Dinosaur Jr. founder J Mascis is a man frugal with his words. He parses them as if he's handing out pieces of his favorite candy - one at a time. You think he has nothing to say or can't be bothered talking at all but that's not true. Rather this is simply who he is and though it's sometimes frustrating wrestling a response from him, when he does let loose with a darkly humorous retort it can leave you rolling on the floor in hysterics.
Mascis has just released his second solo album titled "Tied to a Star." When you ask him if he is the star referred to in the title, he simply laughs. The album is full of electric and acoustic guitars bashing out rhythms on ballads and mid-tempo rockers. Additionally, the native of Amherst plays all the drums here, which is how he started his career. We talk that period but not before addressing one of the dark days in his life.
UG: We're going to start with one of the worst days in your life when your guitars were stolen a while ago.
J: Yeah, and last year I had another guitar stolen. Luckily it was just one of my Signature models, which I had a bunch of. Yeah, a few years ago a lot of guitars got stolen after a gig in New York.
You never got any of those guitars back?
No. There were three old Jazzmasters and a prototype of my first Fender Signature one and I think a Rickenbacker bass. Not my pedal board but just the part with the controller on it and not the pedals.
These were recording guitars?
Yeah. One was like the second Jazzmaster I bought. I remember playing that on "Out There." It's weird. I don't know where they went to 'cause I looked around on eBay and I've never seen 'em for some years.
It's not like those are just standard issue Strats or Les Pauls either.
And two of 'em had custom metalflake finishes. Maybe they're just still sittin' on 'em somewhere.
Why were you attracted to the Jazzmaster initially?
I went to buy a Strat but it was kind of the typical bait and switch thing. The Strat was $400 but when I got to the storey they were, "Oh no, those are $450" and I didn't have that much. The Jazzmaster was $300 and they had a Jaguar for $200 and I liked the neck better on the Jazzmaster though I liked the way the Jaguar looked better. I knew I wanted a Fender.
Were there guitarists using Jazzmasters you'd been listening to?
There wasn't really anybody I was inspired by that played the Jazzmaster. That was just the only Fender I could afford at the time.
But you were a fan of the early '60s jangly guitar rock and roll?
Yeah, sure. I was a big record collector as a kid and went through all different phases of rock.
You were playing drums with Deep Wound back in 1973?
Yeah, I was the drummer although my first lead guitar playing is on the Deep Wound record. 'Cause there was a song I didn't like that much and I said, "Alright, I'll play it if I can play a lead on it." I started playing guitar but I only played leads. I never played chords or anything for some reason.
That's odd because your rhythm playing is really tight.
It was hard to make barre chords and press all the strings down.
When you played a solo you only had to hit one or two strings at a time?
Right, and you could play along with records and play anything. You didn't have to bother learning songs.
Who was inspiring you lead-wise?
I liked Ron Asheton, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and Fast Eddie from Motorhead. Bones from Discharge.
You were digging on Black Sabbath?
Yeah, I loved Sabbath. I just saw them for the first time in LA. Tony Iommi has shot to the top of my list for the best guitarists I've ever seen. I guess I never thought much about him when listening to Sabbath but seeing him I really thought he was awesome.
Neil Young was also on your radar?
Uh, yeah. Sure. Creedence, Neil Young as far as the rock stuff.
Were you a fan of Buffalo Springfield?
When you formed Dinosaur Jr. with Lou Barlow and Murph did you know the kind of music you wanted to make?
No. I knew we wanted to have a band. Not too hardcore and just trying to amuse ourselves and try to make something we'd want to listen to. It wasn't sure exactly. My favorite band was Birthday Party when we started and we didn't really end up sounding like that. There was a lot of bands coming out like Green on Red and Dream Syndicate and stuff that we liked that weren't hardcore. New Order and all sorts of different influences.
There was no one direction you were heading in?
I just started to listen to KISS actually when I went to college and started playing guitar. I never liked Kiss but my friend who was a really good guitarist said, "You should listen to Kiss if you're gonna learn how to play guitar." So Ace was an influence on my guitar playing.
Did you specifically want Dinosaur Jr. to be a trio?
No. We had a singer [Charlie Nakajima] at first that didn't work out. We played at one gig. But we liked trios obviously 'cause of SST and all the bands were trios: Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen. That was our favorite kind of music and the direction we wanted to go like we wanted to be on SST.
