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J Mascis and The Fog: Someone Said

J. Mascis is the Silent Bob of rock. Look at any of the few interviews on the internet and you can see large blocks of type (the question) followed by a paltry line or two (the closed answer which seldom allows for a follow-up).

Mascis, once of Dinosaur Jr and now out on a solo career with the occasional band The Fog, is a man of formidably few words. Judge for yourself from this exchange down an international phone-line to a rented house in his home town Amherst in Massachusetts. He's renting because he had a fire at his place. Now that sounds interesting, so it's not unnatural to ask if he lost a lot of stuff.

"Yeah," he says from somewhere in a voice like he has just been roused from a deep sleep.

Like a record collection, notes and photographs?

"I didn't lose any records. [pause] I lost, like, my studio stuff ... [long pause] ... drums."

So how long ago was this?

"Ahh ... [pause] ... maybe six weeks ago."

Or consider this, which passes for a conversation about whether he's been doing a lot of solo shows lately.

"I've been doing a little of both. [pause] I have the band too but if I can make enough money at certain gigs to have a band then I'll have a band. Like in Japan I had a band."

The Fog seems to have a revolving-door membership policy?

"Ahh, [long silence] so far we've had one drummer and two bass players."

You're not attached to having a stable line-up?

"I guess not."

Silence. Followed by an even longer silence.

Mascis has the reputation - and appearance - of the archetypal slacker and certainly his world-weary interviews suggest a man breastfed on Mogadon and for whom speaking is a painful physical effort. He is fortunately - and this is all that really matters - much more prolific musically.

Dinosaur Jr managed seven albums in the 12 years from 1985, after which Mascis fired Barlow on the pretext of breaking up the band then reformed it immediately (without Barlow) but to diminishing returns. He did a solo acoustic album (Martin and Me) in the last days of Dinosaur Jr, and his first with The Fog (More Light in 2000) was much acclaimed. His recent album with a different Fog, Free So Free, while not quite the return to Dino-form of More Light, is still punctuated by typically fine sky-scaling guitar (Bobbin) and gorgeously lazy ballads (the acoustic If That's How It's Gotta Be and the hypnotic Someone Said).

fog The spirits of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Meat Puppets and the Stooges stalk though it, and it also has a discernible theme: freedom.

 That's an important political concept in these troubled times but the accompanying press release says Mascis got onto it when he and his dog Bob joined a Pet and Owner Skydiving Weekend.

Most of the songs on Free So Free were conceived in mid-air while he indulged his new passion.

Or not.

He can't believe anyone fel for that, but they have. He even perks up talking about it.

"It was an obvious joke and I wasn't prepared for people to take it seriously. I don't think people really think too much anymore, that's the only explanation I have. Some people get angry too. Like in Europe when I told people I'd never skydived they go: 'What! Zis is a lie! So your whole life it is a lie?' It's strange."

Encouraged the joke has not been taken seriously in this interview, he opens up with a rare bout of the verbals.

"On September 11, I was in New York and right after that the Government took that as an excuse to clamp down on freedoms. We're feeling really claustrophobic. Now it's gotten a lot worse, so it's from feeling claustrophobic and not being able to pursue freedom - which is the ultimate goal - because it's so oppressive now."

While the Muslim community and political dissenters might be feeling that acutely, Mascis says there are unnecessary discomfitures at a personal level for everyone.

"It's a general feeling more than anything, and a heaviness. I went to Boston and went to park in a garage and they were like: 'What are you doing here? What are you are going to do?' I said I was going to park and go eat and she says: 'Do you have a photo ID?' This is just to go into a parking garage. It was really a bizarre scenario."

He has not been put off flying like many people, but says airport security is irritating and fruitless.

"It's also silly. I've had to take my shoes off three times just for one flight, just because of one guy. It's annoying to see how it's the same stupid people running all those machines, and you can still get things by them pretty easy. It doesn't seem they've improved that.

"I don't know what you can do if a guy is willing to die. There's not much you can do to defend against that. If he's willing to die and you're not, he's got the upper hand."

The conversation trickles to a close here, so another direction is tried - that he's playing solo here. I mention the late Townes Van Zandt once said he liked playing solo because he could find the spaces in the music more. There's a brief digression about Townes whom Mascis saw play once ("His wife's brother was in the band and he abused him all through the show," he laughs) but for Mascis, solo just means it's more convenient to travel.

"It's harder to play and it's a challenge to keep the show going by yourself and try to make it interesting but I've gotten a lot better at it over the years. I'd rather have a band playing, but all the other aspects are easier if you're alone.

"I just find I like to keep going so there's less silence so I don't feel as awkward. I don't like the silences between the songs," he says - before falling silent again.

After a little prising he reveals his show is a mix of Dino songs and some new stuff and that he does not change the set much on tour, just finds a basic list of songs and works them.

He's recently enjoyed playing with Ron Asheton of the Stooges "because I don't have to sing, so that helps".

Mascis is sounding plum tuckered now so there's just a couple of random questions to see what response they elicit before, "Thanks and look forward to seeing you down this way."

He's doing a lot of travelling these next few weeks, so what three CDs does he think he might pack for his journey? There is a chasm of silence before he mutters something inaudible, about 15 seconds later he says "Ol' Dirty Bastard" then there is a full 24 seconds (time that and see how long it feels) before I crack and try something for my own amusement.

So are you reading anything interesting at the moment?


Do you read much?

"Ahh, not too much."

Time to say it: "Thanks and look forward to seeing you down this way."

"Ahh, yeah."

And J. Mascis is gone. If he was ever really there in the first place.

J Mascis, Galatos, Auckland. May 2002

Really, you had to be there. And the moment you had to be there for came early on in the show when this former frontman for rowdy rockers Dinosaur Jr. kicked some foot pedal and unleashed a firestorm.

In the blink of an eye, Mascis shifted from acoustic folkie to white-heat rocker delivering with blistering intensity.

It was an extraordinary, eyebrow raising moment and greeted with delight by the capacity audience, many of whom doubtless recall the noise machine that was Dinosaur Jr., one of the loudest bands to play here.

mascis2With cracked voice - think a world-weary Neil Young in a stupor - and howling guitar, this solo show could have been billed, "An Intimate Evening with J. Mascis and Crazy Horse".

Mascis - with long stringy hair and geek glasses, he looked like a slacker physics graduate - alternated between his gorgeous ballads and some sky-scaling guitar drama, often within the same song.

While he favoured the ballads from his new album Free So Free - he opened with a refined and low-key treatment of Someone Said - he also touched base with some of his former band's catalogue and managed to conjure up the same intensity from a seated position.

In fact Mascis, who barely said a word to the audience, remained a static figure which belied the firestorm he would occasionally unleash.

The spirit of electric Neil Young is certainly the reference point, but Mascis was also much his own man and his acoustic playing was rich and hard-edged, his supersonic flights often thrilling in their tortured passage.

Over the long arc - a tidy 80 minutes plus an encore - there was a sameness to proceedings (quiet, loud, quiet, louder) but within individual songs Mascis displayed his undeniable guitar genius. And often very loudly.

Yes, you really had to be there.

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