J Mascis, from the band Dinosaur Jr, still finds joy in creating loud music.

J Mascis, from the band Dinosaur Jr, still finds joy in creating loud music.


When asked about his band Dinosaur Jr turning 40 this year, J Mascis responds with a simple statement: “I haven’t really thought about it.” This type of response is typical for Mascis, who is known for his reserved communication style. Many have written about his tendency to be uncommunicative, and I can confirm that words like laconic, phlegmatic, apathetic, and listless accurately describe him. However, amidst his short answers, he also has a dry sense of humor. If you focus on these moments instead of getting caught up in the awkward silences that often occur in conversation with Mascis, you may find that he can actually be quite funny. Of course, this is all relative.

Just take his concept of having fun. “People always ask me after a show: ‘Did you have fun?’ and that drives me crazy,” he says. “I mean, maybe, but probably not. Fun seems to be the driving force for a lot of people but I’m not bothered about it.” Or his response to being asked how his hearing is after decades of noise being spewed into his ears. “I dunno,” he says. No tinnitus? “Oh yeah, I have that.” Is it manageable? “It is if you don’t listen to it.”

The argument against worrying about Mascis’s verbosity is exemplified by his music. At 58 years old, he is a guitarist with a unique, expressive style that effortlessly transitions between delicate melodies and raucous noise. His skill as a musician speaks volumes more than any words he could say. In his latest solo album, What Do We Do Now, Mascis showcases some of his finest work outside of Dinosaur Jr. His gentle yet emotive vocals, which fall somewhere between a croon and a rasp, are accompanied by acoustic folk-rock tunes featuring Mascis’s signature guitar solos and powerful percussion.

In the music video for Can’t Believe We’re Here, several well-known admirers, such as Idles and comedians Fred Armisen, David Cross, and Eugene Mirman, all join in singing along in a timely tribute to J Mascis’s unique work that spans four decades. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, another influential guitarist, praises Mascis for consistently producing exceptional songs. “I’ve been a fan since 1987 and have listened to almost everything he has ever created,” says Shields. The moment that solidified Shields’s admiration for Mascis was when he heard Dinosaur Jr’s album You’re Living All Over Me. “It was a definitive ‘wow’ moment,” he recalls. “I was blown away by the dynamic, melodic, aggressive, and original sound that was not restricted by any rules – seamlessly exploring different directions. No one else was making music like that.”

Before becoming a notable member of Dinosaur Jr, Mascis spent his childhood in Amherst, Massachusetts as an unconventional child. He had a strong passion for music and would surround his bed with furniture to listen to records from artists such as the Beach Boys, Deep Purple, and Neil Young. When punk music became popular in his town, he joined a teenage hardcore band called Deep Wound, and his mother even knitted a sweater with the band’s name on it. Inspired by Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, Mascis would even put eggs in his hair in an attempt to recreate the singer’s untamed hair.

In 1984, he founded the band Dinosaur with Lou Barlow and Patrick “Murph” Murphy. The band later added “Jr” to their name due to a legal dispute with another band named Dinosaurs. Their initial goal was to create “ear-bleeding country” music, but their loud performances resulted in being banned from many venues. However, their intense music style evolved into a blend of alternative rock, grunge, and melodic sounds, which became popular during the college radio boom. Dinosaur’s impact on the alternative music scene is significant, and they have influenced artists such as Radiohead and Blur. In fact, Kurt Cobain even invited Mascis to join Nirvana before they gained fame, although Mascis declined the offer.

Mascis with Murph and Lou Barlow as Dinosaur Jr in 2022.

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Although Mascis has a laid-back attitude and follows a daily routine similar to a relaxed teenager on summer break (“I wake up late, ride my bike, and then play around with guitar or drums”), it would be inaccurate to label him as a slacker. In truth, he is a highly productive artist who has put out over 20 albums in different styles and identities throughout his career.

According to him, creating solo albums allows for more creative freedom and opportunities compared to working with his regular band. He explains that when writing for Dinosaur Jr, he has to consider the band’s limitations, but with solo projects, he doesn’t have those constraints. This could be seen as a subtle criticism towards his bandmates, who may not be as skilled as he is – as evidenced by Mascis playing all the instruments on his solo records. Despite his seemingly unassuming persona, Mascis has been accused of being controlling and overly critical in the past. This has caused conflicts within the band, resulting in both Barlow and Murphy leaving at different times before reuniting as a trio in the mid-2000s.

Although Mascis has assured that they have improved their communication and relationship, there is still a sense of underlying tension and unresolved frustrations. According to Mascis, the band has never fully been able to recapture the magic and harmony of their second album, You’re Living All Over Me, released in 1987. He believes that the album was a pivotal moment in the band’s development and their sound became more defined. However, Mascis does not feel that they have surpassed that level of success. He also notes that during that time, there were no conflicts because Lou did not speak much.

It is understandable that Mascis would prefer to cherish memories from a time of less turmoil, filled with hope and innocence. In Michael Azerrad’s book on underground rock in the 80s, Our Band Could Be Your Life, there is a touching moment where Dinosaur Jr, having just toured with their idols Sonic Youth for the first time, are so overwhelmed with happiness that both Mascis and Barlow are on the verge of tears in their tour van.

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During this time, the band reached their only significant achievement. Mascis stated that their initial aim was to be signed to SST records, an indie label that also represents Black Flag, Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü. Dinosaur Jr’s album You’re Living All Over Me was their only release under this label. Once they achieved this goal, the band felt directionless and uncertain of what came next. Mascis reflected, “It’s like: where do you go from there? You’re just kind of floating and that’s been the rest of my career.”

In the 1990s, Dinosaur Jr maintained both artistic and commercial success. However, when asked if he truly feels that way, Mascis responds with a verbal shrug and admits to feeling vulnerable. He wonders if people still listen to albums and if they have heard enough of his. Making an album now feels more existential, as he questions if there is even a point to it since he doesn’t know if anyone will hear it.

Even though he has released a truly outstanding solo album, Mascis acknowledges that it can be challenging to innovate when you have four decades’ worth of music created by someone with a unique style. He jokingly suggests the idea of an app that identifies which of his own songs he is unintentionally replicating in his new material, but ultimately decides that sometimes it’s better not to know until someone points it out later on.

As we conclude, it is evident that reaching the milestone of 40 years as a band and enjoying oneself is not a priority for Mascis. However, does he still derive satisfaction from the raw musical energy he creates? “I still enjoy making loud music,” he states with a hint of optimism, before his subtle dry wit resurfaces. “I don’t have many other hobbies.”

J Mascis’ “What Do We Do Now” will be released by Sub Pop on February 2nd.

Source: theguardian.com