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Dinosaur Jr. Oral History Excerpt: Band Talks ‘Country Punk,’ Sonic Youth Tour

Dinosaur Jr., Amherst, 1985

Dinosaur Jr.’s tumultuous, 30-plus-year saga recently produced yet another must-have for fans: Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr., a comprehensive oral history published by Rocket 88 Books. SPIN recently discussed the project with Dino drummer Murph and the title’s editor, Russell Beecher. Now, we present an exclusive excerpt of the limited-edition coffee-table book. Read about Dinosaur Jr.’s nascent days and time on the road with Sonic Youth — as remembered by Murph, frontman J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow, and several of their friends — below.

J Mascis (singer-guitarist, Dinosaur Jr.): When we got rid of Charlie we said we’d split up the singing, I’d sing half and Lou sing the other. They were all my songs and Lou didn’t say if he was happy about it or not, we just split it up between us.

Lou Barlow (bassist-singer, Dinosaur Jr.): From the very beginning, when Murph and I were struggling to hear each other while J was playing obscenely loud and in our face, we struggled to find each other, to hear each other as a rhythm section. But through that process of trying to hear each other and trying to pay attention to what was going on, and by also listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and classic rock, where the rhythm sections were so crucial, when you realize how connected they are in that really powerful music that you really love, we managed to forge a way of playing together. We used the raw materials that J gave us, which were often complete bass lines and drum parts, and made them our own. I would sometimes write my own bass lines, and because I was a rhythm guitar player I was often playing rhythmically off of the way that J was playing.

J: We couldn’t play well enough to play covers. I couldn’t play barre chords so I’d make up my own chords while making up songs. I could play different songs on drums but I never had any guitar lessons.

Lou: We came from listening to punk rock and new wave so we came from bands that played original music and playing original music was extremely important and playing covers was lame, to play other people’s music was lame. To play your own music and your own combination of all the things you listen to?… we thought that was our mission. If we were going to be a band and play shows with bands we liked and get signed to a label we thought was cool then we were going to play original music and that’s what we did.

J: I had no interest in learning Zeppelin songs or whatever; I just figured we’d do our own music so just wrote songs. What I could play became the first songs.

Lou: Murph was always really ambivalent about the direction of the band. He didn’t have the same musical appetite that J and I had. We were pretty much on the same page, we were of a like mind musically, but Murph was more of a harder sell. We were doing something that was original and that’s a harder sell to people. Murph didn’t know where what we were doing would fit in. He loved music but he wasn’t a hipster. J and I were like little hipsters. Murph was far less pretentious than J and I. We were snobby, eclectic. Murph had things that he really liked, like Zappa and jazz fusion, so our lofty hipster concerns were not his, but that helped to ground the band, I think.

Murph (Drummer, Dinosaur Jr.): J’s concept in the early days of being ‘country punk’ was kind of what we were. We would play these weird, twangy, really sloppy punk rock songs. In those early days a lot of people didn’t like us because we were really loud and really sloppy and they would find it really offensive, and we were ‘Hey man, this is punk. Isn’t this what it’s about?’.

Lou: Stylistically J threw everything at the wall to see what stuck. We had jangly REM-type songs, we had a metal song, a post-punk song – they were all incredibly well conceived, too. J wrote out all the parts, the bass and drums as well as guitars. That first record has so many different types of influence on it. I’m still impressed by that first record with what J was capable of at age 18, 19. J gave me really well-made demo tapes and printed sheets of lyrics for early songs. At that time I was on a fitness thing, doing lots of running hoping to become attractive to girls. I’d learn the songs and sing them as I ran in order to learn them. J’s voice was great then; I was, I thought, struggling to find my voice, but he was really cool, amazing and able to do it already.

 Opening for Sonic Youth at Stache’s, Columbus, OH, July 20, 1986

Murph: I got really into smoking weed in high school. I think it fuelled my creativity and it went along with the music. It inspired a lot of drumming and a lot of stuff I got into with drums. I grew up in a town that was very different from the town that J and Lou grew up, because it was a very money town and the attitude was, ‘You work really hard, you party really hard’ and that was always the attitude.

Lou: I didn’t have any rites of passage during high school – it was so boring, I had no girlfriend or anything – except doing the band thing. Just driving to Boston with J, that was my rite of passage. I didn’t do any drugs until I graduated from high school, so I was 17. I can’t remember who got me stoned first but it was awesome. Pot was great, but I’m grateful that I didn’t find it in high school or that it was part of my musical experience then. After graduating I took a long road trip with an old friend of mine and we listened to Neil Young’s Harvest (1972) and got stoned and it was beautiful. When you listened to the first Jesus and Mary Chain single (“Upside Down,” 1984) while stoned it was just insane. When we started rehearsing as the first Dinosaur line-up, Murph was into pot too and we’d be searching for the stuff everywhere, I loved it. We wouldn’t smoke during practise, though. Getting high around J was not cool, it wasn’t a good thing to do.

