Dinosaur Jr. Will Never Be Extinct
We caught up with the legendary Lou Barlow in the hot hot heat of the desert.
Few bands can boast the resume Dinosaur Jr. have put together over their 30 year (and counting) existence. They've released 11 full-lengths and despite a decade-long hiatus, and the departure and eventual return of a founding member, they're three guys still rocking their asses off at 50 years old. The trio—consisting of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and the affably nicknamed Murph—are currently on tour in the US and Europe, supporting their latest album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, including a top-draw slot Desert Stars Festival in the Southern California's Pioneertown this past weekend.
When I spoke with Lou Barlow—who was serving double duty at the festival, playing early Saturday with his group Sebadoh before closing the event with Dinosaur Jr.—it became clear that this sort of sustained consistency doesn't come without its sacrifices. Murph and Barlow both recently revealed in an interview that Mascis and Barlow rarely talk anymore, and this has led Barlow to explicitly define his role in Dinosaur Jr. as a job. A fun job that takes him all across the world, but a job nevertheless.
It's a myth-shattering admission to make, but Barlow will be the first to admit, but he's unafraid to expose the dirty side of being a musician. But if Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not was made—to paraphrase Barlow—because it's a helluva lot easier to make money on the road than via Spotify, cuts like "Be a Part" and "Knocked Around" are also among Dinosaur Jr.'s best songs to date. Give a Glimpse is a great album: sharp, refined, and tidy. It's professional. Even if it doesn't matter to Dinosaur Jr. the way it matters to us.
Noisey: You played Desert Stars last year as a solo artist now you're back in the middle of Dinosaur Jr. tour. How's it been going so far?
Lou Barlow: It's actually been really good.
Do you guys play stuff mostly from the new record?
No, not mostly. We're only playing six new songs, which is actually a lot for us. We don't normally delve that deeply into our new albums. We like to play the old stuff. I don't think we would ever consider playing only new stuff.
Does J run the show?
Yeah. He's the one doing the bulk of the work. He's the one singing and playing, so in my mind, that sort of means that he should be able to decide that side of things. [Laughs.] I have no problem with that—with letting him call the shots—because he has a lot of different things to do.
So 30 years into it, do you treat Dinosaur Jr. as more of a job than an artistic passion?
I view it as a really great job.
Is that tough artistically?
No. Not at all.
Is Sebadoh more of your pet project then?
I do everything because I have to. It's one of those things. There might have been a period of time where I was conflicted about what a job meant, or turning something that I love into a job. Selling out, whatever that means. But I don't give a shit about that stuff at all anymore. I really like playing, and I feel very fortunate, but this is my job. It would be hard and much more of a job if I didn't like the band or like J's tunes, or Sebadoh's tunes, or playing.
There are a couple of songs on the new record that you wrote. Does J allocate a few songs for you, or do you come to the recording process with a bunch of ideas, and if J likes any of them, they're included?
I think even from the very beginning J wanted me to be a part of the process. The first record, he wrote all the songs. On the second, I wrote a few songs. But by the third, I had started to feel intimidated by the process. When I came back in 2005, I just assumed that he wanted me to contribute, and I think he did. To me it makes sense. If I'm the bass player guy, I get that time-honored tradition of a couple songs [Laughs]. It makes perfect sense and I'm totally cool with it.
I know your and J's breakup has been covered to death, but one of the wilder things about Dinosaur Jr. is that the band's latest wave, since you re-joined in 2005, is arguably bigger than it was the first time around.
The first time around, we had a lot of momentum but we just didn't do it for very long. We did it from '85-'89, so just about four years. The band went on to become quite successful without me, but if I had stayed in that band I'm sure we would have gone along that same trajectory, too.
With the way the music industry is currently functioning, do you view releasing albums as just a vehicle to get back on the road?
Yeah. Definitely. I think I can speak for J, too when I say that. That's where the money is at. Since we've been doing it for so long, it's hard to imagine another way of doing it. Things like record sales and royalties, they've never really been anything we've relied on. You get older and you start families, and all of a sudden you start accruing all these responsibilities... Yeah, you gotta keep working. And touring is really where we thrive, too.
Do you like festivals like this where you can interact with the fans since it's such a small, open space?
Oh yeah. But no matter the size of the festival, I'll walk around and check out bands anyways. During the rise of festivals, with things like ATP [All Tomorrow's Parties]—despite its tainted legacy—initially it was a pretty amazing festival. It was bringing bands together with fans. It was a real integrated fans and bands situation. I loved how the lines were so blurred. That's kind of our legacy. We came up in that proto-indie rock scene and it's when music really came down to Earth. We can definitely play shows and run back to our bunks, but we're music fans like the people that see us.
Have you been following the response to Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not?
I always read a review or two initially. It's tough, man. Being critiqued is tough. People can say whatever the fuck they want, and they should, and that's fine. When the internet came in and you could Google your own shit, I would just get loaded and by the next day I'd be cripplingly hungover and depressed. I can be very vulnerable and susceptible to that stuff. J has had a cool attitude to it, "I'm not gonna read that shit." I try to use him as my inspiration. Even the good reviews will piss you off somehow. There's always gonna be something condescending or basically wrong.
How long did the new album take to record?
