Dinosaur Jr: In Conversation With Murph

In the first in a three-part series of interviews with temperamental alternative legends Dinosaur Jr, celebrating the release of their latest album Farm, The Skinny presents selected highlights from our interview with Murph, the band's affable drummer

Feature by Gillian Watson | 17 Jun 2009

Did you expect in 2005 that the Dinosaur Jr reunion would last this long?

No, we just kind of do everything one step at a time, we never know if there’ll ever be another record. It’s how we’ve always been, pretty much.

How has the interpersonal dynamic changed this time round?

It’s completely different. If there was any residual tension from the early days we wouldn’t have been able to do this at all. All that is pretty much gone now. And if stuff is there we’re able to communicate a bit.

Do you still find yourself having to take on a mediator role between J and Lou?

Once in a while, but not as much. J and Lou are still actually building a relationship, they’re getting to the point where they can talk to each other a little more. In the very beginning of the reunion I was still very much the mediator, but we have our manager, and we’ve been doing this now [for] four years.

Do you think the underlying tension first time round contributed to the power of the music?

Completely. When you have a lot of anger and angst and frustration, that always makes for great art. That’s what good art is all about.

Have you noticed a shift in the music now that the tension is abating?

Well, we’re still pretty angsty people, we’re still punk rockers at heart, so it’s pretty easy to draw it up. It doesn’t really go away, you just learn to sort of tame it… tame the beast, sort of thing.

As you don’t write songs for the albums, are you able to view them objectively or do you go along with the flow of J’s vision?

I’m going along with the flow, because J writes songs as a composer. He’s hearing a lot of things going on at once, and he’s dissecting multi-tracks in his head. That’s stuff that maybe I won’t hear until we’ve got it on tape, but he’ll be hearing it ‘cause he’s coming up with an idea. I just listen to it when it’s done, and same with Lou. Lou’s much more hands on, we’ll write songs together. He’ll have a riff and he’ll say “what do you think? Can you put something to this?” whereas J’s very specific about every detail and what he wants from parts and things.

Does J still tell you exactly what to play or do you have a bit more leeway now?

He does demos with drums that are pretty specific, but he’s a lot more open to interpretation or if I want to change something, he’s open to it. In the past he would just say “no”.

Is that less frustrating?

Yeah, but in the old days… even though it was a bit of a drag and sometimes it brought up tension, it was a great way for me to learn, a disciplined way. It was like going to school, you had to do something a certain way. At the time you probably hate[d] your teacher, it’s no fun, but then later on you realise that it was good and you got something out of it.

Were you very good at the drums when you started playing with Dinosaur Jr or were you still a novice?

I was still a novice. That’s the interesting thing, J was a really phenomenal drummer by then but when we started back in the ‘80s he was switching to guitar and Lou, who had been playing guitar, was now switching to bass. That made us even.

What was it like when you were playing with J once Lou had left?

It was hard, because [with] bass and drums you get a real bond going, especially when there’s just three of you in the band. I remember the very first time we tried to audition people, I was having a hard time and J was still at that time not the best communicator. So it was a little frustrating, but I worked through it and then it was actually kind of fun, because then you experience and see the band morph and change into something different. You have to get over that initial shock… but it was doable.

What makes playing music with the original lineup special? Do you feel you have a certain chemistry you don’t get with anyone else?

Completely. I’ve jammed with a lot of different people and there’s just something about the three of us - a certain understanding.

Do you feel that the essence of the band comes out more in live performance than it does on record?

Oh yeah. Live, it’s a different kind of power. Live is much more mechanical and physical, it’s more athletic, like a sporting event, whereas in the studio it’s more like painting a canvas and trying to nurture ideas and get them out, express them and grow them.

Do you enjoy the recording process?

Yeah, [but] it’s hard mentally, because it’s like learning something, it’s like school - you have something in front of you, and you’re like “how could I possibly comprehend this?” But by the end of the day, or the week, you’re going “oh OK, so I I did learn it”.

How do you find the transition between learning the songs for the record and then learning them to play live?

[With] certain songs it’s easy. You have certain instruments, like a cello or a mellotron… songs [with those] aren’t really gonna work live unless you have other people, a sampler or some DJ guy doing all that for you. We’re not really about that, so we’ll usually pick the songs that just sound best stripped down. When we play a song live on the record we know right away if it’s going to work… you can tell in a few measures if it’s only going to sound good on the record.

Is your touring setlist going to mainly be songs from the new album or will you incorporate older material?

It’s still a mix. We just finished up a tour, and we played one song off the new record. We’re slowly going to incorporate [newer songs], so by the fall or midsummer we’re going to have probably a good 4 or 5 songs off the new record, with everything else mixed in. We have plenty to choose from, [but] we’ll definitely focus on the new record, we always do.

What’s your favourite era to play from?

