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Dinosaur Jr. Are Indie-Rock's Slacker Heroes

Kings of the underground reach for the big time — so why does frontman J Mascis seem not to care at all?

April 18, 1991

Holed up in a once-plush mountainside condo turned debris-strewn hovel, Dinosaur Jr. seems to be in its natural habitat. With members of the band draped over various pieces of furniture, the scene smacks of "Wayne's World" on a massive dose of Thorazine.

On a one-month furlough from their native Amherst, Massachusetts, rock's former indie giants – who have just released Green Mind, their stunning major-label debut – have come to Vermont to tune up for a tour with Jane's Addiction and to wage the daily battle of whether to leave the living room. Dealing with this day is an inside job. Seven cigarette butts are now floating in a pool of milk, and three weeks' worth of Star magazines are scattered across the ash-smeared carpet – all under the uninterested gaze of former teen porn star Traci Lords, who peers down from a calendar mounted on the wood-paneled wall. Murph, Dino's rumpled but unflappable drummer, sits quietly rubbing sleep out of his eyes while bass player Van Conner – on loan from the legendary sonic assailants the Screaming Trees – sinks into the corner of the couch as he listens to Judas Priest on a Walkman. But clearly in the eye of this lethargic hurricane rests J Mascis, Dinosaur Jr.'s founder and resident genius, who moves only to pour another bowl of cereal or to tug at the hot pink ski cap that is forcing strands of hair to fall in front of his face like jet black curtains.

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Since Dinosaur Jr.'s 1985 coming out, Mascis has been almost as famous for his silence as for his apocalyptic bursts of guitar grunge. The band's second album, You're Living All Over Me, set the deafening tone for mid-Eighties indie rock, triggering an avalanche of critical praise and fostering a veritable cult of guitar-rock personality among up-and-coming bands. Simple pop songs were shrouded in enough amplified fuzz to make Black Sabbath sound like a lounge act, and Mascis, whose lyrics dealt with the difficulties of facing the world outside his bedroom window, became a reluctant celebrity. The brilliance of the Dinosaur sound, in fact, relies on the interplay of these two traits: Over gale-force squalls of guitar, Mascis's voice wavers as if you'd called and woke him and he's trying to convince you he wasn't asleep. Indeed, his lethargy is so legendary that the members of Sonic Youth – die-hard Dino fans and kings of the alternative-rock mountain – even voted him president in "Teen Age Riot." The song, on Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, ponders the global effects of a Mascis administration and features the line "It'd take a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now." The track raises the issue of Dinosaur Jr.'s ambivalence toward not only success but communication in general – a point amplified by Mascis's guitar-as-primal-scream approach to music. "The lyrics are all pretty much about dealing with people day to day," says Mascis. "I need people around when I want them to be, and when I don't, I just don't go out. You feel trapped by your own house, but what can you do? Even if you go out somewhere else, it'll be a place you've been a million times, so it's just like your house. It's claustrophobic."

With Green Mind, Mascis has taken a decisive step toward escaping confinement and standing out in the music world. The move, however, was even more solitary than usual. Mascis played almost every instrument on the album, a situation forced largely by the departure of the band's equally reclusive bass player, Lou Barlow. "Lou and J didn't speak out loud to each other for two years," says Murph. "We'd go on ten-hour trips in the van, and no one would say a word." Sequestered in the studio, Mascis set about the task of creating Green Mind – trading the ear-splitting volume of previous releases for a more structured assault.

But while the album is more accessible than its predecessors, it hardly represents a selling out. It does, in fact, showcase the band's selling points. Possessing an unrestrained clamor that teeters on the edge of chaos, the album resonates with the slovenly majesty of Let It Be-era Replacements. The album's title track – starting and stopping over a throbbing bass drum – nervously jerks the listener while Mascis offers up insights like "I've been picking through my thoughts/It's a shame my judgment rots." And the opening track, "The Wagon" (originally released on Sub Pop as a single), careens recklessly forward and features a Mascis solo that screeches like metal scraping on metal. What might throw fans for a loop, however, is "Thumb," the record's dirge-rock second single, which begins with an abbreviated flute solo. "I think what's going to happen is that at first people might kind of bum on it and go, 'What is this?'" says Murph, who drums on only three of the album's songs. "But the more they listen to it, they'll really get into it." Mascis has a more laissez-faire approach to the impending reviews. "Chicks dig it, and that's the important thing," he says, pulling himself upright on the couch. "Those are the reports that I get back. A lot of guys are going, 'What is this?' but the girls are into it. You know, people can always turn it up. That's what I do."

