J Mascis is a lot better guitarist, singer and songwriter than he is a conversationalist. As noted in the June 14 profile of the reunited Dinosaur Jr., which headlines the June 16 Westword Music Showcase, I quizzed Mascis back in 1991, when a group called Nirvana was opening for his band, and the chat became what I considered to be my most agonizing interview of a musician ever. Moreover, the sequel to this gabfest in reverse, which took place several weeks ago, hurt just about as much. The Q&A reproduced below captures the discomfort for posterity, complete with myriad attempts on my part to draw out the shredder in question, almost all of which fail miserably.
Okay, Mascis doled out a bit of information. He touches on the quality of the Dino comeback disc, Beyond; his preference for reading interviews over participating in them; the rumor that he was once asked to join Nirvana; the question of whether or not Kurt Cobain was whiny; the pros and cons of fame; his dislike of Our Band Could Be Your Life, which contains a recap of the initial Dinosaur Jr. split co-starring since returned Sebadoh leader Lou Barlow; a confession that he borrowed heavily from the Birthday Party and Patti Smith on early albums, but did it so strangely that no one noticed; the reason he doesn't bother practicing; his role in the reunion of the Stooges, complete with a tribute to guitarist Ron Asheton, a much more talkative recent Westword interviewee; an update on the Mascis-Barlow relationship today; and the issue of whether Dinosaur Jr. is back for the long haul.
As you'll notice, the questions tend to be longer the answers. Feel my pain:
Westword (Michael Roberts): A lot of people seem surprised when a band puts out a reunion CD that’s actually good. Was it surprising how well yours turned out? Or was did it come out pretty much the way you expected?
J. Mascis: Yeah. I’m surprised whenever anybody puts out a good CD.
WW: I had the opportunity to interview you once before – back in 1991, when you were touring behind Green Mind – and I think I’ve only just gotten my confidence back. It seems that interviews aren’t your favorite thing to do. Is that fair to say?
JM: Yeah. They’re pretty strange, I think.
WW: Back then, when I asked you about that, you said, it’s “weird talking to someone you don’t know who you can’t see.” Does that pretty much sum it up.
JM: Yeah. That’s a few things that are bad mixed together.
WW: Over the years, has it gotten any better? Or is it just as bad as it’s always been?
JM: It just depends, I guess. I don’t know. It’s just not the easiest thing to do.
WW: Does it seem strange to you that people want to talk with you about your music when what you do is pretty much self-explanatory – they can listen to it and decide for themselves whether they like it or not?
JM: I mean, I understand how everything works. And I like magazines, too. You’ve got to put something in the paper.
WW: So you like reading interviews with other performers you admire?
JM: Yeah. Sure.
WW: If you’d known you’d be spending so much of your career doing interviews rather than making music, would you have considered another line of work?
WW: Music was the only option for you?
JM: Yeah, it’s the only thing I considered seriously.
WW: On that Green Mind tour I mentioned earlier, Nirvana opened for you guys – and I found an item on Wikipedia that said you were once asked to play drums for them. Did that actually happen?
JM: I think it was more guitar than drums, but I wanted to play drums on a single – on the one they got Dan Peters to play on. It’s called “Sliver” or something.
WW: So you weren’t formally asked to be the drummer, but there were conversations about you filling in?
JM: Yeah. This one time, I saw them play after we kicked out Lou and got this girl, Donna, to play bass. Kurt, I guess he didn’t like Donna [Dresch, of Team Dresch]. He was like, “Don’t get her. Why don’t you just join our band?” Nirvana was a four piece at that time. I don’t think they liked the guitar player at that time.
WW: I work for a newspaper in Denver called Westword, and our former art director was a guy named Dana Collins, who used to drum for the Accused up in the Pacific Northwest. Dana was asked to play drums for Nirvana, too, but he told me he said “no” because he thought Kurt could be kind of whiny, and he didn’t think he could spend that much time around him.
JM: Oh really?
WW: Is that how you found Kurt? Or did you have a better connection with him than that?
JM: I was pretty whiny, too. So I didn’t find him particularly whiny.
WW: I know you’ve been asked a lot over the years how you felt watching a band that once opened for you become one of the biggest and most influential groups in the world. But looking back on things, are you happy you didn’t have to deal with fame on that kind of scale?
JM: I’m not dead. I’m glad about that.
WW: Yeah, that’s good. But how about dealing with being in the spotlight that much? Would that have been a drag for you?
JM: I don’t know. There’s definitely a lot of downsides to it.
WW: Do you think that at a certain point, you might have said, “To hell with this” and retreated to just work on your music?
JM: Who knows?
WW: A lot of people know about the history of Dinosaur Jr. from Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life. Have you read that book?
WW: Did it seem like a pretty accurate depiction of what went on back then?
JM: Not really.
WW: What seemed wrong to you?
JM: Our chapter, he was focusing a lot on just Lou. He didn’t even want to interview Murph. I had to make him. The general feeling I got was that he wasn’t there – that it was someone talking about all this stuff, and he wasn’t there, getting what was going on. He doesn’t talk at all about music or songs or how good the bands were. I guess the general feeling I get was it was written by a guy who wasn’t there.
WW: There’s a lot of Lou in that chapter, because he’s so talkative. Were there things he said in there that you’d never heard before?
JM: Oh yeah [laughs].
WW: Anything in particular?
JM: In one part, he said we were questioning his sexuality or something. And we didn’t know anything about that [laughs].
