25 Years Ago: Dinosaur Jr. Rise to the Brink of Stardom on ‘Where You Been’
In 1993, Dinosaur Jr. sounded like a band again. After some lineup turnover, the group was putting the trio back into power trio.
In recent years, Dinosaur Jr. had fired bassist Lou Barlow and signed a deal with Sire Records. The band’s major-label debut, 1991’s Green Mind, was, essentially, a solo record for frontman J Mascis – who, in addition to his usual role as singer-songwriter-guitarist, handled all bass duties and most of the drums.
But with new bassist Mike Johnson in Dinosaur Jr., Mascis was keen to return to the old ways of doing things by making an album that played on the tangled interplay of a three-piece band. Sonically, the album that would be released as Where You Been was as democratic as this group got, featuring explosive playing by Mascis, Johnson and drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy.
“It’s the first time we’ve felt like a band for maybe six years, or something,” Mascis told MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1993. “[Johnson] adds a lot, just having someone that I can get along with musically and personally. It just makes the record better having all the people there contributing something, rather than the last one.”
But Where You Been didn’t just rely on the band’s distinctive mix of weedy vocals, barbed instrumentation and melodies buried under waves of distortion. Dinosaur Jr.’s fifth studio disc also added to the trio’s sonic palette, with Mascis playing timpani (the background thunder on “What Else Is New”) and chimes (which brighten opener “Out There”) as well as integrating the talents of a string quartet on multiple tracks.
The sounds may have become prettier, but the lyrics often centered on the ugly ache of relationships. On the moody ballad “Not the Same,” Mascis employs his Neil Young-like whine to describe a fraying partnership. With a sigh and a nod to acceptance, he sleepwalks through the cold tune, singing, “As I walk with you, it chills me so / To hear you say it is come to this / And that it is okay.”
“J’s fascinated by the different levels of communication that go on within relationships, whether they be personal or business or whatever,” Murph told Spin in 1993. “He’s like an addict. He loves to see that interplay between people.”
If Mascis seemed to be an ambivalent observer in his lyrics, that notion was only enhanced by the music media. After the release of Where You Been on Feb. 9, 1993, the singer-guitarist displayed his lack of interest in discussing his music in magazine interviews and appeared insouciant when he showed up on MTV’s alt-rock-geared programming. That didn’t stop the channel’s 120 Minutes or Alternative Nation from playing Dinosaur Jr. videos, including the one for lead single “Start Choppin’” and the snowy clip for the follow-up, “Out There.”
That only aided the band’s popularity. “Start Choppin’” became the band's biggest “hit” (No. 3 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart and No. 20 in the U.K.) in their entire catalog, while “Out There” became an alternative radio selection and ended up on the soundtrack to Wayne’s World 2 later in 1993. Where You Been turned into Dinosaur Jr.’s most popular album to date, selling in excess of 200,000 copies and rising to No. 50 on the U.S. chart and No. 10 in Britain. In the alt-rock world, there was a sense that this band would be the next one to explode in popularity.
“We’re just making records and, I mean, every one sold more than the last one,” Mascis said at the time. “Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it then.”
Yet, with a declining appetite for abrasive rock and a shift in the band’s lineup (Murph left in 1993), Dinosaur Jr. never quite became rock superstars, instead finding a middle ground with a healthy following and plenty of praise from critics and their fellow musicians. After Where You Been, Mascis would return to recording the majority of the band’s records himself. The band later reinvigorated their power trio dynamic when Mascis, Barlow and Murph reunited to make new albums, starting with 2007’s Beyond.
Where You Been remained a touchstone for fans, who have sometimes described it as a template for Dinosaur Jr.’s sound on their more recent releases. Looking back, Murph considers the album his favorite.
“On every record, there’s songs I like,” he told The Skinny in 2009. “Out of the records I played on, I think of Where You Been very fondly.”