The Return of Dinosaur Jr. With Lou Barlow
“An aura drifted down and hummed around him, like a living, intelligent form of life, surrounding familiar objects and energizing themtheir entire world seemed like a nearly dead battery that someone had suddenly charged up.” – I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick,
The epic sprawl of the 1980s underground music scene appears influential and misunderstood upon 21st century hindsight. There is no better indicator of that then the volatile early 90s alternative rock explosion that began in September 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s _Nevermind_an album both overrated and criminally misinterpreted. When a band is consolidating all of the strengths of a bygone era and releasing an extreme and landmark record, what does one do for an encore? Ask Guns n’ Roses for that matter. Whereas Pink Floyd found a way to follow up their masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon with powerful statements about their dilemma on their trio of superb 70s albums entrenched in inner space and social commentary, the so-called grunge scene played it loud, fast, chaotic and, ultimately, apocalyptic. When one blows up the world, there ain’t a lot to do next. This creative barrier has faced many bands in multiple genres and the solution to self-destruct in whatever fashion is, unfortunately, often selected.
Dinosaur Jr. was a band that teetered on the precipice between greatness and bitter garage rock meets Led Zeppelin scorn. Their music was fueled by the ingenious sounds of front man and guitarist, J Mascis, who had a unique way of communicating his contempt withuh, bouts of non-communication and very witty sarcasm. Murph, their drummer, delivered a spirited assault in the percussion engine room but Lou Barlow was a whole other breed of cat. Whereas Mascis ignored inner band politics and varying music, Barlow searched for a means to convey many different strands of thought and sounds which inevitably led to a battle of the wills and the bassist lost. He was ignobly booted out of the band in the early 90s but Dinosaur Jr. floundered and, inevitably, broke up.
Which was a shame. Perhaps no other underground band of the 80s had more potential to break new ground with a sound that embraced 70s arena rocknormally taboo with the snooty post-punk bandspunk and progressive music with an ear towards chaos as beauty. However, in the Year of Our Reunion Lord, 2005, shame segued into delight. Like the aforementioned Pink Floyd, both bands reunited to raised eyebrows and huge smiles. The Floyd Empire is still in limbo but, thankfully, Dinosaur Jr. has decided to raise their influential stripe of sounds once more up the rock flag pole. Jambands.com sat down with Barlow for a sometimes difficult yet probing conversation embracing both past and present events. Barlow and the band are still attempting to find ways to communicate with each other but, fortunately, the music, as always, is creating its own timeless magic as their recent tour of Europe and America confirms. And the news continues to get better. A new Dinosaur Jr. album is currently being worked on at Mascis’s home studio in Massachusetts and a DVD documenting their December 2005 performances plus bonus behind the scene material is slated for release later this year.
RR: How did the band get back together?
LB: (long pause) Let’s see. I don’t think there is one event that brought us back together. One thing that happened was that J [Mascis] and I played a benefit show that my mom setup a couple of years ago. She works for a community resource center for families with children with autism. Through that organization, my mother had some contact with some of J’s extended family. She and a co-worker had setup this idea for this benefit and they got J to play it solo and they got me to play it with my partner Jason Loewenstein from Sebadoh and Sonic Youth who live in the Western Massachusetts area.
After J played solo, myself and two other guys that were in our very first band together called Deep Wounda hardcore bandconspired to have a reunion. J was leaving the stage after playing his solo set and we said, “We’re going to play this song; get behind the drum set.” So he went and played the drums and we did one song. That was the first time where it seemed that a Dinosaur thing would be possible. We both kind of, you know, would allow that to happen. We have friends in common and people that we work with in common. People wanted to see it happena lot of friends and family.
RR: How did it feel to be back together after all of those years?
LB: It felt really good because the music just came together really quick again. Playing in that band was such a formative experience that the songs are kind of ingrained on my brain. It all fell together real quick.
RR: It had been since 1989 that Dinosaur Jr. had played, right?
