Dinosaur Jr: In Silence With J Mascis

The final part of our Dinosaur Jr interview series, marking the release of latest LP Farm on June 22, finds the trio’s visionary linchpin J Mascis on typically laconic but entertainingly frank form

Feature by Gillian Watson | 22 Jun 2009
  • J Mascis

What do you think of the new record now it’s finished? Are you the kind of person who picks a record apart after you make it?

I don’t want to fix anything any more - [when] it’s done, it’s done, I guess. You’d just go crazy if you did it the other way.

Do you think taking an analytical approach to music is damaging, preventing progress?

It can go both ways, it depends how psycho you get about it.

Did you expect in 2005 that you would have two new Dinosaur Jr albums under your belt by now?

I guess I never think too far ahead. I had no idea what I’d be doing now.

Is that still the case, do you still not think too much about a future?

Yeah. We have plans to play for the rest of the year, but I don’t know what would happen after that.

What prompted the decision to record again?

Just ‘cause we were having a good time playing, I thought “if we’re gonna still play, we need some new songs”. [We were] kinda sick of playing the other ones; if we play the same towns, we want to have something else to play.

How was the recording process different this time from recording Beyond?

We had a deadline for this album so it was a little bit more stressful trying to get it done. But maybe it helps concentrate, or something.

Murph was telling me you still have a clear idea of what you want from the drum parts. How does that fit into the process?

Yeah, [I hear it] sort of all together. Those three elements [guitar, drums, vocals] I hear. But I don’t really hear bass at all. Lou can do whatever.

Is there ever a point where Lou plays a bassline and you’re emphatic that you don’t want it in the song?

Not that often. Sometimes, a couple of times on the album I had an idea that was way off what he was [playing]… It’s more when he’s struggling: sometimes he can’t figure out what to play. Usually in that case, when he can’t figure out what to play, he’s way off.

Do you still think the guitar’s a wimpy instrument?

Still pretty wimpy but I’m used to it now.

Do you see yourself more as a drummer or a guitarist?

It’s kind of more fun to play drums. I guess I do more air drumming than air guitar.

As you were remastering the first three albums, did you find that you have a favourite?

Yeah, You’re Living All Over Me is the best one.

I read that you weren’t the biggest fan of Bug [the band’s third album, which directly preceded Lou Barlow’s departure].

Yeah. It was a bad time for the band.

Do you think interband tension will always colour your opinion of the music made at that time?

Yeah, probably, ‘cause [it’s] just like a photo or something: brings you back to that time.

Did you follow any of Lou’s work with Sebadoh?

I didn’t listen to it much, I don’t think he listened to anything I did really either. I felt like I’d had a lifetime of Lou already and it was just more Lou. Not that I wouldn’t have liked it or anything, I just needed a break.

How do you look back on the records between the first and second phases of the original line-up? Would you like to play more of that live?

Maybe. It’s cool that Lou doesn’t mind playing some of those songs. We have so many other songs. But some people want to hear [those] songs sometimes. I guess we should learn a few of them.

When you’re creating a setlist, do you think about what the fans want or more what you enjoy playing?

Both, just a combination.

Is it tough working out songs you play on record with a lot of guitar textures and overdubs so that they can be played live with just one instrument?

No, you’re just gonna try to approximate it, I guess, but not worry about it too much.

Do you still enjoy touring or has it become tougher because you have a family now?

It’s a little harder to be away, but I guess I like playing more than I used to when I was younger.

When you’re performing, do you prefer to play the newer songs?

Depends on the day. Sometimes there’re some songs I get sick of, and then sometimes the new songs are too hard to play (laughs). It’s easier to play the songs you know how to play, you don’t have to think about it too much.

Do you have a favourite, one you’d automatically go to if you were just mucking about?

Not really. Maybe it would tend toward the first album’s songs, not that I like them the best… Maybe because they were the first songs I wrote.

The audience at Dinosaur Jr shows is quite young. Do you have any thoughts on why and do you enjoy seeing that?

Yeah, it’s great. A lot of the time, people our age don’t go out any more, so no one would be there [otherwise]. I guess it’s just ‘cause we have a certain sound that not everybody has. There’s so many bad bands out there now, I guess we’re good, or something.

Can you think of any examples of bad bands?

Of bad bands? You know… not really. I’m a little too asleep to think… I guess they’re trying.

