Another Shade of J: An Interview with J Mascis

Photo: Timothy Herzog

With Another Shade of Why, the famed Dinosaur Jr. guitarist makes his most Dinosaur Jr.-sounding solo disc to date, and sits down with PopMatters to discuss vocal exercises, "English folky bands", and his tips for those just about to try skiing ...

Inspired by a blog where three friends resolved to cross everything off their before-I-die list, I recently made my own. I haven't prepared the three course meal yet, and the screenplay is still in the works, but one thing was recently scratched off the list: get a laugh out of J Mascis.

It wasn't a reaction to a joke I made, but it was a laugh nonetheless. Noted for his beyond-chill demeanor, the Dinosaur Jr. moaner answers each question like a wise uncle, going through his memory as if it's a file cabinet. You think he's about to stop speaking for good ... and then he offers one more sentence. Then there's more silence.

The question of what constitutes a "J Mascis solo album" is a subject ripe for debate, requiring such mulling over. He's exhibited significant influence over Dinosaur Jr.'s albums, especially in the 90s where he wrote every song and recorded most instrumental parts himself. Flipping that coin, even the albums with his name on them are appended by a credit to his backing band, be it The Fog or the always-popular "And Friends". His friend Megan Jasper at Sub Pop Records had been wanting him to do a proper solo set for the indie stalwart label for nearly a decade, and Dinosaur's current label Jagjaguwar joined the list of people who don't say no to J Mascis.

While the sounds on Several Shades of Why are more than a little reminiscent of Mascis' work with his main band, the album has a more intimate feel -- I'd be tempted to call it "Demo-saur Jr.", but these feel very much like fully fleshed songs. Mascis was kind enough to give PopMatters a few minutes to talk about how he differentiates between Dinosaur and solo materials, run us through his current playlist, and give advice to would-be skiers.


PopMatters: Where are you calling from today?

J Mascis: I'm at home ... yeah, I went skiing this morning. And some band is recording at my house. I can't remember their name, though. It's the singer from Awesome Color here.

PM: I'm thinking of going skiing for the first time here in a month or two. Any advice for a first time skier?

JM: When you get scared, see if you can keep going instead of trying to stop. Most bad stuff happens when you try to stop, which is kind of what you want to do when you get scared; if you can just push through the fear, you'll be okay.

PM: Turning to your new album, did you write the songs for Several Shades of Why after the sessions for the last Dinosaur Jr album, or have these songs been floating around for a while?

JM: They're mostly new, but a couple have been around for a while, like number six on there ["Make It Right"].

PM: When you write a song, do you think "this sounds like a solo song" or "this sounds better for Dinosaur Jr"? Or is it just luck of the draw how it turns out?

JM: Yeah, I guess it's sort of obvious. I have to think if Murph could play to it, and if somehow all of us could play it. On this [album], just the six one ["Make It Right"] was going to be a Dinosaur song. It originally had drums; we tried recording it but it just didn't work.

PM: What is your pre-show ritual like? Do you do any vocal exercises?

JM: I have vocal exercises I try to remember to do. It helps in a lot of ways.

PM: You've been doing this for going on 30 years – do you still get nervous before shows?

JM: Yeah , it depends ... I do if some strange people are approaching me.

PM: Do you frequently encounter strange fans, either people who are too hard-core or just weird?

JM: Oh, constantly.

PM: What's your advice if a fan wants to get your autograph? What is the right way to go about it?

JM: I don't know. It's not really complicated, just come up ... and have a pen ready. That helps.

PM: What are some of your favorite places to perform?

JM: It changes depending on how the show went last time. Portland's cool, and New York's mostly good. I just played in San Francisco – that was pretty good, although they can go either way.

PM: What new music have you been listening to lately?

JM: I'll have to think. What was it I just heard ... this band called Soft Moon, they're pretty good. The band I mentioned before, Awesome Color, is also pretty good, they're on Thurston's [Moore of Sonic Youth] label Ecstatic Peace.

PM: Do you find it gets harder to keep from repeating yourself, as your catalogue grows?

JM: Yeah, hopefully you catch yourself and say “this sounds like something I've done before.” I think I've noticed after the fact, yeah.

PM: Any particular instances?

JM: ... I don't really want to say [laughs], if people don't notice, I don't wanna be the one to point it out.

PM: You're touring with Kurt Vile, and he appears on your new album. How did you two meet?

JM: I guess I had him open for Dino – you know when they open for us we'll run into each other. And he was at the house when we were recording [the new album].

PM: Dinosaur Jr had a best-of album that was called Ear Bleeding Country, but Several Shades of Why almost sounds like "ear straining country." It's a very quiet, low key album where at least I feel like I have to pay close attention. Were you going for a different kind of listening experience here?

JM: Yeah, it's another aspect of music I like. Maybe it can get some people interested who are put off by the louder stuff.

PM: A theme I seem to pick up in your work, both with Dinosaur Jr. and on this album, is wanting to communicate something to someone but not finding the right words. Would you say that’s accurate?

JM: That's always kind of a general theme, of trying to communicate somehow. There's not a constant theme running through this record that I can think of, you can kinda judge line by line.

PM: Any certain thing you saw or place you went that inspired these songs?

JM: I was listening to a lot of English folky bands, like Ten Tango and Fairport Convention, and all the offshoots of that. And Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young , too. Outside of that, nothing in particular, I'm kind of inspired by everything all the time.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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