[have been struggling to write my definitive piece on Madlib and his music, a quest begun for the first issue of Loose Lips Sink Ships, four pages strung together from a five minute photo shoot and a ten minute garbled phone interview. Spring of this year, 'Lib came over to the UK to promote his second Quasimoto album, The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, and I got to meet him in person. i still don't feel i've quite done his trippy swarm of ideas justice yet, but this piece for Plan B was a genuine attempt...]
In Jeff Jank’s loopy, cut’n’paste mind, Quasimoto is a Kool Aid-red space-alien with pointy ears like a squirrel, a big-assed snout halfway between a hippo and a pig, a doobie perma-glued to his sneering lip, his eyes heavy-liddedly gazing at the ass that passes his brownstone palace of paranoia. Across Jank’s sleeve artwork of Quasimoto’s two albums to date, 2000’s The Unseen and this year’s The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, the luminous blob (at different points red, snot-green and ice-blue) nonchalantly tosses demo tapes out the window of a speeding motorcar, his victim tied helplessly between the fins on the trunk; sprays graffiti on a wall while dressed like a member of Run DMC; split’s a 40 and a spliff with his producer Madlib in the back of a grotty taxi-cab; stabs an enemy in the spine with a trident after bashing his face n with a brick and/or hammer; and stares up the skirt of a young girl, gazing blankly at her white-pantied undercarriage. You’ve got to forgive Jank; Quasimoto’s music stirs up such visions, a rich and shimmering mess of twisted samples and tweaked verses that pieces together a vile and virulently alive caricature of the mean streets of America. Through Quasimoto’s verses stroll a menagerie of the forgotten, winos and street people, whores and pimps, criminals and their victims. Fringed and laced with dope-paranoia, it’s a colourful and profane nightmare, all-consuming and overwhelming, hilarious and terrifying, bleak and strangely affectionate. Its like plugging into the lurid, neon-toned world of Corky McCoy, the illustrator whose psychedelic street paintings housed Miles Davis’s ‘On The Corner’ albums, and who helped translate Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert character for Saturday Morning Cartoons - and wouldn’t Quas make a fine subject for a show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim strand, in the vein of Aqua Teen Hunger Force or the masterful Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law? Like McCoy’s paintings, Quasimoto’s music bleeds with a sense of acidic heightened reality, Quas twisting his gritty world into comical shapes for his own jaded, morally-blank entertainment. The Unseen opened with ‘Welcome To Violence’, a 49 second skit stolen from some obscure spoken-word album, setting the tone for the album, preaching menacingly of the evils of sex and violence. Promo copies for The Further Adventures opened with this exact same track in its entirety (it’s cut short for the official release), which this writer merely ascribed to producer Madlib’s legendarily off-kilter creativity; its message still holds true for the latter album, which similar inspects the grime underneath its guilty fingernails with an obscene and infectious relish. But this is no sleazy faux-gangsta thrill-by-proxy trip; there’s ugly sex and uglier violence in Quasimoto’s world, because that’s the way it is. Batman had his Gotham, Homer Simpson has his beloved Springfield, and Quasimoto has the swarming mess of sin and avarice he lives in. What they also have in common is, every single one of them is a fictional character.
Deep in Madlib’s lair, The New Loopdigga’s Hideaway - a studio tucked modestly away somewhere in San Francisco - the day’s creativity has begun. Within these cramped walls, the producer - christened Otis Jackson Jr, son of an R&B singer and his main songwriter, grand-son and nephew to legendary jazz musicians - has recorded hours of music under a plethora of alter-egos. The Loopdigga. The Beat Conductor. One-man perv-jazz instrumentalists, Yesterday’s New Quintet. Jaylib (with Slum Village producer Jay Dee). Madvillain (with fellow rap psychedelicist MF Doom). Today, however, is a Quasimoto session. Perhaps you can tell, by the clouds of weed gathering near the gloomy ceiling, or the scattered records - from treasured rarities to mysterious thrift-store acquisitions - piled next to the turntables, where ‘Lib is slamming the needle deep into the vinyl with slapdash inspiration, chipping nonsensical slivers of soul, jazz and comedy away to flavour his own concoctions. The giveaway, however, comes when ‘Lib steps up to the mic, to give voice to his most beloved creation, stink-fingered ghetto tearaway Quasimoto. His beats slowed down to quarter speed, the producer/MC delivers the lines like his lips were dragging through molasses. This is how Quasimoto gets his trademark pitch, a couple of notes higher than Eminem, like he’s still giddy after huffing on a cocktail of helium and laughing gas. There are so many ‘Madlib’s out there, the Madlib who produces records for Lootpack, the Madilb who records as Yesterday’s New Quintet, the Madlib who pretends he’s Quasimoto… Which is the real Madlib? “I’m Madlib The Loopdigga, I’m Madlib the Beat Conductor, I’m Madlib the asshole, if you want,” he slurs with a chuckle, chowing down on chicken in a London Nando’s during a whirlwind press trip. “I wanna be Madlib the Sleepin’ Guy right now, huh huh huh.” Otis Jackson Jr is a tired man right now, though I know from experience he’s not the world’s greatest interview subject at the best of times. Otis spends almost every waking hour thinking up beats and tracks, toying with his turntable and writing lyrics; its just what he does. He estimates we’ve heard barely 10% of the music he’s made, and he’s similarly reluctant to offer much of himself up in interview. Not that he’s holding anything back - facts are surrendered willingly, and he demystifies what he can of his various working practices. He even swears weed isn’t as crucial to the Quasimoto sound as the albums’ constant hosannas to the herb would suggest: “It’s not important, but it’s what I like to do,” he says, “I can make music with or without weed, it’s nothing special. Back in the days it used to help, but now I’m used to weed; it doesn’t really phase me now. My mind’s so open already it doesn’t even matter.” And the