Amherst, Mass.-based indie rockers Dinosaur Jr. have managed to survive not by succumbing to adaptive evolution but by creating a lush musical habitat all their own, playing a primal yet genre-defining combination of brash hardcore and moody, emotion-driven ballad rock.
Grunge’s evolutionary tree includes close relatives Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Pixies. While these other acts enjoyed more prominent roles in the 1990s than Dinosaur Jr. would in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s combined, none could match Dinosaur Jr.’s longevity and stamina.
Some fans regard Joseph “J” Mascis, Jr., the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist, as the “godfather of alt rock,” a title he earned by maintaining Dinosaur Jr.’s place at the top of the independent music food chain well into the 21st century.
In the mid-’80s when the band first formed, mainstream music was stuck in a classic rock rut, with commercial radio milking the prior two decades’ hits dry instead of tapping anything new.
“You have to realize, the radio stations were only playing classic rock, there was no Green Day, there was no Nirvana on the radio, none of that stuff,” says Murph in a recent phone interview. “All of that was really underground. People didn’t really know it, they didn’t really like it, so we were kind of pioneers, I guess. Not many people we knew were into that kind of music, we’ll put it that way.”
Dinosaur Jr.’s rock was anything but classic: Mascis completely repurposed the rock-god guitar solos and heavy riffage of the ’70s, incorporating these elements into vicious punk rock, giving the genre known for three-chord simplicity a new sense of sophistication. Mascis became enamored with special effects pedals early in the band’s career, and phasing and distortion have their footprints all over his work.
Much like the band's reptilian namesake, Dinosaur Jr.’s saga is easily divided into three distinct periods, the beginnings and endings of which are marked by the incremental disappearances of the act’s primary characters, one after another. Mascis, Murph and bassist Lou Barlow met as teens. Mascis and Barlow played together in a short-lived hardcore band called Deep Wound. When that band bled out, Mascis recruited Barlow and Murph for a new project he called Dinosaur (later rechristened Dinosaur Jr. after a lost lawsuit).
Most of the boys’ meager musical goals were reached during their first three years in existence. After their 1985 self-titled debut, an effort Mascis once described as “ear-bleeding country,” SST Records, the label founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, signed the group. SST released 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me
and gave the band the support it needed to tour.
After album No. 3, 1988’s Bug
, territorial tensions between Mascis and Barlow mounted, leading Mascis to eliminate Barlow from the band by staging a false breakup. The very next day, Mascis reformed Dinosaur Jr. without Barlow (who would go on to form Sebadoh). For the next few years, Dinosaur Jr. would run parallel to (but never intersect with) the grunge scene of the 1990s.
Mascis has always been the primary songwriter for the group, composing not only skeletal lyrics and guitar parts but also dressing those bones with nearly-complete instrumental orchestrations before the other band members even hear the tracks.
“J plays like every instrument; he’s gifted. He’s able to literally play bass, drums, guitar, and sing and record a whole record by himself, so he writes more as like a composer does for an orchestra,” Murph explains.
Even though Mascis’ songs are nearly complete upon delivery to the band, the idiosyncrasies of Barlow and Murph’s playing transform Mascis’ demos into Dinosaur Jr. songs.
“J has the idea and everything, but then when Lou and I actually start playing the song, it becomes like a Dinosaur Jr. song, you know,” Murph explains.
After Barlow’s departure from the band in 1989, Murph hung on as Dinosaur Jr.’s drummer until the mid-’90s (he would later go on to drum for the Lemonheads). Without Barlow and Murph, the band became little more than a platform for Mascis’ solo musings. Dinosaur Jr.’s remains were finally laid to rest when Mascis formed J Mascis + the Fog in 2000. In 2005, Mascis agreed to a brief tour following Merge Records’ re-release of the first three albums. But the reunion proved much more fruitful than a scripted marketing effort, and the band has been together ever since.
Over the years, the music hasn’t mellowed, although Murph does admit that Dinosaur Jr. performances have become a bit more polished.
“Definitely, when we were younger, the shows were a little more energized and phrenetic, and we would go on weird noise jams sometimes at the end of the set,” he says. “We don’t tend to do that as much, we tend to really just focus on the set, like a group of songs, and really trying to make it sound as good as we can make it sound. So it’s a combination of being more professional but more relaxed at the same time. We’re not as uptight about presenting the music; we’re more comfortable presenting our music now.”
Truth is, the members of Dinosaur Jr. aren’t hatchlings anymore. Mascis and Barlow both have children of their own, and priorities have shifted. But rather than allow the band to drift apart, their new responsibilities have driven the three men to be more focused and deliberate in their approach to songwriting.
“We still have the same formula and still do things the same way — we’ve just gotten more efficient at doing it. I think that’s kind of the secret in our success, we haven’t changed. It’s the same chemistry; it’s the same process since day one,” says Murph.
Their continued effort proves that the band members still possess a sense of purpose in the work that they do. While many bands would consider Dinosaur Jr.’s pre-millennial stint to be a monumental success in itself, Murph thinks there’s still room for growth. In fact, the band’s most recent release, 2016’s Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
, happens to be Murph’s favorite album of the band’s 11 releases.
“I’m personally experiencing this kind of resurgence as a drummer, like I’m just really into drumming, almost more than I’ve ever been,” he says. “It’s just really exciting, so I was super focused on the record. And also J, [Lou and J both] but J particularly, is really starting to get into songwriting, and he’s really starting to produce some really great material and it shows. It’s really great to play on stuff where you’re like, ‘Wow. This is a really great song.’ It’s inspiring.”
More than 30 years after Dinosaur Jr. formed and more than ten years into its reunion, the band is almost as renowned for its current work as it for its original material. Having successfully weathered a breakup and reformation, as well as the challenging process of learning to communicate again after years of hard feelings, it seems it would take a meteorite to kill their desire to create music together.
“We were like these three angsty, kind of disgruntled, angry teens that got together and we clashed, we really had different viewpoints, but somehow we played music well together,” says Murph. “But there was this friction and tension that was created, but in that it’s turned out to be this endless well of ideas and creativity. So it’s kind of funny, it’s like this endless stream that we can tap into, and I think we’ll keep tapping into it until it dries up. If it dries up tomorrow, we would stop tomorrow. But if it dries up when we’re 80, then we’ll just keep playing ’til we’re 80. We have no idea how deep the well is. But we just keep drinking from it.”
Dinosaur Jr, Easy Action, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 12, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $28 ADV, $30 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.