On every record, there’s songs I like. Out of the records I played on, I think of Where You Been very fondly. I think Farm is gonna be like that, I’m gonna look back and think it’s one of those great records that I really enjoy listening to. It’s kind of amazing: I had to do this thing the other day in an email where I had to go down the last 5 records and write a quick synopsis of what the recording processes were like and what was happening, and it’s funny, you just kind of spew this stuff out and you’re not really aware of what’s happening… then you look behind you and there’s this big pile of stuff that you’ve done musically and you’re like “oh wow, OK”. J’s really funny, he sees music as a snapshot of that moment in your life… and I’ll ask him “do you remember when we did that thing on this record?” and he’ll be like “no, I don’t remember”.

Do you feel a distance looking back at the older records?

No, I totally feel like I’m on different lives, this is like my third or fourth life. I feel like it’s just capsules of lives, I’ve lived these different people.

How did playing with the Lemonheads compare to playing with Dinosaur Jr?

It was really fun, [though] I missed the power. Instantly I was like “where’s the power?” Because Dinosaur feels like a monster truck, it’s like one of those big powerful engines, like a turbine or something. Although at the time the line-up we had actually was pretty rocking and I got pretty into it. I did a lot of touring with them, probably almost two years, and actually got to see more and go more places than in most of the years that I had worked with Dinosaur, which was interesting.

How are the responses when you tour now? Have you noticed that the audiences are different from the first time around?

Nowadays I’m amazed at how many people start singing along to certain songs, like Feel The Pain, Freak Scene or The Wagon. I’m always like “wow, this is cool”. It’s definitely more to feed on and you get more psyched, because you’re playing the same songs a lot of times over and over, and it’s the audience that make it fresh. It’s always great but sometimes it doesn’t feel totally fresh, and that’s why you need the audience, that’s why playing live is really important. People don’t realise you feed off the audience probably as much as they’re watching you and getting a show. It’s a give and take both ways.

Do you prefer smaller venues?

Oh yeah, for me that’s much more fun than big venues or festivals. Festivals can be fun, ‘cause it’s surreal, [but] I still love it when everyone’s just right in your face and just over the drum set.

If the reunion were to end tomorrow, how do you think you’d view the experience in hindsight as a whole, and also just the reunion?

I just think it’s getting better and better. I feel I have more fun every time… I’m going with it and I’m just more in control. When we first started, when we were kids, I felt like we were flying by the seat of the pants and we didn’t really know what was happening to us. It was a blur, whereas now I feel like it’s enjoyable…. [I] can really take a look around and breathe. It’s a great feeling.

Do you think you needed the whirlwind of the first phase to build you up to enjoy the second phase?

Yeah. I think you kind of have to lay the groundwork, that’s why I’m kind of amazed when I see bands who are young and then all of a sudden someone signs them to some label, usually gives them a ton of money, and they’re in festivals and doing all this stuff. I don’t personally think that’s a good idea, I don’t think anyone can really handle that… You have to kind of pay your dues to a certain amount … It’s like building blocks, you have to get a strong foundation, and I wonder sometimes about the newer bands, where they’re just instantly catapulted into the level that we’re at. Not that we’re huge, I’m just saying that we’ve worked long and hard for what we have, so it’s pretty easy. We feel very strong at what we do, whereas I can’t imagine being a kid and just being thrust on TV or in front of 30,000 people. It would be too bizarre, it would be too much.

It means they have a longer way to fall.

Yeah, and I think it’s easier to abuse the power. You’re handed all this power and all this money and fame, and I think when you’re younger you don’t really know what to do with it, and so I think it would be easier to get fouled up in that, whereas when you’re older you’re more seasoned, and you’re more used to everything, things aren’t as shocking. When something happens or [you get] certain reactions from people, whether it’s good or bad, you’re just a lot more prepared for it when you’re older.

Can you see bands that might have been influenced by Dinosaur Jr or is that difficult for you to pinpoint?

J and I have talked about that, and [we’re] kind of oblivious to it. We don’t see it. We have friends in pretty popular bands that say “oh I totally ripped this off”, and I’m always like “really?!” For some reason Lou is the one who’s more in touch with that. When we’ve talked, he’ll go “oh my God, listen to this song, or listen to these guys, this is a total Dino rip-off, don’t you hear that?” and J and I will just be like “hmm, you know, I don’t really hear it”. I think if you were aware of that too much it would almost make you kind of self-conscious, because you don’t want to make music for someone else, or thinking “oh, well, someone’s gonna rip this off so I’ve gotta do it this way”. That’s not true to the creative form. We’re all about just letting something flow out, it just is what it is - there’s no pre-judgement, there’s no labelling, it just comes out as pure expression, and to me that’s the way art should be. I think we view music as art and we just see ourselves as artists.

Farm is released via Jagjaguwar on 22 Jun.