Another Shade of J: An Interview with J Mascis
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.