Dinosaur Jr was the band that cynics (or optimists, depending on perspective) have called the "Nirvana false start."
After a few fast-fast-faster starter bands failed, Dinosaur (Jr was added later) was formed in 1984. They embraced the seed of Black Sabbath-meets-Neil Young that had been sown by bands like Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets and The Replacements. They conquered college radio (or college radio conquered them), made it to MTV-then were crushed by their own psychodrama.
They were/are J Mascis, indie rock's first guitar god, controlling genius-boy singer-songwriter and reluctant poster child for Gen X slackerhood; Lou Barlow, a massively passive-aggressive bassist who cow-towed to Mascis' genius until it broke him and yielded the cathartic band Sebadoh; and "Murph," a prog-inspired drummer who was swallowed by the fact that Mascis was originally a drummer himself and, therefore, micro-managed Murph's every thwap.
Sonic Youth became huge fans (another Nirvana parallel). Because Mascis thought the guitar was a wimpy instrument, he played it so violently loud that their live shows blew people away, both emotionally and literally. The British press fawned at Mascis' cavemanish zen, an apathetic perma-stoner with an amazing ability to write lovely whine-songs like "Freak Scene." Add to this their general distaste for each other-plus a fantastic instrument duel between Mascis and Barlow on stage in 1988 that basically ended Barlow's tenure with the band-and you have a band pretty enough to be loved by the periphery, ironic enough to be loved by the underground and dysfunctional enough to be loved by both.
After seven albums, Mascis pulled the plug in 1997. Then the press feasted on Barlow's loathe of his former bandmate (Sebadoh singles like "Asshole" didn't do much to veil it). Barlow became known as the king of lo-fi-cheap, bedroom recordings that he originally started because he was scared to bring his songs to Mascis. Mascis wrote more great songs with his band, The Fog.
Earlier this year, Mascis re-released Dinosaur Jr's first three albums-the murky beginnings of Dinosaur, their defining record You're Living All Over Me and the uninspired yet good Bug-and a reunion tour was announced.
Sales for the tour haven't been blazing, and that's a shame. The band is one of the best live bands in the world. CityBeat spoke with Barlow about then and now.
How is your perspective of Dino different now compared to when you were in the band originally?
Now it's all about the music whereas, back in the day, everything was complicated by personal issues. I loved the songs then [and still] love them, so playing is great. I feel comfortable in my skin and am not concerned with what other people think. Also, hanging out with J and Murph feels fun. It used to be psychodramatic. I like that we can get together and celebrate the good things we did together..
How did the reunion come about? How did you and J overcome your differences? Who called who?
J's manager did all of the finessing of details and made all the calls. The chain of events probably began in the late '90s when J would come to Sebadoh shows Eventually I started going to see him play because we work with a lot of the same people, have mutual friends and our families know each other. I gradually let go of a lot of animosity I had towards him. When he reissued the first three records and his manager called me, it seemed like good timing and a good opportunity to challenge myself by playing Dino-style again.
Dino was one of the loudest live bands in the world. Why so much ear-bleeding country?
J needs to play loud enough to feel his guitar as well as hear it, apparently. Murph and I play with a lot of force, too, so perhaps it couldn't be anything but loud. It's simply the chemistry we have, the hundreds of watts of power we use and Murph's cymbals.
Reunion tours are the tour du jour nowadays. The Pixies, Gang of Four, The Eagles (sorry to throw that in there). How do you feel about the whole reunion thing?
S'allrite with me.... It depends on the band. I'm not one to dismiss the whole concept-that's for critics and cynics. In our case, it's very easy to recreate the sound that characterized our early years. Not many people saw us back then and are willing to pay to see [us now], so why not? I need the money and I love the music. I saw excellent reunions by Iggy and the Stooges, Gang of Four and Mission of Burma. It doesn't have to be pathetic.
What plans for the future of Dino? Where do you go now?
We tour till the end of August, then we'll probably consider more touring. I dunno... there is no master plan for a new album. Perhaps we'll talk about it; perhaps we won't. We never were particularly ambitious and aren't keen to complicate what for now feels very natural and simple. New albums bring new problems and, almost always, condescending reviews and lukewarm response.
Dinosaur Jr plays with Alaska! on Aug. 15 at Soma. 619-226-7662.