Interview: Dinosaur Jr.’s chemistry, formula, and pursuit of perfection intact on I Bet on Sky

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Dinosaur Jr.: I Bet On Sky (Jagjaguwar, 9/18/12)

“Watch the Corners”

Dinosaur Jr.: “Watch the Corners”

When punk hit in the 1970s, it was popular to call the prog rockers and stadium-filling FM-radio vets “dinosaurs” for their size and presumed extinction. That only made it more fun for J. Mascis and his pals to dub their thunderously loud Amherst, Massachusetts, trio Dinosaur in the mid-’80s (it added the Jr. on its second album) to confuse things a bit more.

The band dealt in volume and aggression learned in hardcore act Deep Wound, but guitarist Mascis’s laconic and numb musings and bassist Lou Barlow’s emotional wail were another planet removed from typical punk spit and anger, and Mascis’s graceful, dense guitar solos showed more than a passing knowledge of classic-rock chops. The band has always been a unique balance of aggression and cuddle — snot and bedroom blues — and few of today’s indie rockers ever think to combine both.

As drummer Murph points out, the band, like many since, harnessed boredom in its early days — but also the college town’s fertile airwaves and bookstores, where Mascis first heard and read about punk and oi! music. “Northampton is a unique scene,” Murph says. “Really, it was J and his basement where everything started. It was more a reaction to the area and a sense of needing to play elsewhere that got us out. We were banned from most of the clubs in those days for being too loud. We then started playing in Boston and New York, and that’s when things started to happen.”

The third album since the original trio of Mascis, Barlow, and Murph reformed in 2005, I Bet on Sky is also the band’s tenth studio album since its self-titled debut in 1985. It also marks a high point in terms of productivity for both Mascis and Barlow: Mascis just released a solo album on Sub Pop in 2011, and Barlow has just revived Sebadoh as a live and recording entity.

Surprisingly, these grunge predecessors are as relevant as ever — both their jangly rock and hardcore-derived throb are fundamental to the indie landscape these days. “Compared to Bug, we have a better sense of how we work together and the process it takes to play together and record,” Murph says. “The chemistry and the formula are still pretty much intact.” The Dinosaur magic that made records like Bug essentials to the American skate rebel remains — the band always sounds like more than the sum of its parts and unlike much that has come along since.

But I Bet on Sky, perhaps more than other recent Dinosaur efforts, benefits from varied rhythms and arrangements. The staccato punctuation on “Watch the Corners” makes the tune. Boogie-rock riffs and punk tempos liven up the jangle rocker “Pierce the Morning Rain.” And “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” might have echoes of past Dinosaur hits, but its Mellotron-like keyboards set it far apart. Meanwhile, Barlow, who fronts Sebadoh, leads a pair of tracks that further the variety: “Recognition,” with stomping proto-metal interludes as well as folk-jam passages, and “Rude,” which nails a Kiwi underground-pop sound with fuzz bass and incisive wit.

In terms of process, the band works much like a hybrid of a bicoastal pro outfit — with Mascis sending Barlow and Murph his demos to flesh out at Barlow’s LA home base, before reconvening at a studio and re-recording the tunes mostly live to magnetic tape. Mascis, ever a perfectionist despite his nonchalant manner, demands many live takes (often more than 20, according to Barlow’s Twitter feeds from the session) before settling on a keeper.

Throughout the record, the players’ command of their instruments is apparent — including Murph’s precise thump and Mascis’s inspired soloing — all perhaps a result of that search for a near-perfect take. The band’s more recent professionalism hasn’t compromised its art, as the romance of three Minor Threat fans wailing in a Massachusetts basement is somehow held together. “Playing together now is not as taxing as it was back in the day,” Murph notes. “We’ve also gotten better at our craft, which makes playing together more rewarding. A band, like many relationships, is a work in progress.”

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