September 12, 2004 at 2:14 pm #47292
this is one of the best j interviews i’ve ever read … + i was looking for it recently + i couldn’t find it + i thought it was gone forever … but many thanks to flying cloud :aliensmile: :aliensmile: , it’s been found + now i’m going to post it here, so everyone can have a read … … (unfortunately, it looks like the last page wasn’t archived, so i’ll have to find my print out from way back when which is around here somewhere + type that bit out, but for now here are pages 1 – 5)
btw, the original has archived video clips
The Lighter Side of Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis
It’s a lazy day in the Big Apple… well, as lazy as any day in New York City can be. It’s the perfect setting for an interview with the hardest working slacker in music.
By Chris Nelson
J Mascis is walking on the streets of New York with surprising speed for someone with such a languid reputation. The man behind Dinosaur Jr volunteers to hold my tape recorder and assumes a deadpan, Dragnet-ish tone. "Yes. That’s correct. First take," he responds to my question about a particular recording. When I inquire about other projects, Mascis tilts his head down to speak into the mike and turns his eyes up to look over his glasses. His exaggeratedly innocent facial expression looks like something he’d conjure if testifying before Congress. "Produced the last fIREHOSE album," Mascis replies. He can’t help but laugh as he adds, "Destroyed the band."
Those who’ve read even a few stories about Mascis can attest that the guitarist has rarely impressed interviewers with humor or energy. Four years ago, at the height of Dinosaur’s critical acclaim, it seemed as if there was a media moratorium on any article that veered from this standard tack: hail Mascis as a guitar genius; decry his languor and reticence.
But on this chilly, late winter day in New York, Mascis not only walks quickly, he also jokes frequently. I’m accompanying him, along with his German girlfriend Luisa, to Saks Fifth Avenue to shop for swimsuits. In just 16 hours they’ll be airborne, bound for a few days’ stay on the Caribbean island of St. Bartholomew.
As our hunt for swimwear gets underway, it seems fruitless to attribute Mascis’ good spirits to any one specific variable. It could be Luisa’s presence, and their anticipation of leaving the cold city for warmer climes. On the other hand, perhaps Mascis is confident that the new Dinosaur album, Hand It Over, will be better received than its predecessor, Without A Sound. Then again, maybe he’s simply relieved that the day’s interviews are almost finished.
The Q&As began a few hours before at the Paramount Hotel. Mascis tells me that his last interrogator, a "shifty-eyed" man from a Belgian newspaper, reminded him of a vampire. Back in the Paramount, Mascis moved as if plodding through molasses. Now his energetic gait says he’s thankful to be out of the dark, overly deco hotel. The tall, thin Mascis laughs to himself about the absurdity of the day: first an interview with the vampire, now a search for swimsuits accompanied by some stranger.
We arrive at Saks and Luisa stops to browse at one of a dozen perfume counters. While she examines a bottle of Gaultier, I ask Mascis about rumors that he would retire the Dinosaur name. "I never said anything about that," he says. "People just assume things, from not hearing anything about it." Rather than express frustration at the hearsay, he returns to his deadpan. "I never made a public statement one way or the other," he declares. Did you ever make a private statement one way or the other? "No comment."
Whether he’s marveling at golfer Tiger Woods, or talking about his appreciation for Bob Dylan, Mascis is more apt to reveal himself as an average guy than as an alt-rock statesman. "Sure, I like Bob Dylan a lot," he says. "Doesn’t everyone?" Of course, within this frame of normality, Mascis still walks to his own beat. Among his favorite Dylan songs, for example, are alternate versions of material from Blood On The Tracks. Moreover, most people would remember if their band had once opened for the Man. "Oh yeah, that’s right," Mascis laughs. "We played with Dylan. That was pretty hot."
Several themes weave throughout the hours we spend together. The first is the guitarist’s penchant for convenience stores. On three occasions in as many hours he stops for fruit salad, bottled water, or soft serve ice cream. "That’s the problem with New York," says the Massachusetts native. "There’s food everywhere."
Secondly, there’s Mascis’ good humor, which pops up at every turn. In particular, he amuses himself (and me) with repeated gibes about Dinosaur going techno.
