I worry that J Mascis is going to hurt himself. A notoriously taciturn eccentric who far prefers the comforts of his Massachusetts home to life on the road, the 41-year-old lead man of Dinosaur Jr. "couldn't take it any more" in his hotel room, so he decided to drive around the streets of Los Angeles - while doing an interview on his cellphone. "It's okay," he reassures me in his trademark monotone, "I can multitask all right."
He stops at Amoeba Records, one of the largest music stores in America. Hip hop is booming through the store speakers. With his long dark hair having become a chest-length shock of white, and his lean, indie rock physique now rounded, Mascis stands out in a way that he didn't when he helped form Dinosaur Jr. more than two decades ago.
"Hey, what's up?" he says, pulling the phone away from his mouth to say hello to someone in the store, before returning to our conversation. "The drummer of the Melvins just walked by with a baby."
A lot has changed since Mascis and a schoolmate, bassist Lou Barlow, along with drummer Murph, began playing their distortion-heavy slacker rock. Although Barlow and Mascis got along fine for the first few years, by 1989 their relationship had soured to the point where Mascis famously told Barlow the band was breaking up - then reformed it the next day without him and continued making Dinosaur Jr. albums.
Not long after, the grunge era thundered into the mainstream - even Sears catalogues featured those plaid flannel lumberjack shirts - and groups such as Nirvana, which cited Dinosaur Jr. as a major influence, shot to fame. Although Dinosaur Jr. never reached those same heights, in pop culture's rear-view mirror, they're seen as a group that helped to create and define a sound that bands still emulate today.
But that was then - and Mascis is not prone to nostalgia or regret. ("If I did something differently," he quips, "the whole world might not exist.") In fact, he was deeply skeptical when Merge, the record label that re-released the band's first three albums in 2005, suggested that he, Barlow and Murph reunite to play a few shows. But that may well be the reason why the reformed band's new album, Beyond, is winning so many accolades. It doesn't feel like a band trying to recapture what came before; it simply picks up where they left off.
"We have a certain energy, and it's hard to duplicate. We learned to play together," Mascis says. "We tried one gig and a TV show, and that went alright, so it seemed the next thing to do was make a record. And even if it was horrible and everyone hated it, at least we would know it was a good time to stop."
Beyond is anything but horrible. Kicking off with the blissfully raucous Almost Ready ("C'mon life," Mascis sings, "I'm almost ready"), the album ranges from driving, anthemic guitar rock ( Pick Me Up, Been There All The Time) to toe-tapping pop ( We're Not Alone) to a bittersweet falsetto ballad ( I Got Lost). Driven by Murph's drums, both of the Barlow-written songs ( Lightning Bulb and Back To Your Heart) are dense and irresistibly catchy; and scattered through the whole record are Mascis's famed guitar solos, which sound like pure musical abandon.
"They're the best way for me to express myself musically, because they're just a moment in time," Mascis says, his voice lifting momentarily. "And that's what I like most about playing."
Of course, the scars from wounded relationships can fade with time, but they rarely disappear, and Mascis says that while the mood between the band members isn't nearly as uncomfortable as it used to be, it still feels a little awkward. But in many ways, he adds, being 20 years older made the creative process much simpler than it was the first time around.
"You just get less intense about weird details, because you realize that they don't matter that much. When you're younger, you'll obsess about a bass drum sound for five days," he says with a knowing chuckle. "I guess you just gain perspective on what's worth worrying about."
Dinosaur Jr. plays Victoria May 22, Vancouver May 23, Calgary May 25, Edmonton May 26, Saskatoon May 27, Winnipeg May 28, Toronto June 8 and Montreal June 9.
A brief history of Dinosaur Jr.
1983: Schoolmates J Mascis and Lou Barlow form a band called Dinosaur, in Amherst, Mass. Not long after, Murph joins in on drums.
1985: Their self-titled debut is released, and revered bands such as Sonic Youth start singing their praises.
1986: Another band called the Dinosaurs - which features members of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish - sues them over their name. Dinosaur Jr. is born.
1987: The band signs to SST records and releases their acclaimed album, You're Living All Over Me. The following year, they release another favourite, Bug.
1989: Interpersonal tensions run high, and Mascis tells Barlow the band is breaking up - then reforms it the next day. Barlow starts another influential band, Sebadoh, and records Freed Pig, a song that documents his frustration with Mascis.
1991: With Mike Johnson on bass, Dinosaur Jr. goes on tour for their landmark album Green Mind, which was made almost entirely by Mascis. Nirvana is the opening act.
1993: With the grunge era in full swing, Dinosaur Jr. gets more mainstream attention, and Where You Been becomes an indie hit. The band is added to the Lollapalooza lineup. Not long after, Murph unceremoniously leaves the band and later joins the Lemonheads.
1995: Mascis launches his first solo acoustic tour and releases a solo album the following spring. By the end of the nineties, Mascis retires the Dinosaur Jr. name.
1997: Although his group, like the Pixies, helped to create the sound that made bands such as Nirvana famous, Mascis doesn't mind that he never found stardom. "Kurt Cobain's dead, so I guess it wasn't too cool for him," he tells an interviewer. "There's always a price."
2005: Merge records reissues Dinosaur Jr.'s first three albums and announces that the band, including Lou Barlow, will go on a short tour.
2007: The band releases a new album, Beyond, to broad critical praise, and embarks on a world tour. They get as much, if not more, attention than they did 20 years earlier.