Dinosaur Jr. (Contemporary Musicians)
"This isn't music that takes you anywhere," Village Voice critic R. J. Smith explained in 1991, "it is music that removes you from somewhere." This theme of removal has served rock scribes well in portraying Dinosaur Jr.'s fusion of guitar noise and diffidence; much has been made of leader-guitarist-singer J Mascis's apparent apathy and the band's appeal to the so-called "slacker" generation of purposeless youth. Since its independent debut in 1985 and despite personnel and label changes, Dinosaur Jr. has attracted legions of fans with laments on alienated relationships set to fierce, murky guitar outpourings. Its 1993 release Where You Been garnered critical raves and signaled the mainstream rock world's readiness to embrace a sound that had once been too loud for the clubs of Amherst, Massachusetts, the band's hometown.
Mascis was born the son of a dentist in the mid-1960s and grew up in the shadow of the multi-university scene of western Massachusetts; he described Amherst's atmosphere to Melody Maker as liberal "to the point of nausea." The first instrument that appealed to him was the drums, and his favorite practitioner was John Bonham of England's hard-rock beacon Led Zeppelin. Bonham's vigorous bashing, in fact, was the single greatest avowed influence on Mascis's guitar playing. "John Bonham is the god of rock & roll," Mascis declared to Rolling Stone's Chris Mundy, "and Zeppelin was the best band that there ever was. I was into drumming, and Bonham is it for rock drumming, so that's why I always played my guitar really loud. Playing the guitar just seemed wimpy compared to drums. That twangy thing. I had to crank it up so I could feel it in the back of my legs."
Mascis did play drums in one band; his father drove him to gigs with his first group, the Amherst punk ensemble Deep Wound. That outfit also featured bassist Lou Barlow, who would appear in Dinosaur's first incarnation.
Mascis, Barlow, and drummer Patrick Murphyho prefers to be known simply as Murphormed the group Dinosaur in 1985. As the drummer told Spin, he had little in common with Mascis and Barlow, "but musically something just clicked. Instantly this bizarre dynamic was formed. It's an awkward situation to sit down with somebody and realize that musically you're really close but socially you're miles apart. We all saw it as a challenge. We were kind of awed by it."
Dinosaur's initial appearances in Amherst were exercises in sonic overkill unknown even in the waning days of punk rock, and the three musicians soon found themselves unwelcome in local clubs. "I don't know how we kept it together for the first few years," Mascis told Pulse! "It was horrible. Soundmen were always throwing beer bottles at us. I wanted to play music, I didn't want to get a job but I don't know how we stuck it out. Either there was some force driving us or there was just nothing else to do." In a 1989 Rolling Stone profile, the guitarist recalled, "We never bothered trying to crack our town." Some locals were nevertheless impressed by the early gigs. "There was an audacity there, playing that loud, not communicating with the audience, or fng around with the digital delay until people got sick and wanted to throw up," Gerard Cosby, a record-company chief and friend and associate of Mascis's, told Spin.
The first Dinosaur album, Dinosaur, appeared on Cosloy's Homestead Records label in 1985. Cosby had received a demo from the band and later called it the best unsolicited work he'd ever gotten; the album was recorded on a four-track tape machine in Amherst. The low-tech approach in no way hindered the impact of the band's onslaught, however, and soon Dinosaur was a hot underground phenomenon. The group's relative visibility did have one drawback: They became the subjects of a copyright infringement lawsuit from a San Francisco rock group called the Dinosaurs, comprised of former members of such 1960s bands as Country Joe and the Fish and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. As a result, the Amherst natives added the "Jr." to their name.
Moved to SST and Achieved Cult Fame
Mascis and company moved to the venerable punk label SST and released 1987's You're Living All Over Me. Melody Maker called the record "one of this year's finest, roughest tumbles." Critic David Stubbs marveled at the group's ability to present its savage rock with such a blasé attitude, reporting, "Dinosaur deliver their cream with all the languor of a yawn." Rolling Stone's Mundy later testified that the album "set the deafening tone for mid-eighties indie rock, triggering an avalanche of critical praise and fostering a veritable cult of guitar-rock personality among up-and-coming bands."