constant references to weed and its creativity-enhancing powers on the records? “It’s just comedy. For people who are barely smoking, and the people who know what we’re talking about.” Comedy is a key character of Quasimoto music. Not only are Quas’s various adventures mostly ludicrous and hilarious - albeit of a very Furry Freak Brothers/National Lampoon Radio Hour wit - many of the wild, vagrant voices heard on the album are excerpted from old Laff Records, comedians like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. “It’s about having fun,” says ‘Lib. “A lot of people are too serious right now, things are getting’ crazy. I’m just trying to keep the fun coming, throw up a little comedy. “I’m, like, basically toned down,” he continues, sounding for a moment like the thirty-something family man he actually is. “My shit’s not all out there like Quasimoto’s. I’m chillin’, he’s crazy. If I’m in a room full of people, I’ll probably just sit there and say nothing. Quas ain’t like that.” Though he treads a very solitary path, Quas has some homies who ride with him. There’s MF Doom, ‘Lib’s partner in Madvillain. “Doomsday was my favourite album for a long while,” remembers ‘Lib. “I called him up, sent him some stuff. He wanted to rap over Yesterday’s New Quintet, but I told him I had another idea. He’s a cool cat. He’s complex, he’s not simple. He’s hard to explain. Our lifestyles are kinda the same, except for the stuff that doesn’t matter. We don’t even have to talk, we could work together all day and not say a word, and it will be cool.” Quasimoto has another partner in Crhyme, a croaky voice from the dawn of Blaxploitation, yelling his wisdoms and his madness into the uncaring din like Quasimoto’s own Mudbone. Melvin Van Peebles is the godfather of rap, after his soundtrack for his pioneering and self-financed slab of Blaxploitation cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Infamously, he recorded his teenaged son Mario - now a film-maker himself - losing his virginity to a prostitute and set it to music. Madlib is now working on Van Peebles’ next album. “He’s crazy, man,” laughs ‘Lib at the thought of Van Peebles. “The first time I met him he grabbed me and told me, ‘I’m gonna kill you, motherfucker!’ He was all in my shit. He’s legendary, I like him…”
For his insane sonic creativity, for the mythos he weaves into his tangled records, and for his increasing cult status among clued-in hip-hop fans, Madlib is the genre’s own Lee Perry. It’s another alter-ego, perhaps, a comparison that he likes. “I’m inspired by Lee Perry, read books on him, watched documentaries. He’s crazy. Legendary. I would love to be like him. I’m kinda productive like him. I don’t have a copy of everything I’ve recorded, but J Rocc of the World Famous Beat Junkies, he has a complete collection, so I’m always hitting him up to hear stuff, and he says I’m trippin’, I’m on some Lee Perry shit.” Madlib seems most comfortable playing out these alter-egos, the hip-hop Lee Perry, the switchblade-wielding cartoon character Quasimoto, or five dues-paying jazzbo cats called Yesterday’s New Quintet. Quas is still the dominant persona, however. “He’s mischievous, he’s badly behaved,” ponders ‘Lib. “He’s the reason I don’t have to act shit out, huh huh huh.” Quasimoto is an archetype in the line of Stagger Lee, a figure of violent, attractive mischief. Is it more fun to be Quasimoto than Madlib? “My girlfriend don’t like it,” he snorts. “She thinks he’s real. That’s why this is our last album together. He stole my girl.”
[this piece was written for Kerrang! in February of this year. i've never really been a NIN fan, but got deep into Trent's music while researching the assignment, which i took mainly to hang out with Aaron from the Icarus Line (which ended up not happening, but i met some wonderful people out in LA, and it was lots of fun).]
Five years. It’s a long time by most people’s standards, but when such a period passes between albums by Nine Inch Nails, the turbulent electro-noir behemoth conducted by Trent Reznor, its par for an increasingly elaborate course. Those seduced by the dark, minimal fury invoked by NIN’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine – the sound of gothic electro savagely torn apart by malevolent noise, Reznor wielding his words like a surgeon – had to wait half a decade for it’s follow-up, The Downward Spiral. Recorded in the same house on California’s Cielo Drive where members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ brutally and hatefully murdered actress Sharon Tate and a number of her ‘beautiful people’ friends in August 1969, the album expanded upon Reznor’s bitter visions, a vast but personal epic that wasn’t the work of a band but, rather, an increasingly obsessive studio artist who would splice together all manner of noises to create the exact soundscape he envisaged. A masterpiece of its genre – a masterpiece, full-stop – it was supported by a similarly-grandiose stage show he toured across the world. Once that ended, he went straight into the studio to supervise tourmate Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album, Antichrist Superstar, initiating a chain of events that would ultimately sunder their relationship. Still, somehow, he managed to deliver NIN’s third album – the vast, troubled, majestic The Fragile – within five years, despite the fact that Reznor and his long-time production partner Alan Moulder ultimately handed a mess of sessions (featuring engineering by Steve Albini, mix-assistance from Dr Dre, and the talents of two Buddhist choirs) to legendary rawk producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction) to make sense of. Longer, grander, more elaborate than The Downward Spiral, The Fragile was followed by an equally larger (but not necessarily better) live show. And after that… Well, it would be churlish to say, nothing. Sure, the five years that followed saw no trace of Reznor’s trademark flurry of side-project activity, the production jobs and soundtrack work that fed his legendary workaholism. But they were, perhaps, the most important five years in Reznor’s life, as he himself will intimate – a period of intense self-investigation, a psychological shelf-clearing resulting in With Teeth, an album that startles with its clarity, with its renewed vigour. A catalogue of grievances, perhaps, like all his records, but possessed with more of a will to fight back than any other Nine Inch Nails release to date.
