be different, but it’s identical at the root.
For me the most fascinating parts of the book were in the details of touring life in the ‘90s, particularly the economics of how musicians in small bands like Bitch Magnet got by. Whether it’s the long, kind of gross but ultimately funny chapter on the etiquette around the piss bottle in the van, the details around the sales and ultimate financial wake up call faced by a “breakout” band in the genre, Urge Overkill, or why it is imperative to have your merch table stocked and staffed (hint: that’s probably the difference between making and losing money on a gig) Fine pulls back the curtain on the realities of the working musician’s life.
Not to be overlooked: very cool cover. I was reading this at a hotel pool last weekend, and it was filled with a bunch of bloviating 20-something VCs bemoaning how back when THEY graduated back in ’08, not everyone expected an iPhone, but these young kids coming out of school right now have SUCH a sense of entitlement. I kept repositioning myself so that if they looked up at me, all they’d see was a white on black YOUR BAND SUCKS.
Fine, who has a degree from and backhanded affection for Oberlin College, ultimately left full-time to write, first for Ad Week, then to write the award-winning “Media Centric” column for BusinessWeek. (He also married Laurel Touby, founder of the super useful site MediaBistro and publishing rockstar in her own right.) But when an opportunity came to reunite Bitch Magnet for what was supposed to be a handful of dates in 2012, of course he couldn’t resist – and his entertaining ruminations on being a middle aged punk rocker are the result. Big takeaway: wear your earplugs, baby bands.
When I read book blurbs on the back cover it’s usually to see who provided them, and not necessarily what they’ve said: they’re called endorsements for a reason. But the one from James Murphy, singer and founder of LCD Soundsystem, sums up Your Band Sucks perfectly: “Jon Fine has done something miraculous: he managed to drag me through a time in my life that I hated and made me actually miss it.” You might not ever want to repeat Fine’s indie math rock journey, but you’ll completely understand why he took the trip.