Dinosaur Jr.: A 'Bug,' or a Feature?
"Freak Scene" is one of those DNA-changing songs. When you hear its insistent metallic jangle and J Mascis' "whatever, dude" warble, you're never the same. Legendary alt-rock forefathers Dinosaur Jr. will play that song, along with its accompanying album, 1988's Bug, in its entirety Monday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The show will also feature an interview conducted by erstwhile Black Flag front man and current KCRW DJ Henry Rollins, plus a performance by special guests Pierced Arrows.
As an album, the acidic sunburts of Bug's 10 tracks speak for themselves. As for what Rollins may be asking the band about, that's another story.
At the core, Dinosaur Jr.'s tale is a familiar one: small-time band toil in the underground, break through after some cool people take notice—in their case, it was Sonic Youth's stamp of approval that helped catapult the band into indie stardom. But after three increasingly great albums, the band's ringleader/singer/guitarist J Mascis kicked out his longtime mate, singer/bassist Lou Barlow, to continue on with hired help.
For the record, Barlow did just fine on his own. The nine albums he released with Sebadoh from 1989 to 1999 rival the Dinosaur Jr. catalog in quality; he released a fine solo album, the warm, acoustic Emoh, in 2005; and he achieved some mainstream success with the left-field '90s alterna-rock hit "Natural One," released under side project the Folk Implosion on the soundtrack to the then-controversial, nihilistic-teen movie Kids. Still, can it feel good to be playing the album you worked on just before your boss kicked your ass to the curb?
"It's been really enjoyable. It's a good record. I think, actually, in a way—for J and I, at least—it was probably our least favorite of the three early records," he says, echoing a sentiment expressed by Mascis in other interviews. "But going back to it now, the real strength of the record kind of comes out."
This kind of hindsight comes perhaps because Dinosaur Jr.'s reunion in 2005 arguably has been the most fruitful in alt-rock history. They released two albums, 2007's Beyond and 2009's Farm, that would have been remarkable in any decade; given the band's history, the albums' quality and the fact they were released at all are jaw-dropping. The "classic" lineup of the band, including drummer Murph, has now been together longer than in the '80s.
"We've been playing nonstop for almost seven years now, and it's kind of cool to look back a little bit again 'cause we've been looking forward, doing two records over the past couple of years," Barlow says. "I like looking back. I think it's a good exercise."
But Barlow is both direct and good-natured when discussing the band's fall-out. "It was shitty," Barlow says, laughing. "I didn't disagree with J about anything; he just didn't like me. He was just an awful kid! That's all I remember: him being this mean guy I hung out with that I had to spend a whole lot of time with. He was a bastard. I didn't really disagree with him; I disagreed with the way he treated me or other people. But he wrote some fucking amazing songs, and that was the most amazing part of it."
To hear Barlow tell it, nothing's really changed as far as the way they work together. "It's like it was back in the day, but . . . someone has trained him or he has trained himself to be more human," he says. "It takes the edge off all the shit that was going on before. Essentially, it's the same. The way J goes about putting together music, he has a remarkable gift for making amazing music but seeming unimpressed by every aspect of it. It's never like, 'Wow, that sounds great.' He's never, ever said that. The whole thing is, like, him settling for something. Like, 'I guess that's okay. You like it? I dunno.'
"Back in the day, when that was going on, it was, like, dark and threatening. But now, it's just goofy," he continues. "The basic way that the band functions has not changed over the years. But it's less evil."
Barlow divides his time between Dinosaur Jr. and a reunited Sebadoh, who also are touring, and he says both bands plan to record next spring. Barlow says going back and forth is the only way he can survive his "uniquely precarious situation."
"I fully expect him to have someone call me tomorrow to tell me I'm out of the band," Barlow says, laughing. "I don't trust him as far as I can throw him. . . . I'm pretty used to doing a lot of different things at once and having my head in a lot of different places, and I like that. If Dinosaur Jr. were my only thing, I'd probably have cancer. I would be suicidal, probably."
So, when you hear Barlow scream, "Why don't you like me?" on Bug's "Don't," the source of that angst might not be so secret.
This article appeared in print as "A Bug, or a Feature? Lou Barlow opens up about Dinosaur Jr. and the band's playing-a-classic-album-in-its-entirety shows."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.