Certainly, the man who greets us this morning, in a cavernous but unassuming photography studio deep in the wilds of California, outwardly exudes health and calm, skin tanned, muscles bulging, eyes bright and sharp. Trent Reznor has never been a man tongue-tied in the face of a journalist’s Dictaphone, but the candour and eloquence of his revelations – regarding five years of change, of relocation, of trauma, and of realisation – is startling. And he hardly hesitates to share them; within seconds of a simple opening question as to his movements over the last half-decade, he’s telling all, with nary a twitch. The Solutions began as the tour for The Fragile wound down; the Problems began much earlier. “I reached a point in my life where I had to get my shit together, figure out that there was a human being that was being neglected,” he muses, sipping a black coffee, in an impersonal side-room. “There was a persona that had run its course. I needed to get my priorities straight, my head screwed on. Instead of always working, I took a couple of years off, just trying to figure out who I was, and working out if I wanted to keep doing this or not. I had become a terrible addict; I needed to get my shit together, figure out what had happened. “I always thought I was pretty average when it came to drinking and everything else,” he continues, unflinchingly. “We toured The Downward Spiral a real long time, nobody had a house, we just stayed on tour. And it was great, but when the tour ended I went straight into doing the Antichrist record with Manson, and pretty soon I realised, I get fucked up a lot. Pretty much every day I get fucked up. But I’m functioning. “I didn’t realise at the time, but that was the beginning of a pretty intense struggle; it was impacting upon my life. I was drinking, but a few drinks in me and if someone suggesting getting some cocaine, it would seem like a fantastic idea. And it still seemed like a great idea 24 hours later, picking through the grain of the carpet looking for more [laughs]. After a while I realised, I wasn’t in control. The price wasn’t just feeling bad the next day; I was starting to hate myself. That led to a path of fucking around with it, procrastinating, until I decided there was a decision to be made, which was either to get better, or to die.” He pauses, just for a moment. “And, unexpectedly, my life’s been exponentially better since then. It was four years ago, and it’s led to a series of changes, a shake-up in the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my life, with my best friend, the manager I started off with. I realised, with my newfound sense of clarity, that we didn’t have a healthy relationship. “And my moving from New Orleans, to California…” he explains. “I got tired of being ‘out of the loop’, I guess. I have a tendency to isolate myself. What attracted me to New Orleans was that it was like living on a different planet. You were left alone. If you enjoyed ‘leaving the planet’, too, it was a good place to be.” The next step was a course in psychotherapy, “Because I thought, what the fuck, whatever it takes. My way sure wasn’t working. I always thought I was smart, that I could ‘lick’ anything because I’m smart enough to work anything out. It’s been a very humbling learning experience, of being right in the gutter – its one thing to talk about hitting the bottom, to flirt with it, this romantic notion of a dark side. Embracing it and really getting deep into it? I don’t ever wanna go there again. I’ve been there, and it was not good.”
For Nine Inch Nails’ artistic landscape, that ‘dark side’ has always been there. It informs Reznor’s every lyric, his flirtations with it, his panicked and disgusted recoil from it. Maybe it’s an obsession; he knows he’s drawn to it, but he can’t shake the suspicion that it stalks him, too. “Like recording The Downward Spiral in the ‘Manson’ house,” he laughs, “We didn’t go searching for that house, it crept up on us. We chose it only because it was the best location, and when the facts came out, we just thought, well, that’s an interesting piece of weird Americana we just inhabited. I never dreamed I’d still be talking about it with journalists ten years later. When we left the house, they were tearing it down, so I had the front door shipped to my studio in New Orleans, which, out of pure-necessity, had been a funeral home ten years before. It makes for the dream press-pack, I know,” he grins wryly, “But that was never our conscious intention.” Nevertheless, he takes great relish in relaying this next macabre chapter in the NIN storybook, further proof for Reznor that The Dark Side is pursuing him and not just the other way around. “I recently closed my Nothing studios in New Orleans, and Alan Moulder bought the Mixing Console on which we recorded a number of projects – it’s the best desk he’s ever used,” grins Reznor. “The guy who re-assembled it at Alan’s studio made an interesting discovery, though. These huge circuit boards are usually constructed by one guy, and the guy who built this one was an obsessive/compulsive, which isn’t good in life but is apparently great if you have to wire up 96 channels of sound for a recording studio. Anyways, one day this guy goes into the woods and kills his girlfriend with a circuit board tool. And the guy who was re-assembling this desk discovered the word ‘cunt’ etched into one of the chips.” This is the second time Reznor has uttered the word ‘cunt’ in the interview. The first is in reference to a little lyrical investigation, an idle musing on the appearance of the word ‘Love’ in two of the album’s song titles, particularly the vituperative ‘Love Is Not Enough’, and the question of whether either song was written about fleeting ex-paramour Courtney Love. “I would never…” he snaps back. “She doesn’t bother me enough to make me write a song that has anything to do with that cunt. No.” Even if their targets are kinda veiled, the lyrics to With Teeth – speaking with the wisdom of Reznor’s recent revelations – are prime NIN. Unlike previous albums, which were written with a concept in mind, Reznor feels With Teeth works simply as an album of “thirteen songs that are friends with each other”. There are themes, however. “After I got clean, it felt like I’d landed on a different planet somehow. It looks the same, kinda, but everything is different,” he explains. “Learning lessons from listening to people, realising the humbling truth that I don’t know everything, and that my way isn’t necessarily the best way. The idea was for the record to start from a place of panic and fear, and gradually find a sense of acceptance. It’s a difficult journey that begins with a nightmare, the nightmare of what I was going through. “Shortly after I got clean, 9/11 happened,” he sighs, tackling another key influence. “It feels like we’re in this weird police state now. The government isn’t telling us the truth, fear is now being pumped into our homes as a great motivator to just do what you’re told.” This sentiment is most clearly expressed on the brutal martial force of With Teeth’s first single, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds’. It’s as close as Reznor feels he can get to a hectoring anti-Bush track, and one he admits “Is very close to bashing people over the head with the message”. As a protest song – and as a NIN song, also – it’s fine, however, a Molotov collision of fist-pumping rhetoric and pneumatic noise. Like so many NIN, it is the sound of sensitive souls stung into action by an all-enveloping sense of disgust. “I was and am just so filled with rage about what’s happened here,” he admits. “I was sitting in my house when 9/11 happened, my Dad called me and said, ‘Turn on your TV, we’re getting attacked!’ So I turned it on, and a couple of minutes later the second plane hit. One of my dearest friends, who’s sort of like my ‘mother’ down in New Orleans, came over and we hung out. It was weird, we didn’t know if ‘it’ was all over, what was happening.” Reznor admits that he’s not one for being raked over the coals as to the meaning of his lyrics. However, the last five years also witnessed some of his most personal lyrics adopted as the poignant farewell of a true American legend. Of all of ‘our’ music the Man In Black Johnny Cash chose to cover for his final brace of albums for Rick Rubin (Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Danzig?!?), ‘Hurt’ – The Downward Spiral’s closing track – was perhaps the most surprising, Cash’s leathery croak applied to the God of Electro-core’s material. But it was also the most powerful. Released as a single very shortly before Cash’s death in September 2003, accompanied by a starkly beautiful video essaying Johnny and wife June Carter Cash’s aged frailty and enduring dignity, it made for a fine parting shot from one of the 20th Century’s most potent rebels. “When my friend Rick Rubin asked if Johnny could cover ‘Hurt’, I said yes immediately,” remembers Reznor. “Because I trust Rick and I admired Johnny a great deal. Later, when I heard the recording, I felt a little ‘invaded’, I have to admit. It was my song, one of the most personal I’ve ever written. And now it’s got this massive voice attached to it, which isn’t mine. A couple of weeks after that, I saw the video. And that’s when it all came together; I got goosebumps, I welled up with tears, and I knew it wasn’t my song anymore. And I say that, not in a jealous way, but… It happened at a time in my own life when I was rediscovering my appreciation for the power of music. I had been out of it long enough to get away from what I hated about music – the competitiveness of it, the shucking and jiving, all the bullshit. I had sort of lost sight of the music, the reason I got into it all in the first place. I wanna be a rock star and whatever, but what I really wanted to do was be in a band, make music, and try and communicate with people that way. Hearing this song come back at me, a completely different interpretation, and having it have arguably more power than my version…” He sighs, for once lost for words. “And to have it juxtaposed against someone’s life in that way. And then the fact that he passed away shortly after that… “It was just unusual,” he continues, laughing warmly. “I come from rural Pennsylvania, and I think when the Cash version came out, it got around that I wrote it, and suddenly people there thought I’d ‘made it’. To have someone who was a great songwriter themselves cover your song – he said something about it being like something he would’ve written in the 1960s. I was like, fuck, man. The older and more jaded you get, the rarer it is you hear someone say something about you that you wanna go tell other people.”
The final set of changes in Reznor’s life would be initiated with his return to the studio for the sessions for With Teeth, and when he assembled the band to tour it. “Straight after the last tour, I went into the studio, ostensibly to start work on the next record,” explains Reznor, a notorious workaholic. “It was a disaster, I couldn’t get my shit together at all. But I did record demos of things, almost consistently. When I got clean, I wanted to stop – to take a minute, to not feel like I’m always running for a train. I’ve never stopped working since 1988. The minute I realised I could get paid for doing this, for doing what I want to, I’ve taken advantage of that as much as I possibly could. “But I itched to get in the studio. I wanted to see if I could even make music ‘straight’. So once I felt like I was getting a grip back on my life, I started to ease myself back into it gently, checking over the stuff I’d been working on earlier. And I found that, instead of feeling crippled, it was like I’d had three hundred blankets removed from my head, and that I could actually work much better. I felt empowered.” The album’s speedy production was the antithesis of 1999’s The Fragile, he admits. “But The Fragile was madness! I was in the grips of addiction and was not acknowledging it. I was governed by fear, I felt I didn’t have anything to say. There aren’t many lyrics on the album, and what there are, are hidden. But I needed to make the music. So I went crazy. I’m still proud of it, but I never want to make an album like that again.” The band behind Nine Inch Nails has changed, also. Long-time bassist and keyboard players Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser have disappeared in the post-chemical spring-clean, the touring outfit now numbering Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson) on bass, aaron north (ex-Icarus Line) on guitar, and Alessandro Cortini on keyboards. Jerome Dillon remains stalwart on the drum-stool, but features on only half of the new album; no poor reflection on Dillon’s inestimable talents, says reznor, just another avenue he’s chosen to pursue. “I wanted someone to just pound the shit out of the drums. I felt like programmed drums were a bit tired, a little ‘done’. I thought of Dave, called him up and he was here the next day. Before I knew it, I had rough versions of the songs, with him drumming over them. Grohl instantly knew what I was looking for; he’s not some old buddy of mine, we met on tour in Australia sometime, but we clicked instantly. “He was one of the first people to hear the new music, and it was a super kick in the ass,” he glows. “Because there’s always a critical juncture in the making of a record when you’re unsure you haven’t built your whole castle upon a turd.”
