By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Anybody can do a reunion tour these days.
Dead or unwilling bandmates are no longer an obstacle; just ask the Doors, INXS, Queen or the New Cars.
Two years ago the Pixies destroyed expectations by burying the hatchet and reuniting. Now Dinosaur Jr has gone one further: Not only is the band’s founding lineup touring together for the first time since the ’80s, but they also are recording new material.
“We’re not really rushing ourselves or pushing hard,” bass player Lou Barlow said of his work with guitarist and songwriter J Mascis and drummer Murph. “We’re not working long days, but slowly it’s kind of taking shape. It reminds me of the Fog stuff J’s done.”
Recording the new Dinosaur Jr material at J’s house has been a homecoming on more than one level, Barlow said.
“When we’re done working there, I go back and stay with my parents because all this is out in Massachusetts, and I live in California,” Barlow said. “We’re doing things that are familiar but much mellower. It’s like going home. It’s unique and it’s Dinosaur but without the drama.”
Drama was one of the hallmarks of the initial tours, where tensions often ran high.
“We were never at each other’s throats,” Barlow said. “There was nothing outward; it was all very repressed. Any warfare was done covertly. It was a war of attrition. Everyone would consciously or unconsciously try to wear each other down. It wasn’t fun.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same — sort of.
“It’s like that now but way softer,” Barlow said with a laugh. “There’s a sense we can enjoy ourselves now.”
From 1984 to 1989, Dinosaur Jr single-handedly brought the guitar solo back to post-punk underground rock, helping pave the way for Nirvana and the ’90s grunge movement.
“It was stunning to realize how loud he plays guitar,” Barlow said. “After I was kicked out I never played in a band as loud as Dinosaur Jr.”
In the interceding years, Barlow sued his former band over royalties and wrote angry songs about Mascis. But in the last few years their paths began to cross onstage again.
“J and I played onstage a couple of times,” he said. “There was a Stooges thing with the Asheton brothers and Mike Watt where I did a guest vocal. Then we did a benefit show in western Massachusetts where J played a solo with Sebadoh.”
Those shows planted the seed that resulted in a reunion show at last year’s Lollapalooza in Chicago. From there a larger tour was booked.
“The agenda is clear: J wants to make a ton of money, and Murph and I were hired to help him do that,” Barlow said. “But we’ve all been enjoying the shows.”
So far the material has drawn from the only three albums Dinosaur Jr recorded as a trio, “Dinosaur,” “You’re Living All Over Me” and “Bug,” and the song “The Wagon.”
“ ‘The Wagon’ is the first thing they recorded after kicking me out,” Barlow said. “I remember I bought the single, listened to it and liked it. Me playing on a Dinosaur Jr song is like me claiming it because my style is so different. Stylistically this is a pretty close fit to me.”
Barlow was fired shortly after “Bug” was completed. Murph lasted a few more albums but had much less of a presence in the studio. By the early ’90s Dinosaur Jr was basically a glorified J Mascis solo outfit.
“I’m glad I was kicked out because the path I took couldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Barlow, whose post-Dinosaur bands include Sebadoh and Folk Implosion. “Maybe someway by touring we’re reclaiming the influence we did have, and I’m reclaiming what I gave to the band Dinosaur that went on to big things after I was gone.”
Until then Dinosaur Jr is accomplishing something it rarely achieved in the ’80s: fun.
“Every night there’s a moment where we’ll be playing a song, and I’ll think, ‘Maybe this is the best I’ve ever played this song,’ ” Barlow said. “That’s cool.”