1988 saw the release of Bug on SST. Featuring the single "Freak Scene," the record made its way onto college radio, and a cover version of "Just Like Heaven," by English alternative icons The Cure, that was released on an EP widened their hip appeal. Yet despite their increasing influence and success, Dinosaur Jr. was undergoing internal strain. Mascis and Barlow were essentially not speaking to each other. "We'd go on ten-hour trips in the van," Murph told Rolling Stone, "and no one would say a word." Mascis and Murph therefore decided to get Barlow out of the band; unable to confront the bassist directly, they told him the group had broken upe later found out they'd gotten a replacement. Barlow went on to co-found the indie rock powerhouse Sebadoh.
The next move for Dinosaur Jr. was to a major label; they were signed to Sire Records after their short tenure at SST. Various attempts to replace Barlow and even to construct a five-member version of the group fell through, so Mascis and Murph went it alone. Their first album for Sire was 1991's Green Mind, which was essentially a Mascis solo project since Murph appeared on only a few tracks. Green Mind showed Mascis branching out; it included flutes, acoustic guitars, and other baroque production touches. Rolling Stone called the release "a more structured assault" and noted that "while the album is more accessible than its predecessors, it hardly represents a selling out. It does, in fact, showcase the band's selling points. Possessing an unrestrained clamor that teeters on the edge of chaos, the album resonates with the slovenly majesty of Let It Be-era Replacements." The band mounted a tour with Screaming Trees mainstay Van Conner on bass.
Raves for Where You Been
Mascis then pursued a more well-rounded agenda, one item of which involved his contributions to the soundtrack of the film Gas Food Lodging, wherein he had a cameo as a gas station attendant who sells rocks. "I couldn't deal with watching myself," he said of his screen debut in a Spin interview. He also undertook producer chores on records by such alternative-rock groups as Tad and fIREHOSE. In 1993, Dinosaur Jr. resurfaced with another Sire offering, Where You Been. Nerve called it "a band record from beginning to end"; thanks were due in part to new bassist Mike Johnson, an Oregon native whose "negative" attitude appealed instantly to Mascis.
Where You Been, which displayed the marked guitar and evenn some selectionsocal influence of "godfather of grunge" Neil Young, received almost unanimous raves from the music press. "Typical Dino-strength distortion is supplemented with savvy arrangements that include a string quartet, timpani, and kettle drums," reported Guitar Player, "none of which compromise the ferocity of Mascis's axe attack." Detroit's Metro Times declared the album "a veritable slacker's paradise." Spin's Jim Greer, for his part, exclaimed, "Where You Been sports the most fluid, emotive, searing guitar-playing, on a consistent level, that Mascis has yet achieved." And Rolling Stone awarded the album four starsor "excellent"eclaring it "one of the crowning glories of slacker culture." Critic Michael Azerrad further observed, "Before a roiling torrent of distorted guitars and oceanic drum bash, Mascis sings in a laid-back croak, like a character talking calmly to the camera in the midst of a riotous crowd scene."
With the band's mainstream success, much speculation ensued about the prospect of Mascis as a rock star. "He'd rather stay in his room and watch TV than do almost anything else," Nerve's David Turin noted of the group's leader, whose addiction to the daytime soap opera All My Children had become the stuff of rock legend. Would such a reclusive, at times almost catatonic, figure enjoy the harsh glare of fame? "Sure," Mascis replied in Spin, "that'd be okay." Perhaps displaying a social development to match his musical maturation, the guitarist in Pulse! went so far as to call being in a band "kind of therapeutic, because you have to go out and deal with people, rather than isolate and be a weirdo."
Dinosaur, Homestead Records, 1985.
You're Living All Over Me, SST, 1987.
Jayloumurph (import), Ciao Bella/Hipdisk, 1988.
Bug (includes "Freak Scene"), SST, 1988.
Just Like Heaven (EP; includes "Just Like Heaven"), SST, 1989.
Fossils, SST, 1989.
Green Mind, Sire, 1991.
Whatever's Cool With Me, Sire, 1991.
Where You Been, Sire, 1993.
(Contributors; J Mascis and Mike Johnson with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien) "Missing Link," Judgment Mgrif (soundtrack), 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, May 28, 1993.
Guitar Player, March 1993.
Melody Maker, October 24, 1987; December 12, 1987; May 6, 1989; September 17, 1988; September 7, 1991.
Metro Times (Detroit), February 17, 1993.
Musician, June 1993.
Nerve, March 1993.
Pulse!, March 1993.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1989; April 18, 1991 ; February 18, 1993; May 13, 1993.
Spin, February 1993; March 1993; June 1993.
Village Voice, March 12, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Sire Records promotional materials, 1991 and 1993.