Posted July 2, 2007
By PATRICK EMERY
Photos by PETER WHITFIELD
The reunion of the original Dinosaur Jr line-up in 2005 was one of the more unlikely contemporary reformations. Singer, guitarist and principal songwriter J Mascis had kicked bassist Lou Barlow out of the band shortly after the release of the band's third album, Bug. In the dying days of Barlow's tenure in the band, his relationship with Mascis had degenerated to a point of personal animosity and dysfunction that made the latter day Lennon and McCartney relationship seem like an adolescent lunchtime squabble in comparison.
After drummer Emmet ("Murph") Murphy left in the early 1990s Mascis continued to record and tour using the Dinosaur Jr brand, while Barlow pursued his own musical interests (with occasional snipes at his former band mate). The announcement, therefore, of a reunion of Mascis, Barlow and Murphy was greeted with a mixture of surprise, excitement and suspicion – would it really happen, and would the band survive sharing the same personal and musical space again?
But survive the band did – so much so, that Dinosaur Jr decided to return to the studio to record Beyond, the first album from the original trio since 1988. While there's been the obligatory humbug review, reaction to the new album has been largely favourable – and considerably more positive than afforded new releases from other reformed bands.
On the phone from the United States, bassist Lou Barlow has a demeanour that seems consistent with his visual appearance – softly spoken, reserved and studious in his responses. When I ask him about the events leading up to the decision to record a new album, there’s a sense that Barlow is still surprised that the band managed to get through the act of recording a new album.
Lou Barlow anchors Dinosaur to the floor.
“I just got the word from our manager,” Barlow says when I ask him about the recording process. “I was totally shocked,” he says. The list of bands that have decided to bury the hatchet of historical grievances, or simply renew long lost musical acquaintances, continues to grow – but only a limited proportion of those bands have released new material.
“I thought it was a brave move”, Barlow says, “and I thought it was awfully of J, but as we went on it went really well, so we just kept going with it." Having come out the other side, Barlow is very happy with the result. “I think the final product is great”, Barlow says. “It’s like that old rock’n’roll story – when you play live you think ‘this is the way we play it!’ It’s like that with the new album,” he says.
Even going back to its days as plain ol’ Dinosaur, Dinosaur Jr was a band that tended to labour under the weight of its dysfunctional intra-band communication. While time has healed most old wounds, Barlow admits communication between the band members still has its problems. “J communicates to a minimal level,” Barlow says. Whether it’s maturity, or a musical empathy born of years together – and a greater period apart – the lack of direct communication is no longer the problem it once was.
“I can still understand what J is looking for,”, Barlow says. “It’s much less than threatening that it used to be." Barlow’s musings suggest the members of Dinosaur Jr have reached a level where they can collaborate on the band’s music, at the same time recognising that deep platonic friendship is unlikely to occur.
“Somehow the music gets better the more we do it,” he says. Barlow sees the decision to record new music as an inevitable step if the band was to remain together. “It was really hi-energy when we started playing together again, but the new songs have revitalised us,” Barlow says. “We could’ve either learnt the entire back catalogue or done new stuff.”
Barlow points to the band’s early champion, the indefatigable Sonic Youth, as a role model for the 21st century incarnation of Dinosaur Jr. “Sonic Youth has been raised to the status of musical saints – we’re trying to match that success,” he jokes. Barlow is sincere in his praise for Sonic Youth, particularly in Dinosaur Jr’s embryonic stage. “They took us under their wing,” Barlow recalls. “There’s a term for it – chicken hawking. They take bands under their wing,” he says. “Thurston [Moore] is like a professor. And he’s really good about it.”
J. Mascis lets his guitar do the talking.
Sonic Youth’s ability to re-invent itself, yet remain true to its no wave origins, is a source of inspiration. “They’re always doing something,” Barlow says, “Whether it’s music or art, or both, or the history of bohemian music,” he says fondly.
Barlow isn’t as complimentary about the contemporary hardcore scene. In the early to mid 1980s Barlow, Mascis and Murphy formed part of the small, but dedicated US hardcore scene, displaying a penchant for loud, almost psychotic sonic displays. It was this scene that underpinned the commodified punk movement subsequently packaged up and regurgitated as grunge. These days Barlow believes the hardcore scene has lost the sense of adventure that sustained it in the 1980s.
“The hardcore scene doesn’t have the same freedom it did around 79 to 83,” Barlow says. “In those days there were so many bands coming from different angles. These days it’s like another style, or a style that people see comfort with.”
Barlow’s view might be tinged with nostalgia – but there’s a sincerity in his recollections that differentiates him from jaded old punks reminiscing about the old days. “When we started hardcore was a force for creativity. These days the hardcore scene’s not for me. I haven’t really paid much attention to it,” he says.
Regardless of the state of modern music, Barlow isn’t sure how long Dinosaur Jr will remain in its reformed state. “I dunno,” he says. “As long as we’re having fun. We don’t feel decrepit. It feels fun when we play.”
Far from growing old and becoming a bunch of jaded old farts, Dinosaur Jr seems to be re-discovering its sense of fun and artistic creativity. “We’re kind of doing what we were trying to do when we started,” Barlow says. “We’re creating a wall of sound. There’s not many bands around these days doing what we’re doing.”
Rock solid Murph drives the beat.
SEE MORE OF PETER WHITFIELD'S ROCK PHOTOGRAPHY
AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES:
Thursday 5th July: Byron Bay, Hotel Great Northern
Tickets $36.00 + bf available online from: www.byronbayentertainment.com. Direct from the venue - phone charge: 1300 762 545. Music Bizarre Lismore - phone: (02) 6622 3262, ABC Shop Ballina - phone: (02) 6686 2436.
Co-presented by Time Off.
Friday 6th July: Brisbane, The Tivoli
Tickets $49.50 (includes GST & booking fees - some transaction fees may apply) direct from the Tivoli - Phone: (07) 3852 1711 or Ticketek: All outlets (phone: 132-849) or online: www.ticketek.com.au or Rocking Horse or Skinny's Record stores. Co-Presented by Time Off.
Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th July: Sydney, Metro
Tickets $46.70 + bf. Available from www.moshtix.com and all moshtix outlets or online from: www.ticketek.com.au or via phone 132-849.
Monday 9th July: Auckland, The Studio
Tickets $53.60 (includes GST & booking fees - some transaction fees may apply) from www.ticketmaster.co.nz or Real Groovy Records - * ON SALE MAY 17TH.
Wednesday 11th July: Canberra, University of Canberra Union
Tickets $47.70 (includes GST & booking fees - some transaction fees may apply) from www.ticketek.com.au or phone 132-849.
Thursday 12th July: Melbourne, The Forum
Tickets $51.70 (includes GST & booking fees - some transaction fees may apply) from www.ticketek.com.au
or phone 132-849.
Friday 13th July: Adelaide, The Gov
Tickets $45.20 + bf available from The Gov 8340 0744 and Venue-tix 8225 8888 or www.venuetix.com.au
Saturday 14th July: Perth, The Capitol
Tickets $45.00 + bf available from BOCS ticketing Phone: 9484 1133, online @ www.bocsticketing.com.au
Also available from www.moshtix.com and all moshtix outlets. Co-presented by XPress.
Dinosaur Jr's "Beyond" is out now on Liberator Records.