We are probably louder than we were back in the ’80s. The stuff sounds better, the quality of the tones is better, though you can’t really tell because it is so fucking loud.
story by Tim Dwenger
photo by Brantly Gutierrez
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. flew apart in true rock and roll fashion: name calling, explosions to the media, and there are even rumors that guitarist J Mascis hit bassist Lou Barlow on the head with a guitar during a show. It was a meltdown that lived up to the deafening music that the trio had generated over the course of five years and three albums together in the mid- to late-1980s.
“It was an extremely well publicized break-up and I was really pissed off when they kicked me out of the band. It pretty much ended up with me calling J [Mascis] an ‘asshole’ and J saying some pretty awful stuff to me,” Barlow recalled in a recent interview. The band is currently touring in support of Beyond, released last month on Fat Possum Records as the legendary group’s first record featuring its original lineup in nearly two decades. This follows a reunion undertaken in 2005 on the heels of the Merge Records reissues of all three of the band’s now-classic albums: Dinosaur (1985), You’re Living All Over Me (1987) and Bug (1988.)
Given the situation and the hard feelings that festered for 15 years, their reunion seemed about as unlikely as anything in music. Both Barlow and Mascis had gone on with their careers, with Mascis continuing to record under the Dinosaur Jr. name and Barlow focusing on side projects Sebadoh and Folk Implosion. The pair hardly saw each other between 1989 and 2002, and when they did it was not pretty. “J would show up at Sebadoh shows in the mid-’90s, and I actually chased him out of one,” Barlow admitted. “I was just like ‘get the fuck out of here,’ and I just kept yelling at him ’til he left.”
The real turning point came in 2002, when both Barlow and Mascis were working in London at the same time. Barlow recalled the moment that he faced Mascis for the first time in all those years. “A mutual friend of ours, who is the sound guy for Dinosaur and was working with J at the time, said ‘Lou, you gotta come to this show that J is doing here.’ I reluctantly agreed and was like ‘okay, this is it, I am going to face J.’ The first thing I said was ‘I apologize for chasing you out of that show and whatever else I’ve done to make you feel uncomfortable over the years.’ It took a minute but it kinda registered with him and he was like ‘Yeah, okay, that was a bit harsh.’ Then I met his wife, who is totally awesome, and got to know about everything that J was doing.”
It was shortly after this meeting that Barlow’s mom, who works with the families of children who suffer from autism in their native western Massachusetts, was putting together a benefit concert. “A woman who my mother works closely with is really good friends with J and his wife, so they asked J to play. My mother told me I was going to play and then they asked Sonic Youth, who also live in the area, if they would play. It was this big benefit show with the three of us as the final three acts of the night.”
Toward the end of the night Barlow, Mascis and two of their friends from their first band, Deep Wound, ended up on stage together running through an old hardcore song that Deep Wound used to do back in the early ’80s.
“The whole weekend of this event, my mom kept saying that we should have a Dinosaur reunion,” Barlow said. “I told her it wasn’t going to happen, as we didn’t even know where [the final member of the original trio/drummer] Murph was.” However, the whole situation put the idea of a reunion into the mind of J’s manager, Brian Schwartz. “He really was not entirely aware of the whole situation surrounding our break-up and the can of worms that he could potentially be opening by doing this,” Barlow said. “He ran the idea by the two of us and we said ‘okay, if you can pull it together, we’ll give it a shot’ and he ran with it. Almost immediately he found Murph, who was living at his mom’s house, and he made things happen.”
Though rumors had been circulating through the industry for months, Barlow officially announced the reunion during his solo set at SXSW in March of 2005. By April the band had appeared on national television and was hitting the road for its first run of shows since 1989. Though Dinosaur Jr. had morphed through many line-up changes before fading out in the late ’90s as essentially a pseudonym for Mascis’ solo projects, the original line-up was never equaled.
Notoriously withdrawn and self-described as a weird kid, Joseph “J” Mascis grew up in Amherst, Mass., stewing himself in classic rock riffage ’til he discovered the ways of hardcore punk in the late ’70s. In the band Deep Wound, J found a friend in guitarist Lou Barlow from nearby Westfield and — with himself on drums along with singer Charlie Nakajima and bassist Scott Helland — the 4-piece buzz-sawed their way out of the western Massachusetts hardcore punk scene in the early ’80s. They officially became Dinosaur after dropping the other members; Mascis switched to guitar, Barlow moved over to bass and Barlow’s friend Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III, joined them on drums. (They eventually added the “Jr.” when a band of actual dinosaur rockers laid claim to the name.)
Some of the loudest, most aurally assaulting music to ever fill a rock club was generated by this historic trio. Their heavy brand of guitar rock paved the way for bands like Nirvana and the grunge movement that swept through music in the ’90s. A power trio in the true sense of the word, Dinosaur Jr. shows were often heralded as the loudest in the business.
“One of the first practices we ever had, Murph and I went over to J’s house, and J is sitting there with this new really high wattage amp that he had just bought. He was just sitting there and all of a sudden he just laid on his Big Muff [distortion pedal] and we were like ‘OH MY FUCKING GOD!’ He literally had construction blast earmuffs on and Murph and I were scrambling around the house shoving toilet paper, or whatever we could find, into our ears,” Barlow recalled through bouts of laughter.
Twenty-four years later, the band hasn’t toned things down a bit. “We are probably louder than we were back in the ’80s. The stuff sounds better, the quality of the tones is better, though you can’t really tell because it is so fucking loud. We are all just much better players at this point and it feels really good to me,” said Barlow. Things were falling into place nicely and what was originally intended to be a short spring reunion tour ended up stretching through till the end of the summer with dates on both sides of the Atlantic.
As if this wasn’t already more than anyone ever thought would happen, the three began entertaining thoughts of entering a studio together to lay down some tracks. Early last year it finally happened. Mascis, Barlow and Murph got together at Mascis’ house with tape rolling. The result of those sessions, Beyond, symbolizes everything Dinosaur Jr. was and is today. The subtle urgency of Barlow’s bass riffs coupled with Mascis’ more mature and technical guitar attack gives the new album the same aggressive passive-aggressive sound that permeated the band’s first three. Mascis’ howl has turned into a croon and his lyrics now point more directly to conclusions reached rather than questions raised. It’s not often that screeching guitar distortion can induce a pensive state of mind, but given Dinosaur Jr.’s storied past, it turns out there is much to be gained from musical chaos and pain.
Dinosaur Jr. :: Abbey Pub :: May 31, June 1 & June 2.