Three decades and 10 albums after forming in 1984, US rock group Dinosaur Jr. are still stomping strong. Bassist Lou Barlow took time out from an evening at home in the US for a chat ahead of new record Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not.
Hey Lou! Where are you now?
I’m at home in Massachusetts. I just got back from tour and now I’m at home taking care of my kids. I have a little three-month-old baby right now, and an 11 and a six-year-old.
You guys have taken time off the tour right now, when do you think you’ll get back to it.
Hopefully on July 14. We’re doing a short tour with Jane’s Addiction. We cancelled one week of shows because of J [Mascis, lead singer and guitarist] becoming ill.
What was your impression of Hong Kong when Dinosaur Jr played here in 2012?
It’s hard to say. It’s always breathtaking how condensed the population is. The scale of everything – I remember crossing some enormous bridges! I sort of shy away from saying what my impressions of places are because I feel like I don’t know what to make of them. I generally have to go back to places many times before I say something very general about the area. I didn’t really get chance to explore the city. Whenever I travel – especially because I do have a family – one of my first priorities is contacting home. These days, I use FaceTime so I can see my children at home and say ‘hello, here I am!’ Keeping connected to home is very important to me so I spend a lot of my time doing that.
What’s the band mood like ahead of the album release?
Other than J getting ill, it’s been really good. We’re all cautiously optimistic about the record. J is generally a very quiet person, he’s not really someone who likes to talk about his music openly but I have the impression that he’s proud of the record. We’re all excited about it.
Do you still get nervous about how your records will be received?
Yeah, in some way. Not as much as I used to, I guess. When I was younger, I felt like every record was ‘do or die’ – if it doesn’t do well then we’re done and I can never be a musician again. I’d think in these very dramatic terms, but I guess now it’s not quite as dramatic. For Dinosaur especially, we make a record in order to play live. The chances are, not many people are going to like what you do, but just enough that you can continue to do what you want to do. You rely on that group of fans that will, more or less, like everything you’ve done – if not love it – and they’ll come and support you.
The Tiny music video was awesome. Is it your favourite music video you’ve made so far?
No! [Laughs] I mean, it’s fine, but it’s not the best. I’ve made a lot of fun videos. I made a bunch for Sebadoh that I really like, I really like the one Dinosaur made for Over It, where we hired these skateboard and BMX bike professionals to be our doubles. The video makes it look like we’re doing these incredible tricks. It’s very funny, it was filmed really well. I like that one.
How would you say social media has affected the music experience?
I think it’s improved it. There’s so much more music available to people. Though depending on how you look at it, you could say that damages it. When I was a kid and I wanted to hear music, it would take an incredible amount of effort to find something you wanted to hear. Whereas now, almost anything can be found by typing it into a search engine and you can watch or listen to it on YouTube. As a music listener and lover, I find that amazing. If someone says, ‘I heard this record and there’s only three copies and it was made in 1963, buried in a vault and dug up in 1975 and someone made a digital copy … and now it’s on YouTube!’, I’m like ‘Great! Now I can hear it.’ YouTube to me is fantastic.
But another way to look at it as an artist is like, ‘where is my money?’ As an artist, the money I get from people listening to my music has always been low, never significant, always the same. The money that I make, the reason I can make a living from paying music, is because I play live. When you see the reputation of the band growing, and we’re able to play more and more festivals, maybe our record sales aren’t growing, but the availability of the music is. That translates into more and more people coming to see us live, contributing the reputation of the band growing. If there’s a million people that listen to the song for free, is that a bad thing? I don’t think it is. For a really large band, like Radiohead or Metallica, they employ a lot of people, they are in of themselves corporations, I can understand why one million people listening to their music would be significant to them. Dinosaur Jr is the biggest band I’m involved with, but we’re still a very small organisation.
Another issue bands seem to be railing against in this era is smartphones at gigs. Are you irked or nonplussed by people filming you when you play live?
I’m kinda nonplussed, I don’t look. I’m not that kind of performer. When we started as a band in 1984/85, the bands that were popular were like, Ratt, Cinderella, Van Halen – bands that would get onstage, look at the audience and go ‘COME ON!’ and ‘RAISE YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!’ We never did that; we were heads down, ploughing through our music. So I don’t care what people are doing – whether they’re clapping or dancing, it doesn’t matter to me. Of course, it’s great to look out and see the whole crowd jumping up and down and singing every word. It’s a wonderful thing to experience. But it’s not something that I expect. And myself, I know that when I see bands, I often just stand there or even talk through shows. It could be the starting place for a discussion with the person next to me. When people are filming – I go on YouTube and watch iPhone footage of shows. So for me to tell people they shouldn’t do that would be incredibly hypocritical of me. But I understand that there are performers who are very sensitive to that. But you can’t control what people do. If people want to experience things through their smartphone, or stand in front of the lead singer and text their friends – well, that’s just the time we live in.
Will we see you in Hong Kong again soon?
I dunno, maybe, yeah.
I’m learning bass. Which Dinosaur Jr song should I start with?
In a Jar.
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not will be released on August 5.