Rank Your Records: J Mascis Rates Dinosaur Jr. Albums from Bummer to Classic
We sat down with the frontman and unimpeachable guitar wizard, who notoriously does not like talking about his albums, to go through every single one of Dinosaur Jr.'s releases at length.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Dinosaur Jr. are an institution. Founded in 1984 in a whirlwind of feedback, distortion and the ol’ soft-loud dynamic that bands like Pixies and Nirvana would go on to popularize to greater commercial success, they influenced pretty much the next decade (at least) of alternative rock. They are a gearhead’s wet dream, yes—one of those bands whose crowds always include a small pocket of people more concerned with frontman and unimpeachable guitar wizard J Mascis’ pedalboard than getting swept away by what he’s playing. But they’re also a casual music fan’s greatest gift—a band whose obvious technical ability and pop melodies are wrapped unabashedly up in one another.
Dinosaur Jr.’s career can be sectioned into four seasons, if you will: the early years, the post-Lou Barlow years, the ten year hiatus between 1997 and 2007, and their current mid-season with Barlow back in the fold—wherein every single album has felt like embracing an old friend you only see once or twice a year, but the gaps are bridged by familiarity and the simple fact that you enjoy them more than anybody else. The band’s eleventh and most recent album, Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not, is a glorious journey of gonzo guitar licks and pop melodies that benefits from the rare feat of not being a minute longer than it needs to.
For 22 years, J Mascis—a man blatantly passionate about music but has also sounded tired of talking about it since the 80s—has stood unwaveringly at the helm, unbothered by the industry that crowds so thirstily around the band he has dedicated his life to, answering questions like what he thinks about when doing guitar solos with: “Oh, you know, what’s for dinner and… very weird thoughts.” Mascis once told Spin reporter Erik Davis that, “Interviews are stupid. Most of the time they want to talk about the album. I have nothing to say about it.” So, naturally, we thought it would be a great idea to sit down with him and talk at length about every single one of Dinosaur Jr.’s releases in order of his least to most favorite. I was expecting the idea to go down like a Fratellis guitar auction, but when I showed up, he had hand-drawn all the album artwork on sheets of A4 paper and pre-arranged them in a small room.
10. BUG (1988)
Noisey: Can’t say I didn’t see this coming. What’s wrong with Bug?
J. Mascis: I don’t know. Nothing. It’s just, uh… You know just the time when it was done was a bummer. So it reminds me of that.
It was your first commercial breakthrough album. Do you think maybe that’s part of why it’s your least favorite?
Maybe. There’s always the good with the bad.
There seems to be quite a trend where the album that brought a band to a wider audience is the one they’re either least or most fond of. Why do you reckon that is?
Yeah, we could’ve used a little more time making it but we just kinda forced it out.
How would you have done it differently if you had the time?
I just think I’d have some different songs. Like, we just did “Don’t” at the last minute as filler because we didn’t have enough stuff. It wasn’t not on our own terms, but you could tell that we just wanted to capitalize on our momentum. We had no fans on our first album so when we had our second, and people started to like us, we just kinda wanted to take that and keep going.
Why do you think a lot of people say Bug is their favorite when you don’t like it so much?
I think it was just the momentum. We’d come to England and played in Europe a little bit after the second album and people seemed to like us—it was like way better than what was happening in the states. But after coming here we started getting more popular in the states. I guess that was kind of a thing... Jimi Hendrix was the first one who did that—go to England to get more popular in America.
9. WITHOUT A SOUND (1994)
How do you feel about this?
I guess I liked it more at the time, but a lot of people didn’t like it when it came out. It was too polished, burnt out, kinda tired-sounding. We were jaded.
8. I BET ON SKY (2012)
No love for this?
I don’t really know why I put this where it is. I definitely like it I just like the others better.
When bands take a break for a significant amount of time there’s going to be some people who want you to sound the same as you always did and others who will be disappointed when you don’t do anything different. Is there anything that you achieve with the newer albums than you hadn’t done before?
7. BEYOND (2007)
This is the first album you released after your ten-year break. How was it being in the studio and writing together again after that?
