[Q&A] Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis on playing loud, being hated, and not having fun

J Mascis is a man of few words, which makes interviews with him both fascinatingly rare and pointlessly awkward. It's pretty clear at this point that the Dinosaur Jr mainman would prefer to let his music do the talking, and even a cursory perusal of the man's musical discography makes that seem like the appropriate tact, what with Mascis having released disc after disc of insanely awesome guitar rock over the last twenty-some-odd years. He recently released his first real solo studio album, the acoustic longplayer Different Shades of Why on Sub Pop, but he is of course far more well known for being one of the loudest rock guitarists of all time, which Boston fans will get to attest to tomorrow night at the Paradise, as the reunited Dinosaur Jr run through the entirety of their 1988 classic Bug. But Mascis has never really been one to live through the past-- which is probably why his enthusiasm for digging through this period can best be described as muted. Which makes sense: Bug-- initially released on Greg Ginn's SST Records-- marked not only the band's split from the world of indie labels (it would take three years for the next record, '91's major label debut Green Mind, but the band's split from itself, as bassist Lou Barlow was ousted and drummer Murph was essentially relegated to hired hand, and the band officially became Mascis's project. He retired the Dinosaur Jr name in '98 after four major label records, including the early 90's MTV-almost-success of '93's Where You Been, and with the almost-hit of '94's "Feel The Pain" single. But as much as fans stuck around for Mascis's subsequent decade or so of quasi-solo shows and albums under the "J Mascis and the Fog" moniker, the real clamor was for a Mascis/Barlow/Murph reconciliation, which eventually materialized in 2005. The trio have released two subsequent records that, while lacking the raw angst that made 80s classics like Bug and You're Living All Over Me define an era in post-hardcore face-melting guitar rock, still stand up with anything Mascis or Barlow have released since parting ways in the late 80s.

We ran a feature in last week's issue on J to preview the Paradise show, which has Mascis joined by two former Black Flag frontmen: original singer Keith Morris, whose new punk unit OFF! opens the show; and professional blowhard Henry Rollins, an unabashed Mascis fanatic who will interview the reticent J onstage before Dino's set. Below is the full transcript of my talk with the man himself. Keep in mind when reading through this that each question was trailed by a 3-10 second pause before Mascis lurched into a response; Mascis doesn't waste words on long sentences when a few syllables will do, but that's part of the fun in trying to finagle utterances from one of rock's least verbose heroes.

A number of years ago, I read something in a magazine that was you interviewing Ozzy Osbourne.
Oh yeah.

And I remember that you told him that your favorite Sabbath album was Sabotage, and that kind of bummed him out because to him, that album represented when the band was falling apart, being ripped off by managers, etc. I’m curious if revisiting Bug, playing the whole album like you will on this upcoming tour, is kind of a similar thing for you, since the album kind of represents when you guys were falling apart, as a band.
Yeah, definitely. I definitely related what he was saying about that album. But who knows? We haven’t gotten together to play or practice it yet, so who knows what it will bring up, bad memories, etc.

What do you think of Bug, musically, at this point?
I dunno. It’s kind of like, it has bad connotations to me, I don’t really like it that much.

Do you feel like, song-writing-wise, your older stuff is coming from a different place, especially a record as tormented as Bug?
Uh, yeah, I dunno. It’s all me, I can’t really differentiate it.

Your new solo acoustic album, Different Shades of Why, was a long time coming-- I feel like I read that you’d had it in the planning stages for 8-10 years. Is this album made up of stuff you’d been writing for a long time, or are the songs themselves all recent?
Uh, a couple of songs I had for a while, but most of it was newer stuff I wrote just for the album.

Were some of the songs originally intended as either latter-day Dinosaur Jr songs, or Fog songs?
Yeah, one or two of the songs were tried out for different things and reworked. Like the last song on the album. I tried it out for different things and abandoned it and came back to it.

