Is it better to burn in an inferno of ill will, resentment, and distrust than it is to fade away? If the end result is catharsis and resolution, then, yeah, sure.
For Dinosaur Jr. the statement has proven to be accurate to a point. The band’s acrimonious split was an understandable outcome of a temporal and volatile base. Emerging from the speed sludge of Deep Wound, childhood and musician friends J. Mascis and Lou Barlow joined Emmet “Murph” Murphy in the early ‘80s to concoct a dense yet highly reactive goulash. In the short span of three albums (Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug), Dinosaur Jr. used volume and physicality to advance a distinct form of guitar-based rock that was blunt and viscous like a primordial soup, yet fragrant and familiar like a hero sandwich. Although the manic dynamic suggested impenetrability, the sound proved accessible and influential well past its years. Like a friend you loved to hate and hated to love, Dinosaur Jr.‘s music confronted the duality of life, but consistently fell back upon sordid glory: “Sometimes I don’t thrill you / Sometimes I think I’ll kill you / Just don’t let me fuck up will you / Cos when I need a friend it’s still you ... What a mess” (“Freak Scene”). However, as if to preset an expiration date, the band’s namesake alone carried a certain inevitable fate. The group began as a trio, but quickly became a hotbed for Mascis and Barlow’s creative yet converging personalities, eventually leading to the dismissal of the latter, the straining of the group into a one-man-show, and finally complete dissolution.
This dramatic (or traumatic?) past has certainly pushed the band’s principals along their respective paths: Mascis and Barlow have each responded to the band’s legacy by sustaining a career in music—the former has worked with the Fog and scored for films, while the latter formed Sebadoh and scored for films—with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. And now, after nearly two decades, the original line-up has agreed to lay the past aside for a brief reunion and tour. The second half of the hypothesis is still premature because a storybook ending is, at best, a work in progress; in a recent interview, Mascis remained skeptical of the notion that the reunion signaled a “new beginning for Dinosaur Jr.” However, the recent development can perhaps be seen as a long-awaited coda, the inevitability of the inevitability.
The inevitable could have very well been impossible because of one factor: Barlow. Profits be damned, Barlow alone could have willed the circumstance out of existence based purely on his life in relation to Dino: of the three albums, he has songwriting credits for only two songs; he was pushed out of the band by a friend; he subsequently created a body of landmark work in indie music; and he even scored a commercial pop hit with Folk Implosion’s “Natural One”. In other words, why revisit the stress of something that obviously didn’t work? Once again, the answer is simple: the music. Barlow himself now notes, “The songs are so good,” illustrating the healing and communal quality of effective and affective art. Simultaneously, he maintains understandable reservations about the sustainability of the reunion, agreeing that any predictions at this point would be “premature”. However, the circumstance is not drastically different from Dinosaur’s past existence. In spite of tensions, the three united around their visceral and believable music. Tensions got the better of the group, but how much can one expect from boys in their early 20s?
Just shy of 40 and sharing a newborn with his wife, Barlow in May 2005 is a far different man. Continuously working on his personal material while preparing for the upcoming Dinosaur Jr. tour, Barlow was incredibly cheerful and warm as he spoke with Popmatters to offer a peek into his perspective on this latest development.
PopMatters: How does it feel to be plugging back in with the band, especially in such a loud manner?
Lou Barlow: It feels pretty good (laughs).
PM: Have you been keeping up on your bass chops?
LB: Apparently I have (laughs). I didn’t think I had, but the minute Murph and I started to play together, I was like, “I can do this.” (laughs)
PM: How much preparation did you guys have?
LB: Well, I ended a solo tour and like two days later Murph came; that was about two weeks ago. And he and I practiced for about two or three days. And then J came and we practiced for about two days. We played on TV [Late Late Show, 15 April 2005] and we had a show [Spaceland in Los Angeles, California, 23 March]. And that’s where we’re at right now. We actually did more rehearsing than I thought we would do. Which was kind of a big relief. And so it actually felt like it was enough, at least to get us started. We were just planning on playing on TV and playing a show here; those were all last minute ideas. I had anticipated it being a lot more rushed ... but we gauged it pretty well.
PM: Did you remember all the songs?
LB: I had to listen to all the CDs, but ... the style that I play bass in Dinosaur is so specific to that band ... and although I was only in the band for four or five years—that is a long time when you’re between 18 and 22 (laughs)—so I have muscle memory of all of it. It was such a physical way of playing; there wasn’t a lot of noodling on my part. The skeleton that [Murph and I] laid on J’s songs were very forged and (laughs) chipped out of stone, or whatever, I don’t know! There’s something monumental about it (laughs) ... And the songs are so good; I was totally into those songs when we used to play them, and I still love them now even when I listen to them. I’m like, “Whoa! That’s a really good song J wrote ... he’s a genius!” So, that’s pretty cool. And that makes it easy.
PM: What’s different about playing these songs some 20 years later?
