The whine abides. Almost 30 years after the members of Dinosaur Jr. began playing music together, the trio’s peerless roar of anger, melancholy, and effects-pedal ferocity sounds more beautifully wracked than ever. J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph may not be intimate confidants, but the noise they create as a unit is an elemental force of nature.
He found it. Flat on his belly, his tiny feet fluttering beneath the couch in his father's skylit home studio, Rory Mascis, four years old and three feet tall, is stretching to retrieve a miniature guitar. "Do you want to hear some songs?" he asks, his long brown hair alive with static as he stands. "Lou and I are going to play some songs."
By "Lou," he means Lou Barlow: bassist, bandmate, friend, and foil to his father, Dinosaur Jr. frontman Joseph "J" Mascis Jr. At the moment, Barlow is downstairs in the living room with an acoustic guitar, waiting alone beside a small amp that he’s readied for Rory's baby Les Paul. It's a dreary May afternoon and Mascis' Amherst, Massachusetts, home is playing host to the Dinosaur Jr. crew as they tweak and approve the final mixes of I Bet on Sky, the trio's third full-length offering since reuniting, unexpectedly, in 2005.
"Rory," says Barlow, 46, as he settles into a vast sectional couch next to the younger Mascis. "Before we start, you get to introduce us. Like I showed you." Rory shifts in his seat and giggles. "Hey people, thanks for coming to the show," he says. "We're the Bathroom People Toilet Team. This song's called 'Diarrhea Doctor.'" At Barlow's behest, they count it off together.
"Diarrhea doctor," Barlow growls, "put your butt in my faaaaaaace!" Rory squeals. Laughing too hard to strum or sing along, he buries his face in a pillow. "It's so good," he manages to say, coming up for air. "It really is," Barlow says in agreement. "It makes you crazy, it's so good."
In the kitchen, the mood is far more sedate. The elder Mascis, 46, currently at war with the flu, sniffles at his laptop, clicking through pages of used amps on Craigslist and GearSlutz.com, as the rest of the family eddies carefully around him. The day before, he and his wife, Luisa, a tall, Berlin-born brunette, took Rory on a quick trip to Manhattan, where he and Dinosaur Jr. drummer, Emmett Jefferson "Murph" Murphy III, joined former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt onstage at Le Poisson Rouge for a set of Stooges covers that included guest appearances from friends (Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore) and fans (stoner folkie Kurt Vile). And though Luisa glows when she talks about the performance, her infamously taciturn husband barely reacts at all, even as Rory comes running into the room for a snack.
"He's in that phase," Luisa says of her son, "where he thinks anything to do with his butt is just hilarious." As Murph, 47, and band manager Brian Schwartz observe nearby, laughing, producer John Agnello comes clattering down the stairs from the aforementioned top-floor studio, carrying freshly burned CDs with mixes ready to be heard. Just as they did with both 2007's Beyond and 2009's Farm, the Dino Jr. threesome have been working here with Agnello and engineer Justin Pizzoferato on and off since February, creating what Luisa warmly refers to as "another family" in the house. That the word "family" could be used to describe a band so legendarily dysfunctional may surprise those familiar with their mythos. But in starting their own families, and in embracing the pliability of the term, it seems they’ve learned to cohere and communicate as exactly that.
Mascis shuffles over to a stereo and pops in a purely instrumental version of a song he's given the working title "Downtown." For the next hour, he will stand motionless, awash in his own influential bath of distortion and effects, offering mostly inaudible edits anytime Agnello appears at his side. "Less treble on the guitar?" the latter asks. Mascis' mouth opens slowly, the response lost in the noise. We listen again. When it's finally done, "Downtown" will become "Pierce the Morning Rain," home to the lyric from which I Bet on Sky takes its name. Both stronger than the two post-reunion records that preceded it and equal to the electrifying, mid-1980s run of albums which established their legend, I Bet on Sky offers further evidence that, together, against oft-repeated odds, Dinosaur Jr. have grown more compelling as they've grown up and older.
Along a bookshelf in the kitchen, Barlow silently examines a J Mascis bobblehead doll. "This house is great, Luisa," he says of the Mascis' white colonial, previously the childhood home of actress Uma Thurman, whose father Robert Thurman, a renowned Buddhist scholar, played host here to the Dalai Lama. "You know, after our last place burned down, I told J we had to get this house," Luisa says. "The energy is so special, don't you think? Do you remember our last house up here?" she asks, referring to "Bob's Place," another home studio in the area that Mascis lost to fire in 2003. "No," says Barlow. "That was a dark period. No idea what you guys were doing." Luisa seems to immediately regret asking the question.
The moment is this day's most biting reminder of the storied past and stormy dynamic that Mascis and Barlow share. Though no words or glances are exchanged, the tension between them is palpable. As mixing winds down for the day, a sitter arrives to allow everyone a chance to have a rare dinner together. "Don't go," Rory begs us from the doorway, his voice shrinking.
"Why don't you write some more songs?" Luisa asks him over her shoulder.
"I can't do it alone," he whines. "I can't do it without Lou."