The birth of grunge began some 38 years ago, however the genre was only given the mainstream media’s undivided attention in the early ’90s after Nirvana took over various music channels thanks to the release of Nevermind. Prior to that though, it was bands like Mudhoney, Green River, and Dinosaur Jr. that were essentially responsible for shaping this variation of rock music in the ’80s. Dinosaur Jr. is often referred to as being one of the founding fathers of grunge – the three-piece band began dominating various cities with its music since 1984. For the first decade of their career, the band continuously delivered to the best of their music capabilities, however, as anticipated when creative minds work in close proximity of one another for a long duration, tension brewed amongst the members that eventually drove Dinosaur Jr. to go on hiatus for a period of time. In 2005, the original members – J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph – reunited to perform on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which then led to them going on a European tour. Suffice it to say, they’ve been active in the music scene ever since – absence truly makes the heart grow fonder. Now with upcoming album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not set for a Friday 5 August ’16 release, JUICE had the opportunity to speak with drummer Murph over the phone to discuss performing with bands like Black Flag and Sonic Youth, what the definition of punk ethics is, and more.
Images Levi Walton
Being a three-decade strong band, did you have to relearn any songs you hadn’t performed in a while?
We played at the Bowery Ballroom last September in New York City, and we had to do the very first record – Dinosaur – we played that every night and that was weird because we don’t listen to that record very often. So, there were a few songs, ‘Cats In A Bowl’ and ‘Pointless’, that we hadn’t played, we had to relearn those songs.
Was that difficult to do?
It was a little difficult at first because the songs were really fast and we’re so much older now, so I was worried that it’d be hard to play those songs again – it took about a week [to relearn] but after that it was fine.
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not will be the band’s 11th studio album, how distinct will the sound be in comparison to what was released previously?
I think the songwriting is better. J’s gotten better at singing his lyrics, and the production on this record is really good. I think it’s just a progression and it’s getting better.
Did all of you write the material together or was it done separately?
J has pretty much the framework, he presents Lou and I with demos that are pretty complete – the bass and drum – then we work on those, and then he adds guitar and lyrics later.
J often guides the artistic direction the band takes during production. How do you ensure that you’re constantly growing as a drummer despite him telling you what to play?
We’ve developed a system where he kind of knows my style and I know his style – I know the kind of stuff that he’s going to write, he knows how I’m going to play it, so we’re able to work together and integrate our two styles. It’s kind of cool because that’s something that can only come [to be] over a long period of time of working together – you can’t really rush that process, that just grows over time.
“… most of the songs are about
weird dynamics of relationships, that’s kind
of what we always write about.”
Dinosaur Jr. has been tied to grunge, speed metal, “ear bleeding country,” and alternative rock throughout the history of the band’s existence, which genre do you think it identifies with most accurately?
I guess we’re grunge. I know Lou and J hate that term but I guess for a general description, I think grunge would be… (trails off) we’re rock/grunge/punk, we kind of encapsulate all three genres.
In an interview with The Guardian, J mentioned Nirvana as the most important band in the development of American rock, do you feel the same way?
Yeah! They were really the band that broke the doors open, and made grunge and punk acceptable to the public. Nirvana was literally everything – all the radio stations in America completely changed their format once Nirvana became accepted. Once Nirvana became accepted, they went from playing classic rock – The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller – to like playing Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and it made all those bands acceptable.
Speaking of development, Dinosaur Jr. is often referenced to being the godfather of alternative rock or one of the four horsemen of the grunge apocalypse, do you think that’s true?
(Laughs) Sure! Godfather of grunge, I like that. Why not?!
A lot of our readers were probably too young – or haven’t been born yet – during the explosion of thrash metal, grunge, and alternative rock, but you lived through it, what was the music scene like during that period?
It was much smaller, and it was a lot more intense, it was much more underground – it was not as mainstream or acceptable to be played on the radio as it is now. It was really cool, it was a really niche – it was like a really cool, smaller scene.
What was it like to be present during one of the most – for lack of a better word – hardcore scenes in the history of music? Like, what was the craziest thing you’ve seen or done during this time?
I remember here in our hometown in the local university, I saw Black Flag when I was young and I remember going into the moshpit and came out with my t-shirt totally ripped. I remember walking away from the concert thinking, “Wow, that’s so cool, my t-shirt is all ripped to shreds.” (Laughs)
You’ve shared the stage with Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins, GG Allin. Did you realise the magnitude each of you had while you played together?
Not really, no. We revered those guys – Sonic Youth and Black Flag – they were older and kind of our influence, so we drew up on them as influences. Back then we were in awe because they were our mentors.
We have to ask – is Henry Rollins as intimidating as he looks?
He is to me! He’s really intense.
And looking back at your career, do you feel like you’ve accomplished something great since you were able to share the stage with such powerful names?
I think it was a period of time when we were young – I think we still write the same way. J still draws upon life and what’s going on in the present day – all three of us do that – we live in the present moment. Whatever’s happening to us at the time, that’s what we’re going to write songs about and that’s going to be a reflection.
So, what were you guys going through in regards to the songwriting for the upcoming album?
I think now it’s about family – ‘cos those guys have kids. J has always written about relationships with people; most of the songs are about weird dynamics of relationships, that’s kind of what we always write about.
“We collaborate, but with J it’s definitely
like working with a teacher or a master.”
Is there a lot of angst left or is it more optimistic?
It varies on the songs. There’s definitely a lot of angst in its lyrics, J’s one of those people that keeps you guessing – even Lou and I don’t know what he’s singing about half the time, we just kind of have to guess and it’s a mystery and that’s the cool thing about J. He’s like that as a person.
What is the chemistry like when you work with J at the moment?
We collaborate, but with J it’s definitely like working with a teacher or a master. You’re learning. There’s definitely that kind of relationship and it’s always going to be that way.
Partly because J writes music like a classical composer. He hears all the instruments and parts in his head, so he approaches writing rock and punk music like a composer would write a piece of classical music. I think that’s really unique for this kind of music to be approached that way.
So, if he’s the teacher, what do you bring to the table?
I bring a good energy and my drumming. There’s never been another drummer that’s recorded Dinosaur Jr. songs – J’s never been able to have anyone else play drums.
When speaking to Thrasher Magazine, you mentioned the band having a “punk ethic” – how would you define punk?
Stick to your beliefs, stick to your guns, and not let anyone influence you – just do whatever it is in the moment that you want to express, you should do it no matter the way; musically, vocally, just feel free to do that.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt after witnessing all that you have since being active in the scene in the early ‘80s?
Not to stress the details and to think about the bigger picture. There’s more to unfold than you think and you should relax, and think about the bigger picture, which is hard to do sometimes when you’re younger because you’re caught up in the moment. But now that we’re older, we never realised we’d have this longevity – I don’t think any of us thought we’d be doing this until our 50s, so that’s just been a revelation.
What does your bigger picture look like now?
Now I can really enjoy the music. I feel like that we worked really hard as kids putting so much of our heart and soul into the music and the band, and now I feel like we can sit back and enjoy it and it’s really nice to be able to get on stage and enjoy the hard work and years we’ve put into it.
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not will be out on Friday 5 August ’16 via Jagjaguwar.
More from Dinosaur Jr. here