Dinosaur Jr. Still Avoiding Celebrity
Dinosaur Jr.'s June 1991 tour was its most famous thanks to what's now seen as a historical anomaly: The opening act was Nirvana. But in those days, no one looked askance at the billing. Although Nirvana's early work (for a rising indie called Sub Pop) had inspired Geffen Records to sign Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic to a fat contract, Nevermind, the trio's groundbreaking major-label debut, didn't hit sales charts until the following November. In contrast, Dinosaur Jr. was already earning plaudits for Green Mind, its own bow for a major: Sire, a division of Warner Bros.
Green Mind featured a different Dinosaur Jr. roster than the one that recorded for the Homestead and SST imprints during the late '80s; bassist Lou Barlow had been jettisoned a couple of years earlier, leaving singer/guitarist J Mascis in charge of drummer Murph and himself. Still, the disc's quality proved that Mascis was a formidable talent in any configuration, and Sire began grooming him for stardom. Too bad he loathed the demands of celebrity, not the least of which was dealing with the press. He quickly became known as a dreadful conversationalist—an obtuse, frequently monosyllabic subject whose deadpan responses were potentially fatal—and he still lived up to this reputation in a chat I had with him back then. In subsequent years, whenever anyone asked me about my worst music-related interview, the answer was always the same. J Mascis stood atop the heap—and 16 years later, he showed that his ascendance was no fluke. Here's a typical exchange from a recent chat for this article:
If you'd known you'd be spending so much of your career doing interviews rather than making music, would you have considered another line of work?
Music was the only option for you?
If Mascis' taciturnity hasn't changed, however, neither has something much more important: the worthiness of his music. Beyond, put out by Fat Possum, isn't just the first Dinosaur Jr. CD since 1997's Hand It Over; it also marks the return of Barlow—who contributed on 1988's Bug before launching his own project, Sebadoh—and Murph, gone since the early '90s. Such reunion platters usually represent sad codas for bands that peaked long ago, but Beyond is an exception to this seemingly inviolable rule. Tracks such as "Almost Ready," "Pick Me Up" and "Lightning Bulb" are memorably raucous, and more deliberate efforts like "We're Not Alone" and "I Got Lost" display intriguingly elliptical arrangements and a quiet confidence. Strange as it might seem, Beyond is worthy of comparison to the band's best work, with no grading on the curve required.
Mascis offers few clues as to how the original band members managed to turn this trick nearly two decades down the line. When he's asked if he was caught off guard by Beyond's quality, he replies, "I'm surprised whenever anybody puts out a good CD." Even so, he believes he's more forthcoming than he was during the act's nascent days—at least to his fellow musicians. "We're all a lot different than we were back then," he says. "Back then, we just didn't communicate much at all."
Does that mean the players discuss disagreements when they emerge, rather than letting them fester? "Yeah," Mascis replies before adding with trademark murkiness, "to varying degrees of success."
The Dinosaur Jr. story contains plenty of ups and downs too, not to mention some unusual twists. In 1983, when Massachusetts high-schooler Mascis formed Dinosaur, sans the "Jr.," with fellow student Barlow, he played drums, not guitar; he switched after local scenester Emmett "Murph" Murphy picked up the sticks from him. Nevertheless, Mascis took to his ax with a vengeance, using the instrument to express all of the passion he couldn't convey verbally. Guitar solos were virtually verboten in punk and post-punk music of the era, but such trendy concerns didn't matter to Mascis. "I don't really think about things like that," he says. "I guess I was just trying to amuse myself."
Dinosaur became Dinosaur Jr. in 1986 after being sued by members of Dinosaurs, an outfit featuring Country Joe and the Fish's Barry Melton and Jefferson Airplane's Spencer Dryden, who had a prior claim on the name. Not that there was any risk of listeners mistaking the two groups. On 1985's Dinosaur, Mascis eschewed '60s-style hippie-isms in favor of often deafening guitar squalls that found beauty in chaos. And if 1987's You're Living All Over Me and 1988's Bug were a bit less anarchic in comparison, they continued to revel in the sort of glorious messiness that cult-sized audiences find impossible to resist.
Unfortunately, Mascis and Barlow were getting along like Moqtada al-Sadr and Donald Rumsfeld, and shortly after Bug ran its course, they parted company. The most prominent account of their split appears in author Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life, but Mascis, whose typically spare remarks are overwhelmed in the Dinosaur chapter by commentary from the naturally loquacious Barlow, doesn't think much of it.
"[Azerrad] was focusing a lot on just Lou," Mascis gripes. "He didn't even want to interview Murph; I had to make him. The general feeling I got was that he wasn't there—that it was someone talking about all this stuff, and he wasn't there, getting what was going on."
During the late '80s, Nirvana was in flux too, and some Internet posts assert that Cobain and crew once asked Mascis to come aboard as a drummer. According to Mascis, the truth is more complicated. "I think it was more guitar than drums, but I wanted to play drums on a single—on the one they got Dan Peters to play on. It's called 'Sliver,'" he recalls. "This one time, I saw them play after we kicked out Lou and got this girl, Donna [Dresch, of Team Dresch], to play bass. Kurt, I guess he didn't like Donna. He was like, 'Don't get her. Why don't you just join our band?'"
Instead, Mascis continued on his idiosyncratic path, making four Dinosaur Jr. discs for Sire with a lineup that refused to stay set; 1994's Without a Sound was Murph-free, while 1997's Hand lacked contributions from Barlow's allegedly permanent replacement, Mike Johnson. Afterward, Mascis launched J Mascis + the Fog, which began as a solo project, more or less, but eventually encompassed contributions from a bassist of undeniable stature, Minutemen founder Mike Watt. Two little-heard albums followed, as did a series of tours—and when the pair decided to team up with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and, later, his drumming brother, Scott Asheton, they unwittingly laid the groundwork for the Ashetons to get back together with Iggy Pop. The Stooges reunion was formalized this year with the release of a new recording, The Weirdness.
Granted, The Weirdness, a thoroughly underwhelming CD, wasn't the best advertisement for Dinosaur Jr. redux. But Barlow and Murph had been lobbying for detente, and after Mascis saw a comeback show by another vintage alterna-band, Mission of Burma, he decided to give it a try. When the three began to play, Mascis says, the connection between them "was just there," as it had been during the Reagan administration.
The Beyond sessions were occasionally chippy. Mascis was disappointed that Barlow didn't bring more new material to the table. "It was a point of contention to get him to write anything," he says, grumbling. Moreover, he sees Barlow as emotionally unpredictable. "There are things he's said in certain moods that he regrets saying, I think," Mascis says. "One day, we were eating, and he was swearing at the waiter. And the next day, he was like, 'Did I say that?'" But musically, the Dinos could hardly be more compatible. "It's cool to play with them," Mascis admits in a tone that comes as close to approximating candor as any in his arsenal. "There's a certain energy, because we grew up and learned to play together."
Today, the fact that Dinosaur Jr. has defied fossilization is a triumph of sorts. Mascis never became an icon on the level of Cobain, his old touring partner, but he didn't have to deal with fame at its most dangerous. Considering his obvious discomfort with communication, is he happy not to have been forced to deal with such intense notoriety?
"I'm not dead," he replies with characteristic brevity. "I'm glad about that."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.