On the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina, Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III is cheating on his band. Sorta. The Dinosaur Jr. drummer is on the road with the electronic noise collective Sunburned Hand of the Man for a few shows before hooking up again with his main lineup, Dinosaur Jr., the pioneering alternative band back when alternative was barely a thing.
The evening’s gig is a 180 from Murph’s experience with founder/frontman/guitarist J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow. “In Dino… it’s very rigid, there’s no deviation, there’s no jamming, it’s specific parts,” Murph says of the seminal group that’s been back in its original mid-’80s incarnation since 2005. “I’m kinda the prog guy of the band; I grew up on a lot of ’70s jazz-fusion; that’s what I like to do on my downtime. When I was younger, people were, like, ‘Oh you must have all Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore in your record collection,’ and I’m, like, ‘No, it’s all Chick Corea, and Gong and Frank Zappa.’ ”
Basically, stuff not explored in the Amherst, Massachusetts-bred Dino Jr., whose musical vision is driven by the notoriously controlling — or visionary — Mascis. Murph left the trio after touring for 1993’s Where You Been, and Barlow had previously departed, contentiously, in 1988, turning to his band Sebadoh, and in 1994, forming Folk Implosion. While Dino carried on with other members, subsequent to 1997’s Hand It Over, Mascis retired the Dinosaur Jr. name. The band reformed to tour in 2005 and in 2007 released Beyond, its eighth studio album, and first with the original lineup since 1988’s Bug.
When I asked about the reunion in a 2005 interview, Mascis was his usual laconic self, noting: “I’m not too psyched, but I’m hoping for the best,” he said dryly. His best-case future scenario back then? “Money, I guess.”
Cut to more than eight years later and Murph is frank about the current psychological state(s) of the band’s members. “We get along now, which makes playing the songs a lot more enjoyable, [and]…just reinforces the chemistry that much more,” he says. “Also, when we first started the reunion, I flew out to L.A. and I hadn’t played with Lou in, like, 16 years. I got into the rehearsal space and played stuff from [1987’s] You’re Living All Over Me and within 10 minutes, we both looked at each other and said, ‘This is weird. It really feels like it’s 1988 and we’re back in J’s basement.’ ”
Proof of the band’s firing on all cylinders are the three stellar “comeback” records they’ve made, the most recent, 2012’s I Bet on Sky. “I hate to use all these simple man terms,” Murph says, “but the proof is in the pudding. Especially when you see other bands trying to come back together, and they don’t have their original sound, they don’t have that spark, and you realize you have something you should hold onto and keep for as long as you can.”
Murph knows what it looks like when bands sour. “Oh my, God, we had that movie [Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster documentary] on one tour, and I started watching it and feeling sick to my stomach, like I just want to quit the music industry all together,” he says, still sounding traumatized. “They’re this mega-huge, billion-dollar industry and they’re … [fighting] like kids in a sandbox.”
Dinosaur Jr. is now in a place where Murph knows if his band suddenly struck superstardom, they’d never “get that far off the mark and be that delusional. I’ve always felt you kind of have an obligation, especially at that level, to try to be true to your fans. Your fans are what are making you that huge, and you’re making so much money off it, you have to take a certain amount of responsibility and say, ‘This is my role now, whether I like it or not,’ ” he says.
“J is like a math teacher, where he’s, like, ‘This is the formula, this is how it works.’ Dinosaur is very much like that; there’s a certain chemistry and formula that we have,” he concludes. “And we’ve grown into it.”
Dinosaur Jr. perform at 4Knots Music Festival at South Street Seaport, which takes place on Saturday, July 12, 1 to 8 p.m.