J Mascis is a notoriously taciturn interview subject, prone to long silences and short answers. It’s not a pose or a ploy to confound journalists, nor should it signal that he has nothing to say. Just to opposite: Mascis has a lot to say, but interviews are not his medium. Music is.
Reticent in person, he’s downright talkative in song, delivering deceptively incisive lyrics in that instantly recognizable laidback drawl of his and writing witty, extensive essays with his guitar. For more than a quarter century, the Amherst, Mass., native has been explaining it all onstage as the frontman for Dinosaur Jr—one of the gods of the ’80s underground guitar rock. Marked by Mascis’ resourceful and busybody fretwork, that band has the distinction of being one of the few to regroup and release excellent late-career albums—namely 2007’s Beyond and 2009’s Farm.
Mascis has played with numerous other outfits, including the Fog, Witch, Sweet Apple, Deep Wound and Upsidedown Cross. Until now, however, he’d never made a truly solo album, which is what makes Several Shades of Why so significant in his catalog. It’s been a long time coming: The idea for an acoustic record has been kicking for ages, with Mascis’ long-time friend Megan Jasper (formerly a receptionist at Sub Pop and notorious for her grungespeak prank on The New York Times) encouraging him over the years.
While he was traveling to the first show on his current tour, he found himself lost in upstate New York when Paste called to talk about Several Shades of Why, which likely made him even less forthcoming than usual. But he did give us teasing bits of information on his songwriting process and Paul Simon vs. Neil Young.
Paste: The idea for this acoustic solo album has been kicking around now for several years. What made this a good time to work on it?
J Mascis: I guess I’m taking a little break from Dino and had some time now. It seemed like a good time.
Paste: Have these songs been around for a while?
Mascis: Most of them I wrote for this album. A couple of them were kicking around, but most of them were new.
Paste: Did you write them as acoustic songs, or was there something about them that suggested they weren’t going to be Dinosaur Jr songs?
Mascis: No, I was writing them for the acoustic album. I just kinda played the acoustic guitar, and if I came up with a riff that’s good, I just saved it for that. If it’s an electric kinda riff, I’ll stash it away for later.
Paste: Was it daunting to strip away some of the noise and put the focus squarely on the lyrics and vocals?
Mascis: I wouldn’t say it was daunting, but it’s more an exercise in restraint, to not put drums on it. My tendency is to want to put drums and other stuff on it, so I have to keep myself from doing that.
Paste: So you like to work within strict boundaries?
Mascis: I enjoy having some boundaries to work within. That’s why I generally don’t like alternate tunings and stuff like that. I like the boundaries of regular tunings.
Paste: Your friend Megan Jasper had a lot to do with encouraging the record. Did she have a role in making the record?
Mascis: No, not really. I just sent it to her when it was done.
Paste: What was her reaction?
Mascis: She said she liked it. I’ll have to go with that.
Paste: There are a lot of different styles on the album, from British folk to acoustic blues. Are you thinking about genre when you’re writing?
Mascis: It’s just comes out, I guess. That’s the kind of stuff I like, British folk and stuff. I guess I’m thinking about it somewhat and it’s coming out.
Paste: Did you listen to anything in particular to get yourself in the mood for writing or recording?
Mascis: No, not really. I just kinda think about it a little bit.
Paste: Lyrically, there seems to be a lot of regrets and ruminations on the album. How autobiographical are your songs?
Mascis: I don’t know. I’m sure somewhat. There’s also a lot of times when I’m writing from a third person point of view. What is this person thinking? And I mix up different things in a song so it’s not necessarily one thought to one song or one person’s voice or something. It could be a conversation between what I think someone would be saying to me.
Paste: It sounds like a good way to get outside of your head and into other people’s.
Mascis: Sometimes. People’s frustrations with me. I know why they’re frustrated with me, but there’s not much I can do about it.
Paste: There’s a great cover of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ “Circle” on the Japanese version of the album. What attracted you to that song?
Mascis: That was Megan, too. She sold t-shirts on a Dino tour of Europe, or maybe it was America. Murph brought the Edie Brickell album along and he would listen to it a lot. It was one of the only albums that Murph ever brought. I ended up liking it. I didn’t think I’d like it, but after a while I got into it. Megan remembered that song and thought maybe it would be good if I sang it. So I tried it.
I was just reading about Paul Simon in Uncut, and it was fascinating. I never think about him much or think about his music or anything, but it’s interesting to hear his ideas on stuff. He was saying he listens to all this contemporary stuff so he can see what they’re doing. And he didn’t really like Neil Young’s last album, but I thought it was really good. What is it about that album that he thinks is not so good? Or is that why he seems better than a lot of the older rocker guys, because he seems more in tune with what’s going on?
Paste: Are you involved at all with the upcoming show for Our Band Could Be Your Life?
Mascis: I just heard about it the other day. They’re having other bands cover all the bands in the book.
Paste: Have you heard the band Wye Oak, who’ll be playing Dinosaur Jr?
Yeah, they toured with Lou.