Lou Barlow didn’t know if he’d ever record another album with Dinosaur Jr. Hell, he still doesn’t know if he’ll record another album with Dinosaur Jr. Such is life in a band that has had its fair share of twists and turns over the past three decades. “I generally try not to have any expectations with Dinosaur Jr., which is probably why it’s been as satisfying as it has,” says Barlow, the trio’s bassist. “I’m just the bass player and I’m along for the ride. [Front man J Mascis] does the bulk of the work, but I never assume anything about him.” That’s a sensible mind-set for Barlow, who will play with Dinosaur Jr. when the band plays the downstairs room at White Oak Music Hall Thursday night. The band is touring in support of its new album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not.
To assume anything about Dinosaur Jr. is to assume anything about band architect J Mascis. And considering the eccentric ways of the enigmatic front man, predicting his next move is akin to preparing for a flood in the middle of a drought. The laid-back Barlow, to his credit, is more than happy to defer to Mascis, in terms of both the band’s direction and its schedule. In fact, despite being on the road in support of a fresh (and solid) record, Barlow has no idea what Dinosaur Jr.’s future holds beyond its current tour.
“We never talk about our future, and that helps,” he said. “We have a manager and he’s worked with J for quite a while; they have a good rapport and he keeps J on task. The manager will say we should really consider doing something, and J will say, ‘I guess,’ and somehow during that time, a plan is formed. We [Barlow and drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy] get a phone call or an email, and I just go where they tell me to go, which is great.”
That wasn’t always the case. Dinosaur Jr. stormed the indie scene in the late '80s and released an absolute classic with 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me. The band followed that up with Bug (Mascis’s least favorite Dinosaur Jr. record), but tensions and infighting were already taking their toll. After the Bug tour ended, Mascis kicked Barlow out of the band.
Soon after, Dinosaur Jr. virtually became a J Mascis solo project with backing musicians added for tour purposes. The band signed to a major label (Sire Records) in 1990 and released a handful of successful records before Mascis retired the name in 1997. Barlow, meanwhile, moved on and dedicated himself fully to his onetime side project, Sebadoh.
Dinosaur Jr. lay dormant for almost a decade before re-forming in 2005. A proper reunion album, Beyond, followed. Three more studio albums, and tours aplenty, have followed over the past nine years.
Many were surprised that Dinosaur Jr. was able to shake off the rust in releasing Beyond, easily one of the best rock records of 2007. Hell, some were surprised the band reunited at all — Barlow chief among them.
“I was mostly surprised that J wanted to do it, that he really wanted to tie himself to Murph and I again; that was a surprise,” he said. “Creatively, that’s not been as surprising. J is really consistent, and that kind of consistency is rare.”
As for the rumors that he and Mascis aren’t really friends anymore (they’re more than rumors, actually), Barlow says that age and maturity have helped the band reach a point that was simply not sustainable in their early days.
“One really cool thing about J, which I didn’t think was so cool when we were younger, is that he doesn’t like to talk about stuff too much,” says Barlow, admitting he would like to continue on with Dinosaur Jr. once its current tour cycle wraps. “He doesn’t get philosophical about the band, doesn’t do a lot of hemming and hawing. Maybe he does it all internally, but it’s not all out in the open.
I’ve been in situations before where you have to talk and talk and talk to get basic things done, where you agonize over all the details; J doesn’t do that," continues Barlow. "Internally, there may be all sorts of angst going on, and I’m sure he goes through that as a songwriter, but it isn’t played out during the process. Ultimately, that makes my job very easy.”
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As he and his bandmates have grown older and added responsibility – Barlow now has two children – Barlow has softened some of his stances. No longer is every decision made by Mascis a catalyst for conflict. No longer does he boil and seethe at Mascis’s domineering, somewhat dictatorial, tactics.
Rather, Barlow is in a better place. He’s found security, both in himself and in Dinosaur Jr.
“As a younger man, it was frustrating,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘Where do I fit, man? Do you like me?’ I don’t worry about those things anymore. If he wants me to play in his band, that’s good enough for me. I don’t need much more validation than that.”
Dinosaur Jr. and special guest Eliza Ambrogio perform Thursday, September 15 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. Doors open at 8 p.m.