Work it all out
For Dinosaur Jr., the more things change, the more they stay the same. Trundling up the stairs of an East London studio space to meet the group, I’m greeted by a reassuring blast of classic rock as I reach the top. Drummer Emmett Jefferson Murphy, affectionately known to fans as “Murph”, is perched listening to a track from 70s proto-stoner outfit Leaf Hound, nodding along in his baggy shirt and cap. Bandleader J Mascis is milling around too, towering above label people in a billowing black t-shirt and trucker hat.
More than 30 years after releasing their debut LP, J and Murph are back on the promotion trail for their 12th release and fourth since reuniting in 2007 after an extended hiatus with bassist Lou Barlow (at home for family duties today). Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not is more or less the prototypical Dinosaur Jr. record: squalling lead guitar and anthemic drumming coupled with indie rock melodicism and J’s croaky vocals.
It’s a template that’s served the Amherst, Massachusetts three-piece well ever since their late-eighties records on seminal American independent label SST. “We have a definite chemistry that works between us,” Murph says as we decamp to a room nearby. “I think J writes songs with us playing in mind.”
Long-time fans might have been slightly perplexed to see none other than Henry Rollins make a video appearance to officially announce the new LP back in May. A hand-held camera made its way down to an unlit basement, only to find Rollins hiding out down there in the dark with his record collection. “He’s like our number one fan,” chuckles a jet-lagged J, in one of his few, typically laconic contributions today.
“I think he’s really into the fact that we and certain bands are still doing what we’re doing,” Murph explains, “he’s really into kind of keeping the dream alive – I think that’s important to him and he knows it’s important to us, so it works out.
“We did a week run in December at the Bowery Ballroom [in New York] and he got up on stage for one song, Don’t, and it was intimidating, man. Henry, right in front of my kick drum eye-balling me like, ‘Me and you Murph, arrrrgh!’ I was just like, woah. He still has it.”
Rollins wasn’t a particularly fervent Dinosaur Jr. follower in the early days but now the former Black Flag singer has an encyclopaedic knowledge of their output – unsurprising perhaps, given their seemingly ever-growing fan base in the wake of the 2005 reunion. After remaining a cultish proposition in the 80s, the group only ever gained much popularity during their first run once they’d signed to a major label, Lou had quit and Murph had been relatively marginalised. Despite the line-up turmoil, 1991’s Green Mind was a success. “I feel like in the early nineties where we did Lollapalooza and there was MTV, for me that was pretty major,” Murph recalls.
Lou’s 1989 removal from the band was a source of acrimony between himself and J for many years, though, with the latter dismissing the former due to an apparent clash in personalities. In subsequent interviews, Lou would lash out at J and complain about perceived hurt and injustice. The two weren’t on speaking terms for years. Such was the strength in feeling that even if the pair were playing the same festivals (Lou had a new solo project, Sebadoh, a big deal in their own right), they wouldn’t deign to watch one other’s performances purely out of spite.
It took until 2003 – fully a decade after Lou left the band – before he and J would make up, re-uniting on stage in London to perform Stooges songs. “Y’know, before we got back together part of it was kind of like finally an acceptance of some responsibility and apologising to me for this and that, and him getting less angry,” J says. “He’d been holding on to some anger for a long time. He took some responsibility and got less angry, and that’s what I noticed changed.”
Now, nine years into the reunion and with a regular album cycle, it looks like Dinosaur Jr. can keep going as long as they want to keep touring. “It just seems like there’s momentum that we have and a reason to keep going and doing it,” Murph says. “We don’t want to over-saturate everyone by playing all the time,” adds J. “It’s just that we tour and at one point we’ve played everywhere and it’s like, well, if we want to keep touring we’ve got to make another album.”
I wonder aloud whether the legacy of the band’s landmark late-eighties LPs weighs heavily when they’re recording new material to take on tour though, particularly because J has always said 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me is his favourite thing they’ve ever recorded. Is there a sense of trying to live up to those releases?
"We have a definite chemistry that works between us"
“We pretty much tend to just work in the moment,” Murph argues. “We’re focused on what’s happening at the time and we’re all kind of perfectionists in that we want it to sound good, to the best of our ability, but that’s really all we’re concerned with. We’re not really thinking in terms of hindsight or historically, how is this gonna lie – none of that is really at the forefront, it’s just about the task in hand and trying to produce a good product, y’know?”
All the same, there’s no denying the seismic impact of those first few albums on legions of alternative rock acts into the nineties right up to the present. “It always surprises me when someone’s like, ‘Oh, I listened to your drumming’, laughs Murph. “I expect even the next generation to just turn to Hendrix and the Stones and everyone else like we did! It’s always surprising that they’ve moved on and maybe we’re now that generation, but I don’t really consciously think about that. We’re still just concerned about the music.”