J Mascis: Letting the Music Speak for Itself

Music Features J Mascis
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J Mascis may seem subdued, aloof or even indifferent. Reporters haven’t been kind to the Dinosaur Jr. frontman over the years, mocking his blunt answers and awkward silences during interviews.

His attitude is often mistaken for arrogance. After all, Mascis’ fuzzy, feedback riddled, howling riffs have prowled across the alt-rock landscape with impunity. Nirvana, The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and a host of other artists have hailed Dinosaur Jr. as a towering influence, and Mascis has been credited with inventing the soft-loud sound dynamic that those other bands popularized.

He has since focused on a far more restrained, but nonetheless acclaimed, solo career. Today Mascis will unveil Tied to a Star, his second stripped-down, singer/songwriter-style release. It features Cat Power and Mark Mulcahy (of Miracle Legion), a roster that rivals that of his last disc, 2011’s Several Shades of Why (whose guests included Kurt Vile and Godspeed You! Black Emperor violinist Sophie Trudeau).

But all those milestones haven’t gone to Mascis’ head. On the contrary—while describing the sessions for Tied to a Star, he cites lead single “Wide Awake” as not merely challenging, but downright impossible. At least at first.

“It’s hard for me to play, because it’s finger-picking. And, you know, I’m not that good at that,” Mascis says, in his infamously pause-laden monotone. But as Mascis sluggishly answers questions, it becomes apparent that he’s not apathetic. Instead, he seems to carefully ponder, before revealing details that most public figures would be reluctant to admit: “I wanted initially to have someone else play it [“Wide Awake”]. I asked Richard Thompson, but he was busy. So I just kept kinda banging away at the song until it was acceptable. I’m not totally impressed with my own finger-picking, but I guess it’s passable.”

None of those reservations are noticeable on the tune. “Wide Awake” features Mascis plucking notes that soothe like soft raindrops as he and Cat Power exhale verses that are steamier than cool morning breath. But those impressive results haven’t boosted his confidence.

“It’s hard to play acoustic. I’m used to playing really loud, with all this fuzz and stuff. It gives you a lot of leeway to not play perfectly,” Mascis says of his solo career’s fulfilling, but nonetheless daunting challenges. He adds: “On acoustic, the mistakes are a lot more apparent.”

That self-deprecation may shock most of the younger acts who look up to him. But it doesn’t surprise Damian Abraham, frontman of the Canadian hardcore outfit Fucked Up.

“J’s very zen. And sure, he’s very quiet. Some people say he’s depressed or call him Eeyore, but he’s actually quite hilarious,” Abraham says, before going on to describe Mascis’ contribution to the song “Led By Hand,” (from Fucked Up’s latest album, Glass Boys): “He’d go up to the microphone and say, ‘Do you want me to sing this like [Germs frontman] Darby Crash?’ And everyone in Fucked Up kept saying ‘No! We just want you to be you!’ But J just kept messing around.”

The pair bonded over their love of the Germs and other vintage hardcore troops. Abraham may have laughed at soft-spoken Mascis joking about squawking like Darby, but the Fucked Up frontman and the alt-rock elder haven’t always been so chummy.

“When I first met him I basically forced him to be my friend,” Abraham says, adding: “When I’d see him at festivals, I’d just keep walking up and asking him about old hardcore bands, until he started talking to me. Some people say he’s rude or dismissive, but he’s just not willing to put on airs. He’s a contemplative, humorous guy. But he’s definitely quiet. He speaks volumes with guitars, not words.”

That sentiment is echoed by Marq Spusta, the artist who worked on the covers of both Mascis solo releases and Dinosaur Jr.’s 2009 album, Farm. It’s a fitting match—the strangely untamed creatures that Spusta sketches seem to lumber like Mascis’ monstrous riffs.

Spusta says that most bands hire him to draw sketches that already fit their established image. But Mascis just sifts through Spusta’s finished works, until he comes across paintings of lanky, mossy giants with trees sprouting atop their skulls (which became the cover art for Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm), or wooly, green horned rams crouched beneath an oddly similar looking tree (titled “The Tree & We,” and used for Tied to a Star).

