Lou Barlow Talks Dinosaur Jr.



Loud. For many, this is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the band Dinosaur Jr.’s notorious live performances, of which they are known for fracturing ear-drums and inducing tinnitus en masse. But within the volume lies the immense song-writing talents of guitar virtuoso J Mascis, whose aggressive brand of hardcore punk, angst-filled lyrics, monolithic riffs, and loud-quiet-loud dynamics were instrumental in the development of alternative rock as we know it, helping to pave the way for some of the biggest bands of the 1990′s and beyond. Yet, while the bands influence may have been significant, the road to success was paved with conflict, and despite critical acclaim in the wake of their landmark album You’re Living All Over Me, constant in-fighting plagued the band,  driving a wedge between Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow, ultimately leading to the latter’s dismissal in 1989 shortly after the release of the band’s third album, Bug. In the wake of the fallout, band-leader J Mascis would continue releasing Dinosaur Jr. records throughout the 90′s along with a rotating cast of musicians, while Barlow fostered his own creative talent with the emotionally-charged, influential lo-fi recordings of Sebadoh.

All hope was lost for the two it seemed, until in 2005 lightning struck twice, when Barlow and Mascis set aside their differences and reunited the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. for the first time in 15 years. However unlike most reunions, the band decided to keep going, not only touring, but recording two new records Beyond and Farm. This year the band has released their third album entitled I Bet On Sky, a phenomenal record which showcases Mascis’ enduring song-writing skills, and continues in the great Dinosaur Jr. tradition of hair-raising volume, massive riffs, and heartfelt lyricism.

I recently spoke with Lou Barlow about the recording of the new album, the band’s legacy, and the curious shape of his own ear-plugs; check out my interview below and be sure to catch their show this Thursday at the State Theatre, for what will undoubtedly be an ear-splitting good time.

Dan Aceto: What can you tell us about the process of recording the new album I Bet On Sky? I know there are several keyboard and string parts, which is a bit of a new direction for the band; was there a different approach you were trying to take in comparison to the recording of Farm in 2009? Have there been any new influences or direction the band was interested in?

Lou Barlow: I think some of the songs are a little mellower, you know? The year before we did the record, J did a solo acoustic tour so that might have had something to do with it. I thought he kind of broadened the sound palette of the record compared to the other two [records since the reunion], and compared to the other mid-period Dinosaur Jr. records. The way that he colored in the tracks were some different sounds and he didn’t just rely on guitar; he used a little more acoustic and a little more keyboards.

DA: You have two new songs on the album, “Rude” and “Recognition,” and aside from writing for Dinosaur, Jr. you’re also in the midst of recording songs for a new Sebadoh record as well. With so much material, how do you choose which songs get released for each band?

LB: I guess with Sebadoh, recently, most of the songs I write are with a four-string guitar, so if I write a song on a four-string guitar, it’s a Sebadoh song. But it’s kind of the same thing with Dinosaur, too. If I hear a lead passage, if I’m writing a song, and I’m like, “oh there could be a lead there,” I always think of J. So yeah, I don’t know; I don’t really do a lot of “himming and hawing” about which songs would be good for Dinosaur and which would be better for Sebadoh. I just kind of know right away. If I’m putting a song together, I’ll be like “this could probably be a good Dinosaur song!” Or maybe not good, [laughs] but this will be a Dinosaur song!

DA: Are the songs for Dinosaur Jr. fully finished at the time you bring them to the band or do you get input from J and Murph on how to flesh things out?

LB: In this case they definitely were finished. The very first reunion record I brought in partial ideas and Murph worked out some drum parts, and J helped him perfect that, and I had some loose guidelines for guitar—and the first reunion record came out pretty great. Then on the second reunion record, I went in with the same idea and it just crashed and burned with those guys [laughs]. They just had nothing to really add to the stuff. They were just sort of looking at me like, “what do you want me to do?” and I was like, “oh shit.” So with this record, I just made sure I made the demos complete. The only thing I didn’t really finish was the lyrics. I knew the vocal melody and I had my friend Dale Crover from the Melvins come to my practice space and do the drum parts so Murph had something to work off of. Then I did the guitar and bass on my own so I could show J exactly what I wanted on guitar. So this time I had to be really explicit about what I wanted or I knew it was going to be disastrous.

