"I think the record sounds like shit. As an engineer, I’m embarrassed. The mix is blowing up. The guitars are distorted and too thin. The drums are drowned out."
That’s how Paul Kolderie feels about Bug, the landmark 1988 Dinosaur Jr. album that secured the Northampton power trio’s place in America’s post-hardcore, pre-grunge underground. The disc, along with the band’s 1985 Dinosaur debut and 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me (the Jr. was added in 1988), was reissued by Merge in March. And Kolderie, who worked with his long-time production partner Sean Slade on Bug, isn’t kidding. "I even remember thinking at the time that it was the best that I could do but that I wasn’t very happy with it."
It’s a quiet afternoon at Kolderie’s Camp Street Studio, the same complex of rooms Dinosaur frontman J Mascis, drummer Murph, and soon-to-be-fired bassist Lou Barlow pulled up to in a station wagon almost two decades ago to begin work on what would be their breakthrough album for SST, a label whose late-’80s roster included a who’s who of Amerindie luminaries: Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen. Back then, Camp Street was Fort Apache, and Slade and Kolderie were on their way to becoming players in the alt-rock explosion, with credits that would include Hole’s Live Through This, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, and sessions with the Pixies, the Bosstones, Uncle Tupelo, Buffalo Tom, Morphine, and more.
"We can’t make any claims to producing it," says Slade of Bug. "J produced and we followed his lead. So I take issue with negative hindsight. We weren’t producing. And there’s no way that any suggestion by us would have made a difference. It would have automatically been rejected. The reason J got along with us is that we went along with him. We both like massive guitars, and J had these experiences with engineers who’d told him he was too loud, or who tried to mix the guitars in a nice polite spot. We might have been some of the first guys who didn’t care about that."
"I don’t mean to say that I don’t like the record," Kolderie counters. "It’s just that with what I know now we could make it sound so good . . . "
"But I think the reason the British loved the album so much was that it was so eccentric," Slade explains. "The English were much more into deliberately freakish sounds. A lot of it had to do with these records being made outrageously quick. We did the whole thing in two weeks. And because J was so uncommunicative . . . "
" . . . we were totally in the dark," Kolderie interjects. "J would say things like, ‘Put up the Led Zeppelin one,’ and we’d look at each other and be like, ‘I dunno, do you think it’s this one?’ So we’d put it up and he’d be like, ‘No, no, the other one.’ "
"Yeah, yeah, there were no lyrics or titles," Slade continues. "J would write the lyrics right before he had to do the vocal, and it still wouldn’t have a title."
Kolderie adds, "I remember he was lying on a couch right over there and he said, ‘Ah, I gotta write some lyrics.’ And the next day he came back with ‘Freak Scene.’ "
With its massed wall of distorted guitar and bass, its sense of frustrated alienation, its artlessly uncertain vocals, and its searing guitar solo, around which everything coalesces after J mutters "What a mess" and everything almost falls apart, "Freak Scene" is the song. Mascis’s unusual talents were already apparent in "Repulsion," "Little Fury Things," and "In a Jar," to name three from the first two CDs. But for all the drama that’s rumored to have surrounded the Bug sessions, something special did happen on that one. "Freak Scene" is the focal point, the song that distilled the essence of the original trio into an anti-anthemic three-and-a-half-minute melodic mess of yearning, confusion, and miserable joy.
"That was certainly the point at which our careers reached a new level," says Kolderie. "The Pixies were influential, but that took a while to build. Big Dipper were a big deal locally. But ‘Freak Scene’ made us big in England, and it enabled us to be seen as real producers. In America, they don’t take you seriously until you get a gold record. But in England, the climate was much different. NME raved about ‘Freak Scene,’ and it became the single of the year in England. I can’t complain about any of that."
Slade and Kolderie would go on to work with Mascis through 1991’s Green Mind (Sire), in large part because they didn’t let him get under their skin. "J decided that he could get along with us," Slade recalls. "We could get sounds fast and not argue with him."
"He said," Kolderie says, imitating Mascis’s morose voice, " ‘I need an engineer with a clue.’ "
Slade laughs. "He played games with us. We’d say that a guitar was too loud, so he’d reach over to the fader and make it a little louder. Or he’d say, ‘This isn’t your engineering-school final exam.’ So I’d throw up my hands and say, ‘Okay.’ "
"He had two 100-watt stacks full on," offers a bemused Kolderie. "It was so loud that you had a hard time walking into the room because the sound pressure was so intense."
"The volume was stunning," Slade continues. "What was so fascinating is that he was using volume as a thing unto itself. We didn’t know that much about technology at the time, but we found microphones that could withstand the sound pressure levels and . . . to this day I don’t know how we got away with it."page 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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