The most fascinating thread is Mascis’ lingering affinity for the drums, which he’s played on and off since a child. Although he has in the past mentioned a predilection for percussion, I find it intriguing that at this late date he still clings so dearly to the instrument. After seven albums of guitar saturation, he remains a drummer at heart, as if by doing so he can shrug off the guitar hero mantle.
Occasionally the last two of these motifs converge. As Luisa tries on swimsuits in Saks, I ask Mascis if he thinks of himself first as a guitarist or songwriter. "More as a drummer in my mind," he says with barely a hint of a chuckle. "Really?" I probe, trying to ferret out any sarcasm. "Yeah," he says, asserting himself gently to underscore his sincerity.
It’s at this juncture of humor and sincerity that I sense Mascis, if not exactly baring his soul, is at least more at ease with a stranger than he is wont to be. With the taciturn J Mascis, such ease surely counts as gained ground.
Mascis began this decade as the savior of solos. In the wake of Sonic Youth’s landmark deal with DGC, Dinosaur Jr was one of the many bands born of punk that signed to a major label (in this case, Sire). Mascis’ huge guitar noise and indie label bloodline placed him within the fuzzy boundaries of alternative, but he brought to the genre elements long considered the vices of classic rock: primarily extended guitar solos, but also orchestral flourishes, including string sections and tympani.
Years before he made music that spawned comparisons to Neil Young, Mascis spent his days ingesting massive doses of punk (with occasional hits of mainstream rock). Today he recalls with fondness his musical taste during adolescence. "I abandoned everything except hardcore punk rock at some point. I didn’t understand how I used to listen to any other sort of music, or how anyone else did either."
After originally hooking up in the hardcore band Deep Wound, Mascis and bass player Lou Barlow recruited Murph the drummer to form Dinosaur. In the back half of the ’80s, the albums Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug carried white noise by the truckload, and established Dinosaur Jr as a forerunner of the grunge to come.
By the release of Green Mind, the band’s 1991 major label debut, Barlow was gone. Depending on the account, he was either fired by Mascis or had split on his own. Whatever the case, as Barlow concentrated on his band Sebadoh, Mascis forged on, recording Dino records largely by himself. With the follow-up Where You Been (1993), he created his most focused and mature work to date. Articles by the score deemed him alternative’s guiding light of guitar. Just a year later, however, the across-the-board acclaim had dried up. Most detractors cited Mascis’ inferior effort on Without A Sound (1994), but support for grunge and its kin was already beginning to wane in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
Back in Saks Fifth Avenue, Mascis and I discuss Dinosaur history while waiting for Luisa to find a bathing suit. We’re sitting in chairs constructed of bungee cords, facing a fairly busy walkway. Stories about his lackadaisical demeanor have primed me for a sloucher, but the six-foot-plus Mascis maintains good posture both standing up and sitting down. Female customers and employees pass by taking little notice of the only men in the department. The 31-year-old guitarist wears an open flannel shirt, brown corduroys, and gray New Balances. His shoulder length hair (a bit gray itself), hangs down around his glasses.
"I was happy with Without A Sound," says Mascis. He’s still holding the tape recorder, and more often than not, he looks at it when he speaks rather than at me. Although he may not appear relaxed by most folks’ standards, neither does he look especially ill at ease.
"I was surprised that it got so panned," he continues. "It’s like one bad review leads to everyone else, so…this album sucks, okay. I wasn’t too happy with where I was at personally, so maybe that came through somehow in the record. I like it."
He adds that, "The only record I haven’t been happy with was Bug," referring to the band’s final work with Barlow. "It was kind of rushed, and the band was falling apart, and I don’t really like many of the songs. Too rushed more than anything. We kind of made it before it was time."
Mention of the Barlow period prompts me to ask Mascis about the band’s other famous ouster, that of original drummer Murph just before the recording of Without A Sound.
"He wasn’t fired," says Mascis. "We just had a long talk. He decided he really wasn’t into it, he was playing really bad, it was after Lollapalooza…[That tour] kind of broke our spirit. It was really bad for us."
"What was bad about it?"
"Everything," Mascis laughs. "What was good about it is a better question."
"What was good about it?"
"Nothing," he ricochets with his high pitched giggle.
