Alt-Rock Royalty Dinosaur Jr Refuses to Go Extinct
By Jaime Lees
Mon, Mar 13, 2017
Though Dinosaur Jr is hailed by fans as one of the all-time greatest acts tied to the “alternative rock” movement, it never achieved proper mainstream success. Founded in Amherst, Massachusetts, in decidedly pre-grunge 1984, Dinosaur Jr toiled for years on the edges of the local punk scene: too out there for most people to comprehend and too weird to really fit in anywhere else.
Over time this independence has worked to the band’s favor. By not being pigeonholed into any specific scene or claimed by any one genre, it had the freedom to grow organically. Because Dinosaur Jr was the band for nobody in particular, it was eventually able to become the band for everybody. In 1990, the group went from releasing records on tastemaker labels such as SST to signing a deal with major label Sire Records. But despite minor achievements and enormous accolades, by the mid-1990s, the band had fallen apart and scattered. Singer and guitarist J Mascis continued with the band name for a couple of years, while bassist Lou Barlow went to steer Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion, and drummer Emmett Murphy (who goes by the singular “Murph” in all credits and press) started drumming in the Lemonheads.
A reunion was deemed unlikely — the members of Dinosaur Jr seemed to actively dislike each other and were notoriously unable to communicate about even basic things with any success. But Murph tells RFT that he still supported a reunion long before it actually happened — and he even had a certain notable drummer-turned-guitarist in his corner.
“I was doing the Lemonheads and I remember we played at a festival that the Foo Fighters were on,” Murph recalls. “We were hanging out with Dave Grohl and he came up to me, and he’s like, ‘Dude, you gotta get Dino back together! C’mon, dude, you gotta call those guys up!’ And I would just be like, ‘I don’t know, man, I just don’t think J is into it.’ And I would ask J every few years. I’d see him on the street and I’d be like, ‘C’mon, dude. Dino reunion.’ And he’d be kind of like Lurch from The Addams Family — he’d just kind of go, ‘Uhhh, I don’t think so.’”
By the time the original three finally reunited to tour on the reissues of their old albums in 2005, interest in the band was at an all-time high. Then the group released Beyond in 2007, its first album as a reformed unit, and the new music was brilliant. The stellar songs were classic Dinosaur Jr, in the best way — a relief to long-time fans who feared that the band might have lost its magic over the years or might screw up its legacy with attempts at a new sound.
Murph himself acknowledges the hit-or-miss aspect of reunited bands with new music. “Most bands I’ve seen get back together, they have some new direction and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, this is painful. This is bad. Like, what are you guys doing?’’ he says. “That happens all of the time.”
Many fans thought some of the Pixies reunion shows, in particular, felt like taking a knee to the family jewels. Murph is candid on the subject. “They might’ve had Kim Shattuck [of the Muffs] on bass, because I saw them a couple of times with her and it was horrible. It was so bad,” he says. “Then they got this LA woman [Paz Lenchantin] who’s this slick, like, gun-for-hire, and then it sounded so much better. I was living in LA like four summers ago, and so much music goes through there. I got to see the Breeders one weekend and Pixies the next. And the Breeders were just, head and shoulders, so much better than the Pixies. Like, I couldn’t believe how much better the Breeders were. It was such a good show. It was amazing.”
Murph likes to take in many different bands, and fans of all different types of music love his band, too: Dinosaur Jr’s brutally loud and heavy — yet frequently sweepingly melodic — music is beloved by fans of rock, psychedelic, alternative, punk, pop, prog, noise, classic rock and jam bands. But even though that’s been the case for 30 years, the band’s members are only just starting process the scope of their popularity. Murph says that he was delighted when he recently learned that Dinosaur Jr is frequently discussed online in chat rooms by fans of the band Phish.
“I was, like, totally blown away,” Murph says. “Really? We were mentioned in a Phish chat room? Because we’re kind of, like, from the punk, and that’s like the opposite. Most of the hippie jammy band kids just are not into noise or punk at all — they’re into bluegrass and folk and all that stuff. So I thought that was really funny.” Still, Murph concedes that the band has done some jam band “noodling.”
“I mean, I’m into that stuff, personally. I grew up listening to like Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu Orchestra, so I can relate,” he says. “But as a band we’ve always come from — and J and Lou are definitely from — like, thrash and oi! roots, so it always surprises me when we get crossover fans. I’m always kind of shocked.” Dinosaur Jr is currently on a tour of high-end mid-sized venues and will spend the summer playing at major festivals. Murph seems almost bashful about his group’s success, even though he remains hopeful about the future.
The band’s interpersonal relationships must be better, too. Murph explains that while touring life is often seen by outsiders as glamorous, it’s really just eight to ten people crammed onto one bus, day in and day out. In that way, he says, it’s similar to sailing, where everybody is stuck in one little area.
But what if they managed to get more buses? “If we were like Bon Jovi or something that would be great,” Murph says with a laugh. “I don’t think we’re at that level yet.”
8 p.m. Sunday, March 19. Delmar Hall, 6133 Delmar Boulevard. $25 to $28. 314-726-6161.
link: Riverfront Times