J: We played gigs around Amherst, at colleges and stuff, but we were so loud that people would leave the room when we started playing. The bar owners wanted people to stick around and buy beer of course, so they weren’t pleased with us driving everyone out.

George Berz (Drummer, Dinosaur Jr.): The first time that I saw Dinosaur was in a tiny dorm room at Hampshire College. I thought that they were terrible. Insanely loud, and just not together at all, and I remember lamenting the loss of Deep Wound even more after that. The second time that I saw them was probably six months later, at a venue the name of which escapes me. What a difference! Most of the material from the first album made up the set list, and I couldn’t believe how much better they were. The loud was still there, but the songs broke through. Every subsequent show was better and better.

Murph: In Amherst and Northampton we had a few local clubs and bars, but we actually got banned from everywhere in our town except La Oasis – which was owned by a guy who liked us – because we were so loud. The town was mainly filled with college kids; they want to hear covers, they want to drink. They don’t want to hear a sloppy punk rock band. That’s not really what they want to go and out and do. So we would drive all of the kids out and the bars would lose revenue and they would get really angry and we’d be like ‘Hey man, we’re not here to have these kids drink, we’re here to have them see us and they’d be ‘Well that’s not gonna work for us.’ So that actually drove us out to New York and Boston. That’s when things actually started happening, when we got to CBGBs, and The Channel, and Chet’s Last Call, and all these dive bars in New York and Boston.

J: If you didn’t know us and we just played in a random place then people really didn’t like us. We really needed fans and we weren’t making any playing to people that didn’t know us. Because we were so loud they were just really kind of annoyed if they didn’t know what we were doing. We got banned from all of the clubs around.

Sheehan’s Cafe, Northampton, MA, December 7, 1986

Jens Jurgensen (Friend and Bassist, Boss Hog): I knew that if given the chance, once this music reached the masses, it would have an impact and change the whole game. Weirdly though, outside their small circle of friends, nobody in the area gave two shits about them whatsoever. Even the local college kids who should have had some clue, ran in the opposite direction when confronted by their sonic onslaught. I ended up arranging a couple of shows for them at Hampshire, including one in my dorm, and they pretty much cleared the room instantly, with the exception of a few heads that stood with their mouths hanging open in amazement. It wasn’t until a few years later, when the English press started writing about them, that they got any respect on the home front.

Murph: We were totally what you’d call slackers. By then I was an ex-stoner. I think we chose music over anything else because we were so socially awkward, for whatever reason. We all knew that office jobs and any kind of 9–5 reality was not for us. I was aware that was what was going on, we might not have talked about it, but that was what was going on.

Lou: J was a very solitary person, despite there always being great people around him. The people he knew were great fun, awesome people like Jon Fetler. While at college this group of punk rock girls adopted him and they were awesome. But J was kind of an island. He’s way less so of one now, he’s much more engaged, but back then he was an intimidating figure. There was never any great enthusiasm for much.

Megan Jasper (Friend and Executive Vice President, Sub Pop Records): J used to walk around the college campus strumming his acoustic guitar. It was clear that he loved playing music – he was always either listening to music or playing music. He had a drum kit in the basement of his house and if you went down there with him, he’d sit at the drums and pound on them for a few minutes before walking away.

Murph: J was really smart. He made a conscious decision; he transferred. He was at U-Mass and transferred to Hunter College in New York. That’s when he started meeting Sonic Youth and we met Richard Kern; that whole late 80s art-punk music scene in New York and that’s when things starting really taking off.

Lou: J knew who he wanted to hang out with, what rooms he wanted to be in back then. I think that scene found him as much as he found it, though. He was hanging out with Gerard Cosloy, and they were going to a lot of shows together in New York – Gerard’s reviews of gigs would include very funny one-liners from J. Gerard was putting out records by Big Black at the time, and he got us a gig supporting them in Hoboken. That was the gig at which Thurston and Kim first saw us, or they saw J and were like, ‘Who?… what?…?’ He had a really cool look then, the picture on the back cover of the first album shows it. Plus, J’s approach to the guitar was way out there, he had vintage effects and a vintage guitar way before anyone else had them, he was first with that stuff. Thurston used to bring a Walkman to our shows but he wouldn’t record songs, only J’s solos. He had tapes of just J’s guitar leads.

