Catching Up With... J Mascis
In his 25+ years in the business, J Mascis has earned quite a reputation. Depending on who you talk to, Mascis sorta-kinda invented grunge, single-handedly brought the word "shredding" into the indie-rock lexicon and undoubtedly inspired a generation of imitators. Longtime friend Thurston Moore thought so highly of Mascis’ work with Dinosaur Jr. that the first track of Daydream Nation was originally titled "J Mascis for President." All this was cemented in 2005 when Mascis buried the hatchet with estranged bandmate Lou Barlow and got Dinosaur Jr back together, touring and recording a new album to spectacular results.
But that's only part of the story. Although critics have waxed poetic for years about Mascis' guitar playing, he started out as a drummer playing with his '80s hardcore band Deep Wound. As it turns out, guitar was an afterthought for Mascis. With his newest band Witch, he's back behind the kit, backing up members from Vermont folk collective Feathers.
Paste caught up with Mascis in Berlin and talked about the joy of drums, his advice for bands thinking about reuniting and his guest spot on the new Hold Steady record.
Paste:: So how did you get Witch together? I know that you and [Witch bassist] Dave Sweetapple have been friends for a while.
Mascis: Kinda hanging out in the local scene. Just hanging around Western Mass.
Paste:: What was it like when you guys first played?
Mascis: A lot of the shows up there, Western Mass., are like noise and free folk and a lot of improvisation stuff. Thurston Moore is usually playing with somebody; he's always involved. We were just hanging out at the shows, and the band Feathers would play. [Kyle] was pretty young at the time and it was just like, "Don't you want to play something a little more rocking? You're only like 20 years old or something like that. You can retire and play acoustic guitar."
Paste: You usually get into the free-form folk stuff after—
Mascis: —you've done everything else. And then in that scene, even the idea of having songs was kind of novel. And it's just because it's a lot more fun a lot of times to just play rather than go see all these shows. You might as well play at the show everyone else is playing at. And having songs was kind of a wild concept at the time.
Paste: Witch is a big change for you and the guys from Feathers. Is it a nice break from Dinosaur Jr?
Mascis: Yeah, it's fun just playing drums. It's nice not having to worry about too much.
Paste: I know you played drums with Deep Wound and on some of the later Dinosaur records, but was it a challenge to get back on drums?
Mascis: Yeah, I've never gone on tour playing drums, so it's kinda cool.
Paste: Is it a lot different on stage? As a drummer you can kind of hide behind the cymbals and toms.
Mascis: Yeah, but you have to keep it together somehow. It's harder to play drums than guitar, physically. I'm always kind of on the edge. I guess that's how I play everything: on the edge of my ability. But on drums, if you fuck up, it's a lot more noticeable than on guitar.
Paste: Witch's sound owes a lot to bands like Black Sabbath. What do you think of all these Sabbath revival bands?
Mascis: It's a good sound. I always liked Sabbath.
Paste: Is there any Sabbath record that you particularly liked?
Mascis: Yeah, for me I liked Sabotage; that was my favorite. I always heard how Ozzy didn't like it, and one time I got to interview Ozzy, so I got to ask him about it.
Paste: You interviewed Ozzy? Who was that for?
Mascis: Some magazine. I can't remember. But he said that he didn't like it because there were all these lawyers in the studio and the band was falling apart.
Paste: I can imagine that having lawyers in studio would dampen the atmosphere.
Mascis: I understood that too because I felt a similar way about Bug, because I never really liked it and a lot of people liked it. It reminded me of the band falling apart or something, bad times. I still love Sabotage when I hear it. It sounds so cool somehow.
Paste: That's weird. I never really thought of you as a Sabbath fan when I listened to Dinosaur Jr.
Mascis: Yeah. Well, "Sludgefest" is kinda Sabbath-esque. And "Freak Scene," where goes from electric to acoustic, that's directly ripping off Sabotage. Some songs on there do that. All the sudden they're acoustic.