DA: How did the band respond to that approach this time around? Did J tweak anything?

LB: J didn’t really tweak anything this time around—well he tweaked one of the drum parts. There was a drum part that Dale came up with that wasn’t really Murph’s style. He was like “he can’t play that, he’s got to play something different,” and I was like “Okay that’s cool.”

DA: So, J altered the drum part to be more like Murph’s style?

LB: Yeah, [laughs] exactly. I mean, Dale is an incredibly versatile drummer, and Murph is too, but you know every drummer does something different. It was almost like a blasty hardcore beat like “dadadadada,” like really fast, and that’s really never been Murph’s forte. And I kind of knew that, but I was tentative because Dale did it and I thought Murph could do it too. So we spent all day working on the drum part, and then the next morning it was really funny because I personally like input; hey if you don’t think it sounds good, tell me what you think sounds good! But J was really nervous about like telling me “I don’t think Murph should play that beat,” and I’m like “great, okay, we’ll have time to play something different, great, thank you, you’re right, no problem.” So we tweaked that, but I had to show him the chords in general, because the way I play guitar is hard for him to replicate. So I had to go through the track with my own guitar stuff and then when it comes to the lead it’s just awesome. Just let J go. In general, it always sounds pretty great.

Lou Barlow with Sebadoh.
Photo By: Dan Aceto

DA: I know you’ve been playing a Deep Wound (J Mascis’ and Lou Barlow’s first band before Dinosaur Jr.) song “Training Ground” in the live set with the band; what made you decide to revisit that particular song on this tour?

LB: Well, I mean, ever since the beginning of the reunion there’s always been these young kids yelling “Deep Wound” when we play, like “Deep Wound!” [Laughs] “Training Ground” is one from our very original cassette—it didn’t make it onto the 7 inch [Deep Wound.] It’s kind of a slower one for Deep Wound; I mean it’s still pretty fast for Dinosaur Jr. So we did that, it’s kind of funny. You mention it and people get pretty psyched and it sounds pretty great when we play it. We also added “Start Choppin,” which is like a mid-period song—I think the most popular song the band did for the mid-period—I mean, I wasn’t in the band obviously, but we’ve been incorporating that and the Deep Wound song, so I think it’s kind of a cool set. It really seems to be spanning the length of the band, a little bit before and a little bit after me, after they kicked me out. We’re addressing those other mid-period songs, just trying to make good, and also span what J’s done with Dinosaur Jr.

DA: How does it feel to revisit that material after so many years? Is it surreal in a sense?

LB: Great. It’s actually great because I get to sing it [laughs]. To be brutally honest the original singer of the band couldn’t really keep time, like he never knew where the beat was, so I always thought with Deep Wound our energy was elevated considerably when I would sing. You know, I love screaming. To play the song and to play one that’s at a good tempo for Murph and for J to play the guitar it’s really cool. We’ve been thinking of playing another one.

DA: Speaking of screaming, I read that when you guys were touring the Bug album in Portland last year, you blew your voice out that night singing the album closer “Don’t” which in turn prompted you to get fans from the audience to sing the song with the band for the rest of the tour. I thought that was a really cool gesture.

LB: Yeah, that was cool. It was serendipitous, but it made me think like the next day I have to check my Facebook and be like “alright, who wants to sing ‘Don’t? Who wants to come up and do it?” and I would always get this modest stream of people going “I’ll do it!” and then I would even have people auditioning for some of the shows, sending me short snippets of what they could do, and that was cool. And then Keith Morris of Off! and Circle Jerks, who opened for us on the last night of the tour, did it. Keith got up and did this fucking amazing version of it, just like extemporizing—it was just amazing. That was so cool. I felt just like a kid. I mean I don’t have very many rock and roll heroes, but Keith Morris from Circle Jerks singing a song I sang? That was pretty fucking awesome. It really opened things up in a way. I would do it some nights when I was ready; I’d be like “okay, I’m going to blow out my voice tonight!”

It was a very aggressive period.

