It’s 5am, I’ve had one hour of sleep, and I’m walking to GigGuide HQ. At this hour, Taipei streets are quiet and empty aside from a few delivery-trucks and weary hostesses falling into cabs. It’s a calm scene. But I’m not. I'm excited and partly terrified to be doing a phone interview with Dinosaur Jr.
They are a band whose music I first fell in love with after hearing them on numerous skate videos, and I saw them touring their third album Bug in 1989, right after Lou Barlow's departure from the band. Shortly after, Dinosaur Jr. signed to a major label, and released four more albums, before breaking up in 1997. Barlow meanwhile concentrated on his own projects, one of which was Sebadoh who played a brilliant show here in Taipei last year. Time eventually healed Barlow's wounds, and Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005. They’ve just released their tenth album, I Bet on Sky.
Phoning Dinosaur Jr. requires a lot of being put on-hold, though at least the ‘muzak’ was Dinosaur Jr.’s own. In my head I had just one thought - Please don’t let it be J, please let it be Lou.. or Murph, don’t let it be J, recalling the numerous extremely awkward interviews with frontman J Mascis I’d watched recently.
Finally, a voice. “Hi, this is Lou.”
Phew! I take a deep breath and get on with the questioning...
Dinosaur Jr. have now been back together for a longer time than in its original incarnation in the 1980s. How do the two eras compare?
The two eras are totally different. There’s a totally different dynamic in the band. When I was first playing with Dinosaur Jr. we were still struggling really, doing smaller tours. The band was gaining popularity, but when they kicked me out, that’s when the band reached another level. This reunion, we started off right away in a tour bus and hotel rooms, and also personally we were on more of an equal footing, whereas when we were originally together, there wasn’t a lot of equality in the band.
Do you have any regrets about those early years?
Maybe that I didn’t punch J at some point... but if I’d done that then maybe we wouldn’t have been able to reunite. [laughs] No, I don’t really have any regrets. It was a very painful period at the time, but it led to better things for me, and you know, the way the story is now, I think it’s a good story altogether. I wouldn’t really change anything.
At the time you got back together it was just to promote the old records. At what point did you guys realise you could work together again as a band?
We toured for over a year doing all the old material, and we were getting bored just playing old material and it just seemed like doing a new record would be a really good idea, so J started writing new songs. I was very surprised by that and I was also very pleased.
So, is it mostly J writing new material?
I’ve written two songs on every reunion record, which is more than I contributed to the first three records where I only really contributed to the second Dinosaur record, songwriting-wise.
What is the goal of your music at this point? Are you trying to satisfy old fans, amass new ones, or evolve your sound?
It seems like there are a lot of younger kids at the shows, so it seems like we’ve made new fans. Young kids who appreciate the history of the band and maybe just like the band. It’s pretty cool.
Do you think that could be attributed to Guitar Hero? (Dinosaur Jr.’s Feel the Pain features on the game)
Yeah yeah definitely. Dinosaur Jr. has a definite rock niche. J has a very memorable stage presence and... just how loud he is. He’s a good guitar player and we write some good songs.
What are your feelings about the music industry these days?
I think it’s really hard for people to make any money releasing records. As an industry it’s really struggling, but I also think there’s a lot of great music out there, it’s easier to get, it’s easier to hear things, and I feel the music itself, the art, is always thriving in some way.
In my experience in playing music, I’ve never really made money selling records, I always make money playing shows.
If you make really good music, people will hear it. If you’re a so-so band then you’re going to struggle, but if you happen to be making music that people want to hear, people will find out about you. I think that’s always been the case.
When you are writing songs, how do you decide which ones you’ll share with Dinosaur Jr. and which you’ll keep for Sebadoh or your solo projects?
I just always think, if there’s a place where there should be a lead, maybe J should play that. I guess too, I write so many songs on 4-string guitar and with different tuning, and those are obviously Sebadoh songs. If I write a song with traditional tuning and it feels like there should be a lead guitar in it, then I would probably just try that out with Dinosaur Jr.
For the new record I came up with three songs, two of them made it to the record. There’s no way I’m always going to write more Dinosaur songs than J on an album. J is the believer of the band.
Does Murph have much input in songwriting, or just drumming?
No. He doesn’t have much input into drumming either.
J dictates the drumming still?
Oh yeah. Absolutely.
How does Murph feel about that?
He doesn’t really seem to mind. J is so specific and exacting in his drumming that it’d be too stressful for him to figure out something that J would like. It’s best to just let J decide.
In many interviews you’ve said that J used to bully you, and that’s a major reason the band broke up. What should bullied people do to stop bullies?
Is that the advice you’d give your daughter?
[laughing and reevaluating his answer] Scream at them. J was the only person in my life that bullied me. Everyone else, I became invisible, so no one really messed with me. But in the end I feel like I got the best I could out of the band, and then I went on to have a really great time out of my other band. I learned that negativity is a dead end.
Was Sebadoh a confidence boost?
There was a period when Dinosaur were falling out of favor, and Sebadoh became quite popular. My other band The Folk Implosion had a hit song, a Top 40 hit in the States. I’ve had a lot of success, in my opinion by doing lots of different things. I never stuck to the same thing. I was always challenging myself.
The phone connection had been getting steadily more distorted, eventually cutting Barlow off mid-sentence. Damn! When I call back I’m told that Barlow was taking another phone interview, leaving me unable to ask about their new album and Cookie Monster.
Dinosaur Jr. are playing at Neo Studio in Taipei on November 1st with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and Thurston Moore (from Sonic Youth) - details here.