He reunited The Stooges, turned down Kurt Cobain’s offer to join Nirvana and has topped countless ‘best guitarist of all time’ lists – but J Mascis’ notoriously indifferent interview etiquette had my expectations set low for any elaborate rock anecdotes. Hearing his signature passive drawl down the phone from Arizona describing the weather as he clinks a spoon in his teacup, I can’t help but warm to him. With some of the most influential alternative output of the late 80s and early 90s, Dinosaur Jr.’s effortlessly melodic noise-rock is what J Mascis has been best known for throughout his three decades creating music. “We captured something at the right moment in time, when it was right for all of us,” he says of the band’s ability to stand the test of time. “We made a good record, which is the main thing.” Why he’s talking in the singular is a mystery, as this modestly indicated ‘good record’ could be referring to any one of the band’s ten studio albums.
Despite his prodigious regard as a guitarist, J’s preferred instrument is the noble drum kit. Like Iggy Pop (J names The Stooges as one of the best bands of all time), he cut his teeth as a drummer and meandered over to guitar and vocals later in his musical career. “I used to play along to records I liked and wanted to try and sound like, but I started out in a jazz orchestra in high school,” he says. “I saw Buddy Rich when I was 12. I know a lot of [drumming influences] have been taken from jazz.”
J grew up engrossed in the surge of hardcore punk bands thrashing their way out of Washington, D.C. in the 80s, with seminal independent labels giving rise to a generation of aggressive, chaotic punk with a DIY ethic. “That was my youth,” he says of the roster of Dischord Records, co-founded by members of Minor Threat, as well as SST Records which later released some of Dinosaur Jr.’s earlier albums and singles. As a voracious collector of hardcore records as well as having been label buddies with Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Husker Du on SST, J recently contributed to the new crowdfunded D.C.-orientated documentary Salad Days: The Birth Of Punk In The Nation’s Capital. “It was cool,” he says of his involvement, and sees crowdfunding as an inevitable direction for music and film-making. “It works pretty well. You’re doing it with the help of other people – I think we’ll have to get used to that.”
J found inspiration to reunite Dinosaur Jr. in 2005 after observing the consistent post-punk triumphs of Mission Of Burma: a band who’ve persisted with their sound and improved with age. After all, growing older doesn’t necessarily mean getting rusty at the hinges. With his back-catalogue forays ranging from doom metal to psychedelic instrumental, I wondered whether J saw experimenting with sounds and styles as a vital way of evolving as a musician, or if it’s fine to stick to your strengths. “Whatever seems to be good in the moment,” he says, evoking Dinosaur Jr.’s Whatever’s Cool With Me bulldog EP cover in my head, “so either way, as long as it’s not just playing something for the sake of sounding different,” – something which he then admits he has, at times, been prone to doing. He puts this down to luck: his particular musical experimentations have worked well with what he was creating at the time. “Everything lined up right,” he assures.
On the contrary, there seems to be a naturally-occurring mellowing process transforming leading figures from the 80s post-punk and noise scene into seasoned, sensitive artists in recent years compared to their respectively vigorous adolescent careers. Take Thurston Moore’s haunting solo records, Henry Rollins’ wizened spoken-word tours and Nick Cave’s stunningly revealing 20,000 Days documentary as prime examples. With a softer, dulcet vibe on J Mascis’ new solo album Tied To A Star as well as on his 2011 effort Several Shades Of Why, J sees himself heading the same way. “Yeah I’ve definitely mellowed out,” he tells me, epitomising his statement in his trademark chilled intonation. Does he prefer it that way? “Well other people like it better for sure – people I know!”
Tied To A Star is a doe-eyed baby Diplodocus to the ferocious T-Rex of Dinosaur Jr.’s early output
With minimal percussion and twinkly acoustic guitars, Tied To A Star is a doe-eyed baby Diplodocus to the ferocious T-Rex of Dinosaur Jr.’s early output. Every Morning is a fresh-faced ditty comparable to Karen O and The Kids’ soundtrack to Where The Wild Things Are. Chan Marshall of Cat Power appears on Wide Awake, which has lullaby-gentle melodies with a tinge of J’s trademark guitar feedback. “I looked at the songs and the parts separately and thought about who specifically would be good to get on board,” J says on choosing album collaborators – but was there anyone he approached who turned him down? “Um, Sharon Van Etten… She was just busy.”
His integrity is endearing, and he seems to have a staunch sense of identity despite his life choices not necessarily being considered very rock ‘n’ roll. As a practising Hindu, meditation and spirituality have long been a part of J Mascis’ life. “It’s not that easy to choose and I didn’t know from the start,” he says on deciding upon a faith to follow. “Some people know right away, and some like to try out everything. I guess it’s a matter of settling on whatever you choose rather than shopping around and being a spiritual tourist!” Having been heavily inspired by the straight edge ethos of hardcore bands such as Minor Threat in the 80s, J Mascis chose a drug-and-drink-free lifestyle from a young age. “Peer pressure is always around,” he tells me. “I wasn’t gonna succumb to it, I think just do whatever you want.” Pure wisdom.
J Mascis plays The Cluny, Newcastle on Sunday 18th January. Tied To A Star is out now on Sub Pop Records.