If you remember anything about pioneering indie rockers Dinosaur Jr., you'll recall the fiery relationship between bassist Lou Barlow and guitarist J Mascis as much as the sheer volume and intensity of the band.
So if Barlow admits to being a perennial shit disturber, you might expect him to say as much. Still, four years after rejoining Dinosaur, two years after Beyond---their successful reunion record---and this year's strong follow-up, Farm, you'd think most of the hard stuff would be over by now.
"Nah, it's still work. I'm not really comfortable being comfortable. So I have to constantly sort of..." Barlow pauses to find the right phrase, "I always find ways to ramp up the tension in anything that I do."
He protests too much. Barlow sounds so positive on the phone from his Los Angeles home a week before the band's North American tour starts.
Take the recording of Farm. Barlow bitched that they recorded it too fast, that there were "negotiations" and "tensions" throughout, but, in retrospect, he says the brisk creative process "made us a lot stronger on the record. Even though it was rushed, it really brought out this immediacy in J's riffs and melodies. When I listen to it now I say, 'OK, that makes a whole lot of sense.'"
"We actually kinda nailed it," he says, warming up to the idea.
Maybe it's the abdication of creative control that seems attractive to Barlow now, where it might have grated in the past. Playing bass in Dinosaur Jr. feels liberating compared to the responsibility of solo projects like Sebadoh. When he plays with Murph and Mascis, Barlow says, "None of that shit matters. It's this full-on blast."
Pete Townshend and John Entwistle played to Keith Moon's drum style in The Who, he tells me, and he and Murph play to Mascis in the same way. It's this support that makes them sound so big, and this dynamic doesn't translate to any other group Barlow's played in.
"The way that I play [in Dinosaur Jr.], feels so natural and cool to me, I really feel like"---he breaks into an embarrassed laugh---"this sounds totally cheesy, I can't even say it, but I feel kinda 'cool.' Like when I was a kid, you'd see film of old bands playing and you'd think, 'God, that looks really cool.' I know with Dinosaur, that's my cool thing. It's this thing where what I am doing is really second nature. It feels so good and natural."
Barlow even sounds magnanimous when he talks of his former bugbear. Despite publicly criticizing the lyrics on Farm, he defends the quality of Mascis' wordplay when it's suggested that they're throwaway.
"I really believe that on the early Dinosaur records, his lyrics are amazing. They're personal, full of amazing metaphors. He was really on fire. He was not only the musical architect, he was also writing these lyrics that were perfectly evocative of the time and really literate."
And why not, even if the compliment is inadvertently backhanded? His own musical output is leonine, arguably equal to or more influential than Mascis's since their 1989 split. It also rachets up the band's pressure to perform.
Perhaps it's an unfair question to ask (who can ever have a firm perspective on their own cultural relevance), but how does he think his generation is aging musically compared its elders?
Better, Barlow says. He compares the early progenitors of rock to Promethean discoverers of electricity who didn't know what they had harnessed or how to recapture it after the fact. Barlow says the hardcore generation had more distance from the fire, so they understand it better.
"As long as we maintain the understanding of what that energy is, and where it comes from and also how important the texture is to it, that I think somehow we're able to age better."
That awareness might also explain why Barlow ratchets up the emotional tension in all his projects: to stay close to that original energy. Even if he is otherwise a pretty happy guy.