Grohl’s enthusiasms weren’t misplaced. Taut, clear-minded, vicious and compulsively funk-driven, With Teeth is the record you never thought NIN would make: an electrifyingly live-sounding rock’n’roll record that’s light on their trademark ambience, and heavy in every way imaginable. The sort of record that explains the calmly confident manner of its creator today. That isn’t to say Reznor’s inner-turbulence has entirely subsided. He isn’t healed yet, but he is solemnly given to an ongoing process of healing, even if it takes his whole life. “For a while I didn’t know why I was making music. I took some time out and came back to it and realised, simply, I love music. I haven’t run out of things to say, I haven’t run out of new ways to say them. When I come up with something, I can’t wait for people to hear it – I feel like I have a purpose in life. I’ve always loved music, I’ve always been good at it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to make a living doing it and communicate with people that way. “I’ve been fortunate – and I feel that way now. For a long time I had to convince myself. ‘Why am I so depressed? I have everything I ever wanted.’ I’d feel like a big pussy just saying that. But it feels like things have shifted in my life. I feel more vital, maybe. More hungry.” The touring commitments his band are about to undertake should keep that hunger docile for another five or so years. And with that, Trent Reznor says goodbye, and smiles one last time. Big and wide. With teeth.
[This feature ran in Mojo earlier this year; writing it was a dream come true, since You're Living All Over Me has been an obsession for me since I first bought it, on scratchy second hand vinyl, back in the Summer of 1992. I had so many great stories from Lou, J and Murph, it could've been twice as long. Big thanks to Jon Fetler, John Robb and Lee Ranaldo for talking to me for this, also.]
J Mascis said later that ploughing his guitar into Lou Barlow’s bass “made a nice sound”. The angst that fuelled their music, a volatile, subterranean swarm of influences Mascis translated into “earbleeding Country”, ultimately consumed Dinosaur Jr. Playing the Night Shift, a ratty little club inside a shopping mall in Naugatuck, Connecticut in the early Spring of 1988, their simmering passive-aggressions erupted into ineffectual violence. Years of unresolved hostility had fractured their fragile dynamic. The taciturn front-man realised he had to act. “I kept thinking, wow, Murph’s gonna hit Lou,” remembers Mascis today. “Then I realised Murph wasn’t gonna hit Lou, that it was up to me.” Bassist Lou Barlow was playing a single note of feedback instead of the bass-line to ‘Severed Lips’, an act of blatant sabotage. Mascis responded by swinging his guitar at Barlow, who deflected the blow with his bass and fell to the ground. After a few further glancing blows, Mascis sloped offstage; Barlow leapt onto the drum-riser, pumping fist and screaming a triumphant “Yes!” “…Like he had won some psychic battle by making me react,” continues Mascis, distaste etched on his usually-emotionless features. “I walked offstage thinking, Jesus he’s fucked up. Whatever he was going through was too much for me to deal with.” “I was watching the whole thing and thinking, I should just kill both of them,” sighs Emmett Jefferson ‘Patrick’ Murphy III, better known as Dinosaur’s drummer Murph, from his home in Massachusetts. “I was ready to put them in a headlock and bang their heads together. It was ridiculous.”
The dysfunction at Dinosaur’s core was legendary, their friction productive. Hardcore kids and Oi! obsessives, they cannibalised the carcass of classic rock and, like contemporaries Meat Puppets, Husker Du and Butthole Surfers, drew something fresh and strange from the melee, like fallout from the Atom Bomb that was hardcore. Their intemperate music saw melodic pastorals torn apart by autistic blasts of noise, flashes of hormonal frenzy, the product of weeks these abrasive, mismatched personalities spent cooped up together in their claustrophobic ’76 Dodge tour-van. Their differences ran deep. Mascis was one of the few punks in Amherst, Massachusetts, a liberal college town. The schools were progressive, they wouldn’t punish students, making them discuss their anti-social behaviour in counselling sessions instead, a memory at which the legendarily withdrawn guitarist shudders. “I picked up a copy of Sounds magazine’s Punk’s Not Dead special at a local record store, and ordered in most of the magazine’s Top 100 Punk Singles Of All Time. I loved them all, GBH, Discharge, The Exploited, Blitz… I even liked Skrewdriver. I didn’t know the politics involved, so I could just enjoy it devoid of any moral judgement. I’m sure a lot of musicians are dicks.” He shaved off most of his hair and cut the rest to uneven lengths, a style he called “the chemotherapy”, to his mother’s dismay. Later, he would mimic Nick Cave’s Birthday Party-era haircut. “…The ‘finger in the power-socket’ look. He’d achieve that by frying egg-whites into his hair with straightening-tongs,” laughs Dinosaur’s first manager/roadie Jon Fetler, who spun Mott The Hoople records at school dances with Mascis as a proto-Beavis and Butthead DJ duo during their High School years. While at the record store, Mascis met 14 year old Dee Dee Ramone-lookalike Scott Helland flipping through the import punk racks, and posting a ‘Drummer Wanted’ ad on the wall, for local hardcore band Deep Wound. A week later, Mascis’s dad drove J to guitarist Lou Barlow’s house in Westfield, 45 minutes south-west of Amherst, for the audition. Mascis remembers that they had similar music tastes and, “Since Lou didn’t talk at the time, he was easy to get on with.” Mascis hailed from rarefied Amherst. Barlow was from resolutely blue collar Westhurst, a dying factory town. These class differences would rule Dinosaur. “The kids from Amherst were snots,” says Barlow, calling from the waiting room of his eight-months-pregnant wife Kathleen’s obstetrician in their new home Los Angeles. “I wasn’t at all jaded, I was spastic and excited, saying goofy stuff, reading fanzines. J was adept at making me feel like a fucking dweeb, cutting me dead with a one-liner.” “He was the classic nerd, the kind who would get beat up by jocks,” replies Mascis. “I was an angry young man. If people were looking to be abused, I’d abuse them. Lou was a real victim.” Barlow was besotted with hardcore, Minor Threat and Black Flag and their followers. “All the songs were 30 seconds long, played as fast as humanly possible, the 7”s would come with detailed lyrics sheets…” he sighs. “It matched my energy level, my anger level.” Helland, Barlow and Mascis were joined by singer Charlie Nakajima, and the quartet played shows and released an EP, Video Prick, in the Summer of 1983. Their thrashing, super-fast punk won notices in the fanzines, but they split the following year. “Hardcore seemed like it was over,” shrugs Mascis, who had been writing songs of his own in downtime from Deep Wound, songs that drew upon different passions: country music, Black Sabbath, the murkier regions of post-punk, and his beloved Birthday Party. “Music was one of my only interests,” he observes, though his outward lack of passion might fool you into thinking even that’s untrue.
