Where You Been

Alt-rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. return to the freak scene as seniors

If you subscribe to the adage "If it's too loud, you're too old," then the recently reunited alternative-rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. haven't aged a bit over the past 15 years. And if you're unable to score tickets to their sure to be sold-out show at Central Park SummerStage on July 14, don't worry—anyone within a five-mile radius should have no trouble hearing them.

With bands like Mission of Burma, Iggy and the Stooges, Gang of Four, and the Pixies having come back together to tour over the past few years, it's hard to be shocked by yet another reunion. Especially after the Pixies comeback—that band's inner turmoil and the prickish way Black Francis broke up the group (by fax) was legendary.

But Dinosaur Jr.'s story might top even that. Toward the end of the original trio's time together, bassist Lou Barlow and lead singer-guitarist J Mascis had stopped talking. To make matters worse, Mascis hit Barlow with his guitar during a live show. (Barlow later admitted to having fantasies of returning the act on Saturday Night Live, had the band ever been invited to play.) And then, just as grunge was about to explode, Mascis and drummer Murph informed Barlow that the band was breaking up, only to re-form the group the next day with a new bass player—Barlow found out the truth while watching MTV News.

Left to right: J Mascis, Murph, Lou Barlow
photo: Kevin Scanlon
Left to right: J Mascis, Murph, Lou Barlow

Even more surprising than the band's reunion tour—which has them bouncing back and forth between the States and Europe all summer before heading off to Japan—is how much responsibility Barlow is willing to take for the trio's originally not working out. "It would have been great to have been a lot more intelligent or confident back then, but I wasn't, and that's it. We just didn't communicate very well, so after that I just tried to communicate better with people, musically and personally. There was great music that came out of that, but personally it was just too painful," he says. "I freaked out on J a couple of times after I was kicked out of the band, and I've apologized for that." But Mascis isn't as willing to discuss the breakup. And when pushed about whether or not he needed to get anything off his chest with Barlow in order for this tour to happen, he simply chuckles and says, "We'll have the whole summer to talk."

Mascis and Murph did extend themselves a bit, though, to facilitate the reunion—they flew out to L.A. to rehearse with Barlow before the tour. "We went to Lou's practice space, and within the first hour it felt just like before," explains Murph. "We were able to lock in and create a good power, a good energy." But there's no romanticizing the past—there has never been a real sense of camaraderie within the band. "I never really remember a point when we were giving each other high-fives after a show, so in that way it's pretty much the same," says Barlow. "I mean, I love the way we play together, but that has a lot to do with the songs, and what we do when we play them—they're great songs."

The reunion also coincides with the re-release (by Merge) of the first—and only—three albums the original lineup recorded together. So when each is asked what his favorite record is, his answer is a bit suspicious: J picks the first one, Dinosaur; Lou, the second, You're Living All Over Me; and Murph, the third, Bug. But to be fair, each album is remarkable.

All three members had hardcore punk roots: Barlow and Mascis played in Deep Wound together in high school, and Murph's first band was All White Jury. The sound they created as Dinosaur Jr., though, used hardcore as merely a launching pad into uncharted musical territory. "J combined things like the Meat Puppets and Black Flag with Black Sabbath and classic-rock stuff—everything rock writers have already said about it is true," explains Barlow. "At first there was also a little REM in there too—some of the songs had jangly guitars. And Mötorhead." Mascis pipes in, "I think the Birthday Party was maybe the biggest influence at the time."

Whatever it was, no one had ever heard anything like it before. Mascis's lackadaisical whine coupled with heavily distorted guitar blare and manic drumming caught people off guard. Dinosaur Jr.'s songs lured listeners with gorgeous melodies and then assaulted them with noise. "We were really hated in the beginning; we would be banned from like every club," says Mascis. "And if you listen to our music, it just doesn't seem that weird." Murph adds, "We like the fact that we can push air with our amps; that's a big part of what we do—we have to feel it physically. If somebody would say, 'Oh, you have to turn down because we need to sell X amount of drinks tonight, and if you're too loud you'll drive everybody out,' we'd just be like, 'Oh well,' and we'd drive everybody out anyway."

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