A sort-of interview with J. Mascis, part one:
It's not that J. Mascis is sullen or inarticulate, or any of the accusatory words he's generally described with. He's extremely -- you might say legendarily -- reserved when talking to the press; but if you're willing to give just a little leeway to a guy who's spent more than a decade and a half being (1) totemized as an indie-rock guitar god, and (2) panned for selling out his talent to make albums that sound like the same song played 11 times in a row at varying speeds, you can hardly fault him for clamming the hell up about it all, preferring to write and record and produce in relative silence. And at this point, if Mascis ever really opened up and started ranting at a journalist on the record, the resultant shock wave from all the Dinosaur Jr. fan Web site updates would probably freeze up every Internet server from here to Belize City.
Reserved, Mascis may be; but he's neither inarticulate nor uncommunicative, at least as far as his recorded output goes. Take the 1996 live album Martin & Me, Mascis' first official solo release, which was stupidly panned by Rolling Stone and other gray eminences of the music journalism field for precisely the reasons given in number (2) above. Here's an album with all-acoustic versions of originally caterwauling Dino Jr. songs like "Blowin' It," "Keeblin'" and "Repulsion," side-by-side with covers of songs by Carly Simon ("Anticipation"), the Smiths ("The Boy With the Thorn in His Side") and Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Every Mother's Son"), released with absolutely no hope of charting in the middle of the bloated, self-important MTV Unplugged uproar. Now that's funny. And articulate. But because it came out of nowhere, from a guy who'd been forever bruited about as sullen and mopey, few people got the joke. Mascis, however, runs through the set gleefully, even bantering with the audience a bit and exclaiming "Yes!" after one particularly invigorating (and eventually way-out-of-tune) guitar-flogging number. Granted, it was mostly tongue-in-cheek ("And how's everybody feelin'?" he asks, greasy as a side-room lounge act, at the start of the set), but the man playing on Martin & Me is genuinely enjoying himself, playing music that's genuinely enjoyable to hear.
Though Martin & Me was his first "official" solo record, there have been several under other names. The Dinosaur Jr. album Green Mind, released on Sire/Reprise in 1991, consisted mostly of Mascis playing all the instruments on the record (Dino Jr. drummer Murph played on three tracks). Green Mind, initially snubbed by punk purists and mainstream listeners, though it was a prominent release in the post-Nirvana major-label indie sign-up rush, is a magnificent album by any standards, possibly one of the best major-label records of the decade. Nuanced, painfully confessional in places, loud, melodic, cohesive and poetically written, there's not much else like it in Mascis' playlist, and nothing else like it came out of the indie-rock boom of the early '90s. But after the 1993 follow-up Where You Been -- Mascis' only album to chart (at No. 50) and the one for which the mainstream press hailed him as an "alternative music" visionary -- Dino Jr.'s records fared rather more poorly. Two more efforts, 1994's Without a Sound and 1997's Hand It Over (also a Mascis solo project), failed to sell; Sire released Dinosaur Jr. shortly thereafter.
So here comes J. Mascis three years later with another solo album disguised as a band project, under the name J. Mascis and the Fog. Here comes J. Mascis, newly signed to Ultimatum Records, with a funked-up and assured album called More Light, which could easily dispel his "sullen" myth. Here, in short, comes J. Mascis with a label that seems to let him record what he wants and release it without pressure, and what's he doing in the middle of the tremendous phone-interview afternoon Ultimatum's arranged for him? He's eating.
A sort-of interview with J. Mascis, part two:
"Oh, shit," he says. "Hang on." Click. Dead line. Then: "Sorry. Journalists . . . calling at the wrong time." Chomp, crunch.
Mascis speaks in a deep voice full of pauses, with softly articulated New England consonants with wide, gravelly vowels familiar to anyone who's heard the albums; but his speaking range is nearly a full octave lower than you'd expect from his recorded body of work. It's the voice of a man who might have just gotten out of bed, the voice of a man who's almost certainly been coerced into spending an afternoon on the phone with writers.
