Album Of The Week: J Mascis' Elastic Days

Emotional power and resonance – a (sad-hearted) joy from start to end…

Album Of The Week: J Mascis' Elastic Days

Below is a reprint of a feature from K!1719. You can read our full review of Elastic Days in the current issue, on shelves now.

With his long straight white hair and beard, J Mascis looks like a slacker Saruman. Which is pretty apt, too, because he’s a fretboard wizard, whose howling, distortion-drenched solos have been lighting up the ears of the discerning for more than three decades.

He’s the six-stringer that Kurt Cobain wanted in Nirvana and the melody-meets-volume approach of his main band Dinosaur Jr. was a huge influence on both grunge and the wider alternative rock scene. Coming from a hardcore background, J set his sights on playing ‘ear bleeding country’ with Dinosaur (the ‘Jr.’ was added later after a legal tussle). This soon evolved into a signature sound mixing simple song structures and drawled vocals delivered with crushing volume, jagged feedback and those instantly recognisable leads.

When Dinosaur Jr. fell apart in the late ‘90s, J continued to make music in a succession of largely solo projects, doom metal side bands and collaborations. The classic Dinosaur Jr. line-up also reformed in 2005 and has been churning out that beautifully tempered noise ever since. For the supposed king of the slackers, he’s been surprisingly prolific, but if making music still fires him up, talking about the process really doesn’t.

J is an infamously difficult interviewee. He’s not aggressive or unfriendly as such, just… uncommunicative. He chuckles repeatedly throughout our long, career-spanning chat – apart from one flashing moment, when he gets visibly pissed off – but rarely offers more information than is strictly necessarily. And sometimes even less than that.

One thing to adjust to is the barely audible level at which he speaks, especially given the soundcheck going on in the adjacent room at Sheffield’s Plug, where Dinosaur Jr. are due to play tonight. He also talks with glacial slowness. There are times when you think he’s finished and are tempted to fire off the next question to keep whatever sense of momentum there might be going. If you leave him the space he will sometimes say more, but just as often you’ll realise that nope, that was it, as you sit in awkward silence. This’ll be fun…

What’s the first music you remember getting excited about?
“Oh (yawns). Maybe, like, The Beach Boys.”

What was your introduction to the hardcore punk scene?
“I got into hardcore just through listening to punk itself. I got into English punk first and then I started discovering, I guess, the third generation of English punk that was going on with Blitz and the U.K. Subs. Then I discovered hardcore was happening around America through fanzines and stuff.”

And you were still in high school when you started your hardcore band Deep Wound?

J Mascis, Elastic Days

What was the appeal? Why did you decide to dive into the scene yourself?
“It’s just where I was at. That’s what spoke to me at the time, but there weren’t many people around who were into it. I met my bass player there and the next week I saw a flyer for [musicians that liked] Anti-Pasti, that said they needed a drummer. It was a bit problematic because none of us were old enough to drive, so our parents drove us around.”

What prompted the switch from drums to guitar for Dinosaur?
“Hardcore just seemed to peter out. It seemed to be over. I still wanted to do music, I was just trying to figure out what to do and I thought I should play guitar and write songs. Because I didn’t like any guitarists around, but I figured I could show somebody how to play drums. So I switched to guitar and put Lou [Barlow] on bass from guitar. Initially we had the singer from Deep Wound as well [Charlie Nakajima]. We were called Mogo, but after one gig it didn’t seem like it was going to work out, so we broke up and reformed as Dinosaur, basically kicking out the singer.”

You’ve described the debut album as ‘ear-bleeding country’, but it actually went in a lot of different directions…
“That ‘ear-bleeding country’ thing was just an initial band concept: ‘We have a band and this is what it will be about.’ We were just trying different things.”

Were all those different directions a reaction to the narrowness of hardcore?
“It just seemed like hardcore was over and it was time to move on. Negative Approach turns into the Laughing Hyenas and Minor Threat turns into Fugazi. It seemed like a natural ending of one thing and a moving on.”

You always crop up in top guitarist lists. Does that mean anything to you?
“Yeah, sure, it’s cool.”

Do you consider yourself a guitar great?
“No (laughs).”

