If you like your questions answered with the casual nihilism of a stroke-afflicted sloth groaning an alien mantra slowly into a beer bong, then you will LOVE interviewing J Mascis. And you can do it next time.
You know when you were fourteen and you didn’t know how much weed to smoke, so you’d get through like five joints in two minutes and then the world would start going by so slowly that you had to go even slower to make it go normal speed and even then it was touch and go? And then you hurled? Yeah. So does J. He is the living embodiment of that hour of your life. Except all the time. And he’s not even high. (Maybe.)
J’s terminal chillness is in stark contrast to his signature earsplitting, technically brilliant, freewheeling guitar chops, careening melodic vocals and his alpha male status in both Dinosaur Jr and alternative rock in general (worshipped as he was by alt women everywhere, as well as Nirvana and Sonic Youth, who dedicated songs – and, arguably, whole albums – to the dude).
JUKE spent some time in J’s company, getting to know the different kinds of silences out there, while our hero flatlined beatifically. We think we talked about Wagner, spirituality, Lou Barlow (Mascis’s conflicted feud buddy in Dinosaur Jr and frontman of Sebadoh), India, sub-prime mortgages, slackers, Lou being proto-emo, Anal Cunt and Nirvana. And J? Well, J was there.
J & A
You started out as a drummer, then you moved to guitar and vocals, then you ended up playing all the instruments on a couple of your albums. You describe guitars as kind of wimpy compared to drums, is that how the loud/quiet dynamic in a lot of your songs came about?
[Very long pause]
just trying to recreate the feeling of playing drums…
OK. What was it about volume – like when you were a little kid and you had to make everything go to 11?
[Very long pause]
I dunno. It just seemed….
[Nervous laughter] Because you play a couple of instruments really well, you moonlight in some really awesome bands. I really like UpsideDown Crosses and Witch and I was wondering how you got to meet Seth from Anal Cunt?
[Very long pause]
How did that meeting come about?
You don’t know how you met him? But you’re friends with him, or…?
OK [laughs]. Is it true your wife’s brother is making a documentary about you? He shot the latest Witch video. All videos should look like that.
[No idea - the audio playback sounds like a backtracked Spanish wormhole wearing a balaclava].
How long have you been shooting it for?
We’ve been shooting it ever since we got back together….
…So we shot a lot at the beginning when we got back together…
but he hasn’t shot that much… lately….
Okaay! [laughs] So in Dinosaur Jr, you were very much the alpha male and the primary creative force, but you’ve been prolific in other bands, sometimes inconspicuously. Do you like sometimes just dipping in and disappearing in a band? Is it a nice change?
Yeah, it’s great…
I like it.
…But you don’t get the chance to…
I guess I always think it could be better though…
… if you think about it, playing drums or something…
you don’t have as much control over the final product
… or any control!
Is that weird for you, having been controlling a band and all of Dinosaur Jr’s production? Is it strange to go away and then just hear it when it comes out?
… I wish the outcome was… better…[laughs]
So how’s the vibe in Dinosaur Jr post-reunion? I know you don’t want to talk about Lou all the time or anything, but is it a little bit more cosy? A little bit easier?
Or is it strictly business?
Is it strictly business?
It’s hard to say.
[Very long pause]
I guess it’s always “strictly business”….
But you could be like a Motley Crue, going out all the time, raging with ‘the ladies’? But you haven’t really been “bros” as such…
No… but we were…
Why do you think people have such a hard time accepting that a band that makes such amazing music like Dinosaur Jr does isn’t necessarily tight like that?
Some people are unhappy in their lives and they imagine the bands are out having the fun that they’re…
Like Motley Crue, or something!
So it wasnt the Motley Crue experience?
No… but we never…
…and we were just…
you know kinda just… I guess…
I don’t know, depressed anyway?
Like when we started, we weren’t the most lively bunch you know?
… we were kinda like, you know… we were just really committed to music.
We wanted to make good music… not like, hang out.
Do you think Lou wanted to hang out a little bit though?
Maybe! [this gets a big laugh].
But I had, you know, friends – so I wasn’t really looking for…
I was looking to make good music.