But again, not inarticulate. What Mascis lacks in expansive observations about his music and the creative process surrounding More Light, he more than makes up for in directness. Like when he's asked about the move to Ultimatum for this new album:
"We got dropped." Crunch. Silence.
Okay . . . um, but why Ultimatum in particular?
"Like . . . in Europe . . . we're on a bunch of labels in Europe, in other places. But . . . we didn't really have a lot of choices. In America. Not a lot of people . . . were into it." Crunch, chomp. Pause. "But . . . they (Ultimatum) seem pretty cool. We were looking for a label for about a year. It . . . it seems okay."
Questions about the label, about the new album, about how he's spending his time now, about his current tour with bass workhorse Mike Watt (Minutemen, fireHOSE) . . . none of these elicit extended responses from Mascis, though he answers all of them directly. Not even fawning appreciation, it seems, stirs him to either joy or disgust. (When apprised of the esteem in which this writer holds Green Mind, his reaction is a quiet, if pleasurably surprised, "Oh. Great.") But the thing, see, is to accidentally find a topic that Mascis is willing to vibe on, and then let him go. And if you find that topic, he talks until he's finished; and when he's finished, he quits. Today, the key subject happens to be the studio Mascis built in Massachusetts, and the work he's been able to do there even when he was labelless.
"I don't know what I'd do with time off," he says to a question about his days since releasing More Light. "I've even started . . . recording another album since this one." (More Light was recorded in Mascis' home studio in Massachusetts between October '98 and June '99, before he signed with Ultimatum.) "I never . . . thought of myself as a person who would have a studio. But . . . there's always more stuff to buy, like . . . if you want to, if you want to spend money, there's always something more you can add." Chomp. "It's definitely . . . a pit. If you want it to be."
Working from his own studio apparently gave Mascis more time to record than with any album since Green Mind, Dino Jr.'s first major-label release. "Mostly I did the instruments . . . only there were some things Kevin [Shields, of My Bloody Valentine] played, on some of the tracks." (This loose method of description, incidentally, is mirrored in the album's liner notes, e.g., "This was a period of about seven weeks where Kevin was producing, playing some guitar, percussion and singing. Thom Monahan did yet more engineering," etc.)
Whether this freer production lent a happier vibe to the record, probably Mascis alone can say; and, like he sang on Where You Been, Mascis ain't sayin'. But there's no denying that More Light is, on the whole, one of the more upbeat and positive albums in his canon. Lines like "I gotta be grateful/I can" pop up frequently on More Light, sharing space with more plaintive tunes like "I'm Not Fine" and "Ground Me to You"; and the light, percussive shuffle of "Does the Kiss Fit" and "Waistin" are a far cry from the dour navel-gazing of which he's often accused.
Like fellow Massachusetts native Frank Black, Mascis is a practiced hand at mismatching lyrics and arrangements. He can wrap a tense line such as "Where's today, why's tomorrow feel/Like a whole new love, like a whole new deal?" in the hook-laden "Where'd You Go" so you don't know whether it's a cathartic bleat or an ecstatic affirmation. Mascis' talent for building tense, ambivalent songs, which ought to be a lot more widely recognized than it is, appears in abundance on More Light.
Mascis himself, though, doesn't seem to want to talk about the process much. "I think, just . . . each album is reflecting . . . the time it was written in. You just do what you do and . . . hope people like it." Pause. "I guess these songs were written . . . during the year before we recorded." Crunch.
Okay. So maybe that's all that needs to be said. Or maybe -- as with his explanation of the painting of the man in a hula skirt on the album's inner sleeve -- the truth is just a lot less cryptic than it appears to be. This image, done in blacks, whites, dirty orange and dark purple, seems evocative and mysterious when taken alongside the music, a cryptic visual commentary meant to suggest something subtle but profound about the songs contained on More Light.
"Oh . . . that's my dad, that guy in the hula skirt. Yeah. It's a painting my brother did. It's from a picture. This really old picture."
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And, of course, there it is in the liner notes, way down, near the end: "Dad in Hula Skirt, Mike Mascis."
Sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- the most obvious answers are the best ones.
More Light, J. Mascis' new release on Ultimatum, is a real good album.
This has been a review.