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December 14th, 2011 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

Q&A: Dinosaur Jr.’s Lou Barlow

The underground icon talks band fights, blood and Henry Rollins.

music.bigbox.loubarlow_3806LOU BARLOW - IMAGE: joyfulnoiserecordings.com
When a band chooses to reproduce one of its albums live in its entirety, usually it selects either the universally regarded masterpiece or a record representing a significant milestone in the group’s career. That’s why Dinosaur Jr.’s decision to perform 1988’s Bug for an entire tour is a bit perplexing. It’s an odd album to celebrate, at least for the guys who made it. Recorded at the height of tensions eroding the legendary indie-rock power trio—singer-guitarist J Mascis axed bassist and co-founder Lou Barlow not long after its release—the album was hastily written to capitalize on the success of its predecessor, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, with almost zero input from Barlow and drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy. Despite being a glorified solo album for Mascis, he’s referred to Bug as “the album I’m least happy with of anything I’ve done.”

Why, then, after an unlikely 2005 reunion that’s so far generated two more excellent records, go back and open those old wounds? 

“I don’t know. It’s a good gimmick,” Barlow says. “It’s probably a good way to jack up the ticket prices a little bit.”

Of course, the sound of a band bursting apart can sometimes make for a thrilling listen. Bug starts with the definitive Dinosaur Jr. anthem, “Freak Scene”—ironically, for a band whose members could barely stand each other at the time, a plainspoken ode to friendship and community—and ends with the dirgelike psychodrama “Don’t,” featuring Barlow repeatedly screaming the Mascis-penned lyric “Why don’t you like me?!” for five intense minutes. Although created in passive-aggressive tumult, Bug stands as a fitting cap to one of the greatest three-album runs in underground music history. And while it might not have been the intent, revisiting the record some two decades later has helped the band reclaim the album for itself.

“In a certain way, we’ve conquered the negativity I associate with that record by playing it out, like, 20 times,” Barlow says. “It’s kind of killed the bad vibe around it, which is pretty cool.”


WW: What are you memories of recording Bug?
Lou Barlow: We had quite a bit of success with You’re Living All Over Me, and the feeling within the band, at least from J, was that we got everything we wanted. It was almost like doing this third record was just something we had to do. J approached it absolutely drained of enthusiasm. He was still shooting out amazing riffs and stuff, but there was this real sense of duty to the whole thing. J just seemed really sick of me and Murph. He was just so cranky.

What are your feelings toward “Freak Scene”?

At the time, I thought it was kind of a cheap shot. I was like, “That’s kind of an obvious one there, J.” Of course, it’s great. It’s a totally cool song. At the time, though, it seemed a little simplistic compared to the other songs he was coming up with. He was great at crafting these off-kilter songs with not really orchestral but pretty ambitious structures, and it seemed like “Freak Scene” was not that ambitious. But I’m a pop music fan, so I get it.

Is it true you coughed up blood after recording “Don’t”?

It wasn’t a deep-red blood, it was just an irritation of the throat. I didn’t permanently injure myself or anything. But J wrote this fucking nasty song for me to sing, and it was obviously such a dig, so I was like, “OK, buddy, if that’s what you want me to do, I’ll fucking do it. If that’s where we’re at, this is what’ll happen.” I dedicated myself to it.

A live interview every night of the tour seems like the last thing J would ever want to do.

Yeah, but it’s with Henry Rollins. That’s kind of an offer you can’t refuse. And J’s changed a lot. I always felt he could practically have his own whacked-out talk show. He’s got this incredible anti-charisma where, when he’s in the right state, he can be really funny. He can be very charismatic, in his non-charismatic way. 


SEE IT: Dinosaur Jr. plays the Crystal Ballroom on Friday, Dec. 16, with Scratch Acid and host/interviewer Henry Rollins. 8 pm. $25 advance, $30 day of show. All ages.

 
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