WW: So you didn’t have any questions about his sexuality at all?
JM: We never thought about it. I think he was just agitated. It was a weird thing. I don’t think he’s that way now. There are things he’s said in certain moods that he regrets saying, I think. One day, we were eating and he was swearing at the waiter. And the next day, he was like, “Did I say that?”
WW: Are things different today? Does he not have as many wild mood swings as he did back then?
JM: No, this was recently. When we were recording the album.
WW: Do you handle things differently than you did back then?
JM: We’re all a lot different then we were back then. Back then, we just didn’t communicate much at all.
WW: And now, if something comes up, you talk about it, instead of just letting it fester?
JM: Yeah. To varying degrees of success.
WW: Do you guys hang out offstage these days? Or is it a strictly professional relationship?
JM: We’re touring all summer, so we have to hang out. We’re not in separate vehicles or anything. So we’re kind of forced to hang out.
WW: But it doesn’t feel like a really tense situation for the most part.
JM: There are ups and downs.
WW: After Lou left the band, you made some incredible albums that focused on your guitar playing – and they came out during a period when guitar solos were out of favor, more or less. Did you realize at the time that you were on a path not many of your peers were on?
JM: I don’t know. I don’t really think about things like that. I guess I was just trying to amuse myself.
WW: So you’ve never really paid that much attention to what other bands are doing? You’re mainly trying to amuse yourself?
JM: Yeah. But I like other bands. I’ve always bought a lot of records.
WW: But you never tried to emulate or copy other bands? You were more interested in doing your own thing?
JM: It’s just the way I end up copying things a lot of times. What I think is a copy nobody else thinks is a copy.
WW: Could you give me an example of something where you felt you were copying someone and everyone else thought it was totally original on your part?
JM: I don’t know about original. But on the first album, my favorite band was the Birthday Party. And it doesn’t necessarily sound like the Birthday Party. And on Green Mind, there’s a song called “Muck,” and I kind of thought of it was a rip-off of a Patti Smith song.
WW: And no one picked up on the fact that you were paying homage to Patti Smith on the song?
JM: I was just kind of rewriting it. Doing my version of it.
WW: Which Patti Smith song was it?
JM: I think “Frederick.”
WW: Over the years, has your guitar playing regimen changed? Do you try to play every day?
JM: I never practice much. I used to practice a lot on drums. But I never practice guitar much.
WW: With guitar, did you fear that if you practiced too much, and got more technically adept, it might not sound natural anymore? It might sound too studied?
JM: I already can play faster than I ever thought I could play, just from playing so much. Yeah, I guess that’s the thing. I already play faster than I need to.
WW: Why did you stop issuing albums under the Dinosaur Jr. name and started putting them out as the Fog?
JM: We kind of broke up, and then I started playing with other guys.
WW: A lot of people always thought of Dinosaur Jr. as you – but to you, it was always a band?
WW: I had the opportunity to interview Ron Asheton of the Stooges a few months ago, and he credits you with spurring the Stooges reunion. What is it about the Stooges’ music, and Ron’s playing in particular, that you like so much?
JM: I really copied a lot of the way Ron played guitar. I like his sound. It seemed like kind of an attainable thing.
WW: So you didn’t see his style as something you’d have to practice for twenty years to get right? You felt like you could do it easier than that?
JM: I could kind of understand it. And it was cool playing with him. I felt like I was an apprentice, learning the correct way to play Stooges songs.
WW: Do you have a favorite Stooges song to play?
JM: “TV Eye” is pretty good…
WW: According to Ron, the attention you guys got playing the Stooges songs got Iggy Pop’s attention, and that spurred him to contact Ron and Scott. Have you seen them play together? And what was your impression of them?
JM: I thought it was cool.
WW: I was impressed at how vital they were. They didn’t seem like just an oldies act. Did their sound convince you that maybe it was worth giving Dinosaur Jr. a try again? That you could reunite without it being kind of embarrassing?
JM: I think it was more Mission of Burma.
WW: You saw Mission of Burma back together, and thought if they still sounded good, you could do it, too?
WW: Who made the first phone call about putting Dinosaur Jr. back together?
JM: My manager. I knew Lou and Murph always wanted to do it. So it was up to me.
WW: After all the lawsuits and angry words over the years, did you find that the first time you guys got back together, the musical connection was still there?
WW: Did you have to work at it? Or was it there the first time you plugged in?
JM: Yeah. It was just there.
WW: On the new album, did you try to sound like you did back in the day? Or did you figure, it’s going to come out the way it’s going to come out?
JM: We didn’t try to do anything except what we were doing.
WW: I know you wrote more songs on the disc than Lou did? Was that a point of contention at all?
JM: Yeah, it was a point of contention to get him to write anything. That was the hard part.
WW: So you wanted him to write more?
JM: Not more. Just one. That was kind of a thing from the past, also. It was always hard to get him to write any songs.
WW: Do you like the songs he wrote? Did you feel he stepped up to the plate?
JM: Yeah, I like them.
WW: Is it especially fun to be back on the road with these guys? Or is it more that you like to play, and right now, you’re playing with them?
JM: Yeah, it’s cool to play with them. There’s a certain energy, because we grew up and learned to play together.
WW: Do you see this going on for years to come? Or would you like to play in other configurations, too?
JM: I don’t really think that far ahead. I know we have the summer planned out.
WW: So right now, it’s good, and that’s what’s most important?