Well, do you at least consider yourself a distinctive guitarist?
“Yeah, I definitely have some sort of style. I’m not good at playing rock songs. I never tried to figure out any songs by ear, which I did do on drums. When I started guitar it was for the band and to write songs. I never really had the time or that mindset of trying to learn Stairway To Heaven. I was off on my own already.”

J Mascis, Web So Dense

So it was all about channelling what you had inside?
“Yeah, and writing songs for a band. I had limited ability, so it was whatever I could play, which would also be what I would write.”

And the distortion and feedback became part of that signature sound?
“Yeah. I was coming from drums and when I started guitar it seemed very wimpy by comparison – very un-dynamic. Volume and effects were to try to emulate the feeling I would get from the drums. They just allowed me to be more expressive.”

Is it true that your first album [1985’s self-titled] was recorded for roughly $500 in a home studio in the woods?

How do you think it stands up?
“It’s okay (laughs). It’s… whatever. We didn’t really have a sound. Every song sounded a little different and we were just trying to figure it out. That was another thing… we knew we could put out a record as soon as we formed. Basically we tried to do our record first. It’s not like we played around a lot first.”

And your second album, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, is often held up as a classic…“Basically we achieved everything we set out to do with that record. After that it’s weird.”

Does that mean it was all downhill from there?
“Yeah (laughs). What do you do after that? You’re still alive. Yeah, it’s strange. Because we wanted to be on SST [Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s label], that was our big goal. So it all happens and then it all kind of falls apart after that.”

Most bands are all about their latest album. Do you think you’ve ever topped You’re Living All Over Me?
“It’s the best one, I think. A lot of times for you the new one is the more enjoyable, simply because it’s new. It doesn’t mean it’s the best one, but it’s the one you like the most at the time because it’s the one you’ve been doing.”

You once named your big breakthrough, Bug, as your least favourite album. What don’t you like about it?
“I just don’t like the feeling behind it. It was a bad time.”

The tensions between you and Lou?
“Yeah, that. And it was a bit rushed. We had to rush to get it out, and we didn’t quite have enough songs. But yeah, the band vibe was really bad.”

Was it a difficult thing to go through when the band was your life?
“Yeah. We just knew it was time for a change. Lou didn’t want to quit the band, but I think he wanted it to end. He was kinda undermining it and that’s a weird feeling too – wanting it to be over, but not wanting to quit.”

It sounds like a relationship that had gone sour…
“Yeah, exactly.”

Dinosaur Jr., Feel The Pain

Post-Nevermind, even bands like Melvins were getting signed to major labels. Did you get swept up in that frenzy?
“Yeah, it was a lot different after Nirvana, for sure. It was more like, ‘Oh, you’re selling a certain amount of albums? You might be better off on a major because they’ll have better distribution and then you’ll get enough money to make the thing.’ Indie labels were notorious for not paying. Everyone says that major labels rip you off. Maybe that started coming afterwards when everyone was glorifying indie labels, but indie labels were all crooks, in my experience. It was a lot more straightforward on a major. They’d just give you the money to make the record and the videos.”

Did they ever try to coerce the band into changing anything?
“No. Well, not until the last thing, when we got dropped and I heard that famous cliché that I always thought was a joke. You’ve got the guy listening to the album and going, ‘I don’t hear a single on there.’ It was such a joke thing to say that you know that it’s the end.”

Kurt Cobain asked you to be in Nirvana once.How did that come about?
“It was at Maxwell’s – this club in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s a small place, but a lot of bands played there for their New York kinda show. I’d hang out there and Nirvana played there. They had another guitarist at that time, the guy who was in Soundgarden after that [Jason Everman]. I don’t think they were getting along. I think he [Kurt] was sick of the guy and he just said to me, ‘Hey, you should be in Nirvana.’ I didn’t think about it really at the time. At the time we were bigger than they were and I was doing my own thing.”

Do you ever look back and think, ‘What if…’?
“Do I ever think, ‘What if I joined Nirvana?’ Yeah, I could be dead too.”

