Dinosaur Jr.'s Murph on playing drums after a car accident, CBGB's, and J's inspiration
Photo By Brantley Gutierrez
Dinosaur Jr. re-emerged stronger than ever with with I Bet on Sky, their tenth record, and third since they reunited back in 2005. Beginning in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1984, Dinosaur Jr. pioneered alt-rock with their metal-tinged grunge and post-punk and thrash rock, creating an entirely new sound and paving the way for future alt-rock. Dinosaur Jr.'s signature sound, an amalgamation of genres loved by lead guitarist/vocalist/songwriter J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph, is more intricately interwoven and solidly focused than ever before.
I Bet on Sky contains all the sonic elements Dinosaur Jr. fans love - great rhythms and hooks amongst noise and grunge, and J's distinct vocals and wild guitar - yet it sounds tighter, more nostalgic, bittersweet and melodic than their earlier records. "Don't Pretend You Didn't Know," features a surprisingly sweet keys solo by J, while "Watch the Corners," moves fitfully between menace and caution, reminding us why we became fans of the band in the first place.
Dinosaur Jr. are in the midst of a long, U.S. and world tour in support of I Bet on Sky, one which finds the group rolling through the Cabooze this evening. And, in advance of their Minneapolis show tonight, Gimme Noise had the chance to talk with drummer Murph on the phone in L.A. shortly before their new album was released.
Murph - You're in Minneapolis? Actually it's funny because I've been kind of living at Lou's house in LA. He's been based in LA for the last 14 years. There are actually so many people here that I meet. There's a big connection between L.A. and Minneapolis.
There's a sound company that makes wireless microphones. They started in Minneapolis and now they have a base in L.A. too. They're major. They're the microphones that big bands use if you want to have a wireless microphone.
Gimme Noise: You're living in L.A. now. Does J live there?
No, he still lives in Massachusetts. We recorded all the songs for that album in his attic. It's a big old Victorian house, and the top floor is his studio.
I Bet On Sky is phenomenal. It sounds a little different direction, still the great amalgam of styles you do, but it seems more mellow or nostalgic in places. What would you say?
It's poppier. I feel like the songs are a bit poppier. And J spent a lot more time on his vocals, [compared to Farm]. He worked really hard on his vocals and harmony. So yeah, that comes out. It's apparent.
Do you feel your drumming - you have a different approach to it?
We were just really focused on this record and I was in a really bad car accident right before I recorded it. So literally, in 5 days I recorded the record. And I had a broken nose, broken ribs, broken foot. When you're healing, everything is so deliberate, so I think drumming was like therapy. It was a healing thing for me. It was part of me getting better in my body. We were really focused, because I was in a lot of pain, and I was like "I've got to finish this record. I've got to do this." So I was super-focused.
Even J was impressed; he was like, "Wow! You're really on!"
How do you guys work together as a dynamic in terms of songwriting and composition and such?
J has kind of a formula. J's like a composer. He thinks of every instrument. When he writes a song, he thinks of: guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. The whole package. Our dynamic as Dinosaur Jr. is to interpret his ideas. So typically he'll play demos and give us CDs of demos. They're pretty sparse, but pretty much the foundation of what the song is going to be. That's pretty much how we've always done it.
How does it feel to be working together again?
It's just better. We're more grown up and focused, and able to execute what we do better.
I'm curious about your incorporation of various styles of music and influences. You noted the record is more poppy. I read J thinks it's a funkier record . . .
J's thing is - he kind of views each record as a kind of photo album. You go on a trip and take pictures, and that's a snapshot of that period. He doesn't really plan it. It's just what's going on at that time, So whatever influences you. So like say you take a trip to Maine and you're in the woods, and like swimming hiking and doing all this outdoor stuff. That's what it is; it's like "my summer vacation." That's how J approaches records, whatever he's doing at the time.
That's beautiful. Do you converse with J about various things that make it into the record? What do you guys talk about?
J Is like a visionary. He has a vision. Literally he can be writing a song during dinner, when we're doing laundry, the most mundane tasks. I can see when J's writing. I know him well enough to see that. He does that for six months or so, and then he delivers a product, a demo. Then Lou and I are like, "Okay, now it's our job to interpret this." Then it becomes Dinosaur Jr.
Would you talk about your drumming inspiration?
I'm sort of the odd man out. I was into a lot of proggy stuff, and a lot of punk rock. I was into Black Flag and Minor Threat and that sort of stuff.
J is a drummer, but he's actually really classically trained. I taught myself how to play drums by listening to Jimi Hendrix and a lot of '70s - Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and all that stuff. So I'm more organic as a drummer. That was my inspiration, all the classic rock. I knew when I was about 9 that I had this thing in me, that I just had rhythm. I knew I was connected to drumming and just started playing.
How do you view music changing in all of this time you've played together? You came out of this grunge scene, Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Do you have any comments on music then and now?
When we were playing - in the old days you're just flying by the seat of your pants. It's a whirlwind and you're just going to go with it. Where now its much more focused and you can be more objective about it. And think about a live show you're like, "What can I do to make this better? Should I do this drum solo or that one?" Where back then it was like, "I don't know!" You were just in it. Now we're older and wiser and more objective about our playing, if that makes sense.
