Dealing With Variables: Dinosaur Jr. On Touring And New Album Sweep It Into Space

Dinosaur Jr postponed their tour dates until October, including their scheduled stop at Houston's White Oak Music Hall but fans can still celebrate their new album, Sweep It Into Space.
Photo By Cara Totman
Dinosaur Jr postponed their tour dates until October, including their scheduled stop at Houston's White Oak Music Hall but fans can still celebrate their new album, Sweep It Into Space.
Learning to cope with swift changes is the name of the game in times of COVID, a concept that Murph, longtime drummer for Dinosaur Jr., expressed the importance of when he spoke with Houston Press ahead of their now postponed Houston date.

Dinosaur Jr. was scheduled to perform on Friday, September 24 at White Oak Music Hall and their Houston date along with the other canceled shows have yet to be rescheduled.

Throughout the pandemic the band has performed only a handful of times and this summer was able to hold their third annual Camp Fuzz event, a weekend full of performances and educational programs for musicians and fans, an event Murph says they considered a "test" for the big tour.

When discussing the possibility of shutting down the tour due to rising COVID-19 numbers Murph and the band knew the realistic chances from the get-go.

“We fully understand that could happen. You just do what you can and go with it, it’s like the new way of thinking. You have to get used to everything being variable,” he says calmly.

Earlier this month the band put out a press release postponing all dates between September 10 and October 2. They intend to resume their scheduled tour dates for the end of this year and 2022.

“We will be touring even more once we get things under control once,” says Murph optimistically. “I think things are just going to be like wildfire, I mean there's already such a buzz of people wanting to get out there. Once everyone knows it's truly safe and there's no question, I think we will be touring for the next couple of years straight for sure.”

Despite the disappointment for the band and fans alike, this year did provide some joy with the release of the band's twelfth album, Sweep It Into Space and their first release as the original trio of J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph since 2016.

The band also announced the release of the documentary Freakscene which currently has screenings scheduled in Germany and Japan with the United States remaining unannounced.

Freakscene documents their long and tumultuous career, including their major role in launching the grunge sound of the ‘90s as well as their ultimate breakup and subsequent reunion.

Though the band members' relationship with one another is often referred to as being rife with tension, in recent years their friendship seems to have found calmer seas.

“Now we are kind of like brothers,” says Murph. “The tension is similar to brothers that get together where you’re extremely close but you have your little nitpicks here and there.”

Regardless of their past rifts one thing is for certain with Dinosaur Jr., after so many years they do it for the love of music pure and simple. They have always been themselves and never catered to mass appeal while somehow capturing fans all over the world with their melodic and fuzzy sounds.

Sweep It Into Space encapsulates the band's laid back yet loud energy and is surprisingly filled with upbeat and catchy elements, something that even shocked Murph when he heard the finished product. The album is somehow secretly poppy while never losing the band's trademark heavy guitar and drums.

He describes the band's typical approach to recording as fragmented efforts with Murph and Barlow laying down their parts and then Mascis adding his parts independently before passing the tracks on to be mixed and produced.

For Sweep It Into Space, Dinosaur Jr. counted on good friend and fellow rocker Kurt Vile to serve as producer. Vile only made it into about three sessions before the COVID pandemic shut down all the group work on the album leaving Mascis to finish the album on his own and play mad scientist with the tracks.

“J had to get really technical on this record and learn really fast a lot of the studio stuff,” describes Murph. “He’s a really techy guy anyway, he's a total gear head, so I think for him it was just like more stuff to do and he's cool with that I think. I think it was hard, but I think he liked the challenge so that's where it was really different.”

“I was amazed how poppy it was,” says Murph, explaining that often he and Barlow are not hearing the vocals when tracking their parts.

“We really don't know what the song is really gonna sound like because you can't really tell just from drum and bass.”

“Take It Back” embodies the band's overall sonic range and ability to ping pong from bouncy riffs to heavier jams. The entire album carries a light energy which Murph believes Vile could be credited for with his influence and presence.

"I Met The Stones", based on a true account of Mascis meeting The Rolling Stones including the recently departed and sorely missed Charlie Watts shows off Dinosaur Jr.'s more obvious ability to rock.  Murph describes the track's intro as "'80s hair metal" saying, "It turned out to be such a great song that's really fun to play live." 

“J has always said this, for him music is just a snapshot, it really is. Our records are like looking through a photo book and it's more like what was going on at the time whether it's a family vacation, spring break or a holiday you look at different things in the photos and you're like, oh yeah that was that time.”

Murph describes Mascis as providing his bandmates with demos to build from, a skill which no doubt came in handy when he was forced to complete the album on his own.

“He approaches music more like a composer, he kind of hears it all and it just comes flooding in. He writes it all down in one spurt and then when we start playing it and internalize it and then it becomes the Dinosaur Jr. sound and the chemistry comes out.”

“It’s like ingredients, you can get a dish and have three different chefs make it and it will taste different because they are putting their personality in it and that's the essence of us. You have these songs but until we play them, then it starts coming alive and becomes a Dinosaur Jr. song and the sound.”

As far as his own drumming style, Murph describes it as "I guess I'm kind of a rock drummer with a bit of jazzy feel or something, that's what I've been told."

He credits his sound to his upbringing filled with jazz, musicals, African music brought home by his father who taught African Studies and his love of classic rock including studying Mitch Mitchell's work on Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love by playing along with the album repeatedly in his youth.

"The drummer has got a really interesting position because you're sitting there in the middle of musicians literally being able to watch everything and everybody do their thing and cycle through the parts and the melodies."

"It's  always been really cool to be in that position where you're the only one sitting. You're kind of stationary and you're holding down the beat while everyone else is satelliting around you. You can just watch it happen and I've always thought that is a really great position and I've never gotten tired of that. I've always been inspired by it," he says. 

"Look at Charlie, I'm 56 so I guess I have a few years left. If I can go till 80, I guess I'm good to go for a while."

Sweep It Into Space is available for streaming and purchase now.