Interview: J Mascis on His New Solo Album

Video games are fun—but J Mascis is a genuine guitar hero. We sat down to discuss his newest release "What Do We Do Now," out via Sub Pop Records.

As J Mascis enters the zoom chat room, all of his prominent elements light up the space. Stark white hair drapes a salt-and-pepper beard with boldly colored glasses, animated hat graphics, and casually ecstatic clothing. He is the Iris Apfel of alternative rock. For 40 years this man has earnestly churned out delectable tunes primarily with the moniker Dinosaur Jr. Known for heavy, distortion-laden riffs and thunderous rhythms, it is a delightful flip of the coin to hear his solo efforts when they appear. On February 2, What Do We Do Now, the fifth such installation was released through Sub Pop Records.

When in conversation with someone of Mascis’ talent, hearing about the creative process is the utmost of importance. In previous solo albums, Mascis has largely gone acoustic, keeping things simple with his frog-utter tones and a few 1950s Gibson guitars. For the new album, which was recorded in Amherst, Massachusetts at Bisquiteen Studios (his home setup) he outsourced some further instrumentation, including piano. To round out the sound, he invited guest musicians Ken Mauri of The B-52s on keys and Matthew Dunn on steel guitar.

As Mascis says, “I have a piano that Ken played on the album. A Steinway upright from like 1889 or something. I don’t play it—hardly at all. I never progressed past the white keys. Maybe someday.” Mascis warmly notes, “With the piano, Ken just (made) everything sound good, so I had him keep going, and it ended up on almost all the songs.”

The recording process began in a familiar way, however: “I play guitar, and record riffs—if I like them,” Mascis says. “Lately I feel like writing songs on Gretsch guitars. It’s not so easy to play that I just get stuck noodling on leads. They’re mostly semi-acoustic. I like the sound of the pickup through my little amp. It sounds cool.” Mascis elaborates about his choices for solo versus Dinosaur Jr creations, “I’m usually writing for the (specific) album. If something comes out that doesn’t seem like it fits, maybe I’ll try to save it for something else. Just assuming that I’ll start thinking of a new Dino album, or something.”

Storing a deep cache of music internally, Mascis contends with how a solo album comes to fruition. “I’m also kind of fighting to keep the least amount of stuff on it. I always want to make it more rocking with drums and guitar solos.”

As that thought tugged at his creative desires on What Do We Do Now he decides, “I not gonna try to play solos on acoustic anymore. I just did it on the first three albums and then halfway through the third,” he pauses, “I kind of can’t stand playing leads on acoustic; I don’t know what else to play on the acoustic.” Ultimately it became clear to Mascis that the acoustic ship had sailed. “I just feel like I’ve exhausted everything I can think of.”

This true-to-self aspect resonates in the work of Mascis, who initially rose to prominence with contemporaries such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Reflecting on the track “You Don’t Understand Me,” the topic of feeling disconnected from older musicians came up. “I have trouble talking to the old rock guys. They all love Dave Grohl. When I talk to them, they just think I’m weird. They don’t get where I’m going from. Like Brian May or Pete Townsend. I feel like it’s a generational thing,” Mascis says.

Aligning his efforts to those of Kurt Cobain, he expressed opposing intentions with the elder sect in that he’s, “Not trying to be the biggest band ever. I just wanna play a show.” He then pantomimes their words about Cobain, “’You’re an idiot. You’re famous, and you wanted to be famous cuz you’re in a band, and you don’t like it? What are you, a moron? You’re rich now.’ They don’t understand that vibe.” Trying to intellectualize this mentality, he notes, “Maybe their lives were simpler; they were coming out of war time.”

Being true to his own creative needs runs apparent through the work of Mascis. Listening to the lyrics of this new album, his internal vendetta for authenticity rings through to the last note.

Photo courtesy of Scott Murry

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