J: Our first gig in New York was really great. We opened for Big Black in Hoboken, at Maxwell’s. That’s where we met Sonic Youth and realized some people liked us and had some sympathetic ears. So we gravitated a lot to New York after that because our town and Boston, which was two hours away, didn’t like us much either. New York was three hours so we tended to go down there and became part of that scene.

J Mascis in Buffalo, NY, July 23, 1986, on the road with Sonic Youth / Photo by Carlos van Hijfte

Lou: Not long after the gig in Hoboken, J moved to New York and started hanging out with the Sonics, staying at their apartment, living the life, and we started getting gigs in New York, so we played with White Zombie before they became a heavy metal act, Big Black, Pussy Galore with Jon Spencer. I couldn’t enjoy it all though, because I was scared, too shy. I worshipped everyone we were playing with. I was in awe of Sonic Youth and could barely talk to them – even now I can barely talk to them. I felt terminally uncool and was skulking around in J’s wake. Murph always enjoyed himself. There’s a real happy-go-lucky aspect to Murph, you can throw him into any situation and he’d deal with it. He’d visited New York throughout his youth so was cool with being there, but I’d be in my parent’s station wagon thinking ‘Jesus Christ I hope we get back alive, man.’

J: I first lived in Brooklyn after I transferred to Hunter College, with a friend of a friend; took the path of least resistance, I guess. I went to college there, at Hunter, studying something or other because I knew my dad would pay for me to exist if I was in college, but I spent the whole time working on the band.

Lou: Every trip to New York, which was a very different place back then, was still pretty tough and I was always happy when we were leaving New York and would hit the signs for New England and I’d relax, thinking ‘OK, we made it this time?…’ It was always a long hard day, those trips, going to places like CBGBs and seeing bums beat the hell out of each other with metal pipes outside the venue.

J: The first album was us trying out a lot of styles. We made it really soon after we formed and we hadn’t quite settled on a sound yet. We were just trying different things. We made a B-side for Repulsion, a song on the first album, titled Bulbs of Passion and that was the first song when we thought, ‘We’re really onto something. We’re getting our sound together.’

Lou: The cover is by Maura Jasper, who’d met J at U-Mass, and was one of those totally cool punk rock girls hanging out with him, she was part of the crew. J came up with the idea for the first record, ‘I want a guy standing in a field’. He had a bizarre relationship with this little kid at U-Mass called Artie, they’d formed a weird bond, with J treating him like a whipping boy, and Artie lapped it up and seemed totally bewildered by J’s fascination with him. J wanted Artie’s face on the cover so he took a photo of him and put it there in the corner.

J: Artie didn’t have too many friends. I met him at college and we would hang out and I’d bring him to some parties. Lou’s view makes it seem like it was a little more cynical, but I was just hanging out with this guy, a fellow freshman who I thought was interesting.

Lou: J knew there’d be a Homestead album after Gerard had taken over the label. We knew that if we recorded stuff then Gerard, who believed in J, would release it. We recorded some 4-track demos first and then went to an 8-track studio owned by this guy Chris Dixon who ran the PA at every punk show in the Amherst area. He was a mild mannered guy with a long blonde ponytail down his back. We went out to his place in the woods and recorded the first album in 2 days, maybe. Murph and I were still struggling to find our connection as the rhythm unit but the songs were definitely there.

Amherst, 1985

J: Making the album was a real battle, though. The engineer was not sympathetic, and did not get where we were coming from musically so it was hard. The first half of You’re Living All Over Me was the same thing but with a different guy. It’s hard to get your ideas when the engineer is saying ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do this.’ It was always a big struggle, but at least I wouldn’t cave in to their thoughts of how things should be. I couldn’t buckle under to their ways.

Murph: We recorded the first album in Chris Dixon’s basement. I remember Chris was a hippie and his engineer was a jazz fusion kind of guy so they didn’t really know how to deal with us. They’d never really worked with loud bands, punk bands, chaotic bands, and I remember they just seemed really confused like they didn’t know how to mix it or work with it. With J’s lack of communication it was this weird scene, but it worked.

Lou: I sang half the songs on the album as J wanted me to, but I don’t think I did a very good job. I wasn’t that comfortable and they were J’s songs, there’s a real personality running through those songs and it was his, it’s a pretty strong personality. There are some really personal songs on there, like Repulsion is a very beautiful song; lyrically it’s great. Something was inspiring him, something had backed him into a corner forcing him to write and it was great, classic in its way. “Forget The Swan” has great words and vocabulary. I think my contribution to the album is all terrible, but the songs and J’s work is incredible and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

J: I was impressed that Lou had actually scratched the song “Cats In A Bowl” off his copy of the first Dino record with a knife. He really didn’t like how he sang that. He was fully committed to his opinion. But Lou did add some more ideas and different musical tastes to the album.