Despite Mascis’ specific complaints about the heat during Lolla, he’s long been known to deplore any touring at all. Dinosaur’s upcoming U.S. outing has been confined to a mere six weeks. Later, he shudders at the thought of the Lemonheads’ current tour, slated to last about a year. By Mascis’ account, such an extended jaunt is nothing but "a gratuitous avoidance of life."
NOISE HERO SANS DISTORTION
Mascis’ most recent road work was less of a tour than a series of casually planned acoustic appearances. Although the dates were easy to stage, the guitarist says he found it nerve wracking to suffer the talkative audiences. The live document of these shows, Martin + Me (1996), was partially aimed at Dinosaur fans who failed to comprehend why their noise hero would bother to play sans distortion.
Aficionados of the loud grit will appreciate Hand It Over, but so will anyone who values Mascis’ gift for melody. Though the album is not the Mascis Masterstroke, it is nonetheless a return to form for Dinosaur. Once again, the guitarist turns to instruments outside the band’s line-up to realize some of the album’s best cuts. "Never Bought It" is graced with a gentle flute (courtesy of a Mellotron); "I’m Insane" sports a piccolo trumpet; "Gettin’ Rough" is powered by banjo plucking. The disc’s only conspicuous misstep is its centerpiece, "Alone." The song’s eight minutes of drone and wail present a hurdle for any listener eager to get to the choice material on the record’s second half.
Although sessions for Hand It Over began last spring in a Woodstock studio, Mascis moved the recording to his home after discovering it offered sound quality equal to the professional room’s. I ask him whether his recording technique values the perfectionist’s imperative for precision over the lofi practitioner’s need to capture a particular moment.
"It’s kind of one and the same thing," he explains. "If I can’t get it right within three or four takes, it only gets worse from then on, so I just have to come back to it another day." He does note that the album contains a mistake or two that managed to pass muster. He cites his drumming on "I’m Insane," which begins slowly, but jumps into high gear within a few measures.
Mascis beat the skins himself for all but one of Hand ItOver’s tracks. He stands by his time honored tradition of recording demo tapes of his own drum work for other players to listen to and then replicate in the studio. Drummer George Berz initially laid down tracks for several of the Hand It Over songs, but for the final cut, all but "I Know You’re Insane" were dropped from the album or rerecorded by Mascis. When I question why he bothers working with other drummers at all, Mascis maintains his optimism about group efforts. "I’d rather at least give it a shot. Some songs I knew I wanted to play, but some I thought would be good if [Berz] played."
On the new album, Mascis once again takes for his primary subject relationships and their evolutions. The songs are more often pleas than indictments. Among the pain and longing, though, there’s wit, be it in the form of a barbed lyric, or in the point-counterpoint sequence of "I’m Insane" on the album’s first half and "I Know You’re Insane" on the second.
The album’s first single, "Nothing’s Goin’ On" is seemingly about a manipulative personality. "Every girl’s a suspect, and every boy’s your friend / You reel ’em in and throw ’em back again." The track, however, may also serve as a rebuff to the fickle music media that hail artists as geniuses one year only to deem them failures the next. "I can’t help it if you walk away," sings Mascis, "Got some new game that you gotta play." At one point I ask him who in the music world he respects, adding that he doesn’t necessarily have to name a musician. "I don’t really respect anyone associated with music who’s not a musician," says Mascis. In keeping with that perspective, "Nothing’s Goin’ On" deals its harshest blow to prying overanalyzers with its chorus: "You got a knack for being wrong–nothin’s really going on."
While "Nothing’s Goin’ On" is getting the push on American radio, Warner Brothers in Britain has balked at releasing a single from the album at all. There the company has opted instead to release a companion disc that consists wholly of Mascis’ three solo contributions to last year’s soundtrack to Grace of My Heart. It’s an odd move to promote these songs now. Mascis was drafted for the film specifically to create songs that sounded like Brian Wilson, so the tunes sound nothing like Hand It Over. Stranger still is Warner’s decision to credit this disc to the band, while the same recordings on the soundtrack are attributed to Mascis.
