As noise-rock legends Dinosaur Jr. prepare for their Australian tour, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their classic 1993 album Where You Been, frontman J Mascis reflects on his uncompromising band’s moment in the mainstream.
The early ‘90s was a strange time in the alternative realms. An unassuming Seattle punk trio had blown apart the existing rock’n’roll paradigm, and for one brief but glorious moment in time, bands who’d been slaving away in the margins for years were suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
Massachusetts-bred rock band Dinosaur Jr. were particularly close to the epicentre of this Nirvana-caused explosion. They’d become giants of the indie scene in the late ‘80s courtesy their trademark mix of fuzz, speed and psych-tinged noise, and had been a massive influence on Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain – to the the point that he twice asked his Dinosaur Jr. counterpart J Mascis to join his fledgling outfit).
But Mascis was content with Dinosaur Jr.’s own trajectory – they’d already joined the majors when they signed with Sire Records in 1990, years before the grunge tidal wave took effect – and he’d finally rectified the band’s internal divisions which had been plaguing him.
With the trio having existed in a state of turmoil for years, in 1989 founding bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow – who’d been at creative loggerheads with Mascis – was ejected from the band and, after a few false starts, eventually replaced by Mike Johnson (formerly of Oregon punks Snakepit).
But when the time had come to record their major label debut Green Mind (1991), the band were still on the hunt for a bassist. This meant that Mascis played virtually everything on the record – founding drummer Murph only having input on a handful of tracks – although Mascis is quick to assert that the album was far from a solo vehicle.
“Green Mind is different than a solo album because, you know, I wrote all the parts for Murph to play,” he explains. “When I'm just writing something in general, I won't think about what Murph can or can't play or anything like that. But if I'm writing it for Dino then I'm thinking about what he could play or what the band sounds like. So all these parts that had been in the songs are just there for Murph. He was just having trouble learning it, you know, in the time that we had.
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“Back then you had to book the studios in advance and it kind of crept up on him, and we were like, ‘Murph, we're recording in like a week, and you only know like one song'. So I ended up having to play the drums – but I'm playing parts I wrote for Murph, so it's not like a record by [early-2000s solo band J Mascis &] The Fog or something where I just can play anything I want, because I know no one else is playing it. So that wasn't exactly a feeling of doing a solo album.”
While Green Mind was well-received, it also had the effect of galvanising the new Dinosaur Jr. lineup. With Murph back behind the kit full-time and Johnson now well and truly in the fold, the sessions for follow-up Where You Been were far more collaborative as a whole, with everyone playing their own parts (and Johnson even getting to contribute some guitar solos).
“I think with Where You Been, Murph didn't want it to play out that way again, he was really psyched up not to be left off the record again,” Mascis smiles. “So he was in the studio a lot and was really well-prepared, and we had a bass player by then so it was a lot easier to play together. We were all psyched up to play so, yeah, it was definitely the most that we recorded together as a band, I guess.”
The results were some of the most catchy and accessible music of the entire Dinosaur Jr. canon, perfectly aligned with the new Nirvana-driven willingness for the mainstream to co-opt the underground in search of the ‘next big thing’.
Singles like Get Me, Start Choppin’ and Out There were flogged on the radio, and Where You Been started popping up on mainstream album charts – rising to #50 in the US, #10 in the UK and #45 in Australia – significant inroads for an alternative band, even at the time.
And while from the outside it seemed that the album’s slacker-country-rock majesty might have been partly due to finding Dinosaur Jr. in a creatively ambitious phase, the album’s instrumentation included not just a string section but also embellishments such as timpani and chimes. Mascis explains that it was more about having time to experiment.
“I guess all of those choices that we made in the studio were mainly just down to having time to just try out different stuff,” he reflects. “Though thinking back it seemed that with Mike in the band – and without Lou – you have different possibilities open up. We were maybe just free to try different options that we wouldn't have thought of maybe with Lou in the band or something.”
