INTERVIEW

J Mascis and Lou Barlow look back on more than two decades of fall outs and grunge riffs. Separately, of course.

dinosaurjr

Dinosaur Jr.’s history is a long, fractured one peppered with splits, arguments and Cold War level resentment. From the volatile to the plain uncommunicative, the simmering distance, tension and clash of personalities, however, helped inspire the music that commanded a quiet admiration in a grunge and Nirvana-dominated era. But it was never supposed to be either this long or this played out.

A band started and marshalled by the laconic J. Mascis, his aloof, controlling nature was at odds with bassist Lou Barlow’s forthright personality and Emmet ‘Murph’ Murphy’s free-spirit. It made for a capricious dynamic that spectacularly imploded when Barlow was informed by Mascis that the band was splitting only to see Dinosaur Jr. tour a few weeks later with his replacement. It lit the torch paper for a vitriolic period where Lou and Murph levelled their ire at J, calling him “a cheap bastard”, “a fucking Nazi” and “a real, prime, stinking red asshole”.

Lou went on to form Sebadoh, using the band, initially, to creatively vent his frustrations at J. Murph headed for The Lemonheads. J turtled up, heading for comfort in the isolation of his home studio to work solo. Time’s a healer, though, and after the cold war thaw, fast forward a few years from the turmoil of ’89 to the promise of 2005, and the original Dinosaur Jr. line up had not only reformed, they were making new music.

“We definitely needed a lot of time to be able to deal with it,” J sighs ahead of the release of ‘I Bet On Sky’, the band’s third album since ’05. “It feels a bit more natural now than it used to. We’re all a bit more comfortable with ourselves and each other, and it’s easier to have a bit more fun. We decided we wanted to keep playing and we didn’t really want to play the old stuff all the time.”

It’s an improving sentiment Barlow echoes, even if both are wary of coming on too Disney and making out that this reunion was a giddily happy one.

“It’s better now than it’s ever been,” he laughs. “There may have been a window of two or three months in 1986 where it was better but I have to say this is like our golden age. Our silver age. It’s just getting on with it, you know? J and I… I don’t really know. I think J doesn’t like me, so I don’t really push it, you know what I mean? I just try and stay out of his way and I try and be as explicit as possible with what I want and make it so he doesn’t have to… I just make it as painless as possible to deal with me. That’s something that has a lot to do with my early relationship with him and it’s slowly changing, and it’s funny how when you deal with something like this and how huge a spectre it’s been in my life, how the small things shifting are really exciting,” he laughs.

“It could just be a matter of being on an aeroplane and J handing me a magazine to read and I’m like, ‘Wow! Incredible’, and even like when we were recording the new record, when it came to my songs, we didn’t touch anything until the very end of the process, but this time, before J had shown us all of his songs, he was like, ‘Why don’t we try one of Lou’s songs today?’ and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck! Really?! We’re actually going to do one of my songs in the middle and not at the dead, dreggy end of a session?!’. I remember Murph came upstairs, he was like, ‘I guess J wants to work on one of your songs now’, with this tone of total disbelief. It’s pretty funny overall; it’s hard to describe how rewarding the small things can be in this band.”

Lou is currently on tour with Sebadoh, en route to Washington with a 7-hour drive to look forward to. He sounds excited and energised, undaunted by the prospect of the cross-country haul and happy to talk about the merits of splitting his time between the two bands.

“When I play with Sebadoh, I get my time to play my songs, be the singer and it’s just where I get to indulge all my instincts where a band should be a collective and you should travel as cheaply as possible and do it yourself,” he explains. “And then when I play with Dinosaur Jr. it’s all ‘rock and roll’ and ‘here’s the lead guitar guy’, and we stay in really expensive hotels with roadies who lift all of our things. When I go between the two, it’s really satisfying. It makes my time with Dinosaur Jr. seem even more relaxing and my time with Sebadoh even more satisfying. It’s the best of both worlds.

“My time with Sebadoh makes it so much easier for me to be in the situation with Dinosaur where we have a very distinct lead member of the band; he’s practically a cartoon character and is the focus of all the attention. With Sebadoh, it massages the part of my ego that needs to be massaged. I admitted it to myself a while ago… I need to be the centre of attention once in a while” he laughs. “I want people to come up to me and tell me my songs are good and that they like me. I’m just a bass player in Dinosaur Jr. and playing with Sebadoh makes it so much easier to deal with the stigma of that. My ego gets its little stroke when I can do my thing and then I can slot into my role with Dinosaur Jr. as the faceless bass player.”

It’s a frank admission and one that Lou has had plenty of time to admit to himself and anyone else. Clearly most hurt by the original Dinosaur Jr. split, there’s traces of the feuding and bitterness (how can there not be?) but it’s readily apparent that the time and distance away resulted in some serious self-reflection. Throughout our conversation he’s brutally honest and talks at length; the polar opposite of the man with a reputation for making interviews curt to the point of a slow motion speed date.