Paste: So have you found it easier to record with Witch than with the other people you've recorded with in the past?
Mascis: Oh no. No.
Paste: What makes it more difficult?
Mascis: It's just... I don't know. Somehow, it's difficult. It wasn't so bad for me. I figured I'd just do the drums and leave. Definitely, for the engineer getting fried on... I don't know. They're not the easiest bunch to make a record.
Paste: Do you find that your presence in the band distracts from the other members of the band? I mean, it's not often that a drummer gets interviewed.
Mascis: Oh yeah. I don't know. It's definitely something. It seems like we more have our own kind of fans.
Paste: You just finished up a European tour. Was Europe more open to your music? Places like Gothenburg, Sweden are known for having big metal fans.
Mascis: Yeah, definitely in Norway and Sweden we have the best shows. One dude came to London from Greece. He said, "I came to see Witch," and his whole face was tattooed. It was kind of unnerving but he seemed okay. He had a blue face pretty much, with all these dots and weird stuff on him. That guy doesn't come to see Dinosaur.
Paste: The Dinosaur reunion has gone really well. Beyond sounded great and the tours were well received. Is Dinosaur Jr here to stay?
Mascis: I don't know. We've got a tour coming up, but other than that I don't know what's going on.
Paste: So you don't know if you're going to write another Dinosaur record?
Mascis: We might try to. I don't know if it will work or not. It's hard to make any plans with a band.
Paste: Were you surprised at how well Beyond turned out? It ended up on a lot of year-end lists and sounded pretty great.
Mascis: Yeah, we were all surprised at how it went.
Paste: Do you have any advice for bands like The Replacements that are talking about getting back together?
Mascis: Oh, they are? I thought Axl [Rose] wouldn't let them. [Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson is currently a member of Guns N' Roses.]
Paste: Yeah, apparently they're getting pretty close and were recently offered a ton of money to reunite at Coachella.
Mascis: Oh, I'm sure. I've heard about the money they've been throwing around lately.
Paste: So, any advice for them?
Mascis: No. (laughs) No. Or I would say, I know a lot of people were bummed on The Meat Puppets. They didn't have the same equipment. So maybe, use the same equipment you had back then.
Paste: Has the hatchet permanently been buried between you and Lou? Have you guys been getting along well on the new tour?
Mascis: Eh reasonably.
Paste: There haven't been any flair ups?
Mascis: Yeah, sure, sometimes. But you have to realize that we never really were best buddies or something. I guess we, in away, get along as well as we ever have.
Paste: What changed? What made you decide to get back together?
Mascis: He seemed like he had mellowed out a bit. He wasn't quite so angry. We had these re-releases coming out. He apologized for a lot of stuff he'd done. And I thought maybe that he'd been so angry for so long that maybe it died down a little bit.
Paste: I've actually been really curious about this for a long time. How did you react when you heard "The Freed Pig"? [A Sebadoh song reportedly written about Mascis.]
Mascis: I've never really heard it.
Paste: You never heard it?
Mascis: Back then, Sebadoh to me was like more Lou. I'd had enough Lou as I could stand for a lifetime, I felt back then, so I never really listened to Sebadoh.
Paste: I heard you're guesting on the new Hold Steady record.
Mascis: Oh... yeah, I did record some little banjo thing. I never heard if it was on it or not.
Paste: Well, there's a Billboard article that says you're on the record.
Mascis: All right, I guess I made it.
Paste: I didn't know you played banjo.
Mascis: I don't really. It's one of those Neil Young banjos that are tuned like a banjo. It sounds close, but I can't play with the thumb picks or anything.
Paste: What was it like playing with The Hold Steady? I've always heard they're super-nice, really down-to-earth guys.
Mascis: Oh, I never met them.
Paste: Really? So how'd they get your banjo stuff?
Mascis: Their engineer is an old friend of mine that I worked with forever, and he just sent me the files, and I recorded some stuff and sent it back to him.