Music Features

Dinosaur Jr (Interview)

It's 10:30 a.m PST and Lou Barlow is home with the family in Los Angeles, and doesn't sound particularly thrilled to be patched in to yet another media dude via Dinosaur Jr's charming publicist in New York City. Maybe he just woke up or has been cranking out 15-minute appointed interviews all morning, who knows. I just wanted the lowdown on Dinosaur Jr's latest “comeback/reunion” album Farm (June 23rd, Jagjaguwar) as Barlow, Mascis and Murphy were set to play a tiny club show in Providence, RI back in April as part of a (literally) mini-club east coast tour and warm up the engines for another worldwide Dino Jr tour kicking off in June. Barlow and Mascis both have mouths to feed now (Mascis became a dad shortly after 2007's Beyond was released) and hitting the road in support of this album may breathe even more life into the trio, almost 25 years after forming in the western woods of Massachusetts. I don't need to ask about The Freed Pig or request a recanting of the tale about Mascis hitting Lou in the head with his guitar onstage in Connecticut 20 years ago.

“Oh yeah, we'll be all over the place again,” Barlow told me when I inquired if J's newfound fatherhood would affect the tour schedule, one of many one-line answers to my early prying, as I continued with genuinely curious snoozers like “How did you guys come up with the title Farm?” and “Did the band feel any added pressure to make another solid comeback album?” 

“I don’t know, I flew to J's house in Amherst, recorded the album and flew back to L.A. When I got back someone told me the name of the album was Farm.”

“Pressure? Not really, we just do our thing, it's pretty mellow, or as mellow as it can be for Dinosaur Jr.”

Understandably, he hit the snooze button for the early portion of the interview, but came to life when I inquired about the media labeling or lumping the band into a particular genre. Hell, Rolling Stone and Spin have continued to resurrect the term “Grunge” when referring to Dinosaur Jr's music.

“You know what, if that's what people wanna call it that's fine, I don't really care about any of that. J and I have been doing this for so long and over the years J and I have learned to just stay the fuck away from all that, ya know? It's so fucking... destructive. People say 'you should read this great review about you guys' – it's nice but we'd rather just stay the fuck away from all that, ya know?”

The other entertaining exchange comes when I assure him that the reunited trio didn't visit Rhode Island during their many northeast gigs since reforming back in 2005.

“Yes, we did.”

"No, you didn't, I can guarantee you.”

“Yes, we did.” 

I could sense the increasing irritability, and I knew he still didn't believe me after the call, and sure enough, ended up mentioning it during the show.

“Can anyone tell me if we played here on the last tour?” Barlow asks the crowd shortly before closing their set with a vicious rendition of Forget the Swan from their 1986 Homestead Records debut. “I could swear we did, but I was informed that we hadn't.” There's a good ten seconds of pondering before he asks again, “Can anyone tell me if we've played here before? No, right? Okay.” 

Although the band didn't play any new material that night (only the second night of the tour), they've kept up with playing post-Lou stuff like Out There, The Wagon and Feel the Pain (Thumb, please), and crammed about a dozen Marshalls into one of the tiniest rooms in Providence, Club Hell, previously home to the legendary Club Babyhead. The 90-minute set was comically loud and the vocals were buried from the start when they bookended the set with classic gems from 1987's You're Living All Over Me, opening with the semi-rare In a Jar and bringing down the sold-out house with Sludgefeast and Just Like Heaven, and the crowd loved every minute. The sight of Mascis swaying into outer space with his six-minute guitar solos, Barlow's mop flopping and Murph sweating his ass off as usual was pretty fucking sweet. 

As for the new album, Farm easily surpasses Beyond in terms of team chemistry and its warm and fuzzy yet loud-as-fuck sound as honed by Agnello. But the song remains the same, the ridiculous fretboard work and the brokenhearted-schoolboy lyrics of Mascis, and of course the warbled vocals and Tiny Tim falsetto. The opening track Pieces isn't gritty as Beyond's Almost Ready but turns out to be an early showstopper. The one-two punch of Barlow's Your Weather into the infectious wah-wah squeal of Over It throws Farm into overdrive early on. And while the bluesy Said the People resembles a less-effective version of Alone from 1997's Hand it Over, the uptempo scorcher There's No Here quickly pulls Farm from the muck, similar to latter-day Dino cuts Grab It and Can't We Move This. But the big news comes later on with the epic and downright-nasty I Don't Wanna Go There. It's an epic monster and about four minutes longer than the version they debuted on TV a few months back while recording the album. It's an unexpected gift from the reclusive guitar hero, similar to the entrancing 12-minute live version of What Else is New (from Where You Been) that Mascis and Mike Johnson concocted years ago onstage. Mascis, Murphy and Barlow have officially hit their stride, and Farm is definitely worth picking up.