J was coasting in college, taking courses that fed his interest in Adolf Hitler and World War II; one of his lecturers was a former SS Officer. He set about forming Dinosaur, recruiting Nakajima on vocals. To achieve the sound he could hear in his head, Mascis would play lead guitar, asking Barlow to move over to the bass. Mascis’s vacated drumstool would be taken by Murph, an old friend of J’s from High School who had played in “pseudo-Oi!” band All White Jury. “I was a hippy punk, I loved hardcore but I listened to lots of Hendrix too; they weren’t down with that at all,” says Murph. “I smoked lots of weed, they were straight-edge. I made them feel uncomfortable, because I’d grown up in NYC, going to rock concerts and stealing my parents’ car for joyrides, doing stuff they couldn’t fathom. We had a mutual fascination: they couldn’t believe I was so wild, I couldn’t believe they never said anything.” The band played one show with Nakijima on vocals before J quit the band. Over the next couple of days, he called up Murph and Barlow, to play together again. “I said, ‘you’re reforming the band’, but he denied it,” laughs Murph. “But he was reforming the band, only without Charlie. Charlie was pretty ‘anarchist’, he and J clashed a lot.” J elected to split vocal duties between him and Lou. “He played me these songs, and the change in direction was obvious,” says Barlow. “These were rock songs, not blinding power-chord anthems. There was a country song. J was unafraid to reference classic-rock stuff that wasn’t ‘cool’. And he had cultivated an idiosyncratic voice, like all the great rock singers: Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young.” Almost immediately, however, the conflicts that would dominate Dinosaur for the next three albums began to surface, though the band-mates themselves were initially unconcerned. “Rock bands are generally miserable people, I knew my rock’n’roll history,” laughs Lou now. “You didn’t have to get along, that was a ‘hippy’ ideal. Rock’n’roll was about a bunch of ambivalent people getting together, hating each other and playing loud, nasty, hateful music.” Certainly, Dinosaur thrived on this tension. They began playing shows in Amherst and nearby areas, but were soon banned from most venues for their sheer, brutal volume. “I was breaking cymbals, I was hitting my drums so hard,” remembers Murph. “We were into the concept of noise pollution, of feeling the music, as much as hearing it.” “My guitar style came from trying to recreate the experience of drumming, playing loud and getting into the dynamics, using pedals. We just kept playing, even though people hated us,” grins Mascis. “We didn’t belong to a ‘scene’, we didn’t have any fans. At Chet’s Last Call [a club near Boston Gardens] the soundman threw a bottle at me, because I was playing too loud.” They did have one fan, however, and an influential one. Gerard Cosloy had known Mascis since before he raved about Deep Wound in his Conflict fanzine, later becoming that band’s manager. Now, he ran Homestead Records, a small indie, and offered to release Dinosaur’s first record. Despite only having played a handful of shows, the band repaired to the basement of Chris Dixon, a local hippy who mostly recorded folk and jazz on his analogue 24-track setup, but adapted his technique to Dinosaur’s hybrid metallic country. They recorded quickly; the entire sessions cost $500. The songs on Dinosaur’s eponymous first album were wonderfully odd, misshapen, running the gamut of Mascis’s omnivorous hunger for music. ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Severed Lips’ conformed to traditional country-rock structures, but were fringed with fiery noise; within a flash, melodies would be engulfed in distortion and feedback. Elsewhere, the bare, vulnerable lyrics essayed loneliness and alienation with an eerie accuracy, Mascis howling “Why won’t you be my friend?” on ‘Qwest’, and declaring himself “Embarrassed to be alive” on ‘The Leper’, as tungsten riffs crackled underneath. “The Leper made me unembarrassed to love Black Sabbath,” said Evan Dando of Boston’s Lemonheads, later. Dinosaur’s reclamation of heavy rock’s arsenal from the scrap-heap of history would prove influential, expressing a kinship they felt with contemporaries like Arizona’s Meat Puppets, trippy country-fried desert-wanderers as of their sublime second album, and the similarly psychedelic Dream Syndicate. “The bands coming up through the 1980s were mostly shying away from what they perceived as the ‘hippy’ mannerisms,” remembers Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, whose Daydream Nation opus was explicitly influenced by Dinosaur’s sprawling, mutant classic-rock. “And then Dinosaur came along, combining hardcore with the most beautiful elements of 60s rock.” Sonic Youth took Dinosaur on their first national tour, shortly after the album came out. “Back in those days, it was hard to get three sentences in a row out of J,” remembers Renaldo. “There were a lot of things bubbling under the surface between them, that none of them wanted to deal with in any way.” “We weren’t the ‘bonding’ types we wanted to be,” adds Mascis, with considerable understatement. The confines of the tour-van exacerbated conflicts, and a dysfunctional dynamic soon slipped into place, Barlow desperately seeking some affirmation from the aloof Mascis, who would greet his band-mate’s neediness with acrid disdain. Murph, meanwhile, would goad both, chafing at the intense atmosphere. “We were three very big egos, feeling crowded,” says Murph. “The tension was: Your Space is invading My Space.” On one of these interminable bus trips across America, an exasperated Mascis summed up these feelings in an affecting little phrase speaking volumes of the unvoiced angst and intolerance growing within Dinosaur: “You’re Living All Over Me”.
