As frontman of influential alternative rock band Dinosaur Jr, J Mascis’ signature fuzzed out, wailing guitar solos united fans of all genres in admiration and respect, and in many ways set the stage for the alternative music movement of the early ‘90s. Decades later, with the release of his first solo album, the predominantly acoustic Several Shades of Why, the veteran guitar god continues to explore new terrain and attract new fans, presenting yet another side of his ever-expanding repertoire.
Several Shades of Why is a significant entry in your catalogue, as your first truly solo album. What prompted this solo project?
I’ve thought about it for a long time, but just kind of got sidetracked with Dino reuniting and stuff, so it’s the first time I really had to get it done.
You’re known for making a lot of noise in your music, and have been quoted as saying ‘volume makes music better’, yet this record has a much more delicate, warm acoustic sound. Could you explain the inspiration for this change in direction?
Um, you know I always liked a lot of acoustic music. I think most people like different kinds of stuff, and that’s one type of music I like. I just try to make something that entertains myself, and hope that other people like it too.
With such a bare, raw sound, and as your first solo album of original material, is there a sense of feeling exposed in some way when working on a project like this?
Yeah, and especially live, it’s harder to play alone. But on the record also, it’s easier to control everything on the album.
How does that writing process work for you? How do you go about creating something from nothing?
Um, just play guitar and wait for something to come.
Okay, so it’s a process of improvisation?
I mean, to write the songs, yeah. It’s hard to plan writing songs. For recording I’m usually not like most people. I like to record during the day, so I record from like noon to 5 or something. Not too strenuous a schedule.
The album was recorded in your home studio. Did that affect your recording process at all? Is it hard to separate yourself from your work when it’s so intertwined with your home life?
Yeah it can be, you know. I have my kids that come upstairs and want to turn some knobs or do something else. But it’s got its good and bad points.
Are there any bands that you’d consider inspirations for this new album?
Kind of all the English folky stuff, late ‘60s like Pentangle and Fairport Convention, and all the offshoots of those. And then the West Coast America stuff like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and stuff like that.
What other artists have you been listening to or watching lately?
I’ve been listening to this band Soft Moon, they’re from San Francisco. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s New Morning a lot. I’ve also been playing Can a bit.
Okay, well you have a number of big name indie artists guesting on this record. Were the collaborations planned prior to writing the tracks, or did you write them then approach each artist during development?
I had the songs already and I just gave them to different people to see if they added anything that I liked to them. Usually someone would play a lot of different stuff and I’d pick parts that I liked out of what they did.
I read somewhere that your brother-in-law (German filmmaker Philipp Virus) is working on a documentary about you. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Well yeah, he’s been working on it since Dino got back together, but I don’t know what state it’s in or anything. He’s filmed a lot of stuff and he’s going to film some more this summer. We’re playing the ‘Bug’ album, and I think he’s going to film some of that.
Have you been involved with the process at all, or is he just doing his own thing?
I might be when he feels like he’s ready to edit it or something, I’ve helped him edit stuff before. But I don’t know where he’s at exactly in the process.
Sure. Well, while we’re on the topic of Dinosaur Jr, the band was a vital part of the alternative rock revolution of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Why do you think that, despite being so respected in the music industry, there aren’t really any contemporary bands that have inherited the Dinosaur Jr sound? Or perhaps you think differently?
Um, I’m not sure. It’s not like it’s… it’s kind of just the sound of us playing, and we have the same influences as a lot of bands. You know, Black Sabbath, Velvet Underground, The Stooges and stuff. It just comes out differently in different people, and this is the way we play and sing. Bands now, I’m not sure. I’m sure they still like the same kind of stuff, but there are a few more influences thrown in. I’m not sure.
What are your thoughts on the alternative rock scene these days, and how it has evolved from the time when Dinosaur Jr was first making waves?
People keep going and sort of express themselves. It just changes how… Being the first thing, you know we went through CDs; they were really weird when they came out, and now it’s strange how you can download everything for free. There are always a lot of hurdles I guess, in a way. But people play music if they really feel the need to, I guess.
You’re a very versatile performer style-wise, but your flexibility also shines through in your ability to switch between instruments. When Dinosaur Jr first started you were on the drums, then changed to guitar, and you’ve also composed on the electric piano for The Fog. Have you been trained on these instruments, or did you just pick them up as you went?
I had some drum lessons when I was a kid. It’s more fun for me to play drums. Guitar I haven’t had lessons really, maybe a couple when I was really young, but it didn’t stick too well and I switched to drums. Piano I’m really bad at; I definitely haven’t had any lessons on that. I’ve had some saxophone lessons, but I don’t play that. There are a lot of instruments I’d like to be able to play, but I know I won’t because I can’t find the time to practise. It would be cool to get better and better at piano, maybe have some lessons.
For sure. Well, you’ve had a very consistent career – even when Dinosaur Jr disbanded, you kept busy with solo projects, guest appearances and producing for artists like The Lemonheads. What is next for you? Do you ever think it would be nice to just stop and take a break?
I’ve got some Dino shows this summer, and probably some other shows in the fall, so other than that, try to work on a new Dinosaur album I guess. I don’t plan too far ahead, so I don’t know. I have a few things blocked out; you know, a few weeks here or there to take off.
Any chance of seeing you back in Australia some time soon?
I don’t know, I’ve heard some talk, but I’m not sure.
Just to finish up, I read that you’re an avid golfer. Was there ever any thought of taking that path professionally?
No way. I’m sort of a choker when the pressure’s on.
J Mascis’ album Several Shades of Why is out now through Inertia. Or for more information visit jmascis.com
– Words by Sophie Kalagas