A no-frills interview with Dinosaur Jr. Past, present and future.
From the first five fuzzy seconds of ’The Wagon’ from Dinosaur Jr.’s Green Mind album, even the most passive fan would recognise the trademark guitar and vocals. Lou Barlow, J Mascis andEmmett ’Murph’ Murphy came out of the basement of hardcore in the mid-’80s and gained permanent wall space in the adolescent bedroom of alt-rock. Taken under the wing of barely older siblings Sonic Youth, they put the distortion pedal to underground metal with SST Records in the post-Black Flag era and rose to a number one song on the UK Indie chart.
But creative control makes for hard relations in the ’freak scene’. Some call it ‘musical differences’; others call it Mascis trying to decapitate Barlow with his guitar in the middle of a set in 1989. With Barlow gone and Murph disaffected, Mascis wrote two albums with a revolving door of band members that made Dinosaur Jr. an MTV ’120 Minutes’ staple. Barlow concentrated on his lo-fi band, Sebadoh, Murph played with the Lemonheads, and Mascis went solo. It was a decade before the founding members reunited as forty-year-olds with 2007’s Beyond and Farm two years later.
Now, with I Bet On Sky, Dinosaur Jr. is back to show the kids how you played in a garage band, before the days of GarageBand. But how do three guys pushing fifty, who have hung on the corners of key crossroads in modern rock, come out the other side with something new to say? We opted to tackle this interview with a new approach: isolate each member and get him talking in the past, present or future tense. We went in guns blazing, smug at our nifty editorial idea. But technology has a way of failing you at the most inopportune time. What follows is an insight into the music PR game – broken telephone lines, sleeping babies, one-word answers and all. It’s a glamorous old world, this journo bizz.
Communication method: cell phone
06.00 Saturday: Very early, humid July morning, iPhone won’t make international calls to Brussels where Dinosaur Jr. is playing the Rock Herk Festival. Barge into home of kind elderly neighbours to make international call. Try navigating Lou Barlow’s room phone with a Belgian operator to no avail. Try drummer Emmett Murphy: no dice. That’s $38 US in missed calls, and counting. Back home, two-month baby spits up on me. Dinosaur Jr. Manager Tomas Zokopal calls, says he can get me Murph via cell. Nice guy.
So, Murph, the idea is that we talk about Dinosaur Jr. past, present and future. I’d like to talk to you about the future. Tell me about the cycle for I Bet On Sky.
Murph: Well, we’re in Europe this summer doing festivals. The album comes out September 18 and then in October we get super busy with a heavy touring schedule through the spring.
You played in the Lemonheads for a time. Any plans to do anything with Evan Dando in the future?
I don’t have any plans to. Evan is a funny guy. He’s just always travelling. […] Every so often, I’ll see him play, but otherwise I don’t really hear from him too much. Evan is one of those guys who’s like myth or legend. No matter where he is or how he’s doing, there are these crazy stories that precede him. Someone will say, ‘I just saw Evan in New York,’ and then someone else will be like, ‘No man, he just moved to London.’ And someone else will say, ‘I heard he’s vacationing in Greece.’ So you never know.
What’s the current harmony in Dinosaur Jr. like?
It’s amazing. Nowadays we’re just like a family. We’ve kind of moved past our dysfunction. It’s just business at hand. It’s pretty great.
Dinosaur Jr. almost defined alt-rock in the early ’90s. Do you think labelling genres is becoming irrelevant?
I think music is kind of turning into weird, different genres that are becoming sub-categories of main genres. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of that. There’s always going to be standard classic rock measuring sticks – Zeppelin and Sabbath. I don’t think that’s going to change on a certain level. Some people are getting left by the wayside, but other people are getting smarter and redefining everything themselves.
Do you have any projects we should keep an eye out for?
I have two different projects. One is more like a Jesus Lizard kind of thing and the other is more punk/garage rock. I like to do different kinds of sounds.
What would a Dinosaur Jr. record sound like in 2016?
Communication method: Skype
06.35 Friday: For Lou and J Mascis, Tomas suggests Skype. Don’t know what that is; hope it has nothing to do with taking photos every time you eat tacos. Set up account and try contacting Lou, who never responds.
