J Mascis Can Play the Wimpiest Instruments Without Being a Total Wimp

The Dinosaur Jr. shredder talks about getting acoustic on his solo album.

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Aug 25 2014, 7:00pm

With his new solo record, Tied to a Star, out today via Sub Pop Records, 2014 proves to be a very busy year for J Mascis. Following the release of Sweet Apple’sThe Golden Age of Glitter and Heavy Blanket’s collaborative LP with Earthless, In a Dutch Haze, Tied to a Star is J’s most intimate and personal release of the year. The follow up to his 2011 solo release, Tied to a Star very much picks up right where Several Shades of Why left off. What marks Tied to a Star is its—fitting to the title— spaced-out aura. Atmospheric without an oversaturation of reverb, the ten-track record effortlessly flows from track to track, resulting in a modest 41 minutes of music. While Several Shades of Why featured eight collaborators alongside J, the new LP is almost entirely the work of J alone. Known for his awkward, unresponsive interviews, we risked ending up yet another addition to a growing list of awkward conversations and had a chat with J about musical gear, hardcore punk, and his reoccurring career as a bit actor.

Noisey: You’ve stated in past interviews that, “guitar's such a wimpy instrument,” and that playing at loud volumes is “the only way to make it halfway bearable.” Do you still feel that, or are you growing to appreciate it more?
J Mascis: Um no, I still feel the same way.

But your solo records are predominantly acoustic, how do you rectify your feelings with acoustic, when you can’t really play at the same extreme levels.
Yeah, you know it is just another thing I guess. I just don’t think of it the same way. You know I like acoustic music also.

Do you think acoustic music is wimpy, as well?
Oh, totally.

As far as performing live is considered, how do you feel about your solo work? With what you’ve said about volume, I can’t particularly imagine you enjoy playing solo live.
No, I prefer playing with a band. It is a lot harder to play solo because it is not as loud, and you are responsible for entertaining everybody alone.

You are more identifiable as a guitarist, yet you’ve talked about enjoying drums more than guitar. Is that still the case, or are you coming around to guitar more?
Yeah, I guess I like guitar more now.

You prefer guitar now? When do you think that switch can—
[Interrupting] No I don’t like it more. I like it more than I used to. Drums are just way funner to play.

Do you ever feel constrained by drums?
No. [pause] What do you mean?

I’ve talked to a few drummers who also play guitar, and often they say that playing guitar is more freeing for them.
Oh no. I play drums kind of the same way I play leads. Kind of like “lead drums.” I don’t want to feel responsible for holding the rhythm together. I like to play with a really good guitarist or bass player that can hold things together. I don’t like to be responsible for that.

You’ve been pretty open about how, prior to Dinosaur Jr., you didn’t know how to play guitar, and you only picked it up to start the band. How did you teach yourself to play?
I guess I just started in writing songs, you know. Wherever my fingers would go at the time. I didn’t use a lot of bar chords, at first I couldn’t play bar chords. I would just kind of put my fingers around and find some chords. I was more interested in getting going, getting a band off the ground, writing some songs.

Beyond guitar chords, your style is marked by a strong sense of bluesy scales. Did you find yourself just coming to these as well, through just piecing notes that sounded right in a string together?
I was always playing solos as I picked up the guitar, rather than chords. But even before I started playing, like if I borrowed a guitar from somebody, I would just kind of play solos with it along to records. Just kind of noodling around, see what I thought sounded good.

Who were the guitarists that you looked to for inspiration, coming into your own style?
It was Ron Asheton and Greg Sage [pause] and Keith Richards and Mick Taylor were kind of my main things when I started playing guitar. Things that seemed within reach, that I could try and grab stuff from and form my own style. You know, someone like Hendrix seemed like way too good to even understand what he was doing.

As far as gear is considered, you are obviously a big proponent of vintage gear—Marshalls, Hi-Watts—but they are kind of pain in the ass on tour, they are so fragile. Do you have a lot of technical issues when you tour with your setup?
I find that the new stuff is not very durable also. I think the old stuff, once you’ve blown it up enough times it seems to be fine. It just seems like, you know, they are not played very loud that much for a long time; you gotta just kinda blow the dust out of them somehow and get rid of the weak spots. If you blow it up maybe three times and fix it, it seems to be ok.

Your current setup is complex, using four different amps to create your tone. How did you come to this specific setup?
They’re all pieces of the puzzle, you know? They are just all balanced out in a way that I like from over the years. When we play shows and I have to rent amps, it always sounds a lot worse, because you usually don’t get that good of amps. It is always a little depressing to play another amp.

When you started playing guitar, did you immediately buy a nice tube amp, or did you go with something cheaper?
I had a long succession of stuff, at first. Yeah, like, I didn’t feel worthy to have a Marshall or something like that. I wasn’t good enough yet. I didn’t have the money anyway but it also felt like not being worthy. At first I had V4 Ampeg and it blew up like three times in the first month I had it. So I brought it back and got this Yamaha solid-state head that was really terrible. I thought, “Husker Du had one so maybe it will be good.’ That’s when I started wearing earplugs because it sounded so bad and it was killing my ears. Then I got a weird Acoustic amp, it was like a Boogie copy. Then I got a Carvin, which was pretty bad too. And then, I finally got a Marshall that I used with the Acoustic. That was kind of a good combo.

You got started playing in hardcore bands, but since have moved away from that world. Do you find yourself still listening to any hardcore?
I listen to the same ones I listened to when I was a kid. Not like new ones, really. I mean I have thousands of records. I would buy any new hardcore thing that came out back then. So there’s really a ton of stuff I can listen to.

When did you feel yourself falling away from the hardcore scene?
It was kind of abruptly. It seemed like it just ended. Like in ’83, I guess? It kind of seemed like everybody just stopped, you know like Minor Threat turned into Fugazi and Negative Approach turned into Laughing Hyenas. It just seemed like it all just stopped one day and it was over, and it was time to come up with something else.

So, for you, is the current hardcore scene just regurgitating what should have ended?
Yeah, I don’t really know anything about it. Kind of from one day to the next it was like a moment it time that was reversed. So, yeah, I realize that hardcore had gone on in music form, but I haven’t followed it really.

Is there any modern music that you find yourself listening to or, like with hardcore, do you still just listen to the classics?
Yeah, I listen to a lot of stuff hoping to find something good. There is always something good that is coming out. Lately, I’ve been listening to the Luluc album. That’s the latest thing and then before that I was listening to Steve Gunn. Those are like the last two news things that I really got into.

Moving away from music, how did you come into acting?
You know just somebody asked me here and there, and I just do it because somebody asked me and… I don’t know, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I don’t think about it that much, but it is fun to just be a part of it, if somebody asks.

Are you a big movie buff then?
Yeah, I just have more of a TV attention span, or something. You know like TV is both shorter and longer than movies. Movies, to me, are too short but too long.

Your son is coming to an age where he is probably consuming a lot of media, have you been trying to guide him in his tastes?
Yeah I try to influence him on stuff that I like, and then I—it’s kind of a two way—you know, I learn about Pokémon and stuff that I’ve never heard of.

Joe Yanick is on Twitter - @JoeYanick

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