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Even in this era of Every Band That Ever Existed Must And Will Reunite, the return of Bitch Magnet is surprising, a bit shocking, really — as if a Mars space probe long given up for lost somehow found its way back to Earth.
Beginning in 1987, the North Carolina-via-Ohio band–still clinging to the tail end of their teenage years — raged cacophonously, helping usher in a particularly complex and artful form of quasi-punk aggression that came to be called “post-hardcore” or “math-rock.” Three exhilarating albums got made, members left (sometimes under less-than-amicable circumstances) and then returned, and finally the whole thing disintegrated in 1990. Diehard devotees of the late ’80s noise underground may have remembered them fondly over the next two decades, but as good as they were, Bitch Magnet’s legacy never grew into the kind of hallowed mystique afforded to peers like Slint or Polvo, and the band appeared permanently exiled to history. So the fact that they’re an active band again in 2012, however welcome the re-emergence, just seems a bit . . . weird.
“For you and me both,” laughs guitarist Jon Fine. “I have no idea how any of this happened.” He and Bitch Magnet drummer Orestes Morfin are in a taxi heading for the airport. The night before, they teamed with singer-bassist Sooyoung Park in Seattle for the reconstituted trio’s first U.S. show in 22 years; the first of just five dates in the States before Bitch Magnet disbands again for good. The gig went great; Mudhoney’s Mark Arm even joined them onstage for a set-closing cover of Minor Threat’s “Filler.”
“We feel incredibly fortunate that some people remember us,” says Fine. “This band was very meaningful to us, and it appears to have been very meaningful to a few other people, too.”
These days, the trio seems several lifetimes away from the roiling, noisy days of their Bitch Magnet youth. The New York-based Fine’s currently an editorial director at Magnum Photos; for a while he was a columnist at BusinessWeek magazine and a regular on CNBC, and he’s written articles for The Atlantic and Food & Wine (for which he won a 2011 James Beard Award). Morfin’s a hydrogeochemist who lives in Calgary, and Park, a software developer, splits his time between Singapore and Seoul. While Fine and Morfin have always kept one foot in the music world with various bands and projects, Park — whose post-Bitch Magnet band Seam was active for most of the ’90s — hadn’t so much as picked up an instrument for a dozen years prior to the reunion.
The impetus for the return was the 2011 reissue of Bitch Magnet’s three albums — Star Booty, Umber and Ben Hur — on Temporary Residence. An invitation to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K. last December was extended, and after much discussion the three finally agreed to give it a shot. “To be perfectly honest, I resisted the whole idea at first,” admits Park. “I was the one holdout who had to be convinced, just because I knew it would take a lot of time to prepare to do something like this and we’re all in different parts of the world.”
After nine months of planning, rehearsals, and warm-up shows in Korea and Japan, Bitch Magnet made a triumphant appearance at ATP, delivering a gloriously knotty racket and making the effort worthwhile. “It’s been a lot more fun than I imagined it would be,” says Park. “I think I was coming back to it almost as an outsider covering another band because it had been so long. I really like the way it’s sounding, but it’s really strange picking up where you left off 20-something years ago.”
“There are many surprises in adulthood, but this weird kind of punk-rock band that I was in, that I still keep giving a shit about it, is up there,” says Fine, who laughs that the encroachment of his past life on his present one has made for some interesting situations. “I’ll meet people who are older, in the world of finance, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh you’re in a band, what’s the band?’ And I say the name and they’re like, ‘Ohh huh huh huh huh . . .’ and I’m like, you know, this is a real thing and I’m sorry you don’t get it. And then usually they start talking about how awesome Bruce Springsteen is and I want to kill them and myself.”
After this brief run of shows, though, the trio promises it’s closing the books on Bitch Magnet for good. We’ve heard that one before (hello, Slint), but Park swears it’s true. “No more recordings, no more shows — we’re gonna be the band that says they’re finished and actually means it. We keep saying it but no one wants to believe it. This is really it.”
Bitch Magnet play Le Poisson Rouge tonight (7 p.m./$18-$20) and Knitting Factory Brooklyn on Friday (8 p.m./$15).