LB: I feel more aware; I’m just not nervous, y’know (giggles). Murph and I were talking about this: we always got the sense that no one really liked us, or when we played with other bands—like we played with a lot of heavy bands like Scratch Acid and Big Black; later, like, Rapeman, Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, those bands were so dark and forceful; we even played with White Zombie when they were first, like, a grunge band—so the bands we played ... some of the Boston bands we played with were a little more along our lines, but were far lighter than us, and then the bands we played with in New York were far darker than us. So, we always kinda felt like no one really liked us, or maybe people were so puzzled by us; I just kinda read that as ambivalence ... And I didn’t really realize how unique our playing style was ... But now looking back on it, I’m like, “Jesus, we were so not normal! Nobody really played like that!” And we played with such great force, but the songs are really beautiful. And I can’t think of anybody else who kinda came close to matching that brute strength with really beautiful songs.
PM: Is the crowd response any different this time around?
LB: I can’t really tell, cos ... the last experience I had in the band, we did really well in Germany, let’s say. And maybe when we would go down south, people would be enthusiastic. Actually, even in Boston people were pretty enthusiastic in my last [days]. They kicked me out just before they went to playing larger venues and before they started getting good reviews in Rolling Stone and crap like that. They kicked me out right when the band was getting a lot of recognition and J was being recognized for his songwriting and guitar-playing. So, we’ve played one show so far in a packed club in Los Angeles [Spaceland’s capacity is 260] and that was pretty much where I left off (laughs). Yeah, I dunno. But because I am, like, fifteen years older and I’ve been through so much of my own stuff since then, I’m able to look out and look at people when I play, which I couldn’t even do when I was that age; I was so nervous I couldn’t even look up! And now I can hear more ... I’m just feeling it more somehow. It’s kinda emotionally intense to be back with J and Murph. Like, I didn’t think that was gonna happen! It’s sorta suggesting a happy ending to something that could have possibly just sat there for the rest of my life. So that’s kinda nice. It puts a positive spin on it. And I would have to say I found it hard to put anything positive about it when I was in the band! (laughs)
PM: Had you been keeping in touch with J and Murph?
LB: J and I have a lot of friends in common and people that we work with, as well. People that I really liked; some of my best friends are great friends with him, as well. J started showing up at Sebadoh shows in the late ‘90s, which was kinda interesting, cos I never went to any of his shows at all ... We would talk a little bit. It was OK at first, but then he came to one show and we started talking and it got a little too intense for me and I just flipped out on him ... and then he didn’t really come to any shows after that (laughs)! But then a friend of mine was doing sound for J, Mike Watt, and the Asheton brothers when they were doing [the Stooges project] and they were playing in London and my friend was like, “You gotta come…” And when I got there, Mike Watt was immediately like, “Lou!” and he just drags me in and throws me in a group with J! And I was like, “Oh, OK” (laughs) And [later] J was hanging out and I kinda apologized for the last time I saw him. It was weird, too, because he was hanging out with the same people he was hanging out with—Kevin Shields, who was with him the last time I saw him—so I kinda got a do-over. And he seemed to accept it ... And then after that, the funny thing is my mom was setting up a benefit show. She works with a community resource center for families with children with autism. And through that organization, she has connections to J’s family. And Sonic Youth is living in Northampton, which is close to where all of this is, like western Massachusetts. And so they have this idea to do this show with Sonic Youth, J playing solo, and Sebadoh, because Jason [Loewenstein] and I were doing our first reunion tour at that point. So, they set up this show where I’m on the same bill as J. Actually Sebadoh played before J did. And when J ended his set, he didn’t know it, but backstage myself and the two other members of our first band together, Deep Wound, just conspired to have this reunion of our first hardcore band. So, as J was coming off the stage after playing his last song, we just said, “We’re gonna play, ‘Video Prick.’” And he said, “OK.” (laughs) And I plugged into whatever his guitar was plugged into, and he went to play Steve Shelley’s drums and we played one of the songs of our first band. And that was pretty cool. And after that, J’s management company started aggressively pursuing this idea of the reunion, and they actually called around and found Murph, who had been drifting around for the last three or four years ... Then they started luring each of us in, like, “Well, J says he’ll do it! Murph is like, ‘he’ll do it!’ Will you do it, Lou? Alright! Keep in touch!” And then these guys would start calling me every week ... And pretty soon I was picking up Murph from the airport! Then J is standing in my practice space with his guitar and his effects and I’m like, “OK, plug in! It’s on!” It’s kinda cool cos they came to me—I’m living in Los Angeles. They came here to begin again, which is kinda cool for me cos they basically kicked me out (laughs). So, now I’m back in the band and they’re coming to my place to practice (laughs).
PM: You already have so many projects; how do you balance it all?