By 1995, they’d dropped the equally successful follow-up Without A Sound (1994), meaning that Dinosaur Jr.’s Australian tour that year was massive; in Brisbane their venue quickly sold out and was upgraded to the massive Festival Hall, and they sold out numerous smaller venues in each of the other capitals. The band were supported by the equally raucous Magic Dirt on the national run, as rock’n’roll well and truly ruled the roost.
However in the intervening years, the ongoing detente between Mascis and Barlow thawed, somewhat incredibly given the animosity at the time – so much so that in 2005, the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup reunited and has never looked back, playing together ever since and releasing five excellent albums in the process. Which means, of course, they’re now touring behind an album that Barlow didn’t play on – which brings its own share of complications.
“We just did a run of Where You Been shows in the UK and London, and it was kinda weird because we never even played half the songs live. So it was interesting to play them,” Mascis smiles. “And obviously with some of them Lou’s never played them at all. So it doesn't exactly feel like going back in time, it just feels like we’ve had some songs at our disposal that we've never played and now we’re trying to play them.
“I guess it feels more like a current thing to me then just because I've never played them before. But I’ve definitely got some good memories of coming down to Australia in the ‘90s. Those shows were pretty crazy. Although in another way it just kind of feels like we’ve been on one long tour, and now it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was way, way back then and it feels like a different lifetime.’ Though we’re still doing the same thing now, so I dunno...”
On the impending Australian headlining shows, Dinosaur Jr. are being supported by Melbourne power-trio Stepmother, whose current frontman, Graham Clise, also plays guitar in Mascis’ stoner-metal side-project Witch.
“They just made this album [Planet Brutalicon] and I really like it,” Mascis says. “I'm glad that he's singing now because he's always had some bad singers. That's always been a problem for him, but now he’s finally figured out he could just sing and it sounds great. So I'm excited to see him. I've never seen Stepmother. One of their new songs was gonna be a Witch song but then he plays it a lot better than we played it, so it was good that he took it”.
Mascis is also looking forward to headlining the second instalment of the Tent Pole festival down in Geelong, hoping to catch up with some familiar faces amidst the frivolities (although he’s not expecting to find any new favourites).
“Yeah, I am looking forward to Tent Pole actually,” he admits. “I usually like festivals because it means that I get to see some of the bands I'd never get to see otherwise – and then, you know, it's fun hanging out with some people that you never usually see. Some of my funnest times are at festivals.
“I don’t know if I’ll get to discover anything new though. I’ve loved so much Aussie music over the years – bands like Died Pretty and The Birthday Party and Lime Spiders – a lot of stuff has been really important to me, but I don’t really actively look for new music anymore.
“I might stumble across stuff – there’s so much stuff coming in from everywhere that sometimes I'll listen to a band if someone recommends it – but there's so many records I already have that I never listen to. So I guess I'm not that active in trying to find bands or anything, but I do somehow keep finding new music I like.”
And in terms of looking forwards instead of over his shoulder, the next cab off the rank for Mascis is his impending fifth solo album, What Do We Do Now, due to drop in February (on Nirvana’s erstwhile label Sub Pop Records). It’s perfect timing, too – he’s just added two solo shows in Sydney and Brisbane to his existing Dinosaur Jr. obligations in Australia.
“I have a solo album coming out, and we just released a video for the first single, Set Me Down,” he offers. “I’m really stoked with the album, and the single I guess is doing pretty well on the radio over here – whatever that means these days. I guess it's my best radio song I've had for a while.
“It’s great to be able to balance having the band and the solo stuff, they’re not that different but it keeps me busy. Really it's fun for me to play drums and mix it up a bit, but it’s all just rock music at the end of the day”.
Saturday February 17 – Djilang/Geelong, Tent Pole
Wednesday February 21 – Eora/Sydney, Enmore Theatre
Friday February 23 – Meanjin/Brisbane, The Tivoli
Monday February 26 – Kaurna/Adelaide, Hindley Street Music Hall
Wednesday February 28 – Boorloo/Perth, Astor Theatre
Tuesday February 20 – Eora/Sydney, Liberty Hall
Saturday February 24 – Meanjin/Brisbane, The Triffid