What about the more classic rock trios like the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream?
Uh, sure. I liked Hendrix a lot but that just seemed like he was too good to be an influence. You could never play like Hendrix. It was cool.
Did you dig doing the "Dinosaur" album and songs like "Bulbs of Passion?"
Yeah, we recorded that after the first album. That's when we figured it out and finally started to get a sound because it sounded good to us. The first album we were just kinda throwin' stuff on the walls and seeing what sticks. We knew we could put out an album so we did it really quick. We didn't have a sound exactly. We just flirted with all these different styles and then it started coming together kinda after we made the first album.
Your early style came together on "Bulbs of Passion"?
Yeah. It started to have a sound rather than trying out all these different styles.
There was a lot of cool fuzz guitar and distortion in that song.
Yeah, we liked noisy kind of stuff. Throbbing Gristle was an influence and whatever was happening that we heard. Jesus and Mary Chain that was cool.
Dinosaur Jr. broke up and reformed in 2007 and released "Beyond." What did it feel like playing with Lou Barlow and Murph again 10 years later?
It felt pretty normal pretty fast after a few minutes. We had the sound back. Just trying to deal with each other was always the problem. I had gotten a bit better at that.
There are multiple guitar tracks on a song like "Almost Ready." What is your process in the studio?
Umm, well usually I'll try to get two main guitars like a stereo not necessarily playing exactly the same but pretty much with maybe slightly different tones or something. Like a Les Paul Junior and a Telly or something to get some different tones. That would probably be the basis and then maybe sometimes another sound on top of that. From there it depends with various overdubs.
You will pull out other guitars besides the Jazzmaster when you are recording?
Yeah, the Jazzmaster doesn't get too much use recording. Most of the leads are Tellys and a lot of the rhythms are Les Paul Juniors.
Could the "Beyond" track "Crumble" have been on one of your solo albums like "Several Shades of Why?"
Uh, no. It's definitely an electric song to me.
You've always produced your own albums. Why?
I never really had a producer. I did talk to Ted Templeman. I really liked the sound of the first Montrose album but nothing really came of that. It's interesting but it seems like it's an awfully lot of money compared to doing it yourself.
The video for "Over It" shows you doing some mad stuff on the skateboard. You're a pretty bad dude on a skateboard.
Uh, I don't know anymore. Yeah, I liked doing it for sure.
You're also a skier?
You recorded the last Dinosaur Jr. album "I Bet on Sky" in 2012. There were some cool solos on songs like "Watch the Sky."
I only ever improvise solos. I don't really even know how to play a solo the same way twice. It's not really in my bag of tricks or whatever. I think it's interesting Randy Rhoads triple-tracking the "Crazy Train" solo and stuff but I can't do that. I'm just playing whatever I feel like and I'm not really thinking about what I'm playing.
What drives you into the studio?
Usually just scheduling and it's like, "Oh, I have this time to make an album. I better get to work on this." Yeah, I definitely work well with some kind of deadline.
In 2011 you released your first solo album "Several Shades of Why," which was highlighted by the fingerpicked title track. Who were your acoustic influences?
Richard Thompson. I've seen him a lot over the years. An old girlfriend turned me onto him a long time ago. All the English bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle and Crosby, Stills & Nash and all that stuff.
Bert Jansch and John Renbourn?
Yeah. I like Bob Dylan's guitar playing.
Is it different for you doing a solo album as opposed to a Dinosaur Jr. album?
Um, yeah. I have kind of an idea of the tone of the album and how I want it. If I'm writing it on acoustic and if stuff seems like it's too rocking or something, I'll maybe save it for later.
Do you think you've gotten better and recording guitars?
Uh, I don't know. I always assume you just get worse but I'd like to think it gets better. It just seems from looking at the past, it seems like the usual way it goes, hah.
Does your new solo album "Tied to a Star" have connecting tissue to "Several Shades of Why?"
Yeah, sure. It's a similar concept trying to keep it mostly acoustic. I mean different songs came out but the concept was similar.
The acoustic approach was a specific thing you were going for?
Yeah. It's good to have limitations. It's interesting to try and work within different limitations.
There are no drums on "Me Again" - are those some of the limitations you're talking about?
Yeah. "Every Morning" I felt like I should put drums on it. Like I'm tempted to put drums on everything and sometimes I'll give into the temptation.
You're playing drums?
Do you lay down the drums and then go back and record guitars and vocals?
