Dinosaur Jr was the product of three guys from Massachusetts who had played in the hardcore bands Deep Wound and All White Jury. But when J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph got together, the music they produced sounded like it had all but shed that background in favor of melody, and the outfit made the kind of noisy rock music that proved incredibly influential on what later became "alternative rock," including, of all bands, My Bloody Valentine. The group's first three albums have become essential touchstones for most of the more interesting, modern guitar rock bands whether they realize it or not.
We recently had a chance to speak with the band's drummer, the amiable and sharp Murph, the day of his night gig in Seattle, about how his drumming style differs from that of J Mascis and how they've learned to work together as musicians on separate instruments and how the band's current incarnation actually communicates with one another.
Westword: How did you get your start playing drums?
Emmett "Murph" Murphy: I was really into music, and I used to love the radio. Also, I grew up outside New York City. When I was really young, like twelve, my mother used to bring me to all the big Broadway musicals. We'd see everything like A Chorus Line and Pippen. I saw all the first run stuff. She would always get really great seats, and I could see the pit and the orchestra. I used to watch the drummers and percussion people and was amazed.
I had a friend in junior high who was in a Van Halen cover band; he would let me cover and watch him play. I was like, "Whoa! This is insane." Then I was also super hyperactive as a kid. Actually what got me to play the drums was that I used to tap on stuff. In fifth grade I had a teacher who completely lost it one day. She was like, "Why don't you get a freakin' drum set?" The light bulb went off in my head and I thought, "Hey, that's a really great idea!" I don't have to bang on tables and chairs. I can actually bang drums. That's perfect!
You got into hardcore relatively early in life. What was your introduction to that?
First off, I was into a lot classic rock and jazz fusion. The first three records I got were Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality, Return To Forever's Romantic Warrior and Rush's 2112. That's all pretty heavy stuff. And I was listening to a ton of Billy Cobham, and I started getting into Zappa and all this crazy stuff.
But I knew J and some friends of mine were really into hardcore, oi and thrash. What really got me into it were the lyrics. I would hear these lyrics about, "Screw authority. School sucks. This chick blew me off; I hate her." I would just be like, "Yeah! These guys get it!" That's what drew me to it. Then I started listening to it and thought, "The beats are kind of simple but they're sped up really fast. That's kind of cool. That's almost like jazz in itself. It's weird." Then I started getting into it for that reason.
What was the first hardcore band you saw?
Oh god, Deep Wound; I was a follower of and I would go to Boston. I was also in my own hardcore band, All White Jury. This town next door, Greenfield, was where we started putting on shows. I would see the Freeze and Jerry's Kids and a lot of the bands from This is Boston, Not L.A.
You probably saw SSD then too.
Yeah. I went and saw Black Flag at the University of Massachusetts. I remember I was in the mosh pit, and I came out and my shirt was all ripped to shreds, and I was like, "This is awesome." It just kind of went on from there.
When Dinosaur got hooked up with SST, how did that come about?
J had just gotten in with a lot of people like Sonic Youth and some other people in New York. We had already done our Homestead record with Gerard Cosloy. I think it was through the New York connection because Sonic Youth got on SST. We just kind of got it in our heads like, "Wow, if we could get on SST, that would be the ultimate goal." So maybe J sent them some tapes or gave them to Thurston who gave them to Greg. I don't remember. We kind of snuck in through the back door or something. They were into it and it went on from there.
You did this excellent interview with KDHX over the summer sometime and you talked about going to see J play drums during lunchtime. How would you say your styles differ and maybe how you've reconciled that difference as it turns out in the band?
That's a great question, actually. I've never been asked that. Our styles are totally different. J is completely classically-trained. He was in jazz workshop and symphony. He reads music. I was the guy, you know, the stoner, who just put on Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf and just put my mattresses up against the window and the bass drum against the bed and just banged them out. I could hear all the drum parts. I knew I had a gift. When I was really young, I would hear songs on the radio, and I knew exactly what was going on with the drums. I just knew I couldn't do it because I wasn't a drummer yet. That's how I kind of knew: Okay, I've got something.
Our styles are really different because J and Lou hate jazz fusion. They can't stand that stuff. They don't want to hear Zappa or Mahavishnu [Orchestra] or any of that hippie shit. My style is much more rhythmic and jammy, I guess. But J has got a very soul/funky side to him being a good drummer, like any good drummer should, and we kind of meet there, especially on the new stuff. We've been playing new songs like "Watch the Corners" and "Waiting," and I'm like, "Wow, this is kind of funky." It's actually really groovy and really funky. I think that's where we lock in.
We've learned to kind of see each other's chemistry. The way J writes songs, he'll say, "What can Murph and Lou play? What are they good at playing? What style? Is Murph better at swing?" If we were really good at hardcore, we might be writing more thrash songs together or whatever. But we have a chemistry and that determines the style.
You mentioned thrash. What sort of thrash were they into in the early days?
Oh god, anything fast. Their whole thing was the faster the better. So like Negative Approach, Gangrene, Minor Threat. J was obsessed with British oi. Any kind of weird British oi, he was listening to at the time, like UK Subs, Angelic Upstarts, the Business, the Exploited. Lou was more the American hardcore guy and J brought in the oi. It was great for me because I got turned on to some amazing stuff because of them.
You've mentioned in various interviews that you really like playing your cover of "Just Like Heaven" by the Cure. Why do you love it so much?
It's just fun. It's easy, and I never get tired of it. People sing along and get into it. That just makes it fun.
Your drumming is pretty versatile in that you can play hard and fast in a compelling way but you're also good at establishing mood and texture. Who are some of the drummers you've admired over the years?
I was just saying to someone, Ian Paice of Deep Purple and Billy Cobham of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then Minor Threat's Jeff Nelson and Bill Stevenson when he was in Black Flag. But it was really the jazz fusion stuff and the rock stuff, like those three albums I mentioned earlier. Those are heavy, intense drumming records in their own respective ways.
On "I Know It Oh So Well," it sounds like you use a lot of cowbell compared to the other songs. Was there a particular reason for that in that song?
That was an overdub that J did that might not even be a cowbell. It might be something like a triangle because he has a lot of symphony percussion instrument. A lot of the time he will decide the vocals need a little more something in the background, shiny, and he'll add a couple of cymbal hits or the bell of a cymbal for a very small part of it. So it was just a quick afterthought.
J obviously does a lot of soloing across your career on albums. How do you approach your part playing drums going into a solo and during a solo?
The thing that's great about playing with J is that he's a drummer and the drum parts totally coincide with the guitar parts. The one and the four or whatever. If he's doing a guitar solo, Lou and I are just keeping the structure of the song going and a lot of times there's some repeat phrasing, and so we just keep that going, and I kind of pile drive through it, adding some breaks here and there.
What has been better about being in Dinosaur Jr since the reunion compared to the original run?
We get along. The most important factor is that we communicate now and actually sit down and talk as a band among the three of us to make decisions. We have so much time and chemistry and experience now, and we can actually play our instruments a lot better. We can execute ideas better and jam.
How about your audiences these days? Is it similar to what you experienced before?
It's totally similar. I feel like the audience is still 22-year-old kids, just like when we started playing to our peers. Which, I feel, is awesome and an amazing thing. This tour kids have been stage diving and moshing and it's totally the same.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.