Somewhere between reconciliation and an uneasy truce

Tentatively reunited, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. heads to Israel on the heels of its successful new album, Beyond.

Dinour Jr 1 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dinour Jr 1 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It didn't sound promising. A scheduled interview with Dinosaur Jr.'s notoriously moody front man J. Mascis was being scrapped in favor of a talk with Lou Barlow, the group's founding bass player and front man of another band, Sebadoh. "J. has been a terrible interview, he's only been giving one-word answers to questions or saying 'I don't know,'" explained the publicist. "Lou will be much better." Hooking up with Barlow by telephone from Dublin, where the influential '80s and '90s college radio favorites were launching a European tour, I attempted to make small talk by asking how he was enjoying the Irish city. "Fine." Okay. Maybe Mascis had been coaching Barlow on interview techniques. Or maybe, the members of Dinosaur Jr. treat societal conventions like they make music - uncompromising, raw and straight from heart. If they don't feel like being gracious, they're not going to put on a showbiz front and go through the motions. Call it punk rock. Or just call it real. Fortunately, Barlow quickly warmed up and, while far from gregarious, amiably discussed the band's stormy past and its unlikely return with its original lineup of Mascis, Barlow and drummer Emmett Murphy (Murph) to record an excellent new album, Beyond, and once again, tour the world. FORMED IN the mid-1980s in Amherst, Massachusetts and releasing three albums before Barlow left under acrimonious circumstances in 1989, Dinosaur Jr. played loud pop - feedback and distortion-drenched songs highlighted by Mascis's melodic guitar solos. Bands that went on to achieve far greater commercial success, like the Pixies and Nirvana, cited Dinosaur Jr. as major influences on their musical orientation. Someone described them as Black Sabbath performing Beatles songs with Neil Young on lead guitar. In a previously published interview, Barlow explained the blend: "We loved speed metal... and we loved wimpy-jangly stuff." Mascis called it "ear-bleeding country." Listening to their oeuvre today, it sounds positively mainstream. While Mascis kept the band name through much of the '90s when the band enjoyed its widest recognition, the consensus of hardcore fans was that the original lineup could never be matched. A few tentative meetings between Mascis and Barlow beginning in the '90s laid the groundwork for a reunion tour in 2005, which coincided with the rerelease of the band's first three albums. But Barlow explained even that wasn't easy. "It was mainly J.'s ambitious manager, he kind of hooked the whole thing up," he said. "He talked to Murph and me, and then went to J. and told him, 'look these guys are willing.' J. didn't want to do it at first." While tensions between the three over Mascis's increasing domination of the band's music led to their initial disintegration, Barlow explained that things have been resolved to a point somewhere between a reconciliation and an uneasy truce. "We're still the same people we were back then, so it's a little weird, but it gets a little less weird all the time," he said. Still, a little of the past animosity between Barlow and Mascis seeps in when the bassist describes recording the band's 2007 album, Beyond. "I brought my songs in as bare skeletons and let Murph create the drum parts and J. the guitar parts. With J.'s songs, he was more specific about the drums, telling Murph exactly what patterns to play… just like the old days," he said, emitting something that almost sounded like a chuckle. BEYOND, THE band's first album of new material as a trio since Bug in 1988, was met with critical acclaim, rating an 8.4 (out of 10) from indie rock Internet bible Pitchfork and even debuting on the Billboard 200 at number 69 its opening week, something the earlier incarnation never achieved. For Barlow, who has built a small but loyal following as leader of the lo-fi collective Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr.'s resurgence has necessitated shuffling his commitments. "I'm already in Dublin ahead of the rest of the band, because I just finished three weeks in Europe touring with Sebadoh. I guess these days, my time is divided between 75 percent Dinosaur and 25% Sebadoh. My partner [in Sebadoh] Jason Lowenstein tours with Fiery Furnaces, so it all depends on scheduling. We just have fun playing together," he said, adding that there were no current plans to follow up the band's last album released in 1999. Despite the inevitability of bands from the '80s and '90s - like the Pixies and The Breeders - hitting the comeback trail, Barlow said that he didn't feel like he belonged to a nostalgic trend. "I have no idea why it's happening now. I guess it's just part of the cycle when bands from that time are getting back together. I haven't checked if it's the same kind of gap as when '70s bands got back in the '80s," he said. "With a band like the Pixies, people really loved them, so it's normal for them to come back." Despite having toured extensively with both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, Barlow will be making his maiden voyage to Israel when he, Mascis and Murph play two shows at Zappa in Tel Aviv on June 9 and 10 to wind up their European tour. And in a rare case of rock-star vulnerability, he sounds nervous. "I really don't know what to expect. Of course, I'm filled with trepidation," he said. "Most of the fears in my life, though, are based on paranoia. I just need to think that in every single place in the world, people are going about their lives all day, every day, with planes flying in and out. For me to think that I'm going to be the guy to be blown up is just a selfish conceit." From one-word answers to deep self-analysis. That sounds a lot like Dinosaur Jr.