Dinosaur Jr.’s Murph On Songwriting, Touring & Getting In Each Others’ Heads

A mane of silver hair bops incessantly as a guitar radiating from pure distortion shreds away on stage right. A frizzy mop of curly brown hair does the same as an equally fuzzy bass churns out the low end on stage left. A chrome dome keeps the beat as a flurry of drums ricochet from centre stage. This is the imagery that sticks in one’s head when Dinosaur Jr. are performing. The power trio of guitarist J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy founded the group all the way back in 1984, barely out of high school in western Massachusetts. Although both Barlow and Murph would splinter away from the fold in 1989 and 1993, respectively, the classic lineup decided to reconvene for a spell in 2005. Nearly 12 years and four studio albums later, the born-again grunge-rockers are still here and are still playing as loud, hard and as fast as they did in their heydey.

The band are currently in the country as a part of a headlining national tour, although its first few days were seemingly born under a bad sign. A typo on Barlow’s visa meant he was almost late for the first show in Sydney, while Murph faced similar issues that kept him away from said show entirely. Thankfully, his role was dutifully and more than capably filled by former sit-in and Kurt Vile alum Kyle Spence; and all three are officially in the country to complete the run this week with shows in Perth, Adelaide and a weekend in Melbourne that is very much sold out.

Before all of that, however, Murph got on the line with Music Feeds to talk about how the band writes, the cycle on which they survive, skating and the extended visit Murph made on his last time here.

Watch: Dinosaur Jr. – ‘Goin Down’

Music Feeds: Both J and Lou have visited Australia since the last Dinosaur Jr. tour in 2013, but on that run you ended up staying longer than either of them to work with a band called Dumb Numbers…

Murph: That’s right, yeah. That was the first album that I played on [2013’s Dumb Numbers], and then we actually just did a second one [2016’s imaginatively-titled Dumb Numbers II]. I actually think the one that we put out this past summer is actually a better album than the first one that we did, but for whatever reason there was less hype around it. That first album that we did, which I recorded parts for in Melbourne, was kind of just pieced together over a really long period of time. There were a bunch of different recordings from all these different places. With this new record, though, we actually went into a studio and did it a bit more traditionally. I think that it shows in the songs themselves.

MF: How did Dumb Numbers II factor in with the schedule for recording Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not? Were you recording them in tandem, or did time allow for one to be recorded after the other?

M: Thankfully, the Dumb Numbers record was done with recording before I started on the Dinosaur record. I had a whole bunch of downtime the winter before, so Adam [Harding, Dumb Numbers frontman] actually came out to Massachusetts and we just knocked out a whole bunch of songs at a studio here.

MF: That actually brings up an interesting point about the creative process behind each member of the band. Both J and Lou have solo projects and have put out new albums under their own name in the last few years. Lou even put out a new Sebadoh record awhile back. Do you tend to work in cycles, or are you the kind of person that always likes to have something to be working on?

M: Personally, I just try to do one thing at a time. Dinosaur’s the main thing, and that takes up a fair amount of our time as it is. When all three of us are working on the band – whether that’s making a record or touring it – we don’t usually have a lot of other stuff going on. With that said, it actually took us something like three-and-a-half years between putting out the last record [2012’s I Bet on Sky] and making a new one. We were still touring and doing festivals and things like that, but we just didn’t make a record. That gave us a lot of time to work on our own projects.

MF: When Music Feeds spoke with Black Francis of the Pixies last year, we discussed the interesting chronology of the band in that the reunited version of the group had been around longer than they had been in their initial run. With the release of Give a Glimpse, Dinosaur Jr. entered a similar era on account of there now being more albums released by the classic lineup in the 21st century than there was when the band was first around. When the three of you first got back together after all those years, did you have an idea that there would be any sort of longevity? Was that something in the back of your mind when you recorded Beyond?

