Interviewed: J Mascis

NARC. magazine December '14
The lead singer of Dinosaur Jr., renowned as being one of the most difficult interviewees in the music industry, speaks surprisingly openly to Olivia Swash about spiritual tourism, punk and embarking upon another solo album

He reunited The Stooges, turned down Kurt Cobain's offer to join Nirvana and has topped countless 'best guitarist of all time' lists - but J Mascis' notoriously indifferent interview etiquette had my expectations set low for any elaborate rock anecdotes. Hearing his signature passive drawl down the phone from Arizona describing the weather as he clinks a spoon in his teacup, I can't help but warm to him. With some of the most influential alternative output of the late 80s and early 90s, Dinosaur Jr.'s effortlessly melodic noise-rock is what J Mascis has been best known for throughout his three decades creating music. "We captured something at the right moment in time, when it was right for all of us," he says of the band's ability to stand the test of time. "We made a good record, which is the main thing." Why he's talking in the singular is a mystery, as this modestly indicated "good record" could be referring to any one of the band's ten studio albums.

Despite his prodigious regard as a guitarist, J's preferred instrument is the noble drum kit. Like Iggy Pop (J names The Stooges as one of the best bands of all time), he cut his teeth as a drummer and meandered over to guitar and vocals later in his musical career. "I used to play along to records I liked and wanted to try and sound like, but I started out in a jazz orchestra in high school," he says, explaining that it helps to learn different drumming styles aside from his beloved punk. "I saw Buddy Rich when I was 12. I know a lot of [drumming techniques] have been taken from jazz." His competitive side ekes out slightly when I ask him about whether he sees it as meditative or cathartic: "I guess it can be, but I've always thought of it as more like a sport - I always want to go faster!"

J grew up engrossed in the surge of hardcore punk bands thrashing their way out of Washington, D.C. in the 80s, with seminal independent labels giving rise to a generation of aggressive, chaotic punk with a DIY ethic. "That was my youth," he says of the roster of Dischord Records, co-founded by members of Minor Threat, as well as SST Records whom later released some of Dinosaur Jr.'s earlier albums and singles. As a voracious collector of hardcore records as well as having been label buddies with Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Husker Du on SST, J recently contributed to the new crowd-funded D.C.-orientated documentary 'Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation's Capital'. "It was cool," he says of his involvement, and sees crowd-funding as an inevitable direction for music and film-making. "It works pretty well. You're doing it with the help of other people - I think we'll have to get used to that."

J found inspiration to reunite Dinosaur Jr. in 2005 after observing the consistent post-punk triumphs of Mission of Burma: a band who've persisted with their sound and improved with age. After all, growing older doesn't necessarily mean getting rusty at the hinges. With his back-catalogue forays ranging from doom metal to psychedelic instrumental, I wondered whether J saw experimenting with sounds and styles as a vital way of evolving as a musician, or if it's fine to stick to your strengths. "Whatever seems to be good in the moment," he says, evoking Dinosaur Jr.'s 'Whatever's Cool With Me' bulldog EP cover in my head, "so either way, as long as it's not just playing something for the sake of sounding different," - something which he then admits he has, at times, been prone to doing. He puts this down to luck: his particular musical experimentations have worked well with what he was creating at the time. "Everything lined up right," he assures.

On the contrary, there seems to be a naturally-occurring mellowing process transforming leading figures from the 80s post-punk and noise scene into seasoned, sensitive artists in recent years compared to their respectively vigorous adolescent careers. Take Thurston Moore's haunting solo records, Henry Rollins' wizened spoken-word tours and Nick Cave's stunningly revealing 20,000 Days documentary as prime examples. With a softer, dulcet vibe on J Mascis' new solo album 'Tied to a Star' as well as on his 2011 effort 'Several Shades of Why', J sees himself heading the same way both in his music and otherwise. "Yeah I've definitely mellowed out," he tells me, epitomising his statement in his trademark chilled intonation. Does he prefer it that way? "Well other people like it better for sure - people I know!" With 9-year-old Rory back home in Amherst, Massachusetts, he also sees becoming a father as a contributing factor in changes he's gone through as a musician, "I'm not sure how exactly. It's probably just the sleep deprivation!"

With minimal percussion and twinkly acoustic guitars, 'Tied to a Star' is a doe-eyed baby Diplodocus to the ferocious T-Rex of Dinosaur Jr.'s early output. 'Every Morning' is a fresh-faced ditty comparable to Karen O and The Kids' soundtrack to Where The Wild Things Are. Chan Marshall of Cat Power appears on 'Wide Awake', which has lullaby-gentle melodies with a tinge of J's trademark guitar feedback. "I looked at the songs and the parts separately and thought about who specifically would be good to get on board," J says on choosing album collaborators - but was there anyone he approached who turned him down? "Um, Sharon Van Etten... She was just busy."

J is an avid TV aficionado, having popped up on screen in weird and wonderful roles with bit-parts in a 'Battle of the Gentle Bands' sketch in hipster-mocking comedy Portlandia and as a janitor in Richard Ayoade's film The Double. I wondered if he had any more cameos on the cards. "Nothing's certain but I'm always happy to do TV, so maybe," he says. On tips for boxsets to watch on chilly winter evenings, he tells me, "I watch so much TV! At the moment I'm into Nashville, Sons of Anarchy, and Veronica Mars - which I'd never seen until recently."

As a practising Hindu, meditation and spirituality have long been a part of J Mascis' life. "It's not that easy to choose and I didn't know from the start," he says on deciding upon a faith to follow. "Some people know right away, and some like to try out everything. I guess it's a matter of settling on whatever you choose rather than shopping around and being a spiritual tourist!" His integrity is endearing, and he seems to have a staunch sense of identity despite his life choices not necessarily being considered very rock n roll. Having been heavily inspired by the straight edge ethos of hardcore bands such as Minor Threat in the 80s, J Mascis chose a drug-and-drink-free lifestyle from a young age. "Peer pressure is always around," he tells me, "I wasn't gonna succumb to it... I think just do whatever you want." Pure wisdom.

'Tied to a Star' is out now on Sub Pop Records
J Mascis plays The Cluny, Newcastle on 18th January 2015