Do you find it difficult to hear the influence of Dinosaur Jr in newer bands coming up, or do you listen to things sometimes and think “that sounds like me”?

Only a couple of times, I’ve heard stuff that seems like a rip-off. The only way I can tell is if somebody tells me they’ve been influenced by me. We’re all influenced by whatever and it’s hard to pick out.

Does it feel good to think that you’ve influenced people?

Oh sure, it’s cool. It’s a bit weird.

Is it true that you didn’t like the Dinosaur Jr chapter in [Michael Azerrad’s history of hardcore] Our Band Could Be Your Life?

Yeah, I think Lou goes a little crazy, he was still a bit too angry or something. Maybe it would’ve been better a few years later when he’d calmed down a little. It’s kind of ridiculous, and some of the stuff I’d never heard before, some stuff he was saying was pretty weird.

When you read it, were you annoyed?

It was like “maybe he’s gone a bit too far this time”.

How long was it before you started talking again?

Well I’d see him from time to time, Sebadoh would play my town, [so] over the years, I would see him.

A lot is made in Our Band Could Be Your Life about the idea of an American DIY scene. Did you ever feel like you were part of a scene?

Yeah, it felt like I was part of a scene. More in New York. There was nothing going on where we lived, but when we went to New York… there was something going on, [though] it wasn’t a big scene or anything. There was a lot of bands I liked who hung around.

Is it strange looking at bands who were your peers, like Sonic Youth becoming elder statesmen of alternative music?

Nah, they [SY] were always like that. They helped us out a lot when we started. Our first tour was with Sonic Youth. They got us on SST and Blast First, and they were always older than other bands, so they seemed more like that anyway.

How was the reality of being on SST?

Well, they were signing a lot of shit bands at the time. It wasn’t so great, just the idea of being on it was better.

In the past when Dinosaur Jr first started taking off, you got saddled with a “slacker” label as if you were representing a generation of disaffected teenagers. Did that annoy you?

Yeah, it’s annoying, what everyone would write at the time was annoying, they were just looking for some angle, and then that’s all they would write about. But you know, “bad press is better than no press”. “All press is good press”.

Have you got a lot on today?

Yeah.

I heard you were doing some TV and radio, are you looking forward to that?

No.

I understand don’t enjoy doing interviews, because I’d imagine you probably get asked the same questions all the time. Is there anything I could ask you about that you’d get enthusiastic enough about that you could talk about it for about 20 minutes?

Yeah, guitar pedals or amps or something.

What’s your favourite guitar pedal?

Are you into guitar pedals?

I don’t know anything about guitar pedals.

Oh, well, don’t worry about it.

Do you have any guitars that are priceless, maybe because they’re tuned a certain way, like Sonic Youth do?

There’s some I like a lot for sure, not because they’re tuned any way, but I like old guitars, some old guitars just have some vibe from some guy playing them a long time, [they’re] pretty cool.

Is it the same thing with a drum kit?

It’s different to me, for me drums are more a musical instrument, but guitars are these… artefacts. Like I wouldn’t want to play if I just had to play some crappy new guitars, but [with] drums I wouldn’t mind probably. I just don’t have the same relationship to them.

You’ve produced some bands, The Breeders being an example. How do you approach production?

[Producing The Breeders] was weird, ‘cause we’re on totally different schedules. I like to record during the day [while they] would stay up all night, so we’d miss each other in the middle. I didn’t really like producing that much. But I’m getting into it a little bit now.

Have you produced anyone recently?

No, but I mixed this band, Hush Arbors, the other day… [That] was pretty cool.

What kind of new music do you like?

I like that band, Hush Arbors, and I heard this band recently, the Screaming Females, which I liked. They just go singing and playing [a style of] lead guitar which I don’t hear that much. It’s the same with the Magik Markers, I like their guitar playing. And I listen to a lot of old stuff that’s new to me.

Have you discovered anything good lately?

I like that band Death, that band that Drag City put out… the early ‘70s band that never came out. That sounded pretty cool.

Is your music subconsciously influenced by what you’re listening to the time?

Maybe it’s influenced, but it’s hard to say. Probably some little part, but I’m not sure how it all works.

Is there any significance to the album title Farm?

I just made the title from looking at the cover, thinking, “where are the monsters taking these girls?” I thought maybe they’re all going to go live on a farm somewhere.

Farm is released via Jagjaguwar on 22 June.

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