05.00 Saturday: Baby wakes me up. Get him settled, pull up Skype, but Lou postpones for three hours. ”Sure Lou.” He has kids. I imagine he’s Skyping them. Eat granola, check surf, change a diaper.
08.50: Finally hear Lou’s voice, apologetic and happy to talk about the past. Start recording.
So, 1991 is always touted as this very important year in punk. It’s the year that Nevermind came out. Dinosaur Jr. actually took Nirvana on tour before the big hit. How did you fit into that time period?
Well I wasn’t in the band. They kicked me out in ’89. Sebadoh was already going and we started becoming a touring electric band in 1990 or so. Dinosaur Jr. released Green Mind in ’91 and Sebadoh III came out, which was partially electric and acoustic, a sort of lo-fi, four-track record. I was starting all over again. Dinosaur Jr. were on a major label and doing pretty well [laughs].
1989: J attacks you with his guitar on stage. If that happens today, what does the YouTube video look?
[Hearty laugh] It’s really hard to imagine that happening now. It would just look like this wizard with a sword attacking this little guy dressed in black. It would look ridiculous. I’m turning forty-six this week. He’s forty-seven. It would look pretty goofy.
What period in your career was your favourite?
When Dinosaur Jr. was working on You’re Living All Over Me, we did our first long tour of the East Coast with Sonic Youth. We were in that really cool period of struggling, but really coming together as a band. I really thought J was onto something. The whole tour we were listening to the EVOL record by Sonic Youth. I grew up in the Midwest, but it was the first time J and Murph had been to the Midwest. We had one really cool moment when we were in the town that I was raised in. We stayed at a family friends’ house. At one point, all three of us went out into this field. Murph and J looked into the sky and said, ‘I’ve never seen so many stars before.’ And then we were driving home and listening to the last track on EVOL, ’Expressway to Yr. Skull’ and J said, ‘I feel like I’m gonna cry.’ I said ‘Yeah,’ and J said, ‘I think we’re in love with Sonic Youth.’
How old were you guys then?
Nineteen, twenty? We had just done a tour with our favourite band who had just put out our favourite record. It was great. Sonic Youth were totally in love with J and the band. […] We were jamming a lot. We were finding our sound. Soon after, J kind of closed ranks a little bit. When J became more of the celebrity, in my mind he was very conscious of what he was doing. J was kind of a fashion plate. He wore pendants and stuck his hair up with egg whites and he just looked fucking totally cool. […] And then we were doing these brutal seven-week tours in Europe. We were doing really well, but we were all outside of our comfort zones. I spent almost every single bit of money I made calling my girlfriend. I probably had a $7,000 phone bill. England back then was tough. When we had success and started chasing that success, that’s when it got hard. I’ve toured my whole life and it’s never been that bad.
Communication method: email
09.15 Saturday: Mascis offline. Fuck me. Skype Tomas again, he tells me Mascis is headed out. Tomas uses emoticons, which I hate. Adds little winks, but incredibly helpful. I suggest we do third Dinosaur by email.
09.30: Download album from publicist.
19.30 Sunday: Email arrives, “Jon, answers below.”
Let’s talk about Dinosaur Jr. in the present. Twenty-eight years into this band, who do you see at shows?
J: I can’t see unless I take my glasses off. I’m hoping for younger folk.
Is it still a freak scene?
How about the ages?
Does it differ between Europe and the US?
It seems like it should.
I always read about the tension and power struggle in DJ. Do you feel that being older mellows that out?
Power struggle? Tension yes, but we have help communicating now.
What do you love most about Lou and Murph in 2012?
Their hygiene is good.
It’s easy to read about the hardcore and classic rock that influenced you in the ’80s and ’90s. What music is doing that today?
Any specific bands?
Blitz, Faith, and Youth Brigade (from D.C. not CA).
In the early ’90s, you always heard the term ’slacker’ referring to the counterculture. But coming from the underground to get anywhere took a tremendous amount of hard work. Do you think that having everything at our fingertips today breeds laziness?
I don’t know.
Can you tell us about the work that goes into Dinosaur Jr. now that record sales aren’t what they were?
It’s lots of touring and recording.
With all the technology we have now for communicating, what’s the most exciting for you?
That my phone has a flashlight in it.
Thanks so much J. Anything else about Dinosaur Jr. today you think we might want to know?
We’re trying hard, hoping you’ll dig it.