DA: Speaking of the older catalog, I know this year marks the 25th anniversary of “You’re Living All Over Me,” which is widely regarded as a landmark album in the history of indie-rock; when you were recording those songs was there a feeling amongst the band that you were creating something that would have such a significant and lasting impact?

LB: I remember thinking it was amazing, yeah. I remember just being like so psyched, just totally. I remember getting the tracks and I’d take them home and you know, get stoned. It was kind of my early use of marijuana and it was just like “Oh my god! Holy shit, these songs are insane! This is so good!” I was just so excited. And you know I think J felt that way too. I remember that being a really good period for us. I remember feeling like J and I were really on the same page—Murph was a little more skeptical—but J and I. That was really kind of where the sound of the band coalesced. I’m always shocked when we put out another record and people are like, “yeah, I like that better than You’re Living All Over Me….” I’m just like “what are you fucking insane?” Even when I wasn’t in the band—and I was hating on the band—I’ve always loved that record.

DA: I know you were asked to tour with Sonic Youth around that time as well. How did it feel to be a part of that scene at the time with so many wildly creative and influential bands breaking out, and to reach that level of success and recognition at such an early age?

LB: I don’t know if it’s really early in rock and roll terms; we were like 19, 20. I mean I think if you look back when classic rock bands broke that’s kind of when you make your first couple records that people will love forever. The thing about that time was it wasn’t a celebration, you know? Every band we played with, even Sonic Youth, were really aggressive. It was a very aggressive period. Sonic Youth were very aggressive live, and so were the other bands we played with like Pussy Galore and White Zombie. I swear just every band we played with was full on hateful. It’s funny now because I don’t know if people realize that bands didn’t really smile until bands like Pavement and Teenage Fanclub. I mean before that and leading up to that point it was all fucking angst, and we were a big part of that—just really angst filled post hardcore thing. So it was pretty hard to get carried away with what we were doing, I’ll just put it that way. It was all pretty like “ughhh;” just hard work and [pause] hate, in a way. When The Pixies were happening at that same period, it was so light in comparison. It’s so funny thinking about the Pixies and Throwing Muses now, because all the bands we played with were just heavy, heavy and dark.

DA: I know you’ll be performing the album in its entirety in New York City soon with some special guests, including Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) how did that collaboration come about for the band?

LB: I have no idea. Our manager said “okay, we’re going to do the ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ record at Terminal 5 on Dec. 1 in New York, and we should get some guest people.” I was like, “what the fuck? Like, why? Why, would anyone? Guests?” I don’t even know what we’re really doing. We’ve got a couple days to figure it out and we’re going to figure out something to do with these guest people, but I don’t know why we would put anybody else in the mix playing those songs. I mean, you know, no matter how good they are—it’s extraneous. I mean the power of the record comes from the trio. I mean maybe we’ll do some other stuff, maybe we’ll do some kind of jam—maybe we’ll learn a Smiths song—I mean I really have no idea what’s going on  and J doesn’t either.

DA: That’s interesting to hear. Is he (Johnny Marr) an artist that you or the band admire?

LB: Oh sure, absolutely. The Smiths are awesome, but I tend to prefer to enjoy my musicians on records. I don’t want to meet them, I just want to listen. I’m sure it’s going to be really fun, and he seems like a really nice person. J’s a little more acclimated to that kind of thing [playing with other guests]. But I have great pity on anybody who wants to sit and play with J at the volume he plays. J just obliterates everybody, so anyone that wants to play with him, they should be prepared.

Lou Barlow with Sebadoh.
Photo By: Dan Aceto

DA: There seems to be a bit of a trend amongst bands these days performing entire albums live; in addition to You’re Living All Over Me, last year the band performed the entire Bug album. If you could choose any band/living or dead, to re-form and play an entire album from their career who would it be and why?

LB: Black Sabbath, Master of Reality. I just love that record; it’s a great band record, you know? I love all the songs. I fucking love that record.

DA: What’s your take on their most recent reunion (Black Sabbath)? I know Bill Ward didn’t end up negotiating his contract to play with the band on this most recent tour.