LB: (laughs) Yeah, 1989.
RR: You’ve sort of had two careers. You were the bassist in a band that was an important part of the 1980s underground music scene and probably should have been a lot bigger. It’s ironic and well-documented but alternative music in the 1990s echoed ideas that Dinosaur Jr. had already explored. Since then, you’ve had several projects going on that have shown your widespread influence from folk to pop to lo-fi indie recordings.
LB: I had this duo going with Eric Gaffney when I was in Dinosaur. We released a cassette in 1987 where I played ukulele and Eric played this really basic drum kit. When Dinosaur released You’re Living All Over Me, I included a cassette of these songs. As Eric started working on more songs, it evolved into Sebadoh. Our record came out shortly after I was kicked out of Dinosaur so we formed a band around that and started touring in 1990. We kept the band together until 1999. Actuallywe’ve never really broken up. Sebadoh is loose; I never took a leadership role; everybody wrote songs; we switched instruments a lot and we did really well in the mid-90s. It was pretty great.
RR: Definitely. If I remember correctly, didn’t you have a hit from a film soundtrack? Around ten years ago or so?
LB: Yeah. I had another band, another duo going [Folk Implosion] with a really good friend of mine, John Davis.
RR: Kids? Was that it? Kids was a 1995 sobering docudrama about 24 hours in the lives of directionless New York teenagers.]
LB: Right. We started out putting out cassettes, too. We got some friends to release CDs and then, I was asked to do the soundtrack for the film, Kids by the screenwriter, Harmony Korine. John and I said we should do this as the Folk Implosion. We got some time in some really good studiosone particularly good studioand an actual radio hit came out of that [the hip-hop atmosphere of “Natural One”].
RR: What’s the status of Folk Implosion?
LB: John left the band in 2000 and I kept it going a little bit after that because we had signed a record contract and I had to keep it together. I got a couple of friends to be in Folk Implosion and we did one more album in 2003 and that fizzled out.
RR: Your 2001 EMOH solo album summarizes so many elements of your style. I really liked “Caterpillar Girl”: and then you break through and dry before my eyes, take me with you, where you hide tonight, away, alone, look out, the birds, like me, want you now, caterpillar come out. Was any of EMOH autobiographical?
LB: Oh, yeah. All of it. (laughter) I have a hard time writing about things that I haven’t actually experienced.
RR: Well, a lot of people use a front or a mask when they are writing their songs.
LB: I think people who can do that are talented. Yeah, I meanI don’t know. I don’t have enough imagination to write about other people. I just think it’s presumptuous to write about other people so I don’t. What? [at this point in our conversation, a bystander gets upset with Barlow about this remark] I’m sorry. They’re upset because I’m saying I don’t have any imagination. I think it’s presumptuous, that’s all.
RR: When you reunited with Dinosaur Jr., did you go back in time to the sound you had or did everyone bring what they had gathered over the last fifteen years?
LB: Oh, it’s a total combination of both. We pretty much played the same; although, I think we were playing with better equipment, I guess. I don’t know. It really felt very similarespecially the first batch of shows. It definitely felt like a time warpperformance-wise. Later, I guess, as we got more comfortable with it, we got to bring a little bit of our experience into the music. But, at first, it felt like a very similar rush. We
kind of enjoyed it more. I can say that right off. Right away, we enjoyed it. Whereas, before, we had a hard time enjoying itat least when I was in the band, you know?
RR: That’s the key, isn’t it? You had communication issues in the past. How did all of that get settled?
LB: It didn’t. We’re here; we’ve got a job to do; let’s do it. Just by coming together that said everything that we needed to say. We’re all here and we’re ready to set any weirdness aside and get down to business.
RR: In a strange way, it is very similar to the Pink Floyd situation. Roger Waters got back together with his old mates but no real communication issues were solved. The book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad came out in 2001 and was an excellent commentary on bands that recorded solely on independent labels in the 80s and early 90s. Dinosaur Jr. is featured in one of the best chapters of the book. Did your comments in the book open old wounds or did it settle the score?