LB: To be honest with you—not that I’d be dishonest about it—the more things I have going on at once, the happier I am. If I can think about certain points in my life when I was really happy, it would be at a point where I had at least two bands (laughs) and both doing relatively well. Like, my [latest] solo record [Emoh] is for whatever reason, there’s a little bit more attention paid it to than anything I’ve done in the last five years, and my wife just had a kid, and ... people seem really excited about seeing Dinosaur again, and I’m finding that because of that ... the more pressure and the busier I am, the more that I actually do! And the more that I’m actually really into it, the more that I feel infused with a purpose ... And also because I am doing something so different, like when I’m doing Dinosaur, doing that kinda extreme volume, I guess, although the songs are beautiful, so it’s hard to say it’s this ugly, loud thing, cos it’s not. It’s actually pretty listenable, and my whole approach to music and my sense of melody is pretty much born out of playing Dinosaur songs and watching J. Certainly, it’s like taking a lot of influence from the way that he wrote songs, so it’s kinda reigniting an interest in growing and continuing to grow. Like, when I play quietly in solo shows, I just feel it more intensely cos I’m doing this thing that’s so much louder. When I do play acoustic, it feels even more delicate.
PM: At what point did the idea of re-releasing the first couple albums come up? Do you have an opinion on the reissues?
LB: I don’t know, I was not a party to that decision at all. It’s funny, cos I had already made overtures to Merge about putting out my solo record, and pretty much decided to sign with them. And then they’re like, “Oh, by the way, we’re putting out the first three Dinosaur records right after yours!” So, that was weird. As far as I was concerned, it was a complete coincidence. I had very little to contribute to it cos I didn’t really have pictures and we pretty much released every studio recording we ever put out, so no one was holding onto [anything].
PM: Maybe this is premature, but are there any plans to write any new material?
LB: Really premature. (laughs)
PM: Mike Watt made a comment about how at the time when you guys came out, when all these SST bands came out in the early to mid-‘80s, they were among the first generation of bands that weren’t reacting against a previous generation’s music. Like how a lot of punk bands were the last generation reacting against the previous. In contrast, a band like Dinosaur showed this open respect for the past. I agreed in the sense that a lot of people today are even more open to music of the past; they actively seek out bands from the past. Which is my current theory on why so many reunions today have been successful.
LB: My take on that is that Mike Watt is saying that based on a purely lead guitarist [point of view]. I’ve read what he said and I totally don’t agree! Because where we started in western Massachusetts—even for Massachusetts, which is known for its liberalism, we’re talking about the most liberal area within Massachusetts. Amherst, which is where J grew up, and to a lesser extent Westfield where I grew up, which is outside of that, but Amherst is right near Northampton. And, I swear, there are like 10 colleges right within there: Ivy League schools, radical liberal schools like Hampshire ... And where J grew up ... they have this total hippie curriculum in schools, and in a lot of ways what Dinosaur was doing was such an affront to those people. Because not only were we taking hippie elements, [but] we were throwing [them] back in their face at insane volumes and really alienating people in that area. We were pretty aggressive about it. When J played lead guitar, it wasn’t like, “Hoo hoo!” lead guitar posturing; it was like attack. He was taking the cue certainly from some ‘60s records, but so were the Minutemen. And the Minutemen were playing lead guitar and Van Halen songs ... and Gang of Four and PiL, they were doing their own tribute to that. And we were taking from those same influences [as the SST groups]. It’s just that we were a lot younger, and we flipped people like Mike Watt out. Like, “What the hell is their motivation? What are they doing? What is the point to this?” (laughs) J just happened to have this pathological love of playing lead guitar ... When we started out playing, when he was playing lead like that it was radical to do that. It wasn’t like being hippie; it was like being scary! (laughs) It was a reaction against a lot of things, a lot of hippie, happy values.
PM: There have been a lot of bands that have taken a cue from you guys. What do you think is different about the audiences now than in the ‘80s?
LB: They can probably process what we’re doing more now. At least, in theory, they’re used to someone strumming the hell out of a bass, and a guitar player playing folk, speed metal, heavy metal, punk all at the same time (laughs). Maybe people can grasp that a little more than when I was in the band. I mean, we’re old men, I don’t understand (laughs). Every time I start to think about it, when I start to get kinda into it and go, “Yeah man! We’re great! Dinosaur is really awesome! I’m really glad to be doing this again! People are gonna be blown away by it.” And then I go, “Wait a minute.” Then all of a sudden I remember what we actually look like when we’re playing; and, totally, we look so old (laughs)! Y’know, like, really ... It’s gonna be really fun for me just to do it and enjoy it for as long as I can ... It’ll be sad if it becomes something routine or something negative again, cos right now it’s not.
PM: It’s still early.
LB: And there’s still so much gravity to the band, there is so much baggage that we are carrying around. It’s gonna be interesting to see how long we can keep it really fun. But one thing that’s really cool is it’s really easy, and it’s easy because the energy behind the music is so punk ... in the sense that there’s a lot of energy, velocity, and power behind it. Which is pretty cool and doesn’t give you a whole lotta time to think when you’re playing it; it’s just about the physical rush of playing. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most. Maybe other people will hear it and go, “Wow, that’s unique, and blah blah blah.” But whatever, I don’t really know what people are going to think…