Grunge Forefathers Talk Courtney Love & 'Unhip Indie'
Legends can be disappointing. They say to never meet your heroes, they’ll let you down, blah blah blah. But the massively influential rockers of Dinosaur Jr. were pretty much exactly what I expected. They were somewhat recalcitrant, not incredibly eager to sit down for press duties; their new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, is fantastic, and accordingly, interviews have likely been endless. But once we got to talking, the members of the band—J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph—were friendly, even jovial. Mascis famously doesn’t talk very much (“I don’t know” was a popular response to my questions), but even he chuckled and seemed relaxed. According to my recordings, about eight minutes in, somebody let out a laugh, and after that, it was pretty easy—especially considering that all three don’t exactly love spending time together.
Dinosaur Jr. has been a difficult undertaking, to say the least, including the nearly decade-long period after Barlow was kicked out of the group; Mascis and Murph told Barlow the band was breaking up, when they had actually secretly replaced him. For years, Mascis and Barlow did not speak to one another, and Barlow sued for royalties (the affable and funny drummer Murph has served as somewhat of a go-between, like the band’s very own one-man HR department). But Dinosaur Jr., which hails from Amherst, Massachusetts, has, in some ways, kept it together since its founding in 1984, which is impressive by any measure.
The original members reunited in 2005, and since then, they may just be better than ever. These guys have been shredding for over 30 years, yet they consider this album to be their very best. The band, one of the forefathers of grunge, has made an indelible mark on rock music—just ask superfans Henry Rollins and Kurt Vile—and they’re not done yet.
I met the band at a fancy Williamsburg hotel, where their manager ordered some french fries, and we sat down for a little chat.
How would you describe the new album?
Murph: It’s my favorite one to date, out of the past ten years. I think it’s got really great songs on it. I think Jay’s singing is really strong. The lyrics are a highlight on this record.
What genre would you put yourself in? J has said “ear-bleeding country,” but grunge seems like the most common designation.
Lou Barlow: I’m gonna say guitar rock. I’m gonna go out on a real edge and say guitar rock.
M: Adult contemporary.
J Mascis: We never seemed to have a section in a hip record store. Unhip indie. Adult indie.
“I can’t remember right now.”
Would you have always said “unhip indie?” Or just in recent years?
LB: I’d say in recent years. In 1987 we were cutting edge. [Laughs] Hardcore bands weren’t considered hip. We were just crazy. Some people used to describe it as “underground,” we were underground.
What do you guys like to listen to right now?
JM: I can’t remember right now.
LB: J’s always listening to new stuff. We can never remember when people ask us, though.
LB: Oh, Autolux! Murph just discovered Autolux. [Laughs]
LB: There’s this one band I like called Waveless, from Minneapolis.
Have you noticed any major differences in the way you play shows now, as compared to the earlier days of the band?
M: I’m a lot less nervous now. I used to be really nervous, and now I’m just much more concerned with executing a great show.
JM: I’m always scared between songs. Silence scares me. I don’t like talking really, as I’m too freaked out.
Is there a particular kind of crowd you like to play for? Some bands have told me that they hate playing here in New York.
LB: The longer you’ve been around as a band, the big cities actually become better. I think when you’re young and you’re playing big cities it’s really nerve-wracking, because every show could be your big break. When you get old, after awhile it’s like, this doesn’t matter. The people who want to come actually want to be there, they’re not there to see if you’re good or not. You could actually suck and it doesn’t matter. [Laughs]
JM: New York was the first place we actually felt accepted. We didn’t have any fans in our hometown. Our first home, kind of, was New York, because people liked us here more than anywhere else.
And that’s where you connected with Sonic Youth, right? Do you stay in touch?
J: I just saw Thurston [Moore] yesterday, actually.
I can’t even imagine all the rock stars you must associate with. Who else do you stay in touch with?
LB: Facebook is kind of cool, because I connected with these guys that used to play with us way back. They were in this band called Phantom Tolbooth that played with us all the time.
Is there a secret rock star Facebook network?
LB: There kind of is, actually! It’s kind of weird. There’s all these ‘80s guys that for some reason end up in your feed or whatever.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
M: I stretch.
LB: I urinate. [Laughs]
M: I run offstage to pee sometimes. I just don’t want to pee my pants. But I sweat so much that you probably wouldn’t notice.
JM: Like Ozzy, that’s why he pours buckets of water on his head. Because he just peed his pants.
J, you put your address on the cover of an album. Did a lot of crazy fans come by?
J: Yeah, my dad or sister would talk to them. He had a big phone relationship with Courtney Love.
“Once you get three guys together and they’re all really serious, it’s the worst, honestly.”
Did your dad like Hole?
J: I’m sure he never heard them.
L: His dad was nice to girls. I don’t think I ever heard J’s dad speak until I brought a girl over to the house.
There are so many stories about communication issues in the band; breakups, makeups. How do you push forward through—for lack of a better term—the drama?
LB: Every relationship I’ve ever had has had some sort of drama. It’s all different shades of drama. Especially if you want to be in a band, you just have to decide to get on with it.
M: I think every year, slowly, we get a little better at communicating.
LB: I’ve been in a lot of other trios and stuff, and Murph is a really good diffuser. Once you get three guys together and they’re all really serious, it’s the worst, honestly. [Laughs]
M: And then if we can’t do it, we just defer to our manager.
Images taken exclusively for Milk by Mitchell McLennan.
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