And, if there was a band from the ’80s and ’90s that might have found itself near the top of the “most unlikely to get back together” list, it was Massachusetts alternative-rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. Until six years ago the band’s founding trio—guitarist and singer J Mascis, drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy and bassist Lou Barlow—hadn’t all played together since 1989 when Mascis, the band’s frontman and creative driving force, summarily dismissed Barlow after years of tension. The two had been playing together since the 1982 formation of the fittingly named hardcore punk band Deep Wound, but hadn’t spoken much for the last couple years of their initial partnership. And though Dinosaur Jr. enjoyed its greatest commercial success in the years following Barlow’s split, the band was undoubtedly fractured as Mascis took and increasingly dominant role in recording, often laying down many or all of the individual tracks for their albums himself. Murph himself departed in 1993 making the band essentially a Mascis solo project. Mascis retired the name in 1997 and went solo.
But time tends to work its genuine magic on the hardheadedness of youth and in 2005 Mascis, Barlow and Murph reunited to play “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” after the reissue of their early albums that same year. It clicked and tours followed along with three studio albums, the most recent of which, the superb I Bet On Sky, came out Sept. 18.
“We all just kind of moved on,” Murph says of smoothing out the band’s old tensions. “We’re adults now, we have lives. Those guys have kids. J’s very spiritual; he’s into the whole kind of Amish-y thing and Lou lives in L.A., which is totally different than Massachusetts, and everything’s just different so we were able to come together. In the early years, that difference was more like a clash whereas now it’s more like a benefit—it’s more like, what can we bring to the table? What can we do to make this better? In the past it was just like three kids clashing.”
Channeling the divergent personalities within the band into a strength has given a highly unexpected third act to Dinosaur Jr. and an entirely new body of work that stands on its own not as a rehash of past glories, but as a forging ahead of a band that still, nearly three decades on, has a lot more to say. Though I Bet On Sky is Dinosaur Jr.’s 10th studio album, it is the sixth with the original lineup: three between 1984 and 1989 and three since the reunion.
“Lou and I, we hadn’t played together in like 16 years and when we first got back together it was just like—I know it’s like that same old cliché—but it really was like riding a bike,” says Murph, who played with the Lemonheads during Dinosaur Jr.’s hiatus. “We were like back in J’s basement after 16 years. Just the fact that we had created a bond that was so powerful, it was just so apparent that like, ‘Wow, we still have this.’ And so, it took that time away for us to realize, wow, this hasn’t changed, it’s the same … I’m not boasting, but most reunion bands don’t tend to sound that good to me and I feel like we’re kind of, like, carrying the torch. We’re doing it.”
Formed in 1984 in Amherst, Mass., the band united around Mascis’ ear-bursting guitar playing and slightly off-kilter songs, reflecting a sleepy alienation and an ennui that helped form the foundation of grunge rock. The band released their self-titled debut album under their original name, Dinosaur, in 1985 and, after repeated trips to New York City for gigs, eventually gained the admiration of the then-rulers of underground rock Sonic Youth. Dinosaur became the band’s opening act on a 1986 tour.
The next year, Dinosaur Jr.’s early masterpiece, You’re Living All Over Me, was released and proved to be a critical high point for the band showing a rapid evolution as their trademark style congealed into a true powerhouse of piercingly loud Hendrix-inspired distortion courtesy of Mascis. But with the success of the album, the band’s name drew the ire of the army of attorneys employed by the Dinosaurs, made up of members of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Not wanting to tangle with the middle-aged Bay Area rockers, a “Jr.” began to appear in the former band’s name. “They’re just has-beens,” Mascis told Rolling Stone in 1989. “The Fish is a lawyer on Haight Street. He’s the one who sued us.”
After Dinosaur Jr.’s 1989 tour supporting their third album, Bug, Barlow’s sacking brought on a new era in the band where Mascis’ artistic vision reigned supreme. In 1990 Dinosaur Jr. had signed with Sire Records, a major label, while Barlow focused on his side project Sebadoh. His former band mates kept at it with 1991’s Green Mind, which again featured Mascis on virtually all instruments—even drums. He also added Screaming Trees’ Van Conner and then Mike Johnson to fill in on bass live. That year, the lesser-known (at the time) band Nirvana served as the opening band on part of the tour.
“I remember watching a sound check in Tijuana and J and Mike had the weirdest look on their face and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And they were like, ‘Don’t you get it? This is the band that’s going to break it. This is the band that’s going to make alternative music acceptable,’” Murph says. Nevermind came out mere months later.
Dinosaur Jr. toured and built a bigger following and, fitting nicely alongside many of the hugely popular grunge bands of the time, Mascis became a bona-fide ’90s rock icon. After 1993’s Where You Been, Murph quit the band, but 1994’s Without a Sound, fueled by the hit single “Feel the Pain,” proved their biggest commercial success. After Hand It Over in 1997 Mascis hung up Dinosaur Jr.
But, slowly the friction between Barlow and Mascis cooled and they finally reconnected through—what else?—the Stooges. In 2002 Mascis had been playing with legendary Stooges members Scott and Ron Asheton, as well as the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, and invited Barlow to sit in on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at a gig in London.
In 2007, Mascis, Barlow and Murph released Beyond, their first since 1988, and then in 2009 put out Farm. Both albums were well received by critics and the reunited band suddenly connected with a whole new generation.
“Six years ago when we got back together I was afraid that our audience would be a bunch of 45-year-old dudes like hanging out. But, they’re not,” Murph says. “The audience today is still like 22-year-old kids who are really into the music and—we’re almost historical.”
As for the future of Dinosaur Jr. in the aftermath of I Bet on Sky, Murph’s laidback assessment is that the band is purely living in the moment, savoring the unlikely resurgence of one of rock’s most influential bands of the last two decades.
“We always live one day at a time. We live one record at a time. We live one tour at a time,” Murph says. “We could do more records—it would be totally normal for us to do another record, but at the same time J. could say, ‘Hey man, we did three records when we were young’—we did Dinosaur, [You’re] Living All Over Me and Bug’—and I could see him saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve done three records and that’s it.’ Either way, it wouldn’t surprise me; it’s all good. We just look at what we’re doing at the time.”
But for now the band’s new material is the focus. Earlier this month they sequestered themselves and, having recorded I Bet On Sky early in the year, had to relearn the album in order to perform the songs live. Murph isn’t nervous though.
“It’s still the same J. That chemistry hasn’t changed. When we get together we’re the same as if we were 20 in J’s basement. It’s always the same … It’s more like a family. I grew up with all women. I grew up with two sisters and a pretty overbearing mother so J and Lou are like the brothers I never had. They’re like my brothers who I do this thing with.”
See Dinosaur Jr. with opening band, Austin, Texas, indie rockers Shearwater Mon, Oct. 8 at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $24 in advance and $27 at the door (plus fees). For more info, see www.dinosaurjr.com or call 556-1580.
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