Was the idea always to do an acoustic record, to differentiate it from the super-loud guitar rock of Dinosaur Jr and The Fog?
Yeah, I mean once you start putting drums on it, it just starts to sound like everything else, and I wanted this record to be different.

But you’ve always had acoustic songs on a lot of your albums, so you doing an acoustic record doesn’t seem like that big a deal, it’s more like you’re focusing on one specific thing you do, does that sound right?

You seem over the years to have gotten more into a lot of folk and acoustic artists, is this new album you trying to make more the kind of record that you’d like to hear?
All the records I make are, you know, mainly, first off for me to like. I always figured the only thing I can go by is if I like it-- and if I like it, hopefully someone else will like it. It’s hard to try to please someone besides yourself.

A lot is made about how insanely loud Dinosaur Jr is-- and I’m curious how hard it was, starting out and being that loud? Were you hassled a lot by soundguys? And was it all force of will that got you through your early more hardcore-ish days?
Oh yeah, that’s all we had, the will. We got banned from all the clubs in Western Mass. And I remember in Boston a sound guy throwing a bottle at me. Yeah, it wasn’t easy, it’s not easy to play loud if you have no fans because then you’re just annoying people, you know? Or whoever owned the bar or whatever, it’s a hard position to start in, to want to play really loud and have no fans.

How do you feel about that, looking back-- do you wish you’d done it differently, or are you really proud of having toughed it out?
Yeah, initially it was hard but we were really just trying to amuse ourselves and then hope other people would come around to it.

It seems like your music was often in a tough place, especially early on: super heavy, maybe too heavy for the indie underground world, but not necessarily heavy enough for the hardcore or metal world, what with your melodic country-ish influences.
Yeah, I mean, I guess we didn’t want to settle for mediocrity, we wanted to try to do something good-- or something we thought was good, even if it was harder or people wouldn’t understand.

Did things get easier once the band started getting bigger, at least in underground or indie circles, or when you got on a major label at the end of the 80s?
No, it got worse. We just kind of fell apart, internally. As we got more successful, we got more unhappy with each other and the whole scenario wasn’t so... fun, I guess.

But at the same time, the music was so awesome-- and after the whole thing fell apart, you managed to put a new band together and get Green Mind together.
Yeah, it was pretty strange-- being on a major label and all. A lot of people seem obsessed with fun, I’ve noticed. “What do you mean you’re not having fun, why do you do it?” We were never about fun, I don’t see why that has to be a part of the picture. I just never thought about it.

Right-- and you’ve also always been about work, you’ve put out a ton of stuff over the years and kept super-busy. Is your work ethic a big part of doing music for you?
It’s kind of a dichotomy: people think that I’m really lazy but also I’m doing a lot of records all the time.

Do you feel like it’s frustrating, like you’re being mislabeled or misunderstood?
No, because I feel like I, myself, do come off that way, as lazy somehow.

In addition to just being loud, Dinosaur Jr also started out mixing hardcore and metal and new wave with classic rock and extended guitar solos, an aesthetic that eventually became more the norm into the 90s and beyond. Do you feel like you had an influence on that?
I can’t tell unless somebody tells me that I’ve influenced them, I can’t dig it out or anything.

It must have been hard in the early days to present that kind of music to what was at times a hardcore punk audience!
Yeah, it didn’t really work. We tried playing at hardcore shows, and our old fans from Deep Wound didn’t really go for it at all. We didn’t have a crossover for that-- we tried to play for those fans and they didn’t really like it.

I’m curious also about your development as a vocalist over the years-- the way you kind of worked in falsetto with the kind of songs you were developing was a real far cry from the hardcore world as well. Did you consciously work on your vocal development at all?
Um, not really. I never thought of myself much as a singer, I haven’t worked at it too much.

On the new album, the vocals are really different than on most of your stuff, they’re very close-mic’d and dry.
Yeah, I mean, that’s all there is on there is like vocals, some guitar stuff, just kind of put it out there.
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