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Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow revisits the band's early days

In advance of Dinosaur Jr.'s 30th anniversary shows, Lou Barlow looks back on three decades of ear-splitting rock

By Brad Cohan |
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Dinosaur Jr.
Photograph: Brantley Gutierrez

Three decades after its self-titled debut, Dinosaur Jr. (then known as just Dinosaur) is still cranking up its skyscraper-tall stacks of Marshall Amps to 11. At this week’s seven-show run at Bowery Ballroom to commemorate the 1985 album, the trio, which includes guitar-shredding overlord J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph, tackles its epic fusion of hardcore, metal, goth, pop and country, from start to finish, before an array of secret special guests crashes the stage to jam on ear-bleeding favorites plucked from the group’s massively influential 10-album oeuvre.

The Amherst, Massachusetts–based band has done the anniversary thing before—these gigs come almost exactly three years after the sludge-rock godhead celebrated the 25th anniversary of underground-rock touchstone You’re Living All Over Me at Terminal 5. But don’t confuse them for a mere nostalgia act. Since 2005, when the original lineup reunited, Dino Jr. has rattled off three excellent records, with another due in 2016. We talked with Barlow to get the dirt.

When did the idea for this run of 30th anniversary shows crystallize?
I was hearing rumblings about it maybe a year ago.

So are you kept out of the loop on the goings on in the Dino Jr. universe or something?
It’s funny. I kind of like that aspect of it. It’s like “That sounds cool…okay…what are we doing? Oh, really? Cool!” [Laughing]

Let’s talk about that first record. Since the original lineup of Dino Jr. reunited in 2006, you’ve incorporated a bunch of songs off the debut into your set. Are there others that you haven’t played in thirty years?
Oh yeah, I have to relearn them. There’s definitely a few. I hadn’t really listened to the record, at all, until really recently, and I’m surprised with how much we actually know. The songs are really good. Up until 1989, when I was kicked out of the band, we played quite a few of those songs live and the songs themselves are really great. They are really memorable for me. I cut my teeth on those songs. I learned how to play bass and how to play an instrument and sing at the same time. I was just out of high school when we did that stuff.

What do you recall about the recording of the debut album?
J was going to UMass, and he became good friends with [future Matador Records honcho] Gerard Cosloy. Gerard had just moved to New York and was running Homestead Records when he told J, “Anything you do, we’ll put out.” J wrote close to 20 songs, and we learned them pretty quickly. We then went to this basement studio out in the woods run by this long-haired hippie guy and spent two days there.

You sang the bulk of the songs on it before J took over most of the vocal duties. What was the deal there?
I think initially, J wasn’t necessarily comfortable being the lead singer, so he just had me sing half the songs. He wrote every word, every note on that first record. That really was his brainchild. It’s incredible.

For this mammoth run at Bowery Ballroom, you’ll be performing your debut from start to finish?
I guess we are doing that thing. It’s what people want you to do these days and the thing that you never, ever should have thought you’d have to do [Laughing].

Do you not enjoy playing an entire record? Didn’t you already perform all of You’re Living All Over Me and Bug?
Yeah, we did that and I’ve done it with Sebadoh, too. I don’t mind it. It’s a cool challenge. Certainly for those records and Dinosaur Jr., it’s not impossible. In a lot of ways, we really are a live band. At least on the records I’m on, there’s not a lot of stuff that’s just like a studio concoction, really. It’s all pretty much based in the band playing.

Why did you decide on NYC as the place to celebrate the anniversary?
New York was the first place we really did anything. Very early on, we were packing our parents’ station wagons, driving down and playing CBGB. We played all over the Village and the Lower East Side.

What comes to mind about the early Dino Jr. days of playing in NYC?
[Laughing] We’d be coming down, literally, in our parent’s station wagon. I’m not joking. My parents had a station wagon, and J’s dad had a station wagon. I remember I had hit my aunt’s car in our driveway and it dented the car in a way that whenever the car went over a bump, the fender would bite into the tire. Despite this, I was like “Nope. We got a gig and I’m gonna drive to New York!” So we’re in New York, going down the FDR and driving to the Lower East Side, going over these huge bumps and just the fender biting into the tire and I’m like “Okay, I wonder if this is the time that it’s gonna blow the tire!” We’re gonna be on the side of the FDR with all this shit in the back of the car and freaked out because, boy, it was different [laughing]. New York was a different beast altogether back then. You’d get in and you get out. It was like a three hour drive there and back so we’d hit New York at rush hour, trying to make it to the fucking show then lug all the shit in and play a really crazy uptight show and load out while bums were trying to destroy each other on the streets with pipes, and then get back on the FDR. I just always remember the sense of relief when you’re finally over the Triborough Bridge. It was this rush in, rush out and hope for the best.

Being the uptight young dudes you were at the time, were you scared shitless?
I guess I was probably scared but we didn’t have a choice. This is what we’re doing. It was pretty exciting to me, to be honest. Driving in New York—I loved it. I was so into it. It was like “Man, I’m doing 90 miles an hour battling with taxis." It was crazy and invigorating. Then you’d get to the show, have a few beers and chill out. Then you’d get the fuck out.

Are there any gigs in particular that stand out in your mind?
I don’t remember where it was, but we played a crummy place, kind of in a basement. It was White Zombie, Pussy Galore and Dinosaur Jr., and the vibes were just awful. It was great. All the bands hated each other—I’m not saying the bands hated the other bands, but everybody in each band hated their band members! Rob Zombie was yelling at the drummer, and Pussy Galore all hated each other. We were uptight dudes, so it was funny.

Are these 30th anniversary shows going to have similar type vibes as the 25th anniversary show celebrating You’re Living All Over Me at Terminal 5 in 2012?
Yeah, but for seven nights in a row [Laughing]. It’s crazy because the Terminal 5 show was the most exhausting. J was on stage all night long. It was a four-hour show or something. These shows are really like a celebration of J’s songs and bringing in the guests that we bring on, he’s there playing with all of them. It’s a lot of work for him, that’s for sure [Laughing].

Are you saying it’s a breeze for you?
Dinosaur is really cake for me—it’s easy. Compared to other stuff that I do, it’s really, really easy [Laughing]. I can’t say that anything I do is hard, so it’s all good.

How stoked is J for these shows?
Um…he seems pretty into it. Right now, we are working on a new record, so we’re hanging out every day and we’re both writing. He’s in really good spirits. I think we’re a little wary of how much work it’s gonna be. Every day there’s new people coming in. We’ll be rehearsing and playing different songs that we’re going to play with one of the guests.

Can you clue us in on any of the special guests who’ll partake in the celebration?
I was hoping we would get some real heavy hitters, like Tom Petty or someone exciting like that. But it’s all the usual suspects. My one contribution was to ask the Melvins if they’d come, but they’re busy. So all I can say is the Melvins are not coming [Laughing].

What are you going to do when the 30th anniversaries hit for You’re Living All Over Me and Bug?
I don’t know, we’ve already done those. That was the 25th anniversary of You’re Living All Over Me and we did a whole tour of Bug. I don’t really know [Laughing]! Classic.

It’s been a minute since 2012’s I Bet On Sky. Can we expect a brand new Dino Jr. record anytime soon?
Sometime next year, or sooner. Hopefully by the summer. We’re working four days a week, playing for five or six hours a day. J’s coming up with a bunch of new songs and I have a few things I can contribute.

Dinosaur Jr. plays Bowery Ballroom from Thursday, December 3, through Monday, December 9.

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