Dinosaur Jr. and the elusive J Mascis on doing things his own way
In May 1989 Dinosaur Jr. toured Australia for the first time.
For the cult American indie-hardcore band, it was a time of upheaval. Earlier in the year bass player Lou Barlow, increasingly frustrated with the stifling behaviour of guitarist and principal songwriter J Mascis, had voiced his displeasure to his band mate. Mascis responded by exiling Barlow from Dinosaur Jr. With an Australian tour booked, Dinosaur Jr. recruited Donna Dresch, founder of the Chainsaw fanzine and record label and bassist with girl punk band Team Dresch. Mascis didn’t know Dresch personally, but she came highly recommended.
“It was interesting playing with Donna,” Mascis recalls, in his measured Massachusetts drawl. “We didn’t really know her, so we were getting to know her on the tour and trying to figure out if it was going to work or not. She was playing really well. It was weird trying to incorporate someone new into the band.”
Dresch’s tenure didn’t last long, and by the early ‘90s Murph had also left. By the mid ‘90s Dinosaur Jr. was a band in name only, with Mascis hand-picking musicians for tours and recording sessions. When it was announced in 2005 that Mascis, Barlow and Murph would be not only reforming for a few shows, but also releasing a new album, it took almost everyone by surprise.
Mascis, indeed, hardly expected the reformation of the trio to last longer than the initially scheduled shows. “I thought maybe it would last a week,” Mascis says. “We had a TV show and one show booked. I wasn’t really sure, even for those two things. We took it really slow. One thing would seem to go OK, so we’d do another thing, and we’d keep going like that. I guess it’s still going like that.”
Mascis, Barlow and Murph released a new album, Beyond, in 2007 and, buoyed by the positive critical and popular reaction and the truce between Mascis and Barlow, two more albums in the next five years, Farm in 2009 and I Bet on Sky in 2012.
The release of a new album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, in 2016 has confirmed that Dinosaur Jr. has lost none of its original creative spark. “It’s good if it can stand up [against Dinosaur Jr.’s older material], but it’s hard to say,” Mascis says. “You don’t know who’s going to judge it. It’s more about ‘This is where we are at the moment, and these are the songs we have now.’ Hopefully it’s good. We try our best. That’s about all we can do.”
Mascis now divides his creative time between various musical pursuits, ranging from his solo and acoustic shows, noise rock in Heavy Blanket, the heavy guitar of Sweet Apple (featuring members of Cobra Verde) and playing drums in stoner-rock band Witch. For a Dinosaur Jr. record, Mascis says he sits down and deliberately writes songs that are potential Dinosaur Jr. records. “When I sit down to write, I try to write the songs for that album we’re doing at the time, for Dinosaur Jr. It’s not too hard to get in the zone to write for Dinosaur Jr. But it can take a while to come up with some songs.”
Mascis’ relationship with Barlow remains cool, but constructive. The logistics of recording have been improved with Barlow returning to live on the east coast after some years living in California. Barlow contributes two songs, including the mellow album closer Left/Right to Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. “We’ve always had a good musical relationship,” Mascis says. “We write our respective songs pretty much alone. There were some songs Lou had in the past that I worked on more to make them sound more Dinosaur-esque, but not lately.”
In 2015 Dinosaur Jr. celebrated its 30th anniversary with a run of shows at the Bowery Ballroom and a cast of guest performers, including Bob Mould, Henry Rollins and Charles Bradley. “When Henry sang with us one night, that was a highlight, and playing with guys from Negative Approach was a highlight as well,” Mascis says. “And we played with Bob Mould – I played drums on a Husker Du song and Lou played bass. That was really good. Also, it was great playing with Charles Bradley because that was so hard and put us out of our comfort zone.”
Mascis describes the dynamic within Dinosaur Jr. as “fine,” though he concedes the band members don’t mix much when they’re on tour. “We all have our own ways to cope on tour. I see Murph once in a while, but I don’t see Lou much.” Mascis doesn’t “have a plan for a new album right now, but it seems like a possibility.” One of Mascis’ guitar heroes, Neil Young, is still going strong in his 60s. I ask Mascis if he’s inspired by Young’s longevity and ongoing creativity. “Oh sure, yeah,” Mascis says. “Of all those older guys he seems to be most on the ball, doing better music than a lot of them these days.” The same might be said for Dinosaur Jr.
By Patrick Emery
Dinosaur Jr. will play The Croxton Bandroom on Friday January 20 and Saturday January 21. Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not is out now via Jagjaguwar/Inertia