Mascis reacts to this unique marketing of his work partly with disgusted resignation. "I don’t pretend to understand anything about England. That’s what I’ve decided at this point–to write it off. They can do whatever they want because I don’t understand what the hell’s going on over there anyway." Nonetheless, he also keeps an open mind about the release. "If it works, that’d be good. If it doesn’t…whatever. At least they’re not putting [the soundtrack songs] on the album."
Mascis even concedes that the Warner suit who claimed he didn’t hear a hit on Hand It Over may have a point. "I can understand. I don’t hear a single particularly either, unless they’re all singles."
I place my own bet for the album’s preeminent cut on an insightful, complicated lament called "Sure Not Over You." The song moves idly, as if the singer were wandering the streets, trying to convince himself of easy answers to painful differences. Although he acknowledges that his partner will leave if he doesn’t change, it’s not clear that the singer wants to change, or even that he fully understands the problem. He attempts to duck the difficult solutions by relying on shared history: "All the love and light has gotta count for something, right?" By the song’s end however, he seems committed to a resolution whatever the personal cost: "Gotta pull it together / Don’t want to blow it now…There’s so much I need to be, and it’s gotta come from me."
Mascis agrees that "Sure Not Over You" is "one of the best songs" on Hand It Over. He does not concur, however, with my assessment that the line "a vibe so bad I want to puke" stands out jarringly amid the song’s delicate acoustic guitar and tender sentiment. "I think that’s a valid way of feeling," he counters.
In retrospect I’m conscious that his reaction evaluates the emotion of the lyric rather than the words he’s used to express it. To an outsider, the response seems fairly typical: Mascis is so enmeshed in his own world that he has difficulty stepping back to examine another point of view (that is, how a word like "puke" might mar an otherwise elegant lyric).
The question that arises is whether Mascis feels trapped by his own perspective (more than any of us do), or whether he adheres to it so steadfastly by his own design. To the outsider he reveals precious few answers.
UNIMPRESSED WITH CHICKEN AND JOURNALISTS
Earlier in the afternoon, back at the Paramount, I listened in as Mascis was interviewed by a reporter from the Japanese magazine Rockin’ On. Conditions for the lunchtime questioning were far from ideal. Although the table overlooked a spacious lobby, the hotel was stifling in its dark hipness and overabundance of stainless steel. Mascis was unimpressed by his chicken breast salad. The reporter unfortunately was forced to feed him questions faxed by her editors in Tokyo.
Despite these adverse conditions, tidbits of Mascis’ psyche emerged. Placed together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they began to suggest a plausible portrait of the musician. (Of course, given the chance, Mascis himself may have preferred to arrange them quite differently.)
At one point the writer asked him whether he enjoyed playing music now more than he did years ago. "I have trouble remembering what I felt like in the past," Mascis responded. Inwardly I urged him, "Well try for goodness sake." The longer I watched him, however, the more sense his reply made. It dovetailed with his infamous manner of speaking, in which he emits only a few words at time, punctuating phrases with lengthy periods of silence.
When Mascis suggested that, "Probably the less you can think, the happier you’ll be," my own picture of him began to coalesce. Later he and I talk specifically about the dangers of confusing art with artist; still I can’t help but hear the refrain from Hand It Over’s opening track: "I don’t want to think about it / I don’t talk to much, I just know it’s where I go / I know enough just not to doubt it."
Is it possible that Mascis can’t remember how he felt in the past because he expends all his energy on the immediate moment? I know that he doesn’t speak so slowly because he’s disinterested. Perhaps he’s consumed by everything around him, processing the stimuli as fast as he can. Maybe his gears turn slower than other folks’, or perhaps his mill just processes more grist. When Mascis narrows his focus (say, to only hardcore punk in high school), it could be a coping mechanism to deal with the barrage around him.
I stress maybe because at times it appears that Mascis can absorb or remember more than at others. For example, although he can’t recall what it felt like to play music a few years ago, he can list a variety of bands he listened to in high school, even separating them by which grade he was in.
Of course, it’s easier to recite lists than to describe feelings. Eventually Mascis did let a shard of emotional description slip out: He told his Japanese interviewer that he’s been "less stuck, less weighted" recently.