Turning up the volume is certainly not a novel idea for Mascis. It is, in fact, more like a starting point. Despite his status, along with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, as a New Age guitar guru, Mascis had only just made the transition from drums to guitar when he founded the band – a switch that helped shape the sound of Dinosaur Jr. "John Bonham is the god of rock & roll, and Zeppelin was the best band that there ever was," says Mascis. "I was into drumming, and Bonham is it for rock drumming, so that's why I always played my guitar really loud. Playing the guitar just seemed wimpy compared to drums. That twangy thing. I had to crank it up so I could feel it in the back of my legs."

The reverberations managed to echo across the Atlantic, where the British press has all but deified Mascis. And at the same time, a slew of Dinosaur imitators – bands whose sound more often than not falls through the crack between tribute and ineptitude – have created their own brand of high-decibel idiot-savant rock. But the critical adulation and mentor status has left the band even more suspicious than usual. "The British are just bored," says Mascis, dismissing the attention. "It's kind of dull there, and the papers have to come out every week, so they have to write about something. They just try to out-metaphor you and be more pretentious than the next guy." Murph, however, sees it as something more. "They just think we're all very mall-middle class," he says. "The English are the most oppressed people I've ever seen. To them anything is decadent – like J and the whole suburbia thing that they keep hitting on. You know, eating cereal and watching The Flintstones."

In defense of the British press, cereal and television do seem to play pivotal roles in the band's life – if only as a source of healthy debate. "I'm burnt on TV right now," says Murph, as Mascis prepares to tune into his favorite show, All My Children. "It sickens me how advertising and media are brainwashing a generation of people." Without looking up, Mascis launches an impassioned, albeit monotonic, defense. "It's just TV," he says, reaching for the remote control. "I don't think it's anything to be scared of. It's like anything: If you know how to use it, it's fine. Besides, it's getting better. Like Twin Peaks and Doogie Howser. Doogie's cool. And All My Children got this serious, death-rock, punk chick. She's pretty cool. And it's on as we speak. Hot."

The soap-opera fest, however, is quickly interrupted. "Oh, no," yells Conner from the kitchen. "I just found a piece of plastic in my Ramen Noodles." Mascis's eyes, barely visible below the ski cap, dart quickly around the room. "Well, what do you expect, man?" he finally says. "Fine dining?"

 

It's a point well taken. The surroundings are much more reminiscent of spring-break debauchery than impending stardom, and that seems to suit everyone just fine. "I'm just not into the whole rock thing," says Murph. "I don't try to live any lifestyle. I'm not trying to glamorize anything. We don't really have any message, so there's really nothing to miss. We don't have anything we want to say to people." Mascis, however, is not only dangerously close to rock stardom but to becoming a pop-culture icon as well. "I've gotta go be in a movie on Friday," he says reluctantly. "Ione Skye is in it and so is Mink Stole. I own this rock store. Not like music but rocks from the desert. You know, the role I have is not a very far stretch – some guy who sits in this place in the desert, sells rocks and doesn't talk too much. Just says, like, 'Heh' and has some chick talking to him. But it's the entertainment business. You've gotta be outstanding. I can be like Sammy. He's the idol of any show-business person."

But before offers to join the Rat Pack begin rolling in, Mascis first has to conquer both his mistrust of the outside world and the rock mainstream – a task that runs counter to many of his philosophies of music. "I don't think any rock band should be onstage for more than twenty minutes," he says. "Bruce Springsteen plays for three and a half or four hours. To me that's just torture. I'd like to play for, like, ten minutes. To me that's good. After that it just gets boring." When Murph suggests that people are going to want to hear all their favorite songs, Mascis alters his dream show to accommodate fans without sacrificing solitude. "Then I'd like to play really large places when only a few people show up," he says. "I'd love to play Madison Square Garden to, like, 2000 people. Everyone would be able to just walk around and not have anyone bother them."

This story is from the April 18th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.


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