Lightening Up

Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis is back with a new album, a new attitude, and a mouthful of food

A sort-of interview with J. Mascis, Part One:

It's not that J. Mascis is sullen or inarticulate or any of the accusatory words with which he's generally described. He's extremely--you might even say legendarily--reserved when talking to the press. But if you're willing to give just a little leeway to a guy who has spent more than a decade and a half being: a) totemized as an indie-rock guitar god and b) panned for selling out his talent to make albums that sound like the same song played 11 times in a row at varying speeds, you can hardly fault him for clamming the hell up about it all and preferring instead to write and record and produce in relative silence. And at this point, if Mascis ever really opened up and started ranting at a journalist on the record, the resultant shock wave from all the Dinosaur Jr. fan Web site updates would probably freeze up every Internet server from here to Belize City.

Mascis may well be reserved, but he's neither inarticulate nor uncommunicative, at least as far as his recorded output goes. Take the 1996 live album Martin & Me, Mascis' first official solo release, which was stupidly panned by Rolling Stone and other gray eminences of the music-journalism field for precisely the reasons given above (selling out, blah blah blah). Here's an album with all-acoustic versions of originally caterwauling Dino Jr. songs such as "Blowin' It," "Keeblin'," and "Repulsion," side by side with covers of songs by Carly Simon ("Anticipation"), The Smiths ("The Boy With the Thorn in His Side"), and Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Every Mother's Son"), released with absolutely no hope of charting in the middle of the bloated, self-important MTV Unplugged uproar. Now that's funny. And articulate.

J. Mascis might have a lot of things to say if he weren't in the middle of his lunch.
J. Mascis might have a lot of things to say if he weren't in the middle of his lunch.

But because it came out of nowhere, from a guy who'd been forever written about as sullen and mopey, few people got the joke. Mascis, however, runs through the set gleefully, even bantering with the audience a bit and exclaiming "Yes!" after one particularly invigorating (and eventually way-out-of-tune) guitar-flogging number. Granted, it was mostly tongue-in-cheek ("And how's everybody feelin'?" he asks, greasy as a side-room lounge act at the start of the set), but the man playing on Martin & Me is genuinely enjoying himself, playing music that's genuinely enjoyable to hear.

Though Martin & Me was his first "official" solo record, there have been several under other names. The Dinosaur Jr. album Green Mind, released on Sire/Reprise in 1991, consisted mostly of Mascis playing all the instruments on the record (Dino Jr. drummer Murph played on three tracks). Green Mind--initially snubbed by punk purists and mainstream listeners, though it was a prominent release in the post-Nirvana major-label indie sign-up rush--is a magnificent album by any standard, possibly one of the best major-label records of the decade. Nuanced, painfully confessional in places, loud, melodic, cohesive, and poetic, there's not much else like it in Mascis' playlist. And nothing else like it came out of the indie-rock boom of the early '90s. But after the 1993 follow-up Where You Been--Mascis' only album to chart (at No. 50) and the one for which the mainstream press hailed him as an "alternative music" visionary--Dino Jr.'s records fared rather poorly. Two more efforts, 1994's Without a Sound and 1997's Hand It Over (also a Mascis solo project), failed to sell; Sire released Dinosaur Jr. from its contract shortly thereafter.

So here comes J. Mascis three years later with another solo album disguised as a band project, under the name J. Mascis and the Fog. Here comes J. Mascis, newly signed to Ultimatum Records, with a funked-up and assured album called More Light, which could easily dispel his "sullen" myth. Here, in short, comes J. Mascis with a label that seems to let him record what he wants and release it without pressure, and what is he doing in the middle of the tremendous phone-interview afternoon that Ultimatum has arranged for him? He's eating.


A sort-of interview with J. Mascis, Part Two:

"Oh, shit," he says. "Hang on." Click. Dead line. Then: "Sorry. Journalists...calling at the wrong time." Chomp, crunch.

Mascis speaks in a deep voice full of pauses, with softly articulated New England consonants with wide, gravelly vowels familiar to anyone who has heard the albums. But his speaking range is nearly an octave lower than you'd expect from his recorded body of work. It's the voice of a man who might have just gotten out of bed, the voice of a man who has almost certainly been coerced into spending an afternoon on the phone with writers.

But again, not inarticulate. What Mascis lacks in expansive observations about his music and the creative process surrounding More Light, he more than makes up for in directness. Like when he's asked about the move to Ultimatum for this new album:

"We got dropped." Crunch. Silence.

OK...um, but why Ultimatum in particular?

"Like...in Europe...we're on a bunch of labels in Europe, in other places. But...we didn't really have a lot of choices. In America. Not a lot of people...were into it." Crunch, chomp.Pause. "But...they [Ultimatum] seem pretty cool. We were looking for a label for about a year. It...it seems OK."

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