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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

Dinosaur Jr.’s Fruitful (but Tumultuous) Reunion

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It was one of the most acrimonious breakups in the history of rock music that didn’t involve sex: Dinosaur Jr. lead J Mascis booted bassist Lou Barlow from the group in 1989, right before the underground-rock group made its inevitable leap to a major label. While Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr. thrived during the post-Nirvana alternative boom of the early ’90s, Barlow stewed in resentment, writing songs defaming Mascis and telling anyone who would listen about his ex-band-mate’s betrayal.

The re-release of Dinosaur Jr.’s first three albums was occasion enough to bring about the improbable reunion of the band’s original lineup of Mascis, Barlow and drummer Murph in 2005, though the homecoming hasn’t exactly been harmonious. Even after four years back together, Barlow feels the group could split again at any time.

“We take it day by day,” Barlow says. “That’s just a part of this band; there’s no security.”

Communication in the reunited Dinosaur Jr. remains as strained as it was in the ’80s. It was only through Mascis’ manager, for instance, that Barlow learned Mascis wanted the band to record a new album. Barlow was incredulous: The group was more or less functioning as a touring outfit, but the studio threatened to reopen old wounds.

“Just doing anything with J is a bizarre experience, let alone recording an album,” Barlow says. “He doesn’t discuss anything or talk about what we’re doing when we’re doing it. It’s very different from all the studio experiences I had after I was kicked out of Dinosaur, where there was a lot more communication. Going back to J’s way, I knew that was going to be agonizing.”

The sessions were strained, but the final product, 2007’s Beyond, was universally hailed as a return to form for the group. Even better was this year’s follow-up, Farm, a collection of lumbering, blistering pop songs featuring some of the best performances the group has ever caught on tape. Where the songs came slowly for Beyond—with Mascis even scrapping entire sessions, something Barlow had never seen him do before—Barlow says everything clicked for Farm.

“What I like about the record is the energy of it,” Barlow says. “We were in good form when we were recording. We had been touring a lot, and we didn’t take much of a break before we started recording, so we were greased. Our playing was just really good, and that just carried the record.”

Barlow says it’s that spark that keeps him in the band despite the personal tensions, though it helps that he’s learned not to take Mascis’ eccentricities personally anymore.

“Dinosaur was a very pivotal experience for me, a formative experience, so to come back to it and rewrite the ending is a gift,” he says. “Being able to move beyond something and forgive, that’s what makes life interesting. Holding grudges is just the most destructive thing you can do.

“I’ve always understood the importance of this band from the beginning,” Barlow continues. “I’ve had a unique perspective: I’ve been a part of the band, but as a music fan, and as an avid music listener, I understand the gift that J has. I know how powerful his melodies can be and how interesting his guitar playing is. Music has to be more important than all the personal stuff.”

Dinosaur Jr. plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, Nov. 19.