Gloves off, earplugs in, here come Dinosaur Jr
Dinosaur Jr have mellowed sincere-forming, but they're still as committed to maximum noiseas when theywere alt-rock pioneers back in the '80s, writes Charlie Carter
Not long ago, local officials seriously considered issuing gig-goers with gloves to dampen the sound of clapping from Hong Kong stadium. But times have changed, and the city is now preparing to welcome a band that is widely seen as the loudest in the world.
For almost three decades, US alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr have been a watchword for loud. The three-piece's ear-splitting brand of distorted guitar rock, fusing hardcore punk with psychedelic melodicism, when played live has been known to push the audience towards the back of the room, and earplugs are common accessories at their concerts.
"We still have that sound," boasts drummer Murph, known to his mum as Emmett Jefferson Murphy III, who along with guitar-hero band leader J. Mascis and indie icon bass player Lou Barlow formed the influential band in 1984.
"We take pride in being one of the loudest bands out there," he has said. "It's fun to have a lot of firepower at our disposal, and we definitely use it. But we've been wearing earplugs since we were, like, 20. We're not stupid."
Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, Dinosaur Jr - originally named Dinosaur but changed for legal reasons after the so-called supergroup The Dinosaurs threatened to sue - along with fellow Bostonians The Pixies and New Yorkers Sonic Youth shaped America's nascent alternative rock sound.
Borrowing from the likes of Black Sabbath, Black Flag and with a touch of surf-pop thrown in, they forged a heavy, cranking and melodic brew that pioneered the loud-quiet-loud template that birthed America's first world-beating alternative phenomenon: grunge. They would influence Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and carve out one of the more nuanced careers in rock - never becoming stadium-filling huge, but never far from legend status.
"It's great, it's a compliment, but we're not really aware of it," Murph says of his band's influence during a phone interview from Austin, Texas. "We just put out a body of work every one or two years, and we tour and we kind of live each album at a time. We don't think about where it's going to be placed in history or how it's going to do. We just kind of focus on working and putting it out there."
There is a paradox to the band's unique sound. While it has the sonic force to blow down brick walls, the trio has a deft ear for a keening melody to suit lyrics that often touch on indie's thematic holy trinity: despair, loneliness and lost love.
That the three-piece's first show in China should be billed as a Halloween bash is apt for a band that has had casual listeners running in fear of its colossal sound. At one celebrated gig in London's Brixton Academy in the early '90s, there were even concerns for the venue's structural integrity as Mascis' tower of Marshall amps blasted out a deafening squall of distortion.
While Murph still keeps the earplugs in, he's resolute that Dinosaur Jr remain a sonic assault. "When you see us it's like going back in time to 1988 or something," he laughs. "I think kids today are really interested in that. When we started we were 22 years old and we played to our peers. And now we're still playing to college-age kids who are around 22. It's just normal for us to have kids jumping around."
His band's 28 years have not all been easy. Both Murph and Barlow left at the height of the band's commercial success when Mascis' need to control the project became too much to bear.
Barlow was first to go, after the release of the breakthrough 1988 album Bug, complaining that the lead singer had become a tyrant. He went on to form lo-fi indie stars Sebadoh, a band he has kept active and who are slated to release an album in the new year. Murph saw out a few more years until after completing tour duties for the early '90s album Where You Been. Mascis continued to record as Dinosaur Jr, but called it a day in 1997.
The original trio got back together again in 2005 after Mascis began appearing at Sebadoh gigs, leading to a reunion between him and Barlow. The reformed band have since released three albums.
"Things are great. We're like three brothers now, travelling and playing music together," Murph says. "He's a lot more open to interpretation now," he says of Mascis' mellowing, bought on by advancing age and the centring tendency of family life. "We've actually got to the point where we like" [him taking control.]
"There's so much less confusion when someone decides to lead, because then there isn't constant debate about how some things should work or sound - it's just pretty easy, it's laid out."
Mascis has always been the nucleus of the band - its chief songwriter, manifesto writer and visual hook. There were few sights in the alternative scene of the early '90s to compare to Mascis - at the time going through what Barlow called his "cowboy phase", dressed in velvet suit and Cuban-heeled boots - bucking and hunching over his guitar, his chest-length hair entangled in his strings as he cranked out some of the most bone-crunching noise ever forced onto an audience.
Although middle age has turned his tresses silvery grey and he has taken up the very un-rock pastime of golf, Mascis remains a charismatic force, his focus and commitment to music belied by a lazy, slurred vocal style that has attracted less than complimentary epithets such "the Slacker King" and "Chief Stoner".
"J is a very Zen-type person. He's very cerebral and a lot of stuff that happens is more in his mind and his state of mind," says Murph. "To him, music is a snapshot; whatever he sees going on at the time, whether it's friends or family, some great experience. He just draws on whatever he does. He takes stuff from his daily life and turns it into great music."
Highlights of the Dinosaur Jr discography
Reputedly costing just US$500 to record, the band's debut is a ferocious mix of heavy metal and punk. While it lacks the direction or consistency of later albums, it does establish J. Mascis' slurred, stoner vocal style as de rigueur in American rock.
You're Living All Over Me (1987)
The album that consolidated Dinosaur Jr's sludge-rock dynamism also saw Mascis enter his despotic phase within the band. Bassist Lou Barlow vented his frustration and tension by hammering at his instrument, giving the album a ferocity that became an essential part of the band's make-up.
Veering in a more poppy direction, the third album precipitated Barlow's departure but spawned a worldwide hit in the indie anthem Freak Scene. Mascis has since denounced it as the band's worst album.
Green Mind (1990)
The first release on a major label saw Mascis take a more melodic turn in his guitar phrasing, almost making his instrument weep. Murph barely plays on the collection as his parts are performed by the increasingly megalomaniacal Mascis.
I Bet on Sky (2012)
The third album released after the founding trio's 2005 reunion sees Mascis wandering into blues territory and honing his singing style. His need to control the band now largely evaporated, the album features two Barlow numbers.
Dinosaur Jr, Oct 31, 8pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480 (advance, Cityline, Tom Lee, HKAPA, The Globe and other outlets), HK$495 (door). Inquiries: facebook.com/groups/songsforchildren