Dinosaur Jr: Rock's Most Dysfunctional Family

Alternative icons Dinosaur Jr are as well-known for their tense dynamic as their piledriving music. Gillian Watson discovers the secret of their staying power, second time around

Feature by Gillian Watson | 16 Jun 2009

“The way we communicate in this band is with a shrug.”

— Lou Barlow

When the famously fractious original line-up of Massachusetts power trio Dinosaur Jr reunited in 2005 for a summer tour, the smart money was on them being outlasted by the autumn leaves. No one, least of all bassist Lou Barlow, whose unceremonious ejection from the band in 1988 effectively ended the band’s celebrated original phase, expected that the band would make two post-reformation albums capable of going toe-to-toe with their back catalogue - the most recent of which, Farm, is set to be unleashed on an unsuspecting MP3-streaming public this month. Barlow tries not to be complacent about the group’s future: “I take it one day at a time, just to protect myself… not to really expect anything that might not happen.”

Barlow and Murph, the drummer who stuck with frontman J Mascis at the beginning of Dinosaur Jr’s Lou-less phase, have had to adapt to an awkward style of (non-)communication. ”It’s kind of like family,” explains Murph. “It’s like saying, ‘Would you rather have a sister that’s more funny?’ It’s just how it is, it’s my family.”

As with any family, there have been concessions and sacrifices on all sides; it took all of Mascis’s patience to put up with Barlow’s brutal public criticism of him in the wake of his sacking. The war of words culminated in the band’s chapter in Michael Azerrad’s history of US alternative Our Band Could Be Your Life, in which Barlow gave a frank interview that painted a painfully graphic picture of the dysfunction and aggression which had eaten its way into relations between Dinosaur Jr’s personnel. “It was like ‘maybe he’s gone a bit too far this time’,” says Mascis. “I wasn’t really paying attention when he was doing that before. It’s more like a family vibe, having a tantrum… I'd react by waiting for him to calm down.”

To Barlow’s credit, calm down he did. The bassist, who was spurred onto his own success with lo-fi pioneers Sebadoh by the acrimonious break with Mascis, now believes that “getting kicked out of Dinosaur was the greatest thing that happened to me… A lot of the negativity in Azerrad’s book comes directly from me… It just comes off as kinda gross, and when the opportunity to do Dinosaur again came up, I jumped at it. I really wanted to put some positive energy towards Dinosaur and towards J as opposed to this chokingly negative crap I put out there.”

Barlow’s will to atone for past wrongs notwithstanding, why have three individuals with such a rocky relationship chosen to continue on the reunion path? Mascis puts it most succinctly: “We just have a certain energy together. There are so many crappy bands out there. We have something special, so we might as well try to keep going.”

Mascis’s belief in the project doesn’t stem from misplaced arrogance – he’s the real deal. Dinosaur Jr’s original handful of albums reclaimed the guitar solo from meat-head cock-rockers, re-establishing its ability to transcend teen wankery and to genuinely affect. Mascis’s six-string heroics never felt excessive, and the band’s economical dynamics showcased one of the steadiest rhythm sections of the period in Murph and Barlow. While the 90s post-Barlow period gave birth to a handful of solid records which propelled Mascis to college-rock fame in Nirvana’s wake, reunion touring has largely focussed on the first three albums: debut Dinosaur, the classic You’re Living All Over Me and accomplished swansong-of-sorts Bug. These albums harness the tension that threatened to destroy the band as they were recorded, creating a sound that is by turns terrifyingly malevolent and heartbreakingly melancholy, and which taps into the dark, blank heart of adolescent boredom and hurt in a way Kurt Cobain would exploit a few years later.

“I think we're definitely due some props for those records,” says Barlow. “They’re really unique. There was a lot of movement creatively, with what J was doing, the guitarist he became and the lyricist he was… it’s all there.” Mascis is emphatic that You’re Living All Over Me is their best, and finds it difficult to listen to acclaimed follow-up Bug. “It was a bad time for the band… just like a photo, it brings you back to that time.” Murph, however, feels that the tension was integral to the album’s creation: “When you have a lot of anger and angst and frustration, that always makes for great art… We’re still pretty angsty people. It doesn’t really go away, you just learn to tame it.”

True enough, the raw, elemental power of the original recordings is still unleashed in Dinosaur Jr’s blistering live performances. The band feel that the essence of the group emerges live. “It’s a different kind of power,” enthuses Murph, while Mascis admits that “you get more of the picture” at the band’s shows. Consequently, the make-up of Dinosaur audiences has shifted in favour of younger fans, which is rare for a band of their vintage. Barlow is “amazed” by the younger fanbase, but can only a hazard a guess at the reasons behind it: “Good hard rock and lead guitar – people just really love to see a guy with long hair playing guitar, and J taps into that, I guess.” Indeed, the sight of the silver-haired Mascis wringing fearsome noises from his guitar is still a powerful one. “I like playing more than I used to when I was younger,” he admits.

