Interview: J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.)
Words by Greg Mackenzie - Published on September 17, 2014
30 years of being one of rock’s most influential musicians and greatest guitarists (Rolling Stone place him at number 86, and SPIN have him at number 5) have not slowed J Mascis’s musical endeavours, but they also haven’t improved his conversation skills. Since the early days of Dinosaur in the mid 80’s, the man who once turned down an offer from Kurt Cobain to join Nirvana has been widely known as being pretty awkward when it comes to interviews. Regardless, we weren’t going to just not have a chat to one of alternative rock’s first pioneers. Following the release of Tied to a Star (check out the review), his latest solo effort, I gave J a call for an interview that was equal parts long pauses and “I don’t know” as it was insight into a man that is clearly on a different wavelength to the rest of us.
G’day J. How you doing, mate?
I’m stoked to be talking to you; you’re an absolute music icon. I’m also pretty nervous because I know you’re not a fan of interviews. Can you promise to go easy on me?
I’ll try my best
I appreciate it. You’re being interviewed about your music by someone the same age as you were 30 years ago when you started Dinosaur Jr. Is it weird to think you’re music has had such a lasting appeal and impact?
Not too weird. I like stuff. People your age and my age like the same stuff— I can understand that.
Are things better or worse for music and artists compared to when you started out three decades ago?
I really have no idea. Probably worse, I guess.
The quality you mean?
Yeah the quality seems worse. How about you?
Yeah, but it’s hard for me to say, having not been there. I’m always going to have rose tinted glasses when looking at the past. What are your thoughts on the average music listener today?
I guess people are less into music, maybe. I can understand it; it sounds so crappy these days with the little computer… stuff. It sounds so bad I can understand how [music] doesn’t affect people the same way it used to.
And how does that compare to the average Dinosaur Jr. or J Mascis fan?
I guess they’d have to be more interested in music to find out about me. [The fans] seem, uh, I dunno, they seem cool to me.
Do you enjoy making music now that you’re in your forties, or when you were in your twenties?
I probably enjoy playing live more. I don’t know why. I enjoy playing more now, but making records I enjoyed more back then.
Your latest solo effort, Tied to a Star, has just been released. Across all the acts that you’ve recorded with, what number record is this?
I don’t know what number record this is.
There’s so many that I have to ask, what is your main motivation to keep making music even after three decades?
I just don’t have many other interests. It’s also how I make money so that’s good.
You had a huge impact on alternative rock. You yourself often cite You’re Living All Over Me (1987) as your best and most influential release. What’s it like recording music knowing that you might not ever impact music in the same way that you did in the 80’s and early 90’s.
I don’t know. I keep going on and hoping for the best but it seems you make your best music at that age.
That period of alternate rock emergence with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. etc. etc is often seen as a highlight in music. But for you personally, what’s been the highlight of your career?
I don’t know. I guess ten years ago when I played with Tony Bennett (jazz icon) on his unplugged show. That was both the high and low of my career. The high point was playing with him and the low point was being cut from the broadcasted version [of that show].
I’m just glad you didn’t mention playing with GG Allin as your highpoint.
That was pretty bad.
I read a couple of interviews where you mentioned it. Sounds pretty fucked up. (GG Allin was notorious for on-stage self-mutilation and coprophagia.)
What do you say to artists or bands that list you as one of their influences?
Thanks, I guess.
Dinosaur Jr., along with your contemporaries at the time, are seen as having paved the way for alternative rock’s success in the 90’s with bands like Nirvana and Radiohead becoming huge successes. Are you resentful that Dinosaur Jr. never received the same sort of mainstream success?
We were way bigger than I ever thought we would be when we first started. I guess we could have been bigger but it’s hard to think about. I don’t know. Sometimes it works out for people. If things had been different (referring to the splitting of the original band), it’s hard to say what could have happened.
Can you imagine a parallel universe where you left Dinosaur Jr. to accept Kurt Cobain’s offer to join Nirvana?
I can’t really picture it.
Sort of the inverse of that, can you imagine a parallel universe where Sonic Youth didn’t take Dinosaur Jr. on their first ever tour and champion you the way they did in those early days?
It’s hard to say. They definitely helped us a lot.
Who would win in a guitar-off between you and Thurston Moore?
I don’t know.
Can you imagine a parallel universe where you didn’t kick Lou Barlow out of Dinosaur Jr.?
Now that the original lineup is back together, how are things these days recording with Dinosaur Jr.? And how does it compare to the 80’s, and even the 90’s without the original lineup?
I don’t know. It’s definitely better than the 80’s but not as fun as the 90’s.
How does it compare to your solo stuff? Do you prefer solo or with the band?
I find it easier to record solo but I like having the band. It definitely adds something worth the pain of dealing with people.
What’s behind the switch to the more acoustic approach to your recent solo work: Several Shades of Why and Tied to a Star?
Mostly my friend Megan who works at Sub-Pop. [They] put out the albums. She asked me to [try acoustic] because she knew me so well and she knew I’d like making music like that. It was mostly her asking and then I tried it.
Tied to a Star has these consistent, intense acoustic guitar riffs layered over droning, distorted chords and feedback in the background, but there’s also these moments of almost twinkling electric over the top. How did you come about making this sound?
I tried to do everything on the acoustic guitar, even the really distorted stuff you hear. That definitely makes the album different, not really playing anything but an acoustic. [I was] just trying different things. Usually I go too far and have to pull back. If you try something and it goes too far it can overpower the song and you just have to dial [the distortion] back.
You started as a drummer and you drum for your stoner-metal band Witch. If you were given an ultimatum and had to pick between drums and guitar for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I’d have to say guitar at this point unless I got an amazing gig playing drums.
How did you feel being named the 5th best guitarist in SPIN Magazine’s 100 Best Guitarists of All Time list? Can any list that includes Skrillex and not Jimi Hendrix be taken seriously?
[Laughing] ah no, probably not.
What are your thoughts on Witch bandmate, Kyle Thomas, and his solo project, aka King Tuff.
Yeah, he’s pretty good
In an interview with Megan from Sub Pop, who you mentioned before, you said you were keen to come back to Australia. When can we expect you?
Can I make a request that you bring King Tuff on tour with you?
I don’t know. I’ll see. I have gig with King Tuff in Belgium soon so we’ll see.
Alright, thanks J. I’ll have to buy you a beer when you get here.
Maybe a scotch.