We had to get used to it. We did all the newer albums at my house, in a pretty small room, just playing stuff over and over.
Would you say anything changed for you within that period of time that made you look at Dinosaur Jr. differently?
Yeah, you just realize that we have a certain sound and energy together that we wanted to preserve—the band dynamic had something to it. We’d play one show and hope that goes okay, so we do some more shows and it seems to go over well, then we tour, and we keep playing, and then we’re at the point where we’ve played so much we needed some new songs to play and decided to do an album.
Was writing new stuff important for you to keep touring? There are a lot of bands around at the moment who have reformed to tour old material that may or may not have gotten as much attention as it should’ve at the time—or they broke up before they got big.
I feel like if I’ve played these songs for myself and all the other people who’ve to come to see us, then if we’re gonna play again we might as well have something new for us and other people to listen to. That said, I do get annoyed when I see a band and they just only do new stuff. I saw Tom Petty a few years ago and Steve Winwood opened. Steve Winwood did all hits from his whole career and it was awesome, then Tom Petty played and he just kinda played a lot of… I mean... he has so many albums but I really like his first five albums and he only played maybe three songs from the five albums. For me as a fan, I liked Steve Winwood better at that show. So I understand. I do like to play old songs I think people wanna hear.
6. GREEN MIND (1991)
So, this was your first album after Lou Barlow left.
Yeah, I guess that our first album and Green Mind are our quirkiest albums. They probably sound most different from all the others. Since we’d kicked out Lou and were on a major label, we had more money to record but didn’t really know what we were doing. So it sounds a little weird, but it’s cool.
Did Lou leaving affect the way you wrote at all? You played more than you normally would have on Green Mind, right?
It was weird. It was just me, and Murph was kinda having some sort of breakdown, so we’d practice then Murph would just leave. We had the studio booked, but by the time we were going to record Murph only knew a couple of the songs, so I ended up having to play the drums on all of that record.
Going from releasing an album on SST to a major, was it cool to get a budget to do more things?
I was psyched about it, but it was just a weird combination of doing some things from the past and trying to do some stuff that would be newer and better sounding. We were using engineers from Bug and stuff, and they probably would get a better sound at their own studio that they knew but we went to other studios. None of us really knew what we were doing. So it ends up sounding kind of weird. Where You Been was more realized. We got an engineer that was used to those bigger studios and stuff. It sounded bigger.
5. DINOSAUR (1985)
The first album is sometimes a bone of contention with this column because some people fucking hate it and other people consider it one of their best.
It’s just weird and it doesn’t make much sense. I don’t know where it came from. In that sense, You’re Living All Over Me is more of a first record. Dinosaur is more like a pre-record. It’s not like we toured all these songs for five years and then made our first album. We made the album pretty much before we even played, so we could get gigs, and say, "Oh, we have an album."
Do you think you have a different mentality towards writing a record because they’re being released by a label as opposed to writing a record just because?
Huh, yeah, maybe. I guess that is a strange position to be in, especially if you’ve never been in a band before.
You described your initial concept for Dinosaur as ear bleeding country. Would you still describe it like that in retrospect?
Yeah that was the concept just of the band. 'Cause we were coming out of hardcore and we were like, “Hardcore is over we don’t wanna be a hardcore band so what are we gonna be?” So we had the concept first, that maybe this is a good direction to go in. I don’t think that album necessarily sounds like loud country… It sounds like a lot of things. We had different songs where you can hear different bands. We had our Joy Division song, you know? It was more that songs were directly influenced by certain things.
What do you think might happen if you played to an audience of hardcore country fans?
They would hate us. We’re the kind of band that people usually hate. We don’t really win fans from random audiences, we’re kind of more of a band you have to wanna go see because you like us already.
We played Lollapalooza once, and I think we played to a million people that summer or something—sold like ten records off the back of it. I guess we’re not popular, whatever that is. We don’t appeal to a vast audience. We’re always just really loud, and if you don’t know some music and it’s just really loud then you’re instantly annoyed by it… But if you like it, then you like it, but if you’re trying to buy a drink and the bartender can’t hear you because it’s just too loud, you just get annoyed.