LB: [Azerrad] talked to me a lot. He was initially going to call the book Just Gimme Indie Rock, which is one of my songs. I really had my say [in the book]. I think, in the end, when I read the chapter it was just soI mean, kind of pathetic. (laughter) Yeah, I had my say but so what? In a certain way, reading something like that, and seeing how sad and stupid it wasit definitely made me think that reuniting with them would put a better ending on the story.
RR: Did anyone have bad feelings about what was put in the book?
LB: I think J really didn’t have a lot to say. (laughs) It was kind of a one-sided thing, which it was. I was much more willing to spill all of the beans. J’s not a real talker. That is why you are talking with me as opposed to him. He won’t do interviews.
RR: I wanted to talk with you. I’ve followed your work outside of Dinosaur Jr. and I thought your passages in Azerrad’s book were honest and thought-provoking. Plus, everyone wants to create music that stands the test of time and you were a crucial part of a band that did.
LB: What you are saying is totally right. When we got back together again there was a little article about us in Mojo magazine and it was all just about the fighting and stuff. There is not a lot being said about what we did musically. The music is the strongest thing that came out of it. J has been playing the songs all along but Murph, J and I came back together for the music. Also, obviously, people are going to come see us play and we know how valuable that is at this point in time. We’ve been playing forever and we’ve seen our audiences fluctuate over the years. It’s a good thing and we should take advantage of it for a lot of reasons.
RR: The music has held up despite the fact that it hasn’t been shoved down anyone’s throat via the radio over the years. In America, for example, that is hard to do while not being oversaturated at the same time. One key for me is that people compare your bass playing to Lemmy’s work and I agree to a certain extent but I actually see a similarity with some of his playing with Hawkwind before he formed Motorhead. Your trio created a great blend of noisy sound; are you working on new material these days for Dinosaur Jr.?
LB: It’s pretty slow but it’s kind of like it was before. We just have a lot of time. We’re doing it at J’s house and there’s not a real strict schedule to adhere to whereas, before, it was like “we’ve got two weeks; let’s do this.” (laughs) Now we have two weeks to learn two songs. It was pretty mellow when I went back and recorded. J and Murph still live in Amherst [Massachusetts] but I live out in Los Angeles so me coming out for a month and fuck around with Murph and J on new songs was cool because I could bring my family back to my family. My mom could hang out with my baby and all of that stuff. To me, it’s been cool because it’s a really good way to keep in touch with everyone at home and not feel separated. It’s cool.
RR: Will some of your own new songs be used for Dinosaur Jr.?
LB: No, not really. Not at all, actually. They sort of put it to me that I could contribute but I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I’m writing, anyway. I like how I’m thinking. When I go back to play my acoustic stuff, it just sounds more delicate and musical to me (laughs) after playing something so heavy as Dinosaur. It’s amazing to have the ability and privilege to say, “You know, I’m going to play some solo shows, now.” I’ve always been open to extremes and the middle ground, as well. I’d love to play my own songs with Dinosaur Jr. The way the band operates is really unique to say the least. (laughs) I would have to sort of really readapt to it and assert myself and I’m not sure how to do that, yet.
RR: Is Dinosaur Jr. just a month-to-month venture at this point?
LB: I don’t know. They seem to have the next year planned out, especially with this album that we’re working on. When we finish this record, that’s a whole other year of touring. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself before; I see people enjoying it. It’s cool that a 16 year old is hearing You’re Living All Over Me and saying, “Hey, this is awesome.” (laughs) Kids that agediscovering heavy bands and bands that play like bands and bands that have their own unique style is just something that can bring a focus to your life at a time when you kind of lack focus. (laughter) Bands have meant so much to me. Knowing that there would be these crews of three or four people who would get together and really focus and create something on their own. That was something that was always appealing and life-affirming even before I knew I was going to become a musician.