I've had this question about a great number of bands that were great since the early/mid '80s. Everyone sounds as good as ever if not better. Do you have a thought on this?
I think the difference is now - when kids are listening to music, there's a lot of stuff that's come before it. Whereas we were doing shows at like CBGB's in 1988. We knew this was rare. This wasn't common; this wasn't what people were normally doing. We knew we were setting a precedent. Where kids today can listen to stuff and be like, "That sounds like Blondie. This sounds like 'whatever.'" They have a huge encyclopedia to base everything on.
When we were doing it there were hardly any - there were the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Blondie . . . bands that had started in 78 or something? But there wasn't a lot more. We were kind of creating it. You felt that. I remembered seeing Pussy Galore and Big Black and Sonic Youth, so many bands at CBGB's. I remember going to the shows and being like, "This is the first time, seeing this raw." The Ramones and Pussy Galore were not stuff you'd hear on the radio. It was uncommon. It was like they're creating this. They're doing this now. And that's the difference I think.
It would have been amazing to see the Ramones.
Yeah, I think I saw the Ramones in '96 in New York. It was the first time I'd seen the Ramones actually. They were awesome. They were great!
Do you have a favorite Dinosaur Jr. record in addition to this one, I Bet on Sky?
Until we start playing them live its kind of hard to know which songs are favorites, and there's a few that crop up. But I can't say them until we're touring and playing the record. Certain songs like "Freak Scene," and "Just Like Heaven" and "In a Jar" - Those three songs, I just never get tired of playing. We've been playing those songs for like 20 years. And I love playing them live. I'm sure there are a certain songs on the new record that will become favorite songs. But I won't know until we actually start playing.
I love your cover of "Just like Heaven" - I love your cover of that. I first heard you in college.
Dinosaur was created during high school; J and Lou had this punk band called Deep Wound. Our high school was very small, like 800 people. They were the first people to actually put out a single. So Dinosaur was created out of that. J wanted to switch from drums to a guitar. He had the concept of a country punk thing. Because they were really into thrash and really fast, hardcore. So Dinosaur was created out of that. He knew I played drums so we just got together and, yeah! Made it happen!
What was it like to tour with Sonic Youth?
It was amazing! I remember, the first tour we did toured was in the Midwest for a week or two, maybe 10 days. We went from literally 15 people showing up at our show to people calling: "Oh you toured with for Sonic Youth! Do you want this gig? Do you want to play here or play there?" After that it was solidified. It was awesome! And when we toured with them, we used to do these crazy jams; we'd kind of mimic them. We'd end songs and then do these noise jams for like ten minutes, because we were so inspired.
Any other memories that stand out . . .
Just to solidify how new it all felt then: Richard Kern who worked with Lydia Lunch, he made film Fingered. I remember we got to go to his apartment and watch Fingered before it was out! I was like "Wow, we're in the moment. It's happening now and we are here, on the ground level." It was amazing.
How do you feel about working with Jagjaguwar?
They've been great! We did a gig when we first joined, we did a hometown gig and we're doing another on this tour because we had a two record deal and this is the second one.
In your spare time, what are your influences, and hobbies that you bring to your performances?
My influences are science fiction and poetry, music that's more creative, really diverse stuff.
J is really into British "oy" music like skinhead music from different parts of England.
Lou is into thrash, anything that's loud and fast.
So we're all into very different stuff.
Do you guys consciously bring these different styles into the songs, like, 'this one's going to be more country rock sounding, this ones going to be more thrash . . ."
We used to, but nowadays its more unconscious. But in the early days, like "In a Jar" CK I actually came up with that beginning drum break because I was really into Keith Moon and the Who. I was listening to them a lot and so that inspired that beginning of that song.
Is there anything you'd like to add about the new record?
It just feels like it's going to be bigger than the other records. I don't know why but it does.
Any thoughts on coming to Minneapolis and other places you look forward to?
This tour we're playing some more obscure places, that I actually really like because then we have an audience who hasn't seen us as much, they're not as exposed. That's fun.
For example we played a tour in Australia and it was the end of their summer. It was such a hard tour because we do a gig, and they're like that was really good, but we also saw Soundgarden last week. They have so much good music there all summer that we just felt like we were kind of in line with - they had every amazing band come through, When you go to say, Iowa or something, you have the sense, "These guys haven't seen this." This is their first time, seeing a band like this, so that makes it more exciting.
Connecting with the fans who've not seen you yet?
We play off our audience. If people aren't really reacting, we'll likely play more mellow. If they're jumping around and more excited, we'll play more rocking - it's totally interactive.
What are you listening to now? What would your playlist be?
I'm in this weird place where I'm listening to stuff I listened to in high school. So like, the Cocteau Twins, The Cure, old Iggy Pop, The Smiths, just everything from then.
J's currently obsessed with female vocalists. So he'll make these crazy compilations of like someone from the '70s, obscure like Sandy Denny then he'll fast-forward to someone new, today. He's into making that connection "This woman sounds like Joni Mitchell." That sort of thing. That's where J and I are similar.
Lou reads a lot of music magazines. He's always searching for new talent, new bands. So he's like the indie guy. Like we leave it up to Lou to discover who He's who is coming on to the scene.
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.