Forced to push their album back due to COVID-19, Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis opens up about their first new record in five years.
In a perfect world, Dinosaur Jr. would have likely already wrapped up touring for their latest album, Sweep it Into Space. Their 12th album (and fifth since their mid-’00s reactivation), it was originally set to arrive in the middle of 2020. However, any hopes for a ‘perfect world’ situation were swiftly halted due to the advent of a global pandemic.
Having recorded the album in late 2019, recruiting Kurt Vile as an extra musician and co-producer, the record’s creation seemed to begin relatively normal, with it seeming like business as usual for the iconic trio of J Mascis (vocals, guitars), Lou Barlow (bass, vocals), and Murph (percussion). However, by the time 2020 rolled around, it became clear that the record’s arrival wouldn’t quite go as planned.
With a bit of time on their hands, and an inability to tour, the record sat unheard in the band’s hands for a full year, with a burning desire for it to be out in the world growing ever-stronger.
Now, more than a year on from when it was first completed, Dinosaur Jr. have officially unleashed their new record, Sweep it Into Space. A masterful showcase of what made them alt-rock icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s vintage Dinosaur Jr., with an undeniable modern sheen.
To celebrate the record’s release, frontman J Mascis spoke to Rolling Stone about its creation, its arrival, and their slow return to touring.
Let’s start with the standard question: how you dealt with the events of 2020? Did you manage to get through it all safely?
Yeah, I didn’t hold up too well. I didn’t have a great time, definitely. It was a bit rough.
It was probably fair to say not many people had a good time over the last year, so you’re probably not alone there.
Are you the sort of person to use down time like that to work on new music, or given that you had a new album on the way, are you the sort to leave it until it was out in the world?
Yeah, I was definitely more in tour mode having finished an album at the beginning of the pandemic, so I did come around and start to try and work on some other stuff for a while. Nothing was going on so I… Yeah, I was trying to write some songs for a solo album and then I finished an instrumental album, another Heavy Blanket album. I hope that’s going to come out at the end of the year.
It sounds like you’ve always got content in the works then, so there’s no need to worry about a dry patch at all.
Yeah it helped having something to do a little bit, like [riding] my bike. If I could ride then bike and then do something in the studio for at least an hour or something I felt better about my day, I guess.
Obviously it was not a perfect year, given that the album itself was originally envisioned as being released in 2020. At what point did you realise that it simply wasn’t going to arrive last year?
I don’t remember, y’know. Once we realised we wouldn’t be able to tour in September we put it off. And I was willing to put it off even longer, but everyone else wanted to get it out now. It’s been done for a year or so. It’s hard these days to see the point of releasing something unless you can tour off of it. I don’t know, that’s what’s been going on – just release the record as a flyer for the tour coming up.
There were a lot of artists who decided just to release their records so that fans would have something to listen to. Was that something you considered at all?
Not really [laughs]. I mean, just ’cause the albums these days aren’t really… Y’know, everything’s sort of given away and it’s not valued as much or something, it just seems like you’ve done all this work for nothing then, or something, I don’t know.
“It’s hard these days to see the point of releasing something unless you can tour off of it.”
It was also said that you found the time to add a bit more to the record after the fact. Was that sort of a blessing in disguise in that sense?
Yeah, I just had to finish the album and I didn’t spend extra time tweaking on it or anything. We had it mixed and mastered by the end of April, and so we kind of stayed on the schedule and I just had to do some stuff on my own, which I’m not that great at. And play some keyboards, which is a little bit hard for me.
But yeah, I definitely didn’t tweak on it because of the extra time. It was like it was done at the end of April and then we decided to postpone it after that. We haven’t done anything to it since then.
Going back a little bit, this record arrives a few years after the last album, and following a solo record from yourself. How far back were the seeds for this new Dinosaur Jr. record sewn? Have all these tracks been in the works for a while, or were they all comparatively recent compositions?
Yeah, I pretty much just write ’em for this album. I wrote ’em in 2019, pretty much. Maybe the keyboard one I had parts of it before, I can’t remember exactly, but I feel like I’ve had that one a little longer, maybe.
From a musical point of view, there was a press release which noted that Dinosaur Jr. produce a “beautiful new version of the rock continuum”. Is this something that you all consciously try to do, or is it more of a happy byproduct of your creativity? You seem far too humble to be hung up on such grandiose ideas.
Yeah, I’m not sure what that even means.
I can sort of see where that idea comes from though, because while the album does feature a lot of different genres, it feels as though they’re sort of filtered through that Dinosaur Jr. sound.
