What Lies Beyond
Talking With Lou Barlow About Dinosaur Jr.’s Past And His Future
In the Spring of 2005 Dinosaur Jr. rose from the grave more than 15 years after the original line-up of singer/guitarist J. Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer James Patrick Murphy (A.K.A. “Murph”) parted ways. The bitter break-up was not the end of Dinosaur Jr., but the end of the group’s golden era, which is fossilized in three seminal American alt. punk records, Dinosaur (1985), You’re Living All Over Me (1987) and Bug (1988). The years surrounding these albums were plagued by egos and infighting, which lead to a great schism between Mascis and Barlow. The tensions that swelled between them, which ultimately led to Barlow’s expulsion from Dinosaur Jr. are now the stuff of legends.
After those tumultuous years, Mascis carried on with Dinosaur Jr. to release five studio albums and dozens of singles, EPS and live recordings while Barlow carried on in the groups Sebadoh, Sentriddoh and the Folk Implossion. Over time Dinosaur Jr. sunk deeper into the muddy mire of Mascis’ blown-speaker hybrid of slow punk and classic rock-damaged songwriting. In the meantime the tape loops and experimental leanings that were born in early Dinosaur songs, like “Raisans” and “Poledo” blossomed into the artier pop textures of Barlow’s groups. A lot had changed over the years, so much so that the original Dinosaur Jr. line-up was nothing more than a distant memory, never to be repeated. But everything changed in April of 2005 when the group announced that the original trio was reuniting for a full-fledged tour across the country.
When asked about the possibility of reconvening to record another album, at the time J., Lou and Murph. all hesitated, saying it would most likely never happen. But fate had other plans and in May of this year Dinosaur sent tremors throughout the indie rock world with the release of Beyond, eleven brand new songs that pick up the pieces where the group left off circa Bug.
From the opening, fuzzed-out ark of “Almost Ready,” the familiar and frazzled pop harmonies drowning in post-punk sludge give a rejuvenating blast to the group’s sound. But there’s a relaxed quality that takes shape as the album unfolds. Any and all sense of turmoil that bound the group’s original output is washed in a haze of sunny melodies.
What are most telling about the group’s course of evolution are the two Barlow-penned songs, “Back to Your Heart” and “Lightning Bulb.” Both bare the distinctive mark of Barlow’s bitter-sweet reflection, filtered through the noisy and aggressive tones of Dinosaur’s footprints. Gone is any sense of malevolence, experimentation and any impression of the tension that once caused him to get kicked out of the group. In its place is the presence of a more confident and mature sense of chemistry and catharsis that quashes all of the issues that were once left unresolved.
Chad Radford: By now you’ve have had time to ruminate on Dinosaur Jr. Has your perspective on the group changed?
LB: Not really. It still feels the same. Doing the record was a nice surprise. I was psyched that J. was into it and it was cool that he was willing to put himself up to doing a record like this, considering everything that has taken place. He’s been doing Dinosaur Jr. for ages. It was a nice surprise that everyone was into it, but I don’t know if it changed the way I feel about the band.
CR: It seems like you are all getting along better than ever before.
LB: Yeah, I find it easy to hang out with those guys, considering how much time we’ve spent together.
CR: Did this album come together differently from the previous three Dinosaur Jr. albums with this line-up?
LB: We did it at J’s house. The recording schedule was very relaxed. We did it over five months. There was nothing like that back in the day. It was like ‘okay, we got four days in the studio, hurry up…’ The second record we pieced together after a few studio sessions, but they were short sessions. In that way it was totally different. As the record started to take shape I thought okay, I can write a song or two. I have been writing songs ever since I was kicked out of the band and I am a lot more confident now than I was back then, so I can take some ideas to the Dinosaur alter and make an offering and see what happens. There is really no comparison. We are also a lot older and a lot more relaxed these days.
CR: Your songwriting on Beyond is pretty straight-forward. There is none of the noise or experimentation that you brought to You’re living All Over Me and Bug. Did you get all of that out of your system with Sebadoh?
LB: It would seem gratuitous if I were to do it now. I would be like ‘oh… I have to get in there and put my tape loops in now…’ I did it back then because it was very personal to me. With Sebadoh a lot of what I did became more segregated. I started doing all of that tape stuff on my solo recordings. With Folk Implossion I got into samplers. At the time when I was doing Dinosaur there was such an urgency to bring every idea to the table, and it was just the spirit of the times. Things were more experimental at the time. With Sebadoh I found my legs and switched to just playing a regular six-string guitar, which led to me playing these more standard song structures. Doing the tape loops now doesn’t have the same emotional weight for me. That stuff has to come from a very emotional place or it just seems like ‘hey, here’s my tape loops, look at me, I’m experimental!’ It rings phony to me… A lot of experimental music rings that way to me. When it’s really self-conscious it’s really unappealing.
CR: Has Dinosaur continued writing songs? Do you have more material waiting to be released?
LB: No. If word came down that we were doing another record I would start thinking about ideas that I want to bring to the band. But right now I am writing, playing guitar and recording demos. I think I’m ready to do a solo record for the beginning of next year.
CR: Do you think we’ll see another Sebadoh record?
LB: I really hope so. When we did the last tour Eric [Gaffney] was hot to do all kinds of stuff. He was really excited and was trying to teach us all kinds of new songs. Jason and I have to find time to do it. Jason is touring with the Fiery Furnaces. He has also become sort of a recording engineer / off-the-cuff producer guy and we live at opposite ends of the country. But I would really like to do it.
CR: You made it happen with Dinosaur, which seems like a much greater challenge than a Sebadoh reunion.
LB: Yeah and I have to say that that was a really big inspiration for me. When that worked out I thought okay, why not. Now it would be really fun to do Sebadoh, and especially after doing Dinosaur, Sebadoh was a real blast. It felt really free. We played quieter and talked to the audience. It was liberating all over again.
CR: You in particular have been very active as of late. There have been the Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh reunions. The Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh reissues, the reissue of the record by your first band, Deep Wound… What prompted all of this?
LB: I think it was fatherhood that was coinciding with going broke. When my wife got pregnant I realized, holy shit. I live in LA and I can’t support myself. Magically everything started coalescing at that moment. I finished my solo record in pretty quick order and it worked out well for me. It came out on Merge and that did Okay. I got to tour on my own and it worked out well. The Dinosaur thing came together... All of this stuff came together, but probably my wife getting pregnant was the real kick in the ass. It brought back my desire to make music. It wasn’t just for money, but the desire to put out records and tour. Not that I ever lost that, but there was a period where it was hard to get anyone excited about anything I was doing, including the people I was playing with and working for. It felt like I was pushing a rock up a hill. It was great to take back the power.
CR: What’s next?
LB: I’m going to finish the solo record and organize some Sebadoh reunions. J.’s wife just had a baby, so we’ll see how that sits with him and what he wants to do. He can do another Dinosaur record with or without me. He’s got a great studio in his house that people are coming to now and he can just sit back and do studio work. It’s a really mellow place that’s not much like a studio at all. It’s more like a bunch of shit in somebody’s attic.