M: When we first got back together ten years ago, I think we just thought it was going to be touring. We’d tour for a year-and-a-half, just playing songs off those first three records. We didn’t even think that we would do another one. When we were done with that first initial tour, we were kind of wondering out loud what to do. We came to the conclusion that if we were going to keep touring, we needed to make a new record. J was like, “Yeah, I guess we should.” Honestly, it’s just been like that ever since. We’ve come off another tour, wondered what to do next and then said that we should make another record if we wanted to keep going. It’s never really been more conscious than that.

MF: When it does come to writing a record, what is the dynamic between the three of you? Do you simply listen to J or Lou’s riffs and then try out different drum parts for them; or is it more of a three-way split of songwriting?

M: It’s been the same since day one. J is the one who brings in the ideas. I honestly think that he thinks of music less as a songwriter and more as a composer – like a classical composer, an arranger, that sort of thing. When he has an idea for a song, he kind of hears all of the parts. He’ll go through these spurts of creativity where he’ll just knock out a dozen or so basic tracks for songs. He’ll record drum demos and some scratch guitar, maybe some minimal vocals, and the skeleton of the song will already be there. Once that’s done, he tends to give me those demos first so I can learn the drum parts and all that stuff. We get in the studio and we just lay it down. With Lou, it’s a much more organic process. He prefers to just play the songs that he’s written a bunch, seeing what we come up with. Maybe he’ll stop halfway through and ask for a tom fill at a certain point, but apart from that he just likes to let the songs develop on their own. It almost feels like a normal band. [laughs]

We’ll just be jamming on these songs, seeing if there’s anything more to add to it. At the same time, however, we’re tracking the drums. We have something to base the song off now. Once the three of us have really had a chance to play it out, that’s when it really becomes a Dinosaur song. That’s how it comes to sound like the three of us as opposed to just a J record. That’s the way we’ve done it since we first started making records back in the 80s. We’ve just kind of perfected that – it’s a really seamless process now. It’s almost like a factory – J can hand me a song and I can immediately get in his head. I’ll know exactly how a song should go. J has always been the kind of guitar player where he writes his parts directly with the kick and snare in mind. The beat has to be pretty much identical to how it is in the demo. It’s all about the way that the three of us interpret it. The feel of the song really changes when you have three people start playing it.

MF: The video for ‘Tiny’, Give a Glimpse‘s lead single, features perhaps the greatest visuals ever used in any video ever – a bulldog on a skateboard. It’s worth mentioning, though, that skate culture has been a part of the band for awhile. You’ve been featured in skate videos, had a Dinosaur Jr. skateboard made and even had another music video of yours, ‘Over It’, prominently feature it. Was this another aspect in which J held the influence, or was skateboarding a part of your life growing up too?

M: I skated a lot when I was in my teens. J and I didn’t really skate together growing up – I was living in Connecticut at the time, in a different town – but we both got into it. What happened when the band started back in the ’80s was that we were hanging around a whole bunch of people from the skateboarding world at the time. They really liked the music, and soon other skaters on the scene picked up on our music. It started appearing more and more as the soundtrack to various skate videos. It really seemed like a no-brainer to feature skating in our own music videos. For us, it was a natural progression – doing those videos has been really fun.

Watch: Dinosaur Jr. – Tiny

MF: With the Australian tour drawing closer, what are some of your fondest memories of performing and visiting here?

M: It’s the vibe of the place that I’m the most fond of. The shows are always great, the crowds are always great. It also happens to be summer more or less every time that we come out there, which is great for us considering we’re coming from an American winter. It’s also a lot more relaxed in Australia. In the States or Europe, you’re on a bus every single day and just driving and driving to get from one show to the next. In Australia, you actually get to stay in each place for a day or two. Sleeping in an actual bed, getting up at a reasonable hour, hitting up a local coffee shop… it might not seem like much to anyone else, but for us that’s a really different and very welcome experience. It’s a lot more enjoyable. I love the European feel of Melbourne, I love the beach in Byron Bay. Even though we’re touring and we’re working, it still sort of feels like a holiday to us.

Dinosaur Jr. continue their Australian tour tonight in Adelaide. See dates and details here.

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