Playing Salt Lake City can be a dicey proposition for touring bands whose initial appearances attract surprisingly low turnouts. One bad show can turn off a group from ever returning to town—why not just take a day off?
The last time Dinosaur Jr. came through town, their gig didn’t exactly sell out. Drummer Emmett Patrick Murphy aka Murph is optimistic that their return on Halloween will be worth the stop—if only for the holiday crowds. The spooky night is a rather good fit for a band that, although not goth by any stretch, has its share of loud, dark tunes. “Freak Scene” and “In a Jar,” for example, touch on creepy subject matter cloaked in an album cover that’s Muppet-playful.
Sixteen years after the original lineup—Murph, Lou Barlow and J. Mascis— imploded over personal conflicts, Dinosaur Jr. continues to push the envelope. When the group reassembled four and a half years ago, Murph says “It felt like no time had passed.” What’s more, they remain mainstays in the indie-rock menagerie—a status that hardly goes to their heads.
“We just put a lot of work into it, so we kinda expect some recognition, but at the end we’re just three guys making music,” Murph says. “It surprises me how we’ve adapted. J. [Mascis] has a formula for songwriting, and keeps chugging them out.”
During the band’s hiatus, Murph played with the Lemonheads as well as some solo projects in the interim, a complete 180 from Dino days. “I didn’t really know them that well,” he admits, “and it’s a different kind of band. There were more girls at the shows, and we traveled to more places that I hadn’t been, like Brazil and Australia. It was more intense for a short period.”
Not that Dinosaur Jr. has ever been short on intensity. Playing a few new songs from their latest album Farm (Jagjaguwar), which balances out their previous material, Murph says he still enjoys songs from the old albums like Where You Been and Living All Over Me. “I think of our sound like Neil Young meets Black Sabbath, only with punk roots.” Add psychedelic brain-hemorrhaging levels of distortion and wah-wah, and you’re approximating it.
Things are less intense on the personal front.
“If any of that stuff that led to our breakup back in the day was going on now, there’s no way we could do this,” Murph says. “We were young [with] three strong egos. J. Mascis and Lou Barlow were both songwriters, and Lou was trying to find his songwriting voice. J. didn’t treat the band like a democracy back then, but now he wants input.”
What is Mascis, a man of few words, like out of the studio and offstage?
“It depends on his mood,” Murph says.
Well, obviously. What else? “If he’s interested in something, like studio equipment, he’s quite engaging.”
Ah, the legendary J. Mascis gear. Anyone with a custom Fender guitar named after them has gotta be some kind of hero in the axe department.
“He definitely knows what he wants,” Murph says. In addition to an entire array of Fenders—from Strats and Teles adorned with stickers of stuffed animals and flowers to his purple, sparkle-finish signature Jazzmaster—he’s got the riffs to switch off between them to get a good fretboard workout in a concert, one of the few serious soloists in a genre of music in which guitarists too often shy away from the solo because they see it as a demonstration of ego.
But somehow the atmosphere for the ultimate indie “power trio” has gotten lighter.
“We are tighter, and better players,” Murph has found. “It’s easier to play together. We don’t have to recreate the experience of the old days in our concerts. We still approach our music exactly the same.”
That is to say, among other things, LOUD!