LB: They did a reunion in 1999, which was the first reunion with the original lineup, and I went and I saw that. It was one of the first shows, and it was in L.A at The Forum and it was wonderful. I went with my wife, who is also a huge Black Sabbath fan, and she was awesome. She whooped her way through the whole show and she couldn’t speak for days afterwards. We were way up front so it was fucking great; it was just a beautiful night. It was one of the only arena shows I’ve ever seen in my life, because I don’t really dig arena rock so much, but I went to that one and I loved it, but I don’t know about the new one.

DA: Obviously Dinosaur Jr. is notorious for playing extremely loud, so I was curious, is there a specific brand of earplugs that the band endorses?

LB:  Well, J really like these foam plugs—I think he puts two in each ear—but they’re foam. And then for me the best plugs are the ones that don’t feel as weird and there’s not weird vibrations or overtones. When I came back to the band and tried using the foam ones it was terrible, so I went to some ones called “Super Leight.” They’re orange and are kind of shaped like a butt-plug or something. They’re made of this foam that really fill your ear canal and creates this solid feel on your ear. There’s more of a frequency range about what comes through, so with those earplugs I get a fairly realistic idea of the EQ range of what’s going on, so I don’t put earplugs in that overcompensate. So I think I found the right ones. Murph generally uses the same ones as me, but I’m thinking about getting a professional pair.

DA: You’ve played in Portland a number of times over the years with Dinosaur Jr.; what do you enjoy most about the city and visiting Maine? Are there any particular places you frequent when in town? 

LB: It’s weird; it’s a funny stop for us. We kind of frame it like a practice gig, like “OK we’re gonna go and see if we can get our shit together! Lets start there!” One time we were playing this kind of weird strip mall, outside of anything interesting downtown. We did that a couple of times and we played a really small place downtown once that was kind of cool, the first time [editor's note: He's talking about The Big Easy]. The buildings were kind of cool. The last time we were there a friend of someone we knew took Murph and I to their house and we had lobster and corn while we were overlooking the water. It was nice. Each time has been kind of different, but Portland is cool, I like it.

DA: Are there any new bands you’ve been listening to recently that have had an influence on your songwriting? 

LB: I think the last band that I really got into was Panda Bear. He put an album together a few years ago called Person Pitch and I really loved that record. That had a profound influence on me—it was really inspiring. Now there’s bands like Thee Oh Sees, Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Lower Dens, Ty Segall. There’s a lot of amazing music there if you scratch the surface; it’s always there and it’s always been. I’m always pretty open-minded about new music. Whenever anyone says its not the way it used to be, I’m like dude! I hate that kind of curmudgeonry. J is also always totally open-minded about new music and into new stuff.

Lou Barlow with Sebadoh.
Photo By: Dan Aceto

DA: How does it feel to see other artists emulating the sound of Dinosaur Jr.?

LB: It feels great. It’s all part of the flow you know? We kind of cribbed all the stuff that we did off of other stuff so it’s great. It’s just passing it along, passing the torch, being part of the flow and influences. Yeah, I think its great. I don’t really hear a lot of it; people tell me “don’t you think this sounds like Sebadoh or Dinosaur?” And I’m like “maybe, no, not really…but if people hear it it’s great.” I think with Sebadoh, it was really the spirit of the band that influenced people, and with Dinosaur it was the sound for sure—especially the way J’s approach to the guitar was with the records. J had a really innovative way of what he wanted to hear on records—like he really wanted the volume to leap on songs—and that was kind of not done before he did it; it was pretty much only found on certain punk rock records—like an extreme leap of volume like “wahhh!” that takes you to another part of the song. I think J in a way brought that almost into mainstream, because when Radiohead had that first big song “Creep” it was so completely obviously influenced by us. Then there were bands like My Bloody Valentine, who just totally changed their sound after hearing Dinosaur Jr.—that was pretty amazing when that happened.

DA: What are your plans for the future? Are their any other upcoming projects you’re working on in the meantime?

LB: No, just touring. When I’m in a touring cycle I find it really hard to do anything else. Like, when I get home, I just want to sit here for a while. It’s like “I don’t want to do anything, is that cool?” I got kids too, so it’s just like “I’m going to play with my kids.” I’m going to spend as much time with them as possible and remind them they have a father.

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