Is there any part of you that would have liked that level of fame and commercial success?
“It’s strange, I never really thought of that. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind when you’ve come from a hardcore band. It’s hard to say how something would have affected you, but I do know that the more successful I was, the more unhappy I became. Maybe that really would have pushed me over the edge.”

How was the secret show you played with the remaining members of Nirvana when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
“Oh yeah, that was fun. That was crazy. I saw so many people from the past that I hadn’t seen in many years. They had bodyguards and everything. It was very strange. I was also at the Nirvana Unplugged show. That was the last time I saw Kurt alive, in fact.”

Dinosaur Jr., Watch The Corners

You’re often credited with influencing grunge and alternative rock. Do you recognise that when you listen to stuff?
“I don’t hear it. Occasionally I’ll hear something, but only if someone tells me.”

Who’s told you they were a fan that made you go, ‘Oh…’?
“There’s a guy called John Grant who had Budgie from Siouxsie And The Banshees and Big In Japan playing drums for him. I was really excited to meet him and he said he liked my singing, which was strange. Not a lot of people say that. I hear guitar playing or the band or the songs a lot, but not the vocals.”

A lot of musicians do cite Dinosaur Jr. as an influence…
“But not specifically my singing (laughs).”

Do you feel like an icon?
“I would have to take that with a pinch of salt.”

Is it gratifying if a band you think are cool says you are an influence?
“Yeah. It’s great.”

One U.S. magazine had the words, ‘J Mascis is God’ on the cover. Was that a bit much?
“It’s always like that, though. Whenever there’s something good, like appearing on the cover of a magazine, there’s something bad, like the fact that they made it embarrassing. Nothing is ever all good, there’s always a bad side.”

Why did you decide it was time to retire the Dinosaur Jr. name in ’97?
“Why do you say, ‘Retire the name’? Man, I hate when people say that. That’s really demeaning to the guys that were in the band at the time, I think. Like, it’s not a band. To them and me at the time, though, it was a band. I find that depressing.”

Okay. There’s a perception that you were in control, but why did you decide to disband Dinosaur Jr. at that time?
“I dunno, it just felt like time.”

How different was it working on J Mascis + The Fog?
“A lot of people think it sounds the same, but I didn’t have to think about, ‘Can [Dinosaur Jr. drummer] Murph play this beat?’ or any restrictions. It was more open-ended, in that I could do whatever I wanted musically. But it was just me singing and playing guitar, so it sounds like Dinosaur to a lot of people.”

J Mascis + The Fog, Where'd You Go?

Your More Light album referenced the Hindu spiritual leader Amma. Could you briefly explain who she is?
“They call her The Hugging Saint. She tours the world and people go up to her, wait in line and get a hug. She does a lot of charitable things in India: she has free hospitals and free housing for the poor. In India she does more for poor people than the government.”

What impact did she have on your life?
“A lot. I just… (long pause). I felt better.”

Does spirituality help you deal with your depression and mental health?
“Yeah, for sure. By just being aware and thinking about other people, rather than your own situation.”

Does music help you work through things as well? Is it a cathartic process?
“Of course, but not happy music. Only depressing music (laughs).”

When did you know it was the right time to get back with Lou and Murph and bring back Dinosaur Jr.?
“It just felt right. Lou was angry for a long time. We had to wait for his anger to die down (laughs). He apologised to me. I’d go see his bands – or try to – but he never came to see me. He had a lot to work through. We had to wait until he’d mellowed out.”

Do you have a better relationship now?
“(Long pause) It’s better than it was when things were falling apart.”

Are you excited when you make music and tour, or is it just what you do at this point?
“Both. I like touring more now than I used to. I didn’t enjoy it very much at all in the old days. I enjoy playing now. I appreciate it a lot more.”

You’ve been labelled as a ‘slacker’ throughout your career, but you’ve been pretty prolific down the years. Are you actually quite driven in reality?
“Yeah, I suppose. Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine] said it’s just because I talk slow. That’s the image I have, but I have done a lot of stuff. You can’t be as lazy as people think I am and achieve anything.”

Words: Paul Travers
Photo: Andy Ford

J Mascis' new album Elastic Days is out now on Sub Pop. Check it out below.

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