Dinosaur Jr. Gets On Track

Monday, 03 August 2009

As convenient as it is to believe that every musician in the world – big or small, schooled or not – has absolute control over his or her muse, the fact is that sometimes the muse exerts a will of its own over the musician in question's progress rather than vice versa.  There are times when a musician will sit trying to summon the forces that produced great work previously, but they simply will not come and, in cases like that, the urge is to panic; was that thing responsible for such charmed work before asleep? Had that muse so horribly abused over time and pressure simply vanished? That thing that once made the now worried musician in question special is silent and won't produce – what happens now? Sometimes, in a fit of panic and desperation, said musician will try to force the bellows that once stoked great, timeless music or simply try to re-enact a previous mindset that proved to have the spark. Musicians of all types simply refer to such action with the poetic  (if woefully overused) phrase, “I took a leap of faith.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes hope is all it takes to kick the rust from the belts of the creative engine and the results amount to an all-new and celebrated quality of work.

Then there are the moments when it doesn't work and those are the times when what began as a “leap of faith” becomes an ill-advised “jump of stupid” and, unless he's wildly arrogant or pigheaded, the artist or band knows it's time to go back to the drawing board and try again. Now with a bit of hindsight between him and his band's last album, Dinosaur Jr. drummer Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy, is able to better see the flaws in Beyond and articulate his previous misgivings. “It's funny you know,” asks Murph, ruminating on the places that Dinosaur Jr. has gone artistically over the years, but particularly over the last two. “We've always been a band where, no matter how much we got paid, there had to be some real-ness to the content. It wouldn't matter what someone put on the table, something needed to be there. It's like a relationship; you can try to arrange a marriage but, if someone's not taking it, they're not going to take it. We've always needed that shred of reality that we're able to grab onto for it to work and, when I heard Beyond, I thought it might be okay but I just wasn't exactly sure about it and the big difference between Farm and Beyond is the fact that we were still a little undecided on it too. Like, as we were making Beyond, the question just hung there: 'Are we a reunion band? Or are we actually, like, the real band, itself, again?' We were kind of in flux so we basically agreed to do it for both reasons because we weren't sure which one it was yet whereas, on Farm, we've really returned and we are the band again. The reunion aspect is gone – that fog has lifted – and now it's the band again which is a very different approach and inspiration. This came much more out of a band context rather than Beyond, which simply came out of knowing that we wanted to keep playing and, to do that, we'd need another record to make it work. Don't get me wrong, it's still great and I like Beyond, but this one was definitely more like I knew what I was getting into when I heard the basic tracks and started recording and the reason that I compare this album to Where You Been? is, when we had the line-up for that album – and unfortunately Lou wasn't a part of that – but there was a certain cohesion in that line-up where we all knew our strengths and weaknesses and really honed in on what works. With Farm, I think we really had a similar attitude and we were really focused.

“In other bands and at other times, there have been moments where you second guess yourself” continues the drummer, “You end up asking each other, 'Was that good?' To be totally truthful, the answer is usually 'Not really,' but there will be other stuff and the answer is, 'Yeah, that's pretty good – like, I really think that works.' And I think that was really clear on Farm.

“With Farm, there was the decision made: we're a band again.”

…And with that decision made too, Dinosaur Jr. serves notice with Farm that they're back – whole and hearty – again.

With concussive and scraggy riffs contrasted against sweetly nostalgic melodies, guitarist J Mascis claims his place as an elder statesman of modern indie rock songwriting right off the top of Farm (he wrote ten of the album's twelve tracks, Barlow contributed the other two) and, framed by an obviously rejuvenated Murph and Barlow, “Pieces” brims with desperation, hope, wanton need and the power to make even the most jaded listeners cheer as loud as the elevated-to-the-point-of-clipping decibel levels that drive the song and instantly command attention.

After the initial salvo, it would be easy for long-time fans to characterize the eleven tracks that follow it as sublime (the band's groove has been re-discovered and the record dusts every corner of it), but only because it maintains that energy and quality rather than languishing; there is more to this proceeding than just statements of reclamation, but it's a damned good start. As “I Want You To Know” careens into “Oceans In The Way,” years fall off of the band members and the martial strains compel excitement in them rather than simply inciting a series of safe reproductions; they're actually feeling it rather than just re-enacting it. Dinosaur Jr. continues to build steam as they burn through “Your Weather,” “Over It” (which is the most infectious piece of power pop to be released in years, incidentally), “See You” and “I Don't Want To Go There” – knocking each song out of the park as they go – and even when they do scale back the bombast for a more subdued breather (“There's No Here”), it gets done with an authoritative crunch.