Lou: Rhythmically something just happened that could only happen if you’re young and struggling, because it’s not something that you could intellectually put together. It was something that happened to make the music physical; to make heavy and hard music but also to really get the nuances of J’s chords and to make complex chords that were, for a lack of a better word, more like folky; it wasn’t just power chords and this blocky thing that moves which punk rock often is. Something like pop is too soft and heavy metal is too structured and too particular. I wanted to find something that incorporates all that stuff and was powerful enough and forceful enough to bolster my confidence when I was playing. I really lacked confidence and I really wanted to find that confidence in the music and the raw material that J brought; obviously the songs, his melodies, his gift for rhythmic things; that’s where I found it.

Murph: I guess I’m the pessimist because even though I believed in J and his vision, I was really amazed that we’d got to that point to make a record. I remember getting the test pressing and being shocked and thinking ‘Wow?… we actually got this far! We made a record!’ because I didn’t think we’d get there.

Lou: We had a really good time recording the album though, I remember making Mountain Man and I was screaming nonsense and cracking J up, and Murph sings on that number too. It was great discovering that Murph can sing, that he can carry a tune, too.

Murph: Lou and I would get into these super arguments with him saying, ‘No, we mean something man! We’re actually doing something’ and I’d ask, ‘What are you talking about man? We’re like a bunch of pimply faced kids playing shitty music!’ He hated me saying that and would yell ‘No! No we’re not!’ and I’d yell back ‘Yes! Yes we are!’

Sonic Youth

Lou: The album is what got us bigger shows in Boston and New York. It got us the support slots with Sonic Youth, and by the time we played with them J had already written the songs that would become You’re Living All Over Me.

Probably Sheehan’s  Cafe, Northampton, MA, December 7, 1986 / Photo by Jason Talerman

J: It was pretty weird, we didn’t know why we were continuing, why we were doing this when everyone hated us. We had this drive to carry on. I’d rather have been liked, I guess, but we weren’t that kind of band who if some people hate it others love it, we were kind of subjected to hate, disdain and indifference. It was hard.

Murph: We put our first record out on Homestead and then Sonic Youth decided to take us out on a two week Mid-West tour. We went from playing to 15 people to 500 people and it was great.

J: We hadn’t toured much, although we wanted to go on tour. That was our goal, the blueprint for The Minutemen and Black Flag; you put out a record as a kind of flyer to go out on tour. The end game was going out on tour. The record is just like promotion to go on tour. We wanted to do that but we didn’t do much of it because nobody knew us – so touring with Sonic Youth was a big step up.

Murph: I think J took it in his stride but Lou and I just kind of followed along. J had the knowledge of Oi! and hardcore so that he could keep up with Thurston talking about it and all.

Lou: We went further west than J and Murph had ever been before on that tour. We went as far as Michigan and Wisconsin, and had an awesome moment in the town I grew up in Michigan. I walked into a field with J and Murph and they looked up at the sky and said ‘I’ve never seen so many stars?…’

J: That was our first and best tour, with Sonic Youth. We were travelling in Lou’s parents’ station wagon but riding on the Sonics’ coattails.

Lou: We were driving home from the last date we’d played with Sonic Youth and listening to their EVOL album, which is the one they’d been playing live on the road with us, and we’re rolling back to our home town, the three of us in J’s station wagon going home, and it was really cool. We’d had a great time on the road and J says ‘I almost feel like crying. I think we’re in love with Sonic Youth’. And I was like, wow, that’s exactly what I was thinking – it was almost like a tender moment! It was?… wow! That was the happiest I’d been in Dinosaur Jr.

J: Those 500 capacity places seemed enormous at the time. Now and again we’d jam with the Sonics, but they’re not the easiest to jam with, they’ve got their thing. There’s not much room for things to go off, there’s no open-ended jams in there.

Murph: When we got home everyone was, ‘You’ve just been out on the road with Sonic Youth!’ And we were getting calls to do this and do that and that’s really when stuff happened, and I think they really helped jump-start us into that world. It felt like the most ‘worth it’ time, like what we were doing meant something. Meaningful is the word I’d use instead of happy but it was exciting?… really exciting.

Lou: It was never quite the same after that. The tour we next did, the proper tour to promote You’re Living All Over Me was a disaster.