‘It’s just turned into a super loud sludgy sound, which is awesome’ A pre-LouFest interview with Murph of Dinosaur Jr.
Known as much for tumultuous internal band strife as for their “ear-bleeding country” tunes, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr — J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph — bitterly split in 1989. All members pursued various projects throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. The trio reunited in 2005 and has since released two albums, and plans to release a new album, “I Bet on Sky,” due out September 18. Recently the band has played a blur of festivals from Chicago to Belgium.
I had the tremendous pleasure to chat for a good half hour with drummer Murph. We spoke about the new album, how the band rehearses these days, the early origins of Dinosaur — and I finally figured out who that girl was in all the early videos.
Joe Roberts: I know Dinosaur has a new album “I Bet on Sky” coming out this month. Can you tell us a little about the new album?
Murph: Yeah. The main difference on this album is that J really spent a while [working on the vocals]. He spent a good two weeks, which is a long time for him to get the vocals right. There are some really great harmonies, and I was just really impressed. He’s really starting to invest a little more time and effort than before.
How about the drums on the new album? Is it the process of J Mascis mapping it all out or did you find yourself coming up with more of the drum patterns?
Um…I mean it is, but now we interpret stuff. He’s a little more open to interpretation for Lou and me. Again, another big difference is normally we would track drums first, like those guys would play along and would not be recorded, just the drums would be recorded, whereas this time actually Lou was recorded first. So the original bass tracks that he was coming up with and playing along with were kept as the basic tracks, and J layered stuff over that. So, again, that’s pretty huge because a lot of that stuff was a lot more spontaneous and was us just coming up with stuff as we went along. So that was kind of cool.
Is there significance to the title of the album, “I Bet on Sky”?
No. That’s a weird J thing. You’d have to ask him because he didn’t even tell anybody — even us — the name of the record until right before. And unless you specifically ask him why that name he won’t talk about it. You’d literally have to ask him because we don’t know.
On a similar note, do you ever hear J or Lou’s song lyrics and wonder what the hell the song is about?
I know one of the songs has that in the lyrics…. In my own mind I ask questions, but J’s one of those people — you know, I’ve noticed that a good lyricist or a good songwriter has the ability to write a song and write lyrics where you feel like, “Oh, it’s about my life,” or “He’s talking to me!” or about my situation. And I found that’s a pretty good mark that someone’s on the right track and they’re a good songwriter and lyricist. J’s songs always seem to have that effect on everybody. You’re just able to apply it to yourself. That’s just part of his strong point.
How does Dinosaur Jr. prepare for the road?
Well, I’ve actually been living on and off in LA at Lou’s house. He’s got a house with a spare bedroom in Silver Lake. And one of the reasons is that bass and drums are the first thing to come together, and since J is more familiar with the songs he’s able to step in later. So, Lou and I usually put in a pretty good amount of time. Like a good week or more and really get the bass and drums super tight and solid. That’s how we practice. And, you know, we’ll get together with J maybe once or something and have a full band practice. But it’s always been me and Lou getting it together, and I think that’s why I’ve kind of been living out here. But for a tour we’ll try to get together a week or 10 days before, and for about three hours a day we’re in there everyday. We’ll just go through it like we’re playing a show. And we’ll just power through the set.
How has the rehearsing changed since the early days?
Well, there was a little more jamming in the early days, I guess. Whereas now, it’s more specific, we know exactly what we need to do and there’s not as much guess work. It’s more about getting down to work and making things super tight and super solid. Whereas, in the early days it was a little more experimentation because you’re not as sure. But we’ve been doing this long enough that we know how it’ll translate live, so we know what to work on and what will work and what won’t work.
All three of you guys were in hardcore bands before Dinosaur Jr. You were in All White Jury and J and Lou were in Deep Wound. Did you guys know each other back then? Did you run in the same circles?
Deep Wound was a band in high school and All White Jury was comprised of guys much older; they were like freshman and juniors in college while I was still in 11th grade of high school. So, I was hanging out more with the college kids, and we would play a little, but it was more like we were fans of Deep Wound because they were the only band in high school that actually put out a single. Like actual vinyl. So everyone was like, “Wow! These guys already have a single out.” And that kind of propelled them out right away. And I was just a big fan.
