Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. After making three seminal indie-rock albums in the ’80s, then imploding due to some serious inter-band conflicts, the classic Dinosaur Jr lineup—J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph—reunited 25 years later. The new Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not showcases why these guys are still the Lords Of Dinotown.
Interview by Henry Rollins
Photo by Gene Smirnov
Dinosaur Jr, then called Dinosaur, released its self-titled debut album in 1985 on the excellent Homestead label. It was a pitch-perfect independent-music release. The band followed up with You’re Living All Over Me and then Bug. There isn’t a bad song on any of these records.
After years apart, the material’s creators, what is known as the classic lineup of Dinosaur Jr—Lou Barlow on bass, Murph on drums and J Mascis on guitar—reformed. In 2007, the band released the Beyond album, and since then, it’s as if the group never left. The only noticeable change is that these guys have all improved as players, and the band—now a cohesive, more- than-the-sum-of-its-parts trio—is absolutely ripping live. Not only that, they are, thankfully for their fans, touring and releasing new material on a regular basis.
One of the most admirable things about the band is that this isn’t some washed-out unit trying to cash in on the past. The new records are really good, and while many of their peers of yesteryear wallow in best-ofs and occasional appearances at summer festivals, Dinosaur Jr is 30 years in, and doesn’t seem to notice. Some people (wink, wink) have been listening to their music and going to the shows the entire time and have concluded that the band is all kinds of great.
This month, Dinosaur Jr is releasing a new album called Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve listened to it. It’s a great piece of work.
Immediately after playing Glimpse, I went back to the band’s two previous releases, 2009’s Farm and 2012’s I Bet On Sky, to compare and contrast. There’s something very interesting happening on Glimpse that I think fans might very much appreciate. The band has evolved and, while not losing an ounce of melodic wallop, re ned its sound. It’s slightly leaner and, dare I say, more focused. When you hear it, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Sky was great. Glimpse is even better.
There’s an interesting division of labor on Dinosaur Jr albums. J is the principal songwriter and creates most of the tracks, but Lou, also a talented and prolific songwriter, always brings a couple of great ones. On Glimpse, Lou has brought his best Dinosaur Jr material to bear thus far. The two songs, “Love Is…” and “Left/Right,” are incredible and give the album great balance.
Dinosaur Jr conducts operations with little ash or fanfare. The band writes new songs, records them, goes out on tour and lets the music do the talking. Like Neil Young.
A little about me: I was asked to get a few words from Mr. J about the new album, upcoming shows and other things relevant in the Mascis universe. We connected via phone recently—he in Lyon, France, I believe, me in my office in Los Angeles. It was quite late for J, but he was a gracious subject and, hopefully, we created some conversation t for reading. If it lags at all, that would be my fault.
Most important is that the band has made yet another great album, and they’ll be playing all over. If you can make it to the show, do it. If you can get to more than one, do that. I saw them seven times last year and was so happy to hear them land on it so hard. Murph is a damn freight train back there, Lou is playing and singing incredibly, and J is always the same, and always different: a guitarist’s guitarist. What a band.
Rollins: First off, before anything, congratulations on another amazing record. I’ve played it many times, I’m very happy about it.
Mascis: Oh, thanks.
Rollins: Were there any differences in the approach to writing the songs for the new album than on any of the previous Dinosaur Jr albums?
Mascis: No, not that I can think of. It was pretty much business as usual for me.
Rollins: Here’s why I’m asking: Because it came to me that the songs are really written with Lou and Murph in mind. The rhythm section is performing so great on this record, and it seems like the songs really work to show off the rhythm section. A lot of your overdubs really seem to be knitted into the rhythm section, much more than on previous records. I’m just noticing in all of the middle sections there are some really powerful changes. I’m just wondering if there was any kind of different approach.
Mascis: Well, no. I think it’s just that Murph played better on this album—maybe this is his best album. He’s just kind of on top of his game. And Lou kind of borrowed this bass for the shows in December, because it was the one he had on the first album. And he decided he really liked how it sounded, and I think it kinda fits in with our sound more, like it’s more audible. I think those are the two things.
Rollins: I’m glad you brought up that you think that Murph is really shining because I think, on a Dinosaur Jr record, this is his best performance. He’s really just so solid, and he and Lou are just amazing together. That’s one of the things that’s jumping out at me immediately. There seems to be less effects on the guitar, the parts seem to be much more focused. I hate to use this word, but it almost seems more “mature.” There’s a real direction to the songs that was not on the previous records, which is great. This record is different. It’s different from other Dinosaur Jr records, which I’m happy about. That’s why I’m asking if there’s any difference in anything you did. You recorded in the same place you worked at before, right?