John Agnello is the common denominator on every Mascis-related release since 1993's Where You Been through both J & the Fog albums and now a second Dinosaur Jr. “reunion” album in Farm. Name sound familiar? Cross-reference the discography at with your milkcrate of 90's indie-rock discs and one will certainly appreciate his Midas-touch portfolio working with indie-rock torchbearers Jawbox, Screaming Trees, Tad, The Breeders, fIREHOSE, and more recently Sonic Youth and The Hold Steady among a million others. Agnello was more than happy to share his thoughts about the new Dino Jr album via email. 

NR: How does the sound on Farm differ from Beyond?

JA: This new record is a bit more stripped down and not as brash. It's more immediate, with less emphasis on overdub guitars. J takes his lead guitar chops to the next level. And Lou delves into lead vocal layering on his songs. 

Were J and the guys more relaxed in the studio in general this time around, or did you notice any pressure on them to release another solid comeback record?

I think the band has pretty much reached a stage in their career where they are comfortable with each other. Even with their idiosyncrasies, they co-exist really well. Considering they are all quirky in nature on one level or another, I think it's great that they work together this well. I can't imagine J is under any more pressure on this record than any other. And I do think there is a certain amount of pressure on every record. He's made so many records and he just does his thing. But J never coasts – he's got an incredible work ethic.

What were initial thoughts after recording Beyond? Did you foresee another album coming?

After seeing how well the record was received and how well the touring went, I knew they'd do another studio record. What I didn't think would happen was that they would knock out the record in half the time it took to do Beyond. I think it's impossible to predict anything, but I can see Dino being around for a long time, especially with people digging the live shows so much.

How do veteran bands like Dinosaur Jr stay charged up after all these years? Beyond delivered some of my all-time Dino favorites in Crumble and What If I Knew.

I just think these bands still have something to say. Also, let's face it, that's what they do. They make records. If Dino wasn't Dino, J would be making J records or Fog records or Witch records. You get the picture – he loves playing.

Personal favorites on Farm? And personal favorite Dino album you've been a part of? 

I love the first four songs (Pieces, I Want You To Know, Ocean in the Way and Plans), I think they're gonna be Dino classics. There are some other really great ones on there too. Top to bottom, this is one of the most consistent Dinosaur records ever. And I gotta say, Where You Been remains my personal favorite because it was the first I worked on.

Do you think fatherhood has changed J's approach to lyrics or how he approaches the recording process?

I think there are a couple of lyrics on this record that could be perceived in that way. I do think he's a great dad and it's wonderful to see him interact with his son. I know he doesn't wail or bash about in the house as much with the baby around. Other than that, he's the same old J.

I think many fans and observers have this image of J being a recluse who doesn't smile or laugh or really want to be bothered by fans – I know it sounds corny but – what is he like in “real life?”

Granted I've known him for about 16 years, but he's actually a lot of fun. He can be quiet at times, but you have to either get accustomed to it or fill in the spaces. We laugh a lot when we hang out together, usually at each other's expense. He can dish it out, but he can also take it. He's got an awesome sense of humor. At SXSW he was totally cool with taking pictures with fans who approached him. I think the image of J is not accurate. He's not a recluse and he's into making jokes and stuff like that. He's not the outgoing type, and maybe that's why we get along so well.

How does the working relationship differ in the studio with Lou instead of Mike (for you and J)? On a sidenote, is Mike Johnson as miserable a dude as his solo stuff?

I think Lou is more of a foil for J, as opposed to Mike, who was simply a band member. I loved working with Mike on those records, but I could see the difference immediately during the live shows. Lou has a great rapport with the fans. Mike and me were both miserable during his solo record Year Of Mondays (produced by Agnello). We were both going through break-ups and we drowned our sorrows in single-malt scotch and his music. Good times...

What's the most difficult part about recording with J and Lou? And after all these years with J, does it still blow yr mind to watch him shred on guitar?

J blows my mind constantly. I marvel at how good he is. During Thurston's solo record (Trees Outside the Academy), when we needed him to jam on a track he would just show up, plug in and play. He would barely have to listen to the song to know where it was going. J's really a badass.