Gosh, I used to skip class at lunchtime just to go see J play drums. He was in jazz workshop and a lot of times they’d set up in the cafeteria around the holidays or at the end of the year or whatever, and just play music while lunch was going on, and I was so into it, J and his playing. I would literally just hang out and watch.
So all three of you went to the same school in Massachusetts?
No, just me and J went to high school together. Lou was in Westfield, which was about 40 minutes away, and it was like a steel, blue-collar town. But they had their own scene. A couple guys came out of there that were in Gobblehoof and some other projects that J was involved in. So, Westfield had its own scene, but it was a lot grittier, and actually, J and Lou met through an ad in the local paper looking to start a hardcore band. I’m not sure who posted the ad and who responded, but I think J’s dad brought him down to Westfield for their first rehearsal in his station wagon, you know, since they were so young. That’s how they met. But I knew J in high school. We weren’t really friends, but we had a lot of the same friends, we were in the same circle. But, yeah, I definitely knew about J.
What was the process like shifting from the hardcore bands in the early ’80s to Dinosaur and how did you get involved?
Well, actually Deep Wound had kind of come to an end and J had this concept of starting a country punk band. He wanted to switch from drums to guitar. And our good friend at the time, Charlie [Nakajima] — who was the singer of Deep Wound and a close friend of mine — would be the original singer. And J and Lou…they weren’t tight; they’d just kind of play together. So, they were one unit and me and Charlie were the other unit. Eventually J was like, let’s start a band with just the three of us where I’m on drums, Lou switches to bass and he’s on guitar and Charlie’s still on vocals. That’s how we originally started it. We called it Mogo. It think we were a band for a month or so as Mogo. And I think we ended up kicking Charlie out, and it was just the three of us and became Dinosaur and thinking about making our first record. To answer your question, really, Dino had started out as kind of an afterthought to Deep Wound with a new flare of music.
What were those first couple years like around the time of your first two albums? Were they fun? Frustrating? Stressful?
It was super stressful! We were totally different people and all had really different personalities. J — and Lou to some extent — were very unforgiving. They just didn’t bend. And I was kind of like the hippie punk guy who was super social and easy-going, and they were like the weird, socially non-adjusted, socially-retarded guys. It was always really frustrating because they were envious and annoyed at me because I could just navigate my friends and everything so easily.
And I was always annoyed at them because they never tried, and they just hated everything and were always really negative. It was this constant weird tension. But at the same time, when we got together and played music, that energy and that tension funneled through into this crazy energy. So playing together was cool, but hanging out together was super awkward and painful. [Laughs]
So you guys never really hung out?
No. I mean we would. But not really. We would if we had to. The three of us never hung out, it was always with other friends or something. It hasn’t been until recently on this reunion that the three of us all went out to dinner together. It literally just happened like three years ago.
That’s nice! I have to ask, I know J and Lou were into straight edge early on, but were there any drugs or partying with Dinosaur Jr.?
No. Not at all. J is still totally straight edge; he’s always been that way. He’s just one of those guys that just doesn’t like to be altered. He finds it kind of annoying. Lou drinks a little bit. And I was the guy who’d smoke weed and drink beer back then. But, no, it definitely wasn’t like a party. We definitely maintained that Boston straight-edge vibe. It’s like that today. Backstage we don’t have any booze and J’s not into people partying on the crew. He wants the people working for us to be pretty sober. It’s pretty much still like that.
What kind of music were you into before Dinosaur Jr. and did those influences change?
What initially got me into drums was jazz fusion. I was into Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever — all that crazy ’70s jazz fusion. And all the hardcore stuff came in after that. I was into Hendrix, Zeppelin, Sabbath and all that stuff. Then I started hearing hardcore, and what really got me — what really took to me — was the lyrics. I was into certain bands like the Descendents and Black Flag. And also the drumming. I was like “This stuff is just really simple beats but sped up like super fast.” I remember thinking “That’s kind of cool. That’s kind of hard to do.” So I was always listening to both.
I’d make cassettes that had all that music on it. Hardcore, thrash, Throbbing Gristle, whatever. Whereas J and Lou — J like everyone else started out listening to the Stones and the Ramones and all that stuff — but Lou was more, both of them, were pretty much just gravitated towards thrash. Lou was into super-fast thrash and J was into a lot of British stuff and thrash. And for the time we were all together, I mean, that’s all they would listen to. They literally wouldn’t allow — rarely would they let me put on anything that I would want to put on. They were like, “No. We have to listen to thrash 24/7.” But they were really hardcore about it.