Mascis: Yeah, just recording at home. I did get some different converters, which maybe made the sound a little bit clearer or something.
Rollins: The thing about your sound on this record, it’s just so good and so strong.
Mascis: Yeah, I’m happy with it. I’m definitely happy with it. And Lou also moved back to our area, so I think he felt more relaxed not having to only come in for a short period of time. He was just around.
Rollins: That’s so cool that you mentioned that, because that was one of my questions. The band is now all on the East Coast, where for years it was this whole East Coast/West Coast thing where basically members of the band fly in just to make a record. Now, you guys are really within driving distance of each other, correct?
Rollins: And so this time around, the band practice, songwriting, the sheer proximity—do you think it had an effect on making the record?
Mascis: Yeah, for sure. It was definitely a lot less stressed.
Rollins: I was talking to Lou last year when we were all in New York, and he told me that he’d moved back. And he seemed so much happier about being back on the East Coast. Whenever I’d see him out in Los Angeles it just never seemed like a fit. It just didn’t ever seem like he was gonna be a guy who lived in California, you know?
Mascis: I think he liked it. We weren’t sure why he moved back, exactly, but it’s working out good. Yeah, I never really saw him hanging out at Hollywood parties or anything.
Rollins: Here’s another question on the mechanics of making a Dinosaur Jr record. Do you make demos?
Mascis: Yeah, I make demos of guitar and drums. I make them maybe in the morning before giving them to the band and then come in with another one after we kind of work on that one. I need a song or two in the morning to start them out.
Rollins: This album cycle, how many months or weeks did it take to write the songs that would become the new album?
Mascis: About three or four months, I guess.
Rollins: Tell me how you work. Are there times of the year when you go into writing mode, or do you always have a guitar around thinking of another song?
Mascis: I definitely go into modes, writing for certain albums. I guess I’ll stay up later, watch TV and play the guitar. I’m writing a little bit here and there, but I don’t think about it as much. I usually focus on writing for the album that’s coming up.
Rollins: And what’s the inclination to do that? Does management give you a call, or do you just feel it’s time to wade back in?
Mascis: It’s kind of based around wanting to tour and wanting to have something to tour on. I think it’s still kind of in that mindset.
Rollins: You’ve been touring pretty ambitiously since the mid-’80s. That’s about 30 years now. How do you feel about touring in 2016? Are you still into it?
Mascis: Yeah. I go through cycles, but I think I’m definitely more into it as I get older. In my 20s and early 30s, I was I think the least into it. But then as I got a little older, I realized that I was fortunate to be able to do it, and I definitely enjoyed it more.
Rollins: In the story of independent music in America, Dinosaur Jr is kind of rare in that there’s what they call the classic lineup, the one you have now, and then there’s also the Blanco y Negro/Warner years. Yet, they were still recognizably Dinosaur Jr recordings that you were making. It’s just an amazing longevity that you guys have. And when you got back together, it was just one of the most well-received reunions. And you know, I’m not gonna name names, but other bands do it when they get back together and they play the small parties and they do some things. But when you guys got back together, you did it with the new album, the Beyond record, which is awesome. And then came Farm. It was real. So when you guys got back together, what did you think the reception would be and what was your feeling when you saw what the reception was?
Mascis: We weren’t sure, really. That’s kind of why we did it slowly. You know, we’d do one thing. First we’d do a gig and a TV show and go, “Oh, that was cool, maybe we’ll do some more gigs.” We did it all really slowly, and I guess we just kept going.
Rollins: It’s not exactly a “comeback,” it’s more like “resuming.” So many bands, when they do that, all you can think of is, “Well, it was better when they did it 20 years ago and I’m watching this, but there’s something kind of sad about it.” Again, I don’t want to name names because everyone’s working hard. But with you guys, I just haven’t gotten that ever. It’s really just straight ahead. It’s such a wonderful thing but kind of rare in this day and age. Let me kind of go back to a thing you said, which I really appreciated. You said that as you got older, you started to appreciate the fact that you can still tour, you realized that you are pretty lucky. Because statistically, as far as the numbers go, you’re rare. Not many people from, I dare say, our genre of music get to have a third decade of relevance, now going into a fourth. I’m not asking you to self-aggrandize, but what do you think it is about Dinosaur Jr that still keeps working with people?
Mascis: I’m not sure. We’re trying definitely not to suck whenever possible. I’m not sure really how it all works.