A couple of months. We'd work four or five hours a day for about three months. Really nice work days. Our last few albums from writing to recording to tour have been incredibly consistent. I love consistency. It makes everything easier. It's cool too because when you're younger, every record is a make or break situation. With this band, it's cool because J doesn't really do interviews, we don't really subject ourselves to the pressure of it anymore.
Thirty years is a long time to be doing anything.
Well yeah, but that's what everyone does. It's a career. Ideally you get better and better at what you do.
That normally doesn't happen with musicians though.
Yeah maybe they don't release records that are quite as good over the years.
But you guys have.
I think one of the things that works in our favor—well, I guess there was a peak for Dino in the mid-90s. And I guess my band peaked then, too. But we never really broke through. We were never really accepted into any sort of pantheon. So in a way, there's potential. It's bizarre. Even after all this time, this band still has potential. It's kind of funny because our live shows have gotten better over the years. It's a funny thing to be 50 years old, and have it be like, "Eh, pretty good band. They've got potential!"
What are some of your favorite bands?
I like way too much shit. But we can talk about all the basic stuff. The Ramones, Black Sabbath, classic rock is classic for a reason. There were a lot of really great hard rock bands when I was young. The quality in the 60s and 70s is limitless. It's a limitless pool of infinitely inspiring shit.
And now, growing up back then and living through the rise of the internet, there's even more stuff you had no idea existed back then.
YouTube is amazing. The amount of second rate hard rock bands I've found is amazing. Punk rock and new wave were fucking amazing, too. We had our first band in '82 or '83 and that was the grassroots rise of punk rock and hardcore music in the US. And we really wanted to be a part of that. The late 70s was a pretty amazing time for music stylistically, with disco and new wave. All that stuff came together and it was a really incredible time to listen to pop radio. Rap had really begun, too. It was pretty amazing.
Do you listen to much rap?
I did. I used to. When I lived in LA there was an awesome station…
Fuck yeah. KDAY was amazing. I got a rental car and would just drive around listening to it. I love that whole late 80s, early 90s gangster rap. It's fucking great.
Do you seek out much new music in general?
I try to. I really like Facebook for that reason. One of my favorite things to do is to get up before my kids and I get my little speaker out and do Facebook and browse what people are linking to. I love that. I love the accessibility of it. You don't have to guess.
One of the things that really depresses me is how quickly we're able to delete music. Something that somebody spent two years of their life making can be erased in a second.
Yeah, I try not to think about that aspect of it very much, because I'm implicated in it, too. I'm just out there for someone to listen to for five seconds and delete it. It was almost better back in the day because there were so many reasons to buy a record. You could buy stuff based on the album cover, and if they didn't like it, they'd try to listen to it again. Now we're all gods with so much power as listeners.
Have you ever played with both bands at a festival before or is this your first time?
Oh yeah. That's my favorite thing in the world. With Sebadoh, it's always six months between shows and we never practice, so when I get to Dino it's so tight. It's a nice change of pace. In my fantasy world, we would just tour as this big family of bands. J would play solo and I'd play solo and we'd be our own festival.
You guys are touring with Heron Oblivion, who are fantastic. Do you have a favorite bill or a favorite tour you've been on?
Heron Oblivion is definitely up there. They're amazing. But there was this really cool band we played with called Priestess. No one seemed to like them as much as I did, but we did a short tour with them. They were a Canadian hipster metal group, and I fucking loved them. They were real power-pop metal. Just a bunch of kids wearing black and I thought they were just great. We did some shows with a band called Comets on Fire and they were amazing too. They're related to Heron Oblivion, actually. We played a bunch of shows with Kurt Vile, too. We hooked up with him through Matador.
You guys are with Jagjaguwar now. Do you interact with them much?
Not really. The nice thing about being old is that you don't have to listen [Laughs]. But even when we were younger no one had shit to say. It happened a little later on, when labels were like, "I don't hear a hit." But at least with the last four, we haven't heard from anyone. We just give it to them when we're done and let them do what they want with it. It's kind of great to not be beholden to anybody's shitty opinions.
Are you going to do another Sebadoh record?
I'm not sure. When I moved back East I kind of figured those guys would just come up and play all the time. But they're in Brooklyn and I can't get them out of Brooklyn. And no way I'm going to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is great and everything, quote unquote, but it's a fucking nightmare and it's expensive. It's a great place to visit but I'm not gonna make a record there. Let's just be brutally honest about it, it's ugly as shit.
Do you have a favorite song on the new record to play live?
I like "Going Down." It's a power-pop metal song.
Are you a metal guy?
No. But to me, metal is just really good power pop. You gotta love a tune that goes "ch-ch-ch" and has that chunky "guh-guh-guh," you know? I love that J still sticks that shit in there. I loved hair metal. When I was into hardcore and stuff, I loved Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe. All those one hit wonder hair metal bands. It's just really good power pop music.
What kind of hardcore stuff did you listen to?
Just the regulars. Bad Brains and Minor Threat. Teen Idols, they were pre-Modern Threat. All that stuff at the beginning of Dischord and SST records. And then in '82/'83 there were kids around our age who just started playing faster and faster and there was this period when everyone was playing at these blinding speeds. And that stuff split into speed metal, or folks like us, who were just sort of diversifying.
Will Schube is a writer based in LA. Follow him on Twitter.