Yeah, I wasn’t thinking of us doing a ‘new sound’ or anything, it was just like, ‘These are the songs I came up with’. Yeah, maybe Kurt Vile adds a little more dimension to some of them, but I just think of it as, ‘Here’s the songs I came up with this year, and here’s the album’.
Speaking of Kurt Vile, he’s exactly the sort of person one could envision working with Dinosaur Jr., so how did you all get involved with Kurt?
Just I liked his records and then we… He opened for us and then we’d hang out for a bit. I had him do a similar thing on my first solo album [2011’s Several Shades of Why] like, play some stuff, and y’know, I used some of the stuff that I liked from what he played. But I also had some other people do the same thing on the solo album. Then, y’know, we just played together over the years and the drummer I was playing now is his drummer, and we just hung out quite a bit.
What sort of things do you feel he brings into the mix? Obviously he played some guitar parts, but from a musician’s point of view, what is it about Kurt that makes you say he’s the sort of person you need on a Dinosaur Jr. record?
Just, y’know, he has a different personality, different ideas, and he’s willing to just try out stuff; he’s not shy. So yeah, his willingness [to] just kind of add what he thinks of and I can just take or leave it, whatever he’s doing if I like it or if I think he adds something I use it. And he’s not bummed out if I don’t use something.
He seems to have that sort of personality that would mesh with the band. At the end of the day, he’s a music-lover and he would definitely understand what it is you’re going for.
Yeah, and he’s a bit… He lightens the vibe between me, Lou, and Murph. He makes everything a bit lighter when he’s around.
Kurt is also the first person to take on a co-producer credit in many years. What was it like to have someone else involved in the production process for the first time in a long time?
It’s fine, I don’t know. I didn’t think much about it ’cause I guess it’s just a title. Nobody really knows what a producer is so it could be anything. I’ve been a producer and I don’t know what I was doing. It’s just kind of a nebulous job; you don’t know really what it is, and if someone gives you that title then that’s what it is, but you’re just kind of helping out in whatever capacity.
I feel a lot of artists fall into that position where they find themselves producing despite not really know what it is or how they got there.
Yeah, it’s like how Steve Albini refuses to take producer credit. And when I’ve been a producer, I didn’t like it after a while because I didn’t really know what I was doing there, but I guess I was helping. It’s a weird feeling because if you’re not in the band you’re just hanging around and telling them they suck or whatever [laughs]. It’s just kind of weird.
With the album arriving now, you guys are also making a return to the live stage, beginning with a live streamed concert at The Sinclair this May. The experience of performing a live-streamed show with no audience must be such a strange one for a band such as Dinosaur Jr.?
Yeah, it is. I mean, we did one earlier but it wasn’t even live – we just recorded it all and didn’t put it out live. That was really exhausting. It’s really weird to play without an audience [because] you get no energy back so you’re forced to just use all of your energy to keep the thing going, and having it being live seems like it would be even harder. Yeah, it’s hard to play without an audience giving you the energy back.
It could almost feel reminiscent of a rehearsal jam in a sense, since it’s just yourselves playing with no one else around.
No, because you are performing and you’re trying to play the songs. I don’t even sing when we’re rehearsing, or something. So that would be a big difference. Just singing to no one… I mean, I guess there’s someone there, but it’s hard just giving all this energy and not getting any back. I feel like you just run out of steam. It’s really important to have that energy from the audience to keep the show going. I was just struck by how drained I was by the end of it. It really drove home that the audience gives you a lot of energy. I was just ready to take a nap after that. It really did me in.
After that, you’re playing regular live shows again. How does it feel to actually finally being able to hit the road again? Obviously there’s some apprehension for fear that shows may be rescheduled or cancelled, but it’s been such a long time coming that it must just be so relieving to get out of the house and onto the stage?
Yeah, in May we’re doing a couple of these drive-in shows which we’ve done a couple of already, and those were pretty cool. So that doesn’t seem bad, but then in the Fall we’re supposed to tour, and that just doesn’t feel real so it’s hard to [feel] if I believe they’re really going to happen, I guess. I’m just kind of like, “Yeah, I’ll put it on the books.’ Sure, we want to tour, but is it going to happen? It doesn’t feel real, like it could really happen, I guess [laughs]. So I’ll just wait until it actually happens before I… I’m sure it’ll be weird.
It’s a long way away obviously, but we’re definitely hoping Australia will one day be able to see Dinosaur Jr. again.
Yeah, we were talking about coming over in July, but then as we were researching, the quarantine thing seems a little dicey. Y’know, if you get stuck in some shit hotel for two weeks, that’ll be torturous. So if you can’t tell you’ll be in a shitty hotel or a good hotel, it’s kind of nerve-wracking.
Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep it Into Space is out now via Jagjaguwar/Inertia Music.