May 31, 2003 at 7:45 pm #46076
besides the usual questions, there are a lot of questions about the songwriting for Free So Free and the gear he used to record the album
He helped invent modern alternative rock, hates skydiving and drummers, and is the world’s slowest talker. That’ll be J Mascis then…
The annals of rock music are full of interesting characters and musicians who, while diverting at the time, are remembered as mere footnotes, if at all, a summer later. Others have contributed a more lasting effect. Look up ‘Godfather of American Indie’ in any rock encyclopedia, if such a thing exists, and you’ll find two words: ‘J’ and ‘Mascis’. End of definition.
Along with The Pixies, Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr were largely responsible for returning lead guitar to American alternative rock in the late 1980s, promoting saturating guitar noise with every performance – no mean feat in a decade exhibiting the wear and tear of its fight with new romantics, house music and sanitised stadium rock. While never consistently troubling the manufacturers of those platinum discs awarded to big sellers, Dinosaur Jr won every serious press accolade going, and were generally acknowledged to have paved the way for the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and even Sonic Youth.
Since he wrote and performed most of the Dinosaur material, it’s not surprising that in 1997 Mascis decided to retire the band moniker and trade under his own name. His new album – nominally recorded with new band The Fog – shows a lighter side, at least guitar-wise, showcasing a number of acoustic tracks alongside the more visceral electric workouts.
With songs called Freedom, Set Us Free and Free So Free (the title track) and other tracks having, "my freedom’s gone" as the chorus, all the evidence points to this being a good old-fashioned concept album. The accompanying press release confirms this, revealing how the whole album was inspired by J’s newfound passion for skydiving. Pretty impressive, if true.
"The biographer just made that up," J reveals in his trademark lazy drawl. "I’ve never skydived. I hate the thought of it."
There is a theme of sorts to the album, though, and no prizes for guessing what.
"It is about freedom," he reveals, "freedom from feeling claustrophobic from the state of the world. I don’t feel personally like things are closing in on me, but I think as a society it’s getting worse. I think freedom is a cause worth pursuing and a lot of people are not being free to pursue freedom so freely…"
Quite. As with a lot of Americans, this affinity with freedom can be traced to one day in autumn last year.
"I was in my apartment in New York on September 11," he says. "I left that night and I haven’t been interested in living there that much since. In fact, I rented my place to someone else. I think everybody is just hoping America doesn’t start bombing Iran or Iraq or wherever. It’s scary. I don’t see the point. No-one I know has the slightest interest in war.
"I don’t know anyone who is into Bush: no-one voted for him, he wasn’t really elected, so you wonder how he got there."
Mascis’ approach to album-making is practical to say the least.
"When I have enough songs, I make an album," he explains. "It’s just a collection of songs that came to me at that period of time, not a statement of any kind. Some of these songs I started before the last album, More Light, came out, one of them I wrote about three years ago and one song I started about 20 years ago. That’s Freedom, the first song on the album."
Twenty years is a long time to be feeling claustrophobic on humanity’s behalf.
"No, I only just wrote the words," he says. "I had the music already and that’s all. I always write the lyrics at the end so they’re fresh. I don’t know why I haven’t used this tune before, it just never seemed right. I started recording Set Us Free, Bobbin and Free So Free a few years ago. I had seven songs ready even before the last album came out, because it took ages to release.
"I write mostly on guitar, acoustic and electric. I’ll play and see if something comes. If it does I’ll tape it. When a melody comes to me, it’s normally with a guitar part so I picture the whole production as I write. I write the lyrics after that, but I don’t write the titles until the record needs to have a cover and then I think of them. I don’t sit around writing poetry or anything, I just do it when there’s a purpose. I don’t really like instrumentals."
The new album is credited to J Mascis And The Fog. Like Dinosaur Jr, though, scratch the surface and you’ll find there’s only one guy driving the train. There’s a reason for that.
"I was thinking that if you see that J Mascis And The Fog is playing, then you know it’s going to be a band show. But if you see J Mascis is playing, it could be a solo acoustic show."
Following that logic, this must be a band record, then?
"Actually, the new record is just me mostly, although one guy plays slide guitar on a couple of songs, some other people play electric piano and other friends sang background vocals."
The one criticism that consistently came up about Dinosaur Jr was that, as here, it was little more than a front for Mascis’ solo work. Not only did he write everything but he liked to play as many instruments as possible. In particular, drums – tricky when you have a fully paid-up drummer in your band.
"I like to play the drums myself because I think it’s an important part of the sound. I have worked with drummers and they play something and I try to sing on top of it, but it doesn’t feel right. The guy’s playing it as right as he can, but it’s not the right feeling. I hate doing the same thing over and over again, so I would rather just play them myself and get it down first time.
"I wouldn’t mind people playing other instruments, but not the drums. Some of the electric piano on this record I would have played if I could do it better. I like letting people try to add stuff to get a different perspective, and if I like it I keep it."
Apart from slide, Mascis has a guitar for most occasions.
"My main ones are a ’58 Telecaster and a Gibson 330," he says. "I have a lot of others, like a Jazzmaster and Jaguar which I use sometimes. I never feel bad about having them refinished, so I had my Telecaster redone in these blue sparkles. On Jazzmasters I usually have a tune-o-matic bridge because the first one I got had one and I got used to it. I don’t use effects a lot. The main thing I used on this record was the Sherman Filterbank, which somebody gave me and I played a lot of solos through. I thought it sounded pretty interesting. That’s the main new effect I have.
"There are a few acoustics on this record. On one song I played a D-28S, a ’68 or something. I’ve got another acoustic that joins at the 12th fret instead of the 14th, and some old small-bodied Martin – I don’t know what year it is but it’s from before they started writing ‘Martin’ on the headstock – which I used on Someone Said.
"I have a Fender Tweed Deluxe and this Vox Super 15 which I guess runs on the same circuit as an AC15."
Like most of us, he is guilty of falling in love with a guitar for its looks.
"Yeah, a green Gretsch," he says. "It still looks good but I don’t play it very much. I usually get rid of most of them, but I’m not good at selling them."
Jeff HudsonJune 2, 2003 at 8:54 pm #93891
Sweet interviewJune 3, 2003 at 4:56 am #93892
thats a good interview – great introduction too, sort of expands on the usual stuff, it was good to read about the album and its putting together and production :aliensmile:June 3, 2003 at 1:26 pm #93893"Dinosaur_snr" wrote:(I recorded J’s show in Wellington, NZ)
really??? WOW!!! how did it come out?June 3, 2003 at 7:52 pm #93894
Really good, considering I only used a tape recorder. It picked up the huge solos on Ammaring, Alone and Get Me particularly well. The live version J did of Set us Free was a particular favorite, as well as Ammaring.June 5, 2003 at 1:40 pm #93895
cool to know that a few recordings of the OZ/NZ acoustic shows exist (not to mention about wanting to listen …. )
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