"Why would it be the same?" – Words with J Mascis
With solo album Tied To A Star ready to drop, J Mascis maintains the irrepressible form that's marked his career since reforming Dinosaur Jr ten years ago. We spoke with the reserved guitarist, and occasionally even got a response
J Mascis is famously a man of few words. Strange that someone with such a uniquely arresting flair for songs’n’solos should seem so reticent; after all, no-one else really speaks the language of the guitar in such breathtakingly expressive fashion, and he’s always had a playful approach to lyrics. How about: “I feel the pain of everyone / And then I feel nothing” as a summary of Generation X’s faux-nihilistic angst? Or this cute, flirty effort: “Please come pat me on the head / Just wanna find out what you’re nice to me for”? Most obviously, there’s Freak Scene’s killer pay-off, perfectly encapsulating the collapse of a treasured intimacy: ”Just don’t let me fuck up, will you? / ’Cause when I need a friend, it’s still you.” Yessir, J certainly has a way with words. It’s dragging them out of him that’s the hard part.
That much is obvious from the beginning of our telephone conversation. After answering with a mumbled, “Hey, it’s J,” the 48-year-old indie rock icon offers nary a whisper over the next few minutes. Indeed, when we enquire as to how he’s doing today, there’s a lengthy pause before he eventually sighs, “Pretty good.” On paper, this appears perfunctory – disinterested, even – but in the midst of our exchange it somehow feels perfectly considered, as though this fairly unremarkable response is, in fact, a thoroughly scientific conclusion.
It’s been remarked upon many times – when interviewing Mascis for Melody Maker in 1987, one particular single-word response moved David Stubbs to remark that “stark print cannot do justice to its catatonic deadweight… The pause that precedes this answer is like the death of the word.” So is there anything we can do to pry loose his enthusiasm and glimpse the inner workings of his opaque persona? We can but try.
Let’s cut to the quick. J’s new solo album – the elegantly lush Tied To A Star – continues the rich vein of form he’s maintained since reforming Dinosaur a decade ago. Folksy, pretty and fragile, it’s the wistful yin to his day job’s fiery yang; a mature (no, come back!) way to mope that’s never anything less than utterly absorbing. It also showcases the sense of melodic subtlety that’s increasingly wandered to the forefront of his oeuvre – Sludgefeast this certainly ain’t. Not that he sees it that way, of course.
“I don’t really think about it,” he muses, taking in another of those monumental pauses for consideration. “I was just trying to get a certain vibe, I guess.”
With no clarification forthcoming on the specifics of said vibe, The Skinny enquires as to whether these calmer textures come naturally.
“I kinda try to fight the urge to put… y’know, drums and everything on all the songs.”
So what determines whether a song is for Dinosaur or simply J Mascis?
There’s no thought to those terms during the writing process?
“Yeah, I was writing for the solo record. It kinda captures a mood. And some riffs I came up with didn’t fit into that. I saved ‘em for something else... I definitely wanted it to sound different, to make some distinction.”
One of the key differences proves to be J’s choice of collaborators: bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph are entirely absent, which should prove notable to anyone fascinated by the fractious relationships that tore them asunder in 1989 – now happily repaired following their reformation. Although loaded with fewer helping hands than his 2011 effort Several Shades Of Why, the new record deploys its guests with some style. Take Chan Marshall’s appearance on the sun-splashed Wide Awake, where her breathy timbres interweave with Mascis’s plaintive murmurs to heart-stopping effect – how organic was that process?
“In this day and age, it’s all virtual. Y’know, I emailed her a track and she emailed me back. I was gonna go and see her in the studio, and then she didn’t show up, so I never even saw her.”
That’s unexpected, given the song’s naturally emotive feel. So are you a fan of her work?
What was it about her voice that you wanted to capture on that song?
“Some people have good voices,” he says with an audible shrug. “She’s one of ‘em.”
OK. Did you ever wonder what the other members of Dinosaur might have brought to the album?
“No, I made it to be a solo record.”
Bearing in mind the psychodramatic narrative that’s been built around you and Lou, how is your relationship these days?
“It’s alright. He’s talking about moving back to our area, so maybe we’ll be a local band again.”
Watching the stage, you all seem more comfortable with each other these days. Your solo work must surely provide a helpful breathing space to maintain that, along with Lou’s work in Sebadoh?
“Uhh, I’m not sure really. It’s kinda hard to tell.”
On the same subject, is it important that you continue to work on new material?
“Pretty important. I don’t think we’re really big enough to rest on our past, so having new stuff gives us a reason to play. We need it to keep going, I guess.”
Plus, we’d imagine, the reunion never quite falls into full-on nostalgia territory that way.
“Well, it’s not like people just wanted to keep coming to see us play the same thing – if you’re a band, you make records.”
That ‘same thing’ amounted to songs from the band’s first three albums, re-released by Merge almost a decade ago to prompt their first shows together in fifteen years. How was the experience of revisiting those early works, we wonder?
“Oh, cool. I have no problems with records.”
Had you listened to them much since you made them?
“Not really. Now and again I’d heard ‘em.”
Do you ever listen to your own records?
“Once in a while.” J yawns, so we change tactics.
You’re very widely regarded as being quiet and withdrawn. Is that fair, or does it bother you that people think that way?
“Yeah, it bothers me that people think you’re any way. I just am. You only realise from people telling you you’re quiet; that’s not my experience of me.”
Does it bother you that I’m asking you about this?
We don’t intend to cause offence, The Skinny explains, and J finally bursts into anecdote.
“It’s fine. Yesterday I was with someone I don’t know that well, and he was asking questions like ‘Why is your temperament different to your songs?’ What does that mean? And why would it be the same? It’s so annoying. Should a father and a son be exactly the same?”
Do you get frustrated by answering the same questions over and over again, particularly regarding the apparently-thawed animosity between yourself and Lou?
“No, Lou’s pretty stable for the most part. Murph’s more the wild card – a lot of it’s oversimplified and he’s never taken into consideration. Lou’s not that complicated really; Murph’s a more complicated character.”
Murph stuck around for the later years though, when you moved to a major label. How was that experience?
“It was a lot easier. They’d say ‘Here’s the money,’ and we’d give ‘em the record. I liked it – it felt good to get paid on time.”
Have indie labels got their shit together since then?
“Yeah, the ones that have lasted. Back then I had to deal with things like ‘What if I give the money that I owe you to a cat rescue in both our names?’ It was bizarre.”
Our time is running short and we’ve still not quite managed to scrape the surface of this indecipherable character. We begin to wonder – is J Mascis really as enigmatic as his answers suggest? Is he choosing to avoid explanation or elaboration? Or do these matter-of-fact responses point to a man who simply doesn’t see the importance of the minor detail beyond the facts? We angle for one final thought.
You’ve said before that you think of albums as snapshots of a certain time in a band’s career. What do you think Tied To A Star’s snapshot would tell you about this point in your life?
“Uhh, we’ll have to see. You can only tell in the future.”
OK. So how do you feel generally about this point in your life?
J pauses for one final time. Millennia pass by. Stars ignite and burn out. The universe hangs on his response.