J Mascis, of the band Dinosaur Jr, still finds enjoyment in creating loud and energetic music.

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J Mascis, frontman of the influential alternative rock group Dinosaur Jr, was asked about the band’s 40th anniversary. He responded with a nonchalant shrug, a common reaction for the typically reserved Mascis. Over the years, many have noted his quiet demeanor, using descriptors such as laconic, phlegmatic, apathetic, and listless. However, amidst his one-word responses, Mascis also has a dry sense of humor that can be appreciated if one is able to look past the often awkward silences that fill their conversations.


Consider his perspective on enjoyment. He expresses, “After a performance, I often get asked: ‘Did you have a good time?’ and that frustrates me.” He goes on to say, “Perhaps, but most likely not. Fun appears to be the main motivation for many individuals, but I’m not concerned with it.” When asked about his hearing after years of loud noise exposure, he replies with uncertainty. Does he experience tinnitus? “Oh yes, I have that.” Can he control it? “You can, as long as you don’t focus on it.”

The primary argument for not concerning oneself with Mascis’s level of talkativeness is his music. At 58 years old, he is a highly unique and expressive guitar player, seamlessly transitioning between delicate melodies and screeching chaos. His skill as a musician speaks louder than any words ever could. On his latest solo album, What Do We Do Now, Mascis showcases some of his finest work apart from Dinosaur Jr. His softly emotional voice, somewhere between a smooth croon and a raspy growl, carries a collection of folk-rock songs with acoustic elements. These are accented by Mascis’s signature guitar solos and powerful percussion.

In the music video for Can’t Believe We’re Here, several well-known supporters, such as Idles and comedians Fred Armisen, David Cross, and Eugene Mirman, can be seen singing along. This serves as a timely tribute to J Mascis’s incomparable work over the past four decades. Another alternative guitar legend, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, praises Mascis for consistently producing excellent songs. Shields has been a fan since 1987 and has listened to almost all of Mascis’s music. The turning point for Shields was when he heard Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me. He describes it as a “wow” moment, with its dynamic, melodic, aggressive, extreme, original, and unconstrained sound that seamlessly blends in different directions. According to Shields, nobody else was creating music like that at the time.

Before making a name for himself in Dinosaur Jr, Mascis spent his childhood in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he was considered an eccentric kid. He had a strong passion for music and would surround his bed with furniture to create a listening space for records by artists such as the Beach Boys, Deep Purple, and Neil Young. As punk music became popular in his town, Mascis formed a hardcore band called Deep Wound while still in his teenage years. His mother even knitted him a sweater with the band’s name on it. Inspired by Nick Cave’s band, the Birthday Party, Mascis would even break eggs into his hair in an attempt to imitate the frontman’s wild, messy hairstyle.

In 1984, he established the band Dinosaur, which was later renamed to Dinosaur Jr. due to a legal dispute with another band named Dinosaurs. Lou Barlow and Patrick “Murph” Murphy were also members of the band. Their goal was to create loud, country-infused music, but their high volume levels resulted in them being banned from venues. Eventually, their intense style evolved into a blend of alternative rock, grunge, and college radio-inspired melodies. Their impact on the alternative music scene has been significant, influencing artists such as Radiohead and Blur. Kurt Cobain even invited Mascis to join Nirvana before they became famous, but he declined the offer.

Mascis with Murph and Lou Barlow as Dinosaur Jr in 2022.

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Although Mascis may seem reserved and has a daily routine that resembles that of a relaxed teenager on summer break (sleeping in, riding bikes, and playing guitar or drums), labeling him as lazy would be inaccurate. In truth, he is an extremely productive artist who has put out over 20 albums in a variety of styles and personas throughout his career.

He explains that creating solo albums allows him to explore new musical territories that may not be possible with his regular band. He mentions that when writing for Dinosaur Jr, he is limited by considering the band’s capabilities, but this is not a concern when working on solo projects. This may suggest a subtle critique of his bandmates’ musical abilities compared to his own, as Mascis typically plays all instruments on his solo records. Despite his seemingly mild persona, Mascis has faced accusations of being controlling and overly critical in the past. Both Barlow and Murphy have had extended breaks from Dinosaur Jr due to conflicts before reuniting as a trio in the mid-2000s.

Despite Mascis’ reassurances that they have improved their communication and are dealing with each other better, there is still a lingering sense of tension and unresolved frustrations. Mascis believes that the band has never quite been able to recapture the same level of harmony and musical cohesion as they had on their second album, You’re Living All Over Me, released in 1987. He acknowledges that it was a special moment in time when everything came together and their sound became more defined. However, he also admits that they have not been able to surpass that moment. He speculates that one of the reasons they were getting along during that time was because Lou did not speak much, leaving no room for disagreements.

It is understandable that Mascis would prefer to relish memories of a less tumultuous time, filled with hope and innocence. In Michael Azerrad’s book about 80s underground rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, there is a touching moment where Dinosaur Jr, having just finished touring with their idols Sonic Youth, are overcome with happiness to the point of tears in their tour van.

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During this time, the band reached their only significant achievement. According to Mascis, their initial goal was to be signed to SST records, an independent label that also housed bands like Black Flag, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü. You’re Living All Over Me was the only album Dinosaur Jr released under this label. After that, things became uncertain because they had already achieved their goal. It was like being adrift with no clear direction, and that has been the pattern for the rest of my career.

Dinosaur Jr continued to have great success, artistically and commercially, throughout the 90s, so does Mascis really feel like that? “I guess,” he says – another verbal shrug – before exposing a little vulnerability. “It feels more existential now. Like, does anyone listen to albums any more? Do they have enough of my albums? Is there any point to making an album? You just do it anyway but it’s weird because you don’t know if anyone will hear it.”

Although his new solo record is truly exceptional, Mascis acknowledges that it can be challenging to create something completely original when you have a long history of music with a distinct style. He jokes about wishing for an app that would reveal which of his previous songs he may be unintentionally copying with his new material, but ultimately decides that sometimes it’s better not to know and enjoy the bliss of ignorance until someone points it out later.

As we conclude, it is evident that reaching the milestone of forty as a musical group and enjoying oneself is not a top priority for Mascis. However, does he still find inspiration in the raw energy he can produce through music? “I still find joy in making loud noises,” he admits with a hint of optimism, before his subtle dry wit returns. “I don’t have many other hobbies.”

J Mascis’ What Do We Do Now will be released on Sub Pop on February 2nd.

Source: theguardian.com

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