The fiery archdukes of fuzz-rock Dinosaur Jr. ground to a complete halt in 1997. After 13 tumultuous years together, during which two-thirds of the original lineup had quit or gotten kicked out, frontman J Mascis retired the Dino-moniker and began recording and touring under his own name (with The Fog.) Eight years later, however, Dinosaur Jr. came roaring back from fossilization, and unlike their namesake creatures in Jurassic Park, the band is thriving and quite possibly here to stay.
The mid-2000s saw a lot of influential alternative bands getting back together. From the Pixies to Pavement to Pulp, even the most acrimonious splits were being resolved–often onstage at the smorgasbord music festival Coachella. Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and Rage Against the machine have quit messing around with their incestuous supergroups, and got back to their original lineups. At this point, basically only The Smiths have refused to come back for a nostalgia tour. What Dinosaur Jr. is doing goes far beyond nostalgia, though.
Following a successful run of catalog reissues in the early 2000s, Dinosaur Jr. reformed and began touring again, bringing their scorching distortion pedals and melodic vocals all around the world. Two years later, they released their first album with the original lineup in nearly 20 years. It was well reviewed and won the band many new fans. Two more albums followed in kind, and the reunion is now in its eighth year.
Recently Dinosaur Jr. released the live album Chocomel Daze which documents a show they played on tour for perhaps their best-loved album, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me. It’s a document that preserves in amber the band’s initial glory days, and gives fans an opportunity to compare its sound to the more current version. Frontman J. Mascis and producer John Agnello (who mixes the band’s albums) spoke to Co.Create recently about how Dinosaur Jr. has managed its sustained second act, wisdom applicable to anyone orchestrating a revival.
Although drummer Murph had ultimately quit before things ended in 1997, the real source of tension in the band was between leader and chief songwriter Mascis and guitarist Lou Barlow, who would go on to pour his energies into Sebadoh. Part of the bad blood between them in the intervening years may have had to do with the fact that Lou seemed to exercise some of his frustrations with Mascis in the lyrics of Sebadoh songs, like “The Freed Pig,” where he sings “With no sick people tugging on your sleeve, your big head has that more room to grow.”
Apparently, the two musicians were able to come to a truce in 2005 and reform the band.
“Lou apologized for certain things. It seemed like he wasn’t as angry as he’d been the last however many years,” Mascis says. “That was a big thing.”
“One of the things I’ve always thought is fascinating about J is, he’ll play drums on a song that’s just in his head, without any other instrumentation; then he’d come out and listen to it, and he’d be like, “Oh, that’s wrong,” and go play it again. But how do you know that’s wrong when there’s nothing else on it?” Agnello says. “He’d hear the song in his head, and he’d just know how it’s supposed to sound.”
Mascis’ intuitive nature greatly informed the band’s sound in its original incarnation. Fittingly enough, when embarking on its return tour, the band didn’t throw any extra frills into the equation or even practice any more than before. Although not as ramshackle a unit as spiritual kin Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. had never been known for having an overly tight sound and they weren’t
“We’ve never been a big rehearsal kind of band, we’re more into just kind of playing live,” Mascis says. “Maybe the first few shows were kind of rough, but it’s hard to find the time, or we don’t have the personality to practice.”
A lot of the bands that have reunited over the last ten years have kept to touring rather than making records, including the aforementioned three P’s—Pixies, Pavement and Pulp.
“It seemed like we’d played everywhere,” Mascis says. “We wanted to keep playing, but it seemed stupid to do more shows without having new songs.”
Other bands have reunited to record one unremarkable album, like Bush, Jane’s Addiction, and most recently Soundgarden. Dinosaur Jr., however, has continued recording vital music, extending their catalog by three critically praised albums.
“It makes such a difference when you’re still putting out records that are really awesome,” Agnello says. “It’s not just a reunion, it’s almost like they never really left. They’re doing it right.”
Although the band has kept its essential programming intact, they haven’t been afraid to shake things up either.
“I’m influenced by whatever I’m listening to at the time,” Mascis says. “You never really know what will come to you at any time, so you have to be open.”
The band’s latest album of new material, I Bet On Sky, begins with mellotron piping in through the right speaker and electric guitar in the left one. It’s an experimental indication that the band isn’t afraid to color outside the lines–something that carries through the rest of the album with additional organ flourishes.
“They’re not just churning out the same You’re Living All Over me riffs,” Agnello says. “They’re still doing different things. They’re still experimenting and changing the sound.”
The band’s continued sound evolution would mean nothing, however, if there was lingering rancor between its members. It seems that Mascis, Barlow, and Murph have found a way to deal with the kind of tensions that have flared up in the past before they get out of hand again.
“We’ve learned how to communicate better, but our manager is pretty good at helping us communicate somehow. It’s good to have another person to make everything come out so we’re not necessarily pissed,” Mascis says. “We didn’t have a manager back in the day.”
With a buffering presence in place, and perhaps with the accrued wisdom of life experience, Dinosaur Jr. is a fully functional band at a late-period high. After a chaotic career, they are finally in the groove.
“I think that after years of working together, these guys have really learned how to make it work together as easy as possible,” Agnello says. “On this record, they spent way less time recording and it was way less stressful. After a while, you figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and you continue to evolve.
[Images: Dinosaur Jr./Brantley Gutierrez/Sub Pop Records]