“Dinosaur Jr. and J often go for the art I create when I’m not thinking about a certain band. The characters and scenes that come out of me most naturally also seem to be the best fit for J’s music,” Spusta says.

That sentiment may seem strange. After all, how could Mascis be so intuitively decisive with his solo album’s artwork, and yet sound so unsure about his acoustic playing on that disc? Oddly enough, that behavior isn’t contradictory, a fact that becomes clear as Mascis describes his recent studio hurdles.

“I could imagine how ‘Wide Awake,’ sounded, but I had to catch up to what I was writing and practice until I got it. I’ve done that a lot in the past, writing songs that are above my ability. Like ‘Little Fury Things,’” Mascis says of the opening track on Dinosaur Jr.’s beloved 1987 album You’re Living All Over Me, adding that he continued wrestling with the beastly song long after initially slaying it in the studio. “It took me maybe, I dunno, five years before I could play it live.”

Those limits, and his willingness to push them, have always been a part of Mascis’ guitar playing. That seemingly offbeat mindset makes sense when one considers how he arrived at that instrument in the first place—as a drummer with no other option but to strum.

“It was all about forming a new band,” Mascis says of his pragmatic decision to jump from drums to guitar between his first band, Deep Wound, and Dinosaur Jr. in 1984. “I just couldn’t find any guitar players in my neighborhood that I liked. I’d had enough drum lessons in my life that I could teach someone how to play drums in a way that would suit the songs, or whatever. So in order to form a new band I started playing guitar, and I got Lou [Barlow] to move from guitar to bass, and I got Murph [Emmett Jefferson Murphy III] on drums. We were all learning how to play these instruments at the same time, so we kind of came up with our sound.”

Mascis says that last sentence nonchalantly, as if that decision didn’t go on to irrevocably alter his genre. A switch in instruments may seem traumatic to many musicians, but Mascis saw it as a necessary means to an end. Some fans would decry that ruthless assertiveness when Mascis fired Barlow from Dinosaur Jr. in 1989. Eventually the bassist returned for the acclaimed 2007 disc Beyond. Since then, the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup has continued to release albums, dropping I Bet on Sky in 2012. Mascis adds that he is now more than willing to call on other musicians when he needs help rounding an album out.

“On the last record I had Kurt Vile play, because I knew he would come up with things that I wouldn’t think of playing,” Mascis says, adding “I knew I wanted it to sound a little fuller or something, but I wasn’t sure how to get that. And I knew that he could probably do something that would, like, give it another dimension.”

On Tied to a Star, that depth is more apparent in the lyrics, especially on the latter track “Trailing Off,” where Mascis hoarsely sighs lyrics like: “I left tired and unsure/ fidgety and insecure,” and “Drove another spark right out of me/But I recognize the wound/Trailing off is not enough to be.” The song features rattling strums that threaten to unfurl acoustic strings, before Mascis switches to a flinching electric solo on the chorus. The guitarist rarely shows such rhythmic rawness in interviews, especially when journalists ask him about his old tensions with Barlow.

Spusta says that reporters should expect nothing less from Mascis, adding: “We all know J doesn’t talk much in interviews, and he doesn’t necessarily talk all that much in person. But he’s really a nice, sweet guy. I always enjoy seeing him. He gives enough of himself with the music, especially with the vulnerability of his recent solo records. Sometimes there’s just not much more to add. J’s humble…as humble as an amazing artist affecting that many people can be.”

Yet journalists keep attempting to wrangle a tell-all from the enigmatic guitarist. But Mascis says the most pointed of those efforts usually have anything but the desired effect.

“I remember a journalist in France bringing in a pad and colored pens, and being like: ‘I hear you are boring and difficult, so I thought we would draw,’” Mascis says of his worst-ever Q&A, before adding, with a bit of wryly blunt sarcasm: “I felt it was kind of a bad start for the interview.”