4. FARM (2009)
I like Farm a lot. The songs, the way it sounds... It seemed a little bit better to me than Beyond.
3. WHERE YOU BEEN (1993)
How come this makes it so high in the ranks?
We were trying really hard and it was well realized for what we wanted to do. You know and it was post-Nirvana—everyone wondering who the next Nirvana would be…
That was weird, wasn’t it? That period where everyone was looking for the next Nirvana and bands like Butthole Surfers ended up with massive record deals.
Yeah, right. It was weird. The whole atmosphere was just strange. I felt everyone getting more jaded. Without A Sound is kind of the culmination of that... But this was still more hopeful that someone would be the new Nirvana, but then when nobody was. That was when people seemed to get more jaded.
Were the commercial heights that Nirvana reached something that you and other bands wanted as well? Or was it kind of like, well, I guess this is happening now so we might as well go as far as we can with it...
You’re Living All Over Me was kind of like our goal realized. We’re on SST and touring. Those were our goals, so anything else felt bizarre. As a kid, punk rock and stuff, you never thought of major labels. Being “mainstream” didn’t even cross my mind.
2. HAND IT OVER (1997)
You put out a pretty decent string of albums in quick succession and then took three years between Without A Sound and Hand It Over. After feeling tired and jaded with things, how do you get the momentum back?
That’s what’s interesting about Hand It Over, because… Yeah, I definitely felt psyched again. I really liked the album, but then that was the point where the major label gave up on it and didn’t even tell anyone it came out. We went on tour and people didn’t even know it had been released. It was kind of depressing. But I really liked the album. It was just hard to tour because they basically didn’t do anything to promote it.
Did it feel that way when you were writing it, that it would be your last record—at least for a while?
Maybe. I can’t remember really. I went to a meeting and heard the classic thing I never thought I’d hear, that I thought was just the silliest, stupid thing you used to hear if you go to a record company: “I don’t hear a single." I couldn’t believe I’d actually heard that coming out of somebody’s mouth. I knew that was the end for sure—like, are you seriously saying that right now? It’s just such a cliche. I really like that record. I like the songs. I guess I feel bad for it too because a lot of people don’t know it. I’ll play some song and they’re like, “What’s that from?” It’s the underdog.
Didn’t you do the artwork for it?
I did. It’s just annoying sometimes to try to find art, and I was just kind of like, "Oh I’ll just try to do it myself." That was a clay sculpture originally. I remember bringing it into the record company and someone was gonna take a picture.
You wrote a lot of this record at home. What put you off studio writing?
One day I was in the studio just sitting on the couch in New York, and I couldn’t... I was paralyzed somehow by the thought that it cost a thousand dollars a day to sit here on this couch, and stare out the window, and there’s not even a very good view of Manhattan or anything. Just like nothing, and sitting there it was all I could think of, and I was just kind of paralyzed by that thought.
1. YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME (1987)
You chose this to perform live in full at ATP in 2005. How was that?
Yeah, it’s easy just because we know it so well. We didn’t really have to learn any songs.
Is it true that You’re Living All Over Me is named after something you said to someone on tour?
We’re debunking urban myths here. Where’s it from?
I thought of it more like my sister… You know someone just like, bugging me at the time.
Is it strange realizing everything that you thought you’d do or wanted to do with the first album? Where do you go from there?
I know, it is weird. I never really had another goal. Just to keep going, but nothing specific. We wanted a good album, to get on SST so we could tour, and then I thought maybe by the time I got out of college we could just be touring all the time and I wouldn’t need to get a job.
You’ve had a pretty lengthy career in music. Is it difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm or energy you had in the beginning?
It’s hard to say. You do it and then you get sick of it, and you get jaded and you get depressed and then you come out of that and think, "Oh I guess I do like music" and just kind of keep going from there. I like playing live more as I get older. I really didn’t like to play before, but then you realize, "Oh I guess I like to play." Everything has seemed annoying at some point. So it kind of like ebbs and flows, it doesn’t go in one direction. When you get the band back together you appreciate what you had.
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Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not is out now on Jagjaguwar.