Dinosaur recorded their second album in New York with the assistance of Sonic Youth associate Wharton Tiers. Mascis drafted Renaldo in to sing harmonies on the opening track, Little Fury Things, and experimentation was rife. You’re Living All Over Me had an even broader musical embrace than its predecessor, taking in their love of early industrial music (SPK, Throbbing Gristle), and containing various ‘avant garde’ gestures, such as the avalanches of tape distortion that swallowed up the sleepy-eyed ‘Tarpit’, or the ghostly, disturbing voices that materialise on ‘Raisins’ and ‘In A Jar’, captured illicitly by Barlow while he was working at a mental institution. More audacious still was ‘Sludgefeast’, which volleyed with autistic grace from playful folk-rock to colossal Sabbath riffage, and the closing track, ‘Poledo’, Lou’s exercise in suicidal folk and tape manipulation. “I had started smoking weed, and everything sounded wonderful,” recalls Barlow. “I saw You’re Living All Over Me as a psychedelic rock record, and figured ‘Poledo’ would work as the bullshit freakout track, the album’s ‘Revolution #9’.” ‘Poledo’ and ‘Lose’ marked the first (and last) Barlow compositions on a Dinosaur album. The band were cast very much in Mascis’s own image (he even dictated Murph’s every drumbeat, curtailing his jazz-fusion tendencies), but was glad Barlow was finally contributing. “Getting Lou to bring songs to the table was excruciating,” he grumbles. “He was afraid of getting shot down, or that we would ruin them.” Barlow would spend hours smoking pot on his own (Mascis was prone to migraines and didn’t even drink, Murph had been through rehab), playing back the tapes for the album, revelling in what they’d created. “I was becoming even more convinced of J’s genius and power,” he adds. “Unfortunately, I became so in awe of him, I couldn’t bring myself to play him my songs. And he had no idea, and was incapable of reaching out to me or encouraging me.” You’re Living All Over Me would prove a peak for the band. Many of their initial ambitions had been fulfilled: they had signed to SST, home to Black Flag, Husker Du and many other spiritual kin, had appeared in Byron Coley’s ‘zine Forced Exposure, and had toured with Sonic Youth. “I used to see the same thing in Nirvana, after they broke big,” reasons Murph. “We’d given so much, played our last game, and didn’t know where to go next.” The tour to promote the album was disastrous, trashing the fragile ceasefire of hostilities the You’re Living All Over Me sessions signalled and cutting short the lifespan of the original line-up. The van broke down on the first day, ninety minutes outside Amherst. Murph was feeling “undervalued”, and talked about punching Mascis. SST hadn’t distributed the album to stores yet, so shows were sparsely attended. Their personal habits began to grate intolerably, especially Barlow’s oral fixation, forever sucking on something. When he began nursing on the eyeball of Mascis’s Cookie Monster doll, something snapped. “We were the first ‘Sesame Street’ generation, and J took genuine offence at Lou licking the eyeballs of this childhood relic,” observes Fetler, who road-managed the band for this tour. Fetler was no roadie, though, baffled by most of the job’s technical requirements. An English graduate and an old friend of J’s, he went along to accrue material for future writing, and soon became the band’s unofficial therapist, running interference with their antagonistic egos. His services would be called into play when the van broke down again in Idaho, enforcing a four day lockdown in a cramped hotel room. “We had too much time on our hands, which I spent picking Lou’s life apart,” remembers Mascis, with a curious cocktail of relish and regret. “I think we pushed Lou over the edge.” It was Murph who broke, however. “Murph was the body of that band, he felt the pain on a more fundamental level,” says Fetler. “We were arguing over who got to sleep on the floor. Murph finally broke down, and trashed the room, chucking things about, lamps, chairs…” Fetler describes the event as “A cloud-break. Afterwards, everyone repaired to their respective corners. It was so great to be on the road, travelling America in our own van, free. And every night, all those dysfunctions and dark emotions would be channelled into this phenomenally powerful music. But after Idaho, there was a definite realisation that this couldn’t continue any longer. After the boil, you get the cool, and that’s what you can hear on Bug. The intensity has totally diminished.”