More than on Beyond, Dinosaur Jr. has re-staked its place in indie, pop and rock music with Farm and done so in the best possible fashion: they've pushed their established sound harder than they ever have previously and just powered through without looking back. In the simplest of terms, Dinosaur Jr. proved that they could return on Beyond and that they could still be vital but, on Farm, they actually are back, do sound vital and, perhaps most importantly according to Murph, the band returned to the operating procedure that worked for them in the first place, kept it simple and avoided any sort of extraneous nonsense. “We've had the same formula for twenty years and while we've deviated from it a couple of times and gotten mixed results, we went back to it with Farm,” explains the drummer on how Farm came together. “The way it has always worked best – and how we did this album – is Jay comes up with the main content or an idea of a song and puts it down in a demo. He only puts guitar and drums and the drums are always really solid. Jay is a drummer so those go under the microscope first, gets hammered out and really polished first so I'm the first one to go in and work with Jay and we butt heads. There will be things on a feel level – where he'll show me his idea for drums and it just won't be me and won't sound right so I'll have to work with him to interpret it – and Lou will be watching from the sidelines and, while he's watching he'll be coming up with some ideas that he can use and Jay will then come along and give his opinion on those parts too. Then that's when we actually get in the room and, once I have the drum parts down, then the fine-tuning starts – like, 'Well, maybe we should do this a half-step down or a whole step up because it doesn't sound right in this key,' or, 'You can't sing to it because it's too high or too low' or whatever it might be.

“This record was a lot more old school like that; we had about two or three months compared to the seven we took for Beyond and I was literally learning tracks in the morning and tracking them in the afternoon – it was that intensive” continues the drummer, almost sounding out of breath just explaining the hectic tempo of the sessions. “It was good though; I felt like we just kind of got in there and just started cooking.

“That's exactly how Farm worked – Jay had twelve songs and we exhausted all of our fuel  and our steam on them and they worked whereas when we did Beyond, we did have a couple of extras because we had made it over such a long period of time. We did some before we went for a tour, then went out, then came back and, when we got back, we were in a completely different head space so you start wanting to rethink things and we did have more extra tracks on Beyond that we didn't use whereas Farm was really focused; we had the songs we had, we're doing it, we're putting it out, take it of leave it.

“That's kind of how it worked this time and, in mind mind, how it always has worked best; that's pretty much the whole process in a nutshell.”

In keeping with their return to basic operating procedures, the band has simply elected to go back to how they've always worked best live too; now with the album out, after taking about a month to let the material sink in with listeners, Dinosaur Jr. has returned to the road for an iron man's tour schedule that will find them hitting the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe all within the next four months with the absolute minimum number of days off accounted for. Looking at the itinerary and what he knows he has signed on for, Murph does concede that it will not be the easiest trip to embark upon (although certainly not the hardest either), but it's what needs to happen in order to get the job done right. “We make a living, but we definitely work hard, it's not like we sit back and watch the royalties roll in,” says Murph firmly, but without the slightest hint of anger or resentment. “We're definitely a working band; we're not bourgois by any means in terms of that credo or whatever.

“Really, the analogy of a relationship holds up,”  continues the drummer. “When you're in a relationship, it's like someone asking, 'Well what's going to happen in five years? Are you guys still going to be together? Are you still going to have the same apartment? What are you doing?' Who thinks like that? It could be five years, three years, one year – I don't know, as long as it keeps working, we'll keep working at it. I'd like to say it'll stay the same, but I can't say; like a relationship, you just work at it and put everything you've got into it every day – but there's no crystal ball. We put our all into the live shows and the studio work and all of it; we don't slack and we don't skimp, we always try to do the best we can no matter what we're doing.

“All I can really say is that if it keeps running as it has been, it should continue.”

Dinosaur Jr. online

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Further Reading:

Interview with Lou Barlow

Ground Control review of Farm.


“I Want You To Know” from Farm.


Farm is out now on Jagjaguwar Records and available here on Amazon

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