[MUSIC: Interview] J Mascis
Released earlier this year, Several Shades Of Why is legendary Dinosaur Jr. singer/guitarist J Mascis’s first fully-formed solo effort. The quaint, gentle acoustic-led album is a far cry from the blaring, overblown electric guitar assault of the iconic shoegaze trio – but although there’s the starkest of contrasts between the instrumentation, there’s barely a variance in vocal intonation.
As I soon found out, his distinctive disaffected style also carries into J’s cadence as interviewee; though sporting a head of hair that would make Gandalf jealous, J speaks so sedately that Treebeard seems like a veritable motormouth.
Although he’s released several solo efforts over the course of his two-decade-plus career, this LP marks the first instance of original compositions – it’s J’s most absolute solo statement yet. “I guess Sub Pop wanted me to do it for a while. I guess I just got around to it now,” J states matter-of-factly. Comparing the differences in instrumentation from Dinosaur Jr. to the solo record, it’s almost bizarre how little his vocal style has had to adapt; it’s more a case of transforming the gentle/abrasive dynamic of the band into a more sensible gentle/gentle dynamic on Several Shades Of Why. Whatever it is, it’s a phenomenon J hasn’t paid much mind to. “I think I just have a limited voice or something, it just sounds the same. I don’t really think about it, I guess.” Though notoriously laconic, you can by no means accuse J of emanating disdain; it’s just the way he talks – what of it?
Last time Mascis was in the country was with Dinosaur Jr., on a tour which saw the band obliterate the Supernatural Amphitheatre at Meredith Festival with one of the loudest sets I’ve ever heard. So how does he fare when it comes to solo festival appearances? “It’s a lot harder, but I haven’t done too many festivals with the acoustic,” he says. “Sometimes it’s surprising how quiet people get when [they’re] listening – I guess that’s surprising to me sometimes. It’s fun to give it a shot and see what happens.”
That Meredith set gave my earholes a thorough workout even as I stood at the top of the hill, and J is well aware of the OH&S issues of performing in front of his monstrous stack of amps. “Yeah, I’ve always worn earplugs,” he says. “From the beginning I was a drummer, then I switched to guitar; I kind of missed the physical aspect that drums gave you, so I tried to play loud to get the air moving so I could feel it against my body,” he muses. “Early on I knew I wanted to feel it more than I could hear it – I already knew it was too loud for my ears, so I just wore earplugs. I like getting the chance to play so loud, it’s fun.”
Reformations are a funny beast, but Dinosaur Jr.’s mid-2000s reunion has proven to be one of the select few that retained the original magic, not only on the touring circuit but also with the quality new albums that followed. “I guess we just have a certain chemistry or a certain sound, just from learning how to play together when we were kids,” Mascis explains. “I guess it still interests people; we still have a certain energy, [which] is rare.”
There’s a strange, ostensibly tempestuous rapport between J and Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow. When I spoke to Lou earlier in the year, he said, “My perfect world would be touring with all my bands together, playing the one night. Then J Mascis can sit on a fucking throne, and all these balloons can fall down, because he plays lead guitar…” But just as you can’t charge Mascis’s laconic nature as being a result of underlying disdain, neither can you call Lou’s outspokenness mean-spirited. “I don’t know,” J laughs, when asked about the state of their creative relationship. “I guess it seems alright, it depends. He’s kind of – I don’t know what you’d call it – volatile or something. He’s not always even-keeled…”
Soon after performing over the New Year period in Australia, J sets sail on the rather curious Weezer Cruise, a five-day long “festival” on board a cruise ship during which he will perform alongside a star-studded roster with Dinosaur Jr., as well as under his solo guise. “I don’t know anything about that,” Mascis states, despite there being little more than a month until the departing date… “I’m just hoping for the best. I have no idea what it’s gonna be like. It’s definitely a first, I’ve never been on a cruise or anything like that,” he says – and I can sense a tinge of excitement shining through.
What: Several Shades Of Why is out through Sub Pop
Where: The Famous Spiegeltent
When: January 11 & 12, 7pm; January 13, 5.30pm