Mascis recorded the original line-up’s final album mostly on his own with engineers Paul Q Kolderie and Sean Slade (who would later work with Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo and most of Boston’s indie-rock scene); Murph and Lou were in the studio for three days, recording their tracks and then leaving. Serious new rifts had developed within this already-torturous unit. “The lyrics, the title, all spelt out that J was unhappy,” Barlow remembers. “There was a Bug in the ointment, and the ‘bug’ was me.” In addition to discovering drugs, Barlow had got himself a girlfriend, Kathleen Bilius, who he soon moved in with. “I finally had someone to listen to me talk,” remembers Barlow, of the relationship. “I was happy to have an emotional life outside of the band; being around J was like living in a gulag. At no point would anyone get excited about anything, and I decided I needed that in my life.” Barlow’s withdrawal wasn’t just emotional; he had also now found an artistic outlet outside the band, via his home-recorded music, later released under the Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Folk Implosion monikers. “I felt the music of the underground had become one-dimensional, noisy, and I wanted to fashion my own response to that. I knew I was on the right track, when people said I was a ‘pussy’ for playing an acoustic guitar. I’d found my new passion: quiet was the new loud.” “He did a total 180 degree turn when he met Kathleen,” winces Mascis. “He began talking all the time. And I decided I preferred him better when he didn’t talk at all. His priorities shifted, treating the band like a job.” Mascis isn’t a fan of Bug. “I interviewed Ozzy Osbourne once, and he said he hated Sabotage, that it just reminded him of Sabbath recording with lawyers sat in the studio. I guess I feel the same way about Bug.” ‘Freak Scene’, a song of clouded relationship confusions ignited by J crunching hard on his superfuzz, was a semi-hit single, and the band toured Europe for the first time, alongside Sonic Youth, Rapeman and Band Of Susans. The UK music press misinterpreted the band’s social catatonia as middle class American apathy – thus the inaccurate ‘slacker’ paradigm was born – but Britain’s audiences responded to the band’s lacerating decibellage with glee, including Kevin Shields, who struck up an enduring friendship with Mascis. John Robb, frontman for Blackpool punk legends The Membranes, helped organise the UK tour, and let the band crash at his flat in Manchester, where they filmed a promo for ‘Freak Scene’. “J just sat on the settee for three days, Lou spent hours on the phone arguing with his girlfriend,” remembers Robb. “So Murph and I would go round the corner to my mate Keith’s house, which was always a 24 Hour party. The one thing J would talk about was Oi! music. It was weird to meet a guy who looked liked Tiny Tim, but knew all the words to all the Discharge songs.” Compared to You’re Living All Over Me, Bug was unadventurous, though it later came to define America’s burgeoning indie-rock sound. Mascis felt pressed to pad out the slender album, closing it with ‘Don’t’, a self-confessed piece of filler with Barlow bellowing “Why don’t you like me?” over a mordant swamp riff. Barlow exited the session coughing up blood. A tour followed, dogged by Barlow’s withdrawal, the psychic warfare becoming untenable. “I recently found letters I’d written my wife on that tour,” says Barlow, “I hated them! I channelled all my ambivalence into ‘Fuck J, Fuck this lazy-assed band’. We settled into playing routine live shows.” Soon, Barlow and Mascis stopped talking altogether. So when, in May 1989, Mascis and Murph visited Barlow’s kitchen, shortly after playing a show at the John Ausomnford Theatre in Hollywood, it was Murph who had to tell Lou he was fired. Barlow: “Murph said, ‘we’re breaking up the band’. And then they left. J didn’t say a word.” Mascis: “Afterwards, I kinda realised he might’ve thought we were actually splitting the band, as opposed to just kicking him out.” Murph: “Truthfully, we were kicking Lou out the back-door. We had the tour in Australia, with Donna Dresch on bass, already planned, but we didn’t tell him.” Barlow discovered the truth the next day, from Gerard Cosloy. He stormed off to a friend’s house, where J and Murph were hanging out. “The next day was like torture,” recalls Mascis. “Hours of Lou screaming and yelling at us.” “I was pretty volatile,” admits Barlow. “J just sat there and said nothing. And that was it.”
Murph describes the days that followed Barlow’s exit as “a mixture of guilt and relief, though I was unsure where we’d draw our artistic fuel, without our original dynamic.” Dinosaur Jr (as they were now called, thanks to some litigious ageing Jefferson Airpane side-project named Dinosaurs) signed to Blanco Y Negro and, with the grunge explosion, scored minor mainstream success with 1992’s Where You Been. The fuel Murph spoke of was lacking however; later Dinosaur Jr records were fine guitar-drenched country-punk, but not much more. The band fizzled out in 1997. “It just seemed like it was over now,” says Mascis, words that could have been Dinosaur lyrics. Barlow went on to form Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein, their creative ethos of enthusiasm and democracy the antithesis of his Dinosaur experience. Bitterness lingered, however. Barlow sued Mascis for unpaid royalties in 1991, which hurt Mascis deeply. Shortly after he was awarded $10,000, Barlow’s lawyer seduced and was temporarily-engaged to Lou’s girlfriend Kathleen. “Instant karma,” mumurs Mascis. “I was the only one who expressed any ‘I hate you, I want to kill you’ stuff,” reflects Lou. “He never seemed to care, which just drove me crazy.” One final confrontation arose, when J attended a show on Sebadoh’s final tour. “I went backstage, and he flipped out,” reels Mascis. “It was like no time had passed, he kept yelling at me, even though it was a decade after the split. I think he was on drugs; his mom and dad were there too, and they kept asking me, ‘J, what’s going on?’ [laughs]” Relations are more cordial now; Barlow joined Mascis and his Stooges covers band onstage for ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in London in 2003, and, at a benefit for an Autism charity Lou’s mother runs, Deep Wound reformed for a run-through of Video Prick last Summer. There are also rumblings of a reunion tour this summer, though Mascis glumly quips, “I don’t know what good it would do.” If it raises the profile of Dinosaur’s treasured early records, remastered and re-released this Spring, that would be enough. “I remember Kim Gordon saying that You’re Living All Over Me could’ve gone huge like Nevermind if the production was a little cleaner,” muses Barlow. “People would go buy the exact same equipment J used, the same amps and pedals. He embraced the Marshall Stack as something that could be expressive, not some bludgeoning Heavy Metal crap. I was reading some crappy Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Guitarists Ever list a while back; Kurt Cobain was in there, Kevin Shields, even Frank fuckin’ Black, but not J. And he was so fucking influential. He was the progenitor of that style.”