So let’s talk about your first band Deep Wound. Hardcore is very much where your roots were as a teenager
Did you find there was a hardcore scene in Amhurst? Or did you have to make your own?
Even when like a scene tried to pop up around it, I wasn’t very supportive of it, I guess.
Did you find it a bit half-arsed?
….I found it a bit…
You know… kinda like unpopular people wanted trends, or tried to be punk, or like have a community and I was just …
not into it.
You say you moved away from hardcore the moment you started getting girls, because you didn’t have that pent-up teenage frustration any more?
…Hardcore….Oh yeah haha…
ha – pent up!
Are you ever going to put that Deep Wound sweater your mum knitted on eBay and buy a new house?
What do you think it would go for?
I’d make you an offer
I’d probably go up to £150…
That wouldn’t buy a house…
Some kinds of houses…
With You’re Living All Over Me – it was a really confident first album. Did you know that you were going to be changing music when you put it out?
…I mean… yeah.
Everybody thought we just sucked.
….But we were, I was, I guess really confident?
I just thought, OK, we’ll put out a record and then hopefully we can get some fans from the record, so we can tour. We were kinda obsessed with the SST kinda thing of just touring. Black Flag had kinda made this way to tour around the States and…
that’s kinda what we wanted to get into.
So was sleeping on floors and in vans an experience you remember fondly?
Was Bug the Rumours of your career?
Like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – this big success, but with everything going to shit behind the scenes.
Yeah, but like worse?
Kinda more of the band falling apart…
Rumours at least they still… Yeah I dunno….
….It didn’t feel like Rumours…. You know. Lots of cocaine. [chuckles]
Yeah… it felt to me like…
I really liked Black Sabbath and I got to interview him once. And he really doesn’t like that record and that was kind of…
That made it seem like Bug… to me… I don’t want to…
Just bad shit going on within the band
That memory? Kinda like that… you know? A bad vibe.
Yeah. Um, I always thought it’s weird these condescending terms old people come up with to describe young music like ‘punk’, or ‘beatnik’, or ‘slacker’ – and they kind of stick. How did you feel about being the slacker’s poster boy?
I was talking about that recently… and like someone was saying about my first record… Like someone was talking to them when we first came out and…
He got it all wrong.
I was pretty active – you know like, I ski and skateboard and stuff…
but I think it’s more cos…
I talk slow or something.
That’s fine. Steve Albini reviewed your first EP and then you played with Rapeman
He was into practical jokes and stuff – what went down on that tour?
….Smoke bombs …
Was it you instigating it or him?
No… we weren’t….
What was it like having Nirvana support you on tour and then them going on to be this phenomenon?
It was cool being able to…to, um, sense that would happen.
And then KNOW it could happen. And then it DOES happen. It’s like for one second something makes sense in the world. Like it’s only for that one second….
Everything made sense.
I remember telling everyone Nirvana was gonna be huge and people were so stupid.
And then that happened and it was cool. When something that should happen, DOES happen. And then everything falls apart. But at least for one moment….you know….
In This Band Could Be Your Life [Michael Azzerad’s classic hardcore/post-hardcore reference tome] said that success was the worst possible thing that happened to Dinosaur Jr.
Why do you think they made that sweeping statement?
Do you hate that book?
Nah. I don’t hate it. I just [laughs] feel like…he wasn’t…there.
There are some basic misunderstandings.
What would you say about the casual theory that Lou is responsible for the birth of emo.
[Laughs] Haha – are you…like serious?
He was pretty emo.
Haha – thought that was like Rites of Spring and stuff. Haha. Yeaah.
So how did the reunion happen in 2005? It seemed so far gone between you and Lou. What changed things?
I guess Lou had kind of mellowed out to the point where… he’d apologized for something.
You know, like…
He just kind of mellowed out enough to make it happen.
So would you say you’re enjoying the experience of touring as Dinosaur Jr again?
Ok – last question. What’s your favourite guitar solo of all time?
Machine Gun, Hendrix.
[J Mascis’ latest solo album Several Shades of Why is out now on Sub Pop.]
By Lucy Stehlik
Photos Alex De Mora
[For JUKE Vol.03]