Graham Reid | | 8 min read
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
"I didn't lose any records. [pause] I lost, like, my studio
stuff ... [long pause] ... drums."
So how long ago was this?
... [pause] ... maybe six weeks ago."
Or consider this, which passes for
a conversation about whether he's been doing a lot of solo shows
"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
"Ahh, [long silence] so far we've had one drummer and
two bass players."
You're not attached to having a stable
"I guess not."
Silence. Followed by an even longer
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
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).
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.
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
"Ahh, not too much."
Time to say it: "Thanks and look
forward to seeing you down this way."
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
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
With 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
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
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
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
Yes, you really had to be there.