If you hadn’t pursued music and Dinosaur Jr., what would you have done instead?
I think I would have been a musician, but it would have been more of a hobby. I probably would have gone to college and getting into education, like my dad was a professor. I probably would have gone that route or tried to pursue writing or something a little more normal. I was really drawn to music, and I know I would have been a drummer for sure just with a 9-5 job and stuff. Music can be really risky, and it’s really hard to be of that small percentage that actually makes it.
Are there Dinosaur songs that you really enjoy and like to play live? And of course, I have to ask if there are any your not a big fan of.
I still love playing “In a Jar,” and “Raisans” and “Pieces” off our last record. I love playing some of the stuff off “Where You Been?” Some of the early stuff like “Gargoyle” and “Forget the Swan,” I find it harder to play just because it’s not as inspiring. I don’t know why because other songs like “Freak Scene” I still love playing. I love playing the Cure cover, “Just Like Heaven.” There’s probably a lot more songs that I enjoy playing than ones I don’t like playing.
Why don’t you guys play “Cats in a Bowl” live? I’ve never seen you guys play it in concert or any footage anywhere.
We tried it at the beginning of the reunion! Some songs, I don’t know why but that seems like one of those songs that were just inspired in the moment. When we tried to recreate it, it just started falling apart. It just didn’t sound that great! [Laughs] So we were just like, “Well, I guess we can’t pull it off anymore.” [Laughs again.]
Did you play it back in the ’80s? Did it just not translate with you guys anymore?
Oh, yeah. We played it back then. But with J it was a thinner sound and a more twangy sound. Whereas now J has like three Marshall stacks and it’s a much crunchier and heavy sound. So a lot of the early folky, country-punk stuff just doesn’t transfer. We just have more gear. Lou’s got like 400 watts and I’ve got like 300 watts of monitors behind me. It’s just turned into a super loud sludgy sound, which is awesome. We love it. But some of the stuff on the first album was done with just one amp, and I had an old, small Ludwig drum set. It was just a thinner sound that doesn’t always translate.
You’ll be playing the third annual LouFest here in St. Louis in a couple weeks. How does the band feel about St. Louis? Is it a city you all frequently played or a place that was more often skipped over?
We used to play there a lot. We’ve never played a festival there; it’s always been pretty small clubs. We haven’t been through St. Louis in a while. It’s been at least a couple years, maybe three. Lately, we’ve been focusing a lot on festivals. Within the last few months we did Chicago, Des Moines, now we’re going to St. Louis. We just got back from Belgium and Italy and hit a bunch of festivals.
So, it’s been cool to do this festival run. It’s actually better because the sound systems are so much bigger and they’re much more well-equipped to handle our volume. A lot of times the small clubs can’t handle three Marshall stacks and everything else going on. It’s actually really nice to play a festival because you can really utilize the power and the volume.
Okay. I’ve got to ask who’s the girl in all those early videos, like “Just Like Heaven” and “Little Fury Things”?
That’s actually Megan Jasper, who is now pretty much running Sub Pop Records. J went out with her sister Maura, who did the artwork for the first records. J’s just really good at keeping up with people. He’s very faithful and always keeps up with people. He’s still really good friends with both sisters. And they were like the girls we were hanging around with at the time in North Hampton, Massachusetts. And we had our local friends at the college nearby that were film students and we had them make the videos.
That pretty much does it for me. I just want to thank you for your time and it’s been a pleasure chatting with you, Murph. I’m a real big fan.
Yeah! I’m psyched. We’re psyched to go to St. Louis, because like I said it’s been a while, so this should be cool. Should be great.
I have one request for you. Will you guys give “Cats in a Bowl” a shot at LouFest?
[Laughs] I don’t know! We could probably jam a little bit of it in between songs. We might just doodle around. Sometimes we’ll just play half a song and think this is cool and then we’ll just stop. And just go to whatever’s next on the list. We might do something like that. Because we have the new record, we’re kind of focusing on learning and getting all that material ready to play live — that’s kind of our focus right now.
Dinosaur Jr. performs at LouFest on Saturday, August 25. 88.1 KDHX is a media cosponsor of LouFest 2012.