July 23, 2009 at 1:50 pm #51171
After two decades, Dinosaur Jr. livesQuote:The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Two decades ago, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. was, by all accounts, extinct.
It was 1989 when the years of hostility and tumult in the band came to a head, and frontman J Mascis unceremoniously ousted bassist Lou Barlow. An era of nastiness followed, as the malevolence between the two men manifested itself in song, in the media, in a lawsuit.
If their reunion in 2005 was unlikely, the high quality of the work that followed was downright inconceivable. Even as they bask in the glow of the critically acclaimed "Farm," the indie rock trailblazers admit that relations within the band are still not totally harmonious.
"It’s all right," Mascis said slowly in his laconic drawl during a telephone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
"You know, it’s still not — we’re not best friends or anything — but it’s going all right."
Indeed, "Farm" came out last month to widespread praise and the band is on tour through November, with dates scheduled in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver.
Yet even Mascis’s measured estimation of the positive place the band is in now stands as great progress.
Dinosaur Jr. formed in 1984 in Amherst, Mass. After issuing their self-titled debut in 1985, the trio — rounded out by drummer Murph — made waves with 1987’s "You’re Living All Over Me," a seminal rock record that juxtaposed sighing lyrics about alienation and resignation with Mascis’s explosive guitar heroics.
The band combined the song structures and epic solos of classic rock, the guitar aggression of metal and frustrated angst of college rock with a helping of towering feedback, a novel mix that earned raves on both sides of the Atlantic.
The band’s profile was building, its star rising. Naturally, they were miserable.
"We never had much fun when we were first together," Mascis said. "We just felt compelled to be in a band because we were into music and wanted to make music, but it definitely wasn’t fun or anything."
The band followed with "Bug" in 1988, another record that received effusive reviews.
But the conditions within the band worsened. Barlow says he was insecure and constantly seeking Mascis’s approval, while the stoic Mascis concedes he was uncommunicative and distant.
They bickered, they intentionally agitated each other and they fought relentlessly. One ’88 gig in Connecticut, chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s book "Our Band Could Be Your Life," finished early when Mascis and Barlow began swinging their instruments at each other.
After Barlow was dumped from the group in ’89, he found his own voice with Sebadoh, a beloved lo-fi institution that grew from Barlow’s home recordings.
But even while finding success on his own, Barlow couldn’t get over what happened in Dinosaur. He wrote countless songs about Mascis, including 1991’s "The Freed Pig."
"Now you will be free/With no sick people tugging on your sleeve/ Your big head has that more room to grow/ A glory I will never know," Barlow sang.
"Back then, I was really just struggling to find my own voice and be confident," Barlow said when reached at his home in New York. "When the band started, J was so powerful. He was just writing these incredible songs, incredible lyrics, and I … was just kind of like following meekly in his footsteps."
Yet somewhere along the way, relations between the two thawed.
Mascis continued on with the Dinosaur Jr. name into the ’90s, sometimes playing all the instruments himself. He scored radio hits with "Start Choppin"’ in 1993 and "Feel the Pain" the following year before retiring the Dinosaur name in ’97.
Along the way, Mascis began attending some Sebadoh shows, and he and Barlow even joined each other onstage at a few concerts beginning in 2002.
In 2007, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited for "Beyond" — their first album altogether since 1988 — and followed this year with "Farm," an even-tighter collection of tunes that sounds precisely like it could have excised from their most fertile period in the late ’80s.
The music is still awash in melodic feedback, and Mascis’s spiralling solos still provide a counterpoint to his mopey vocals. That the record still sounds so fresh could be a testament to how unique the group has always been.
"We’re the power trio from the ’80s, I guess there’s not that many," Barlow said. "We’re in this tradition of heavy rock bands, and just sticking to the crazy leads and growing our hair out. We somehow manage to stick with that, just that real simple thing of three guys playing heavy rock.
"I guess that’s kind of rare, if you look back on it."
Mascis now attributes most of the problems the band had to communication problems, and his own mental state.
"I was definitely depressed, I didn’t have much fun in general," he said. "Then we didn’t get along on a personal level. But I don’t know why a lot of people seem to think you’re supposed to have fun when you’re in a band.
"I guess I never thought that way anyways, so it’s not a big deal."
For his part, Barlow says he has regrets too.
"I guess I could have been a little more graceful in my exit of the band," said Barlow, who sued Mascis for royalties in the early ’90s. "Back then, I thought that either I could walk away gracefully and say nice and neutral things or I could just go kicking and screaming and say all the nastiest stuff I possibly could and make their lives more difficult.
"I chose the latter."
And yet, both men say they’re happy with where things stand.
"It all worked out, I’m back in the band, we’re doing really well, things are kind of rolling along," Barlow said. "All of the negativity I put in J’s direction, I think I’ve made up for that by getting back in the band and being really into it."
Added Mascis: "We couldn’t have gotten to this place if we’d done anything different."
But neither man much wants to talk about the future. They’ve only just recovered from the past.
"I really don’t know (what’s next)," Barlow said. "I always just think of J shrugging. So I don’t really go much further than that. But I kind of feel like we’re really put a lot of the bad stuff to rest and we’re putting a really cool spin on the legacy of the band.
"It was hard when we were kids. And J was really unhappy back then. After I got kicked out of Dinosaur, I was never unhappy playing in a band again. I pretty much decided after that that everything I did was somehow gonna be fun. And now this Dinosaur reunion just slots right in with that.
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