Dinosaur Jr. at Grand Central January 23
Known to many as Murph, Emmett Jefferson Murphy III is a drummer who has never attended a floating rock 'n' roll festival. "I've never been on a cruise, period."
"None of us have," he adds, referring to bandmates J Mascis and Lou Barlow, guitarist and bassist of the now-reunited Dinosaur Jr.
So when the trio hits the high seas this weekend as a marquee act on the maiden voyage of the Weezer Cruise, a four-day indie-rock music fest aboard the Carnival Destiny, it'll be the Dino crew's virgin adventure at sea.
For that reason and many others, this quintessential proto-indie, punk-rock jam band is a strange choice for entertainment on a luxury liner. In fact, during the group's first run, the suggestion of J, Lou, and Murph playing on a cruise ship would've been dismissed as ridiculous pack-the-bong fan fiction.
When Dinosaur Jr. formed in 1985, the New England hardcore scene was becoming increasingly dominated by the macho punk stylings of the then-exploding youth-crew subgenre. But rather than continue to rewrite mosh parts and gang vocals, Dino dared to embrace the melodic grandeur and self-indulgent technicality of heavy metal and arena-ready rock. With its pairing of hardcore's aggression, speed, and sneer with more conventional, hook-oriented songwriting, the trio became a direct influence on the development of '90s postpunk tuneage, i.e., indie rock and grunge.
But central to the band's mojo was the now-legendary, ever-present tension between Mascis and Barlow. You can find all the gory details on the Internet (or in Michael Azerrad's excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life), but the crux of the feud revolved around Mascis's compulsive need to micromanage every note, beat, and syllable. The guitarist's cold disregard clashed with his bassist's neurotic insecurities, causing constant chaos.
"In the early days, there was a lot of inner tension," Murph says. So rather than focusing on the task at hand — composing and performing — the bandmates were constantly on edge and "freaked out about an argument or something that happened."
Unfortunately, that kind of situation — no matter how inspiring — isn't sustainable. And by the time the group released its 1991 major-label debut, Green Mind, Barlow and Murph were gone, and Dinosaur Jr. had been whittled down to Mascis and whomever he could hire to back him up. In 1997, he finally retired the moniker with Hand It Over before returning as J Mascis + the Fog in 2000.
Asked about the band's reunion (as well as how Barlow and Mascis resolved their issues after 14 years of mutual silence), Murph simply chalks it up to maturity. "We're just more comfortable."
But the new, psychologically sustainable era of Dinosaur Jr. isn't just mind over matter. Murph explains the band has "developed a real formula" for peace with a songwriting process that generally circumvents unnecessary arguments. The most important preventative measure is keeping Dino's bassist and guitarist on opposite sides of the country. In the past, Mascis would write demos (essentially a score to be followed verbatim) before putting the rhythm section to work at his home studio in Massachusetts. Today, he still starts the process, but he sends much earlier, rougher cuts to Barlow in Los Angeles, who finishes the songs with Murph.
Of course, the other two-thirds of Dinosaur Jr. appreciate this increased collaboration, especially because of its perceived effect on Mascis's songwriting. During the band's first phase, Murph says Mascis would "put in a lot of stuff to interest himself... a lot of hooks and quirks." These days, the drummer explains that his bandleader has graduated "to thinking about what would sound good live, the three of us playing. He is focusing more on songwriting as opposed to flashy parts and weird changes."
Though undoubtedly about showing and/or getting off, Mascis's awesome, wildly climactic songs also paralleled the explosive intraband relationships. And though Murph is happy to report that "rarely do we have a major dispute now," it seems the absence of behind-the-scenes drama (plus the aid of a more intentionally brokered songwriting process) has made Dinosaur Jr.'s postreunion albums — 2007's Farm and 2009's Beyond — notably less ferocious. But Murph rejects the suggestion that Dino's recent records are "more mellow," opting instead to describe them as "more focused, not as spastic. They're a more controlled delivery of sound and energy, instead of a freakout."
Like much of what the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup has accomplished since reuniting in 2007, Murph can describe his band's participation in the Weezer Cruise only as "a totally new experience." The seafaring fest will feature a smattering of young acts that follow in the wake of older indie-legend headliners.
Ostensibly, Weezer is the star of this flannel-friendly tropical getaway. But the weekend will be notably dominated by the Dinosaur camp. Not only will J, Lou, and Murph perform two full concerts together, but also the cruise has booked virtually every Dino spinoff that has ever existed. In addition to a solo set from Mascis, Barlow will perform live, both solo and with his band Sebadoh.
Murph notes this will be the first time all of Dino's side projects are featured on the same bill. And the novelty of this occurrence is enormous, especially considering the fact that Barlow started Sebadoh as a more open songwriting outlet as well as a way to blow off steam about how much he hated Mascis.
When J, Lou, and Murph finally decided to make amends, they were cautious about their status. "We were only playing the first three records we put out," the drummer says. "We didn't know if there was anything beyond that."
But now, in the era of what Murph calls "the new momentum," with two back-from-the-dead albums under its belt, Dinosaur Jr. is feeling more secure than ever. "The reunion is in the past. And we're now a band. There's a lot more wisdom."
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