It’s a phrase that Mascis uses again later to describe himself to me. Although he makes an attempt to provide more detail, he decides that no words can describe his state better and leaves it at that. (Again, I’m reminded of Hand It Over: "Well I’ve figured something out / Should I tell you what about? / Let’s just say I’ve done my time.") It’s almost as if there’s so much for Mascis to process–even as his burden is lightened–that all he can safely squeeze out to describe himself is the simple phrase "less stuck, less weighted." If the self-assessment is not lengthy, it’s nonetheless believable. I see it in his walk and hear it in his laugh.
SUCCESS AT LAST!
After a modicum of searching in Saks, Luisa finds the beach wear she needs, settling on a $90, blue checkered bikini. At this time of year, though, the store’s selection for men is minuscule. Luisa gives Mascis a quick kiss, then heads home to pack for the trip, while Mascis and I take off for the Paragon sporting goods store. There he’ll linger over expensive golf clubs before discovering a pair of Speedos that are long, flashier than the staid goods in Saks, and at under 25 bucks, more to his liking in price.
As we walk to the store, we talk about current trends and personal tastes in music. Earlier in the day, Mascis expressed his fondness for the Silver Jews’ David Berman. He tells me now that he’s also been enjoying Radiohead recently. Beck, on the other hand, he’s "into conceptually," although he doesn’t actually enjoy Odelay so much. He reveals that he likes Journey better than Pearl Jam, and that he thinks Stone Temple Pilots are "pretty hot." He particularly admires STP’s Scott Weiland. "He’s taken so much shit from everybody," explains Mascis. "He’s taken it, though. He’s survived."
What does he think of U2’s Pop? "I heard the single and one other song," he says. "I thought it was pretty good. I really liked their last big record, the one with ‘Mysterious Ways’ (Achtung Baby). That was, I thought, the best. I didn’t really like U2 that much, but that album was the best one I’d heard. All the songs I hear are like, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’ I was impressed that they had gotten better."
What do you think of the band inventing itself anew for each album? "I thought it was good since I didn’t like any of their other inventions," cracks Mascis.
I inquire what he thinks when he hears the umpteenth pronouncement of death for the guitar in the face of dance music. "Well," Mascis sighs, "I need a new job." He laughs yet again.
Lollapalooza was, he says, not the best thing for the band.
The joke appropriately sums up Mascis’ musical world view. It doesn’t matter if the guitar is supposedly dead at the hands of techno. It doesn’t matter if Without A Sound was panned, or if kids don’t get the acoustic album, or if Warner ignores Hand It Over in favor of old soundtrack material in Britain. J Mascis will continue following his own muse, to his own satisfaction. As he sings in "I Don’t Think," "I won’t defend if you doubt it." People’s reactions and expectations will just have to be damned.September 12, 2004 at 2:28 pm #104937
found it ! … thankfully the last page has only a small amount of writing …
Expectations be damned indeed: not long ago, mascis even took in a show by former bandmate and sebadoh leader lou barlow. despite the pair’s media-hyped animosity towards each other, there’s no malice in his voice when mascis says the band reminds him of james taylor. "i hadn’t seen him since eric [gaffney] was in the band, so it was a lot more controlled, a lot mellower."
as we walk, we’re suddenly approached by two women, one of whom has a british accent and asks mascis for directions to broadway. at this opportunity, the man behind dinosaur jr not only decredits his rep as a disinterested slacker, but sallies forth as a friendly, helpful citozen of new york. "it’s the next street," he tells them, pointing one block to our left. i tell him mayor giuliani would be proud.
"god knows where i sent them," mascis snickers.September 12, 2004 at 3:35 pm #104938
FlyingCloudParticipant"rambleon" wrote:as we walk, we’re suddenly approached by two women, one of whom has a british accent and asks mascis for directions to broadway. at this opportunity, the man behind dinosaur jr not only decredits his rep as a disinterested slacker, but sallies forth as a friendly, helpful citozen of new york. "it’s the next street," he tells them, pointing one block to our left. i tell him mayor giuliani would be proud.
"god knows where i sent them," mascis snickers.
everytime I read that bit again, it makes me laugh out loud :aliensmile:
hey rambleon, thanks a lot for digging this interview up, and to rejoin the parts of it here!
archive.org is a great tool to find contents which has been moved or put offline
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