Uh no. Actually on that I did the guitars first 'cause I didn't know if I was gonna have drums on it. It's a little challenging.
You have to be a really good rhythm guitar player to be able to record drums after the fact.
When I started Dinosaur, I never really jammed with other people. We just had this band. Then later on when I jammed with other guitarists, I realized how I was a lot more rhythmic than a lot of the people I jammed with. They were kinda like sloppier. On the rhythm parts, I guess just from drums I had more kind of a tight rhythm.
You hear guitar players with amazing technique but they can't play a simple sixteenth note groove.
I always heard that was Paul Kossoff's problem like he's not too good on rhythm.
On the opposite end of that is Keith Richards who is not a great soloist but plays amazing rhythm.
Yeah, I thought Mick Taylor's rhythm playing was great too. You don't hear much about it but you see videos of his first gig when he was playing in Hyde Park. I was pretty impressed with his rhythm playing.
Did you listen to Pete Townshend?
I did. I mean I had a hard time with Roger Daltrey but I loved the rest of 'em. Yeah, they're an amazing band.
Is the song "Heal the Star" about you?
No, it's a star in the sky.
I bet it's really about you.
Uh, you never know.
Where did that arrangement with the melodic guitars on "Heal the Star" come from?
Trial and error. Try a bunch of stuff and then trash most of it or keep it if something is good.
You also like combining 6- and 12-string guitars?
Yeah, sure. I'll try anything.
You like 12-strings?
Not really. I like different textures on records. I don't pick it up necessarily except to record.
Was Roger McGuinn and the Byrds something you listened to?
Sometimes. I think once actually every morning I might have written on a 12-string but usually I don't play it so much.
Is that you playing the percussion on "Heal the Star"?
Yeah, I have some Indian percussion stuff but I was just playing a drum set without the snares on to have it sound kind of more Indian or something. That was kind of weird; I just kind of jammed. I did the whole kind of guitar part improvised and then I tried to play drums along to that, which was kind of complicated, hah.
"Wide Awake" had some cool fingerpicking in it.
That's testing my abilities that song. I initially tried to get Richard Thompson to play it 'cause I'm not that good at fingerpicking. I wrote it but I couldn't play it very well so it was hard for me to play. That took a lot of time.
Chan Marshall also sings on that song. Is that meant to convey the idea of two people are there wide awake?
Oh, I don't know. I just kinda heard her voice there and luckily it came through where she could actually do it.
The guitar sound in "Wide Awake" is very dark. Do you try and match guitar sounds to the emotion of a song?
Maybe. I just pick up different guitars and see which one sounds best for the song. On this album a lot of the songs had different guitars as the main guitars. It becomes evident which one sounds better with which song. It's like some guitars I never thought [were any good]. Like "Heal the Star" is a crappier guitar I had and I never thought of recording with it or anything but it just sounded right.
What kind of guitar was that?
Like a Martin 000-16.
That's what you call one of your crappy guitars?
Yeah, it's like newer and it's not particularly [good]. It wasn't expensive. I thought of it as one I'd take out walking around in the woods or something.
What kind of acoustics do you typically play?
Uh, well I have half Martins and half Gibsons. I got this weird Epiphone before this album that was like an archtop that somebody put a flattop on. A '50s guitar that has an interesting sound.
Does the instrumental side of guitar demonstrated in "Drifter" appeal to you?
Not usually but I kinda like that one. I like playing it but I usually don't listen to instrumental music much.
Are you using an open tuning on "Drifter"?
Yeah, that's the same one that's on "Heal the Star."
What tuning is it?
What is that? I think it's D-A-D-D-A-D.
You've done a lot of sessions along the way. Are there any that stand out?
Yeah, I liked playing drums on the "Upsidedown Cross" album. I really liked the way that album came out. Umm, yeah, I guess that's my standout one. I don't know. On guitar? I'm not sure. I've usually just done some leads for stuff so I've not been that involved.
Any plans for a new Dinosaur Jr. album?
Umm, thinking about it. I have to come up with some more tunes first I guess.
When the aliens land and find the J Mascis time capsule, are there certain songs that standout for you that you'd want in there?
For some reason "Budge" comes to mind. I guess "Freak Scene" might as well get put in there. And uh, "Bulbs of Passion." But I don't know if that's what I'd want the aliens to hear.
Interview by Steven Rosen