Of course, it helps to have new music to play. “I like the new songs,” Barlow says. “It really gives you something to sink your teeth into. When we play new songs, often the energy level off the three of us will just leap.” This energy is an integral part of Dinosaur’s performance; when it’s there, they can sound as gargantuan and terrifying as their prehistoric namesake. “We’re just not afraid to get violent on our instruments,” says Murph. “Other people, if you play too hard, they get nervous or they freak out. But we can all express ourselves completely, I could kick my drum set out and [J and Lou] would probably just be like ‘Cool!’”

Yet while new LP Farm is certainly powerful, it’s a more restrained power. Mascis’s guitar histrionics sound quietly triumphant rather than agonised, and this new clarity allows his distinctive, moving melodies to take to the fore. Asked about the process of songwriting, Mascis comes up with a somewhat prosaic analogy. “It’s kind of like fishing… you sit there with the guitar and hope something will come.” When it does, Mascis tends to approach his songs like a “composer”, according to Murph. “He’s hearing a lot of things going on at once, and he’s dissecting multi-tracks in his head – stuff that maybe I won’t hear until we’ve actually got it on tape.”

The composing and recording process is where any remaining tension among the band members seems to surface. Murph expresses enthusiasm for recording, but describes it as “hard”; as an accomplished drummer, Mascis has a clear vision of how he wants the drum parts to sound, and Murph has to essentially ‘learn’ them. Meanwhile, Barlow has the opposite problem; as Mascis doesn’t ‘hear’ the bass parts, he has to “work in the dark a little bit”.

Since the reunion, Barlow has contributed a pair of his own songs to each Dinosaur Jr record; these have to sound like a Dinosaur song in order to meet his exacting standards. Rather than bringing guitar riffs to the band, Barlow jams with Murph, and his songs grow out of basslines he produces in these sessions. Recording Farm, however, the tight deadline proved a challenge for Barlow: “We don’t really work on my stuff until all of J’s is done – we worked so quickly on this record that we were just pulling at the dregs of our energy when it came time to do mine. I had to get stuff out of Murph and J, who were just exhausted… it was seriously difficult for me.” Years of developing his own musical sensibilities in Sebadoh and later project The Folk Implosion have made Barlow an opinionated contributor: “I become more of a pain in the ass, I guess. When we were finishing this record, I felt very strongly that we could have spent more time on it. I said as much, and it was very controversial.” Mascis offers a wry confirmation. “Well, he basically said he didn’t like the lyrics – he thought I could write better lyrics and I should spend more time on them.” Would Mascis criticise Barlow’s output? “That doesn’t go too well. Murph did that on this album. That was quite a drama.”

Although Murph avers that “if there was any residual tension from the early days, we wouldn’t have been able to do this at all”, Mascis believes that there is still tension – they’ve just got used to dealing with it. “That’s just our relationship,” he says. “We were never the best of friends or anything.” You can almost imagine him saying it with the trademark Dinosaur shrug. Barlow is philosophical, too: “I’m just used to being in situations where people talk about what they want to do. It’s a little different with Dinosaur, but, you know, I like Dinosaur for what it is.”

What it is, of course, is the most dysfunctional and messily perfect family in rock. Dinosaur Jr’s musical and personal chemistry is complex; the indefinable element which makes their sound so unique and potent happens to be highly reactive. They’ve just learned how to keep it under control. Their newfound staying power perhaps comes from a realisation that these three very different characters (J is as laconic as Murph is chatty, Lou is as analytical as J is instinctive) share an outlook and the common goal of sticking together as long as it still works. They just have different ways of expressing themselves.

Unwittingly, as we wrap up our interview, Murph, tickled by my Scottish accent, furnishes us with an anecdote that encapsulates the chequered history of Dinosaur Jr and communication. It’s about the first time the band ever visited Glasgow. “I talked to a bunch of kids, and I could not understand anything, and I was really confused. But then we went back six months later and I completely understood. I didn’t need to do anything, my brain was working something out in my time off so that when I went back it all clicked together.”

It took the original line up of Dinosaur Jr much longer than six months, of course, to adapt to their incomprehensible methods of communication, but now they understand each other, everything’s a lot simpler. Here’s hoping that this band of musical brothers, Farm-ers of a fertile musical crop in an arid climate, don’t get their wires crossed any time soon.

Dinosaur Jr release Farm via Jagjaguwar on 22 June.