Hunkered down in an Amherst, Ma. apartment during the grimy mid-’80s scene, drummer Emmett Murphy was keeping busy playing in local bands. Fresh off a stint in the underground Connecticut group All White Jury, he was asked to join a new outfit with J Mascis and Lou Barlow.
Murphy, affectionately known to Mascis (and now many others) as Murph, retained a sense of wonderment through the continued progress of the band, later named Dinosaur (“Jr” was added after a cease-and-desist order came down from another antediluvian group).
Speaking to Xpress from yet another apartment in Amherst, Murphy still sounds amazed — especially now that Dinosaur Jr, coming to the Orange Peel April 7, have reunited more than 20 years after their formation. He’s trying to figure out how to send an attachment of a photo he took of a classic motorcycle, an MV Augusta, “the Lamborghini of motorcycles.” His casual tone is self-effacing — “I’m not much of a computer person, ya know” — as he exudes the egalitarian spirit that certainly led him to the punk scene. “I used to be adamantly into motorcycles, rode one years back. It’s like freedom, ya know … riding.”
Another brick in the wall (of sound)
Dinosaur Jr grew out of an unburdened freedom during those nascent days before “punk broke,” when bands like Nirvana moved into the mainstream, forever altering the perception of what defined independent music. This leap to a new interpretation of success — among a peer group of guitar-solo-eschewing artists whose punk-roots conscience told them signing to a major label was selling out — solidified the grunge era as a unique music-industry phenomenon. Dinosaur Jr wanted to be on cornerstone label SST, a wish they saw realized — but they had no other real larger goals, financial or otherwise. Success meant playing on the same label as some of their idols, like Sonic Youth.
Unlike the majority of their hardcore-scene peers, though, Dinosaur Jr acknowledged the influence of classic rock ‘n’ rollers. Writer Byron Coley spoke deeply of this in a review of one of the group’s recently reissued first three records, mentioning Mascis’ absorption of both the metal and punk ethos, along with the unhinged jamming approach of free jazz and ’60s rock: “[He] began to focus on guitar playing over drums. Just as Sonny Sharrock drew his inspiration from Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’ approach to the tenor saxophone, J’s musical model was a different instrument. Having spent years trying to create a wall of sound that equaled the one John Bonham had used to anchor Led Zeppelin, Mascis decided that the real way to conjure up that aura of overwhelming heft was to get an electric guitar (an instrument he had eschewed since fifth grade) and amp the hell up. So he did. And man, did it work!”
Prior to Dinosaur, Mascis and Barlow had made a few waves in the Massachusetts hardcore pool in their group Deep Wound. But it was Mascis’ singular, percussive approach to the guitar, and his songs — which buried humble, self-effacing tales and bitter rants, tempered with a throbbing melody, under a mountain of fuzz and volume — that set them apart from the buzz-cut punks and noodle-prone lackeys in their wake. Snapshots of the twenty-something Dino show a band unrepresentative of any musical clique: long-haired Mascis prone to wearing a medallion atop band-bearing T-shirts (KISS, for example); bowl-cut Barlow in a cardigan; and laid-back Murph in jeans or coveralls — a mystifying trio, irritating to anyone who wanted to lump them in one camp or another.
Their legacy was different, too, ever claimed as influence for styles like the grunge splash and the effects-pedal-prone shoe-gazer bands — but somehow still apart from any similar-sounding comrades, even today.
However, punk-influenced reunions like Gang of Four and Mission of Burma proved going home again could be decently done, even for the most stalwart purist. And, in fact, the latter reunion was a direct catalyst for Mascis to get his band back together. (After years of in-feuding that eventually led to the original lineup’s demise, J dissolved the band, only to instantly restart it without Barlow.)
“Back then, I was the social guy,” muses Murphy. “Those guys were pretty socially repressed. I would break the ice, kind of. Guys would tell me after a gig, ‘I remember your band mates — they didn’t say anything, but you were cool and played pool with us …’ J was into staying at home, and Lou was always strumming his ukulele and working on these songs. … I later realized that was what would become his Sebadoh stuff.”
Today, Barlow prefers spending time with his family, and Mascis is reportedly more outgoing on the road. “Now it’s like 180 degrees the opposite,” Murphy confirms. “J and Lou are out there, doing their thing, and I’m more likely to go back and watch a good movie. I was kind of a stoner, too, back then, a party guy. Those guys were totally straight-edge.”
If reunions are lame …
For Murphy, the effects of the redesigned rock landscape resonate deep. He believes there’s a sort of contradiction between the increase in corporate restrictions for bands and the freedom achieved by artists who can record, produce and distribute their music digitally — but he acknowledges it’s all just part of the game in this country: “Seems like everything’s regurgitated from old things. It’s part of that American way, and us all being the ultimate consumer.”
But bands still look out for one another. As Sonic Youth once invited Dinosaur Jr to tour, giving the then-little-known group enormous exposure, so, today, does Dinosaur Jr support new bands like Majik Markers.
“There’s still that camaraderie,” Murphy says. However, “back in the old days, you could put on a show yourself, and now there’s promoters, insurance, all this stuff.”
Murphy, Mascis and Barlow were hard-nosed music fans when they formed Dinosaur Jr — the type who think reunions are lame, and reunion records even more deplorable. Yet, as they make the second round of touring since reforming, rumors of a new album persist.
“I’m really surprised, as much as I was about the reunion,” Murphy confesses, still retaining his signature “whatever” ease. Barlow has also announced his reconnection with Eric Gaffney, original member of Sebadoh, and a reissue of that group’s classic Sebadoh III. On the songwriting process, Murphy doesn’t predict any uncharacteristic political diatribes or sudden bursts of electronica. “J still has his J quirkiness. He’s one of those people who decide ‘that makes a good song.’ Maybe someone can take something from it and go, ‘Oh wow, I can relate to that.’
“J’s kind of vague about meanings, but his approach is the same, I think.”
[Contributor Chris Toenes is based in Chapel Hill.]
Dinosaur Jr plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, April 7, with openers Dead Meadow and Priestess. 9 p.m. $25. 225-5851. Lou Barlow plays a solo set in an in-store appearance at Harvest Records (415 Haywood Road) at 7 p.m.; 258-2999.