I find J doing the family thing, partly distracted by the happy din of kids playing in the background. Polite and to the point, his elongated drawl masks an economy with words that’s always gone against the wild, reverb-drenched guitar shreds on which he’s built his legacy. Firmly into their renaissance and with ‘I Bet on Sky’ set for release September 17th, I ask J about the reformation and his expectations for the revitalised Dinosaur Jr.

“We had doubts, definitely, but so far it’s been pretty good. You never know, but we’re doing alright,” he starts. “We were just having a good time playing shows, so we thought we needed new material to keep playing. That’s why we did the first two albums, but for this album I wasn’t as worried about if we’d play it live as much. I don’t have any expectations, really. I just hope for the best. We’ve got a lot of albums… it’s hard to try and convince somebody to get another one,” he adds, drily.

It’s the expected answer from a man used to keeping his words and emotions in strict check and is an early example of both J and Lou sharing equally pragmatic opinions on the success of the comeback and the band’s future outlook.

“Anything that I do that involves J, I never have any expectations,” Lou states. “He himself just doesn’t seem to have any particular hopes or dreams he ever talks about or shares. I always enter into anything I do with him with as little pre-conception as possible. I knew that when we reformed, it was a good thing to go back and play those old songs, and that people would be into it, and were into it, but every step that we’ve taken, we’ve kinda taken our cue from J. If he writes some new songs and he wants me to play them, I’ll be there to play them.

“It’s another reason I keep other things in my life going because I feel that as steady and consistent as Dinosaur Jr. has been in my life – especially for the last seven years it’s been an incredibly reliable and rewarding endeavour – I still expect at any moment that it’s just not going to happen for a variety of reasons. I’m not putting it all on J; it’s just the nature of the band from the very beginning. It was always difficult to keep Murph interested in the band, very hard, and J back then was a very ambitious person so I thought at any moment he could become really famous and disappear and my services wouldn’t be needed.

“Even with this reunion, I take it day by day and all my energy is focused on playing the shit out of the songs every night and doing my best when we record and to just be as positive as I can be. I take it on a tour-by-tour, album-by-album basis. That’s it.”

As with any band reunion, after the initial excitement and rose tint, it’s difficult not to view it as a cynical, money-spinning ploy. Indeed, Barlow went as far as admitting he was on the cusp of financial destitution at the time, but both he and Mascis point out that with the band’s turbulent history, promising anything else was a risk not worth taking.

“There’s that phrase ‘cash grab’ and that was being talked about a lot early on,” says Lou. “By making new music, it undermined that cynicism and that’s really important. People, bands, critics; everyone can get a little too used to being cynical. It’s a very easy, destructive thing to default to.

“I think what we had learned from touring was to have fun, we needed new songs to chew on,” Lou continues. “It makes me think my relationship with J and the band goes deep, probably deeper than I could even acknowledge. It was nice to think J and I still shared the same creative ambition and if he was getting restless playing the old songs, and I was getting restless playing the old songs, we both wanted to create new music. And that’s great because there’s so many bands who are afraid to do that and are like, ‘I can’t be in the same studio as him again’, and they never make that leap. When J showed the courage to do that and to leap forward, I just really admired that. It really solidified my loyalty to the band. J and I both in our lives outside Dinosaur Jr., we both continue to make new music and that’s a vital part of our lives, regardless of whether people are going to like it or not, or if we’re going to satisfy the whims of popular culture. We just did what we needed to do to keep it interesting for ourselves.”

So with Lou feeling bullish and J offering olive branches, no matter how small, the Dinosaur Jr. dynamic is as healthy as ever after two decades and ten albums. For all the upheaval and animosity, even with the eight-year absence, it’s a longevity, and relevance, few bands could ever lay claim to and is a source of pride for the band’s driving duo.

“I think it’s amazing how Dinosaur Jr. has this Teflon!” Lou exclaims “I’ve been amazed how positive it’s been. I’ve always been proud of the music we made, even when I was out of the band. The records we released were good ones and we’re in good company. It’s like seeing a kid with a Doors or Hendrix shirt on; it’s nice to be part of that, even in a really small way. But pride’s a tricky thing; you don’t want to get carried away with it.”

“We just had one goal to make a few records and we achieved that,” states J. “After that, we were just happy. I used to be a lot more of a perfectionist than I am now and I don’t get as nit-picky with little things. It’s just realising a lot of the small things you can spend a lot of time on, people might not even hear. We just tried to make each song the best it can be and let each song develop into something on its own. It just feels right to focus on the bigger picture.”

Pride, prejudice and the bigger picture: Dinosaur Jr.’s colourful history wouldn’t have been half as vital without it.

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