Picking Up the Slack
Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis is an unlikely, unkempt, and unwilling candidate for rock stardom, but that just may be where he's headed. Erik Davis takes the passenger seat.
To get a handle on the amorphous cultural blob that is the postpunk generation, one could do much worse than check out the band photo on the back of Dinosaur’s 1985 self-titled debut. Singer-guitarist-songwriter J Mascis looks like a chipmunk-cheeked death rocker, bassist Lou Barlow a geeky punk with his buzz-cut growing out, and drummer Murph a zitty, Led Zep pothead. Appropriately, their music fused styles, and songs such as “Repulsion,” “Forget the Swan,” and “The Leper” were simultaneously savage, sweet, melancholic, jangly, rude, organic, and completely dysfunctional. Dinosaur combined the juice of hardcore singles with riffs and mellow melodies unearthed from some older sibling’s rock collection. Mascis sounded like a wounded Neil Young, his guitar cut your gut, and when they screamed, it was like mastodons in a tar pit. But for all the ferocity, the attitude was all slack. Not slack as in sloth, but slack as a kind of ambivalent drift, a lack of allegiance, an offhand carelessness that would slap Sabbath’s Volume 4 on the turntable as readily as the Ramones. The guys in Dinosaur decided to become a band not to bond, or to be cool, or to become rock stars, but because there was nothing better (or worse) to do. You could hear the fruitful aimlessness in Mascis’s blistering leads and his wavering vocals. If Mascis now seems like a maverick, it’s because Dinosaur’s music came out of nowhere, a nowhere everybody knows: suburbia. More specifically, as the address below the band photo announced, the music came from the Mascis residence in Amherst, Massachusetts.
That was eight years ago, before a washed-up hippie band forced Dinosaur to add a “Jr.,” before indie rock dissolved into a corporate marketing category, before Barlow got the boot and Mascis scored a major-label deal. Now, with Murph and new bassist Mike Johnson in tight, Dino sounds like a band for the first time in years, and its new Where You Been LP resurrects the frazzled, wracked passion of Dinosaur Jr.’s early albums. Lyrically, Where You Been gathers in the emotional driftwood after a heavy breakup, and musically, it chops those chunks down to the pulp. And while Mascis has extended his sonic vocabulary into chimes, string quartets, and timpanis (his favorite instrument), his guitar still rages like a kid thrashing in the mud. If he keeps it up, Mascis may fulfill every indie-rocker’s perverse nightmare desire: He may become a rock star.
Still, eight years later, I’m driving up to that very same address in Amherst. For through it all — touring, recording, shooting videos, acting (in Allison Anders’s Gas Food Lodging), producing records for TAD, Buffalo Tom, and fIREHOSE — 27-year-old Mascis has never really left home. I’m a bit anxious, for Mascis has a rep as a rough interview, so taciturn he’ll give blank stares and countless “I don’t know”s for answers. As one of Mascis’s casual acquaintances warned me, “He’s kind of like a guy that’s been frozen in ice for the last 300 years and you just thawed him out and asked him some questions, and he hasn’t fully caught up to speed yet.”
Mascis’s sister Patty answers the door. Behind her stands J, who greets me with a silent nod. He’s sporting large sunglasses, a blank expression, and an untucked Frankenstein T-shirt, layered Garth-like with an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt. There are streaks of gray in his scraggly, severely unbrushed long hair. Mascis shows me around. His room is a dimly lit disaster area: stacks of CDs, a cowboy hat, an anciently unmade bed, a Red Sox pennant, and a shelf lined with twisted, grey gargoyles. “I put one in a fish tank once and it started to dissolve,” Mascis says as he leads me to the basement where Dino first rehearsed. There’s a hole in the ceiling, crates of punk-rock singles on a shelf, and a shiny blue drum kit that Mascis played long before he picked up guitar.
Harlequin romance novels line the walls, relics that belonged to Mascis’s long-deceased mom. He tells me he doesn’t really stay at home anymore.
So we pile into Mascis’s new four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer for a tour of the Amherst environs. “We always drove station wagons,” Mascis says in his slow, quiet drawl. “I guess this is the station wagon of the ’90s. I should inquire how much it would cost to get wood-paneling put on it,” he says with the faintest of grins.
Mascis slaps in a tape of Charlie Rich as we cruise by the pizza shops, bookstores, and packs of plaid jocks of Amherst, a college town bassist that Mike Johnson describes simply as a “hellish place.” “This town has been pretty much raped,” Mascis says, pointing out the chain stores where the grocery store used to be. “There used to be a lot of hippies around but they’re gone now. Whenever it was that Steve Winwood got that yuppie look, with those suit coats. They all kinda look like that now. They might still be fried, but they look like Steve.”
We pass a red brick church. “That’s where all the degenerates used to sit on the steps,” Mascis says, admitting that he himself avoided the place. “I was a freak, but I didn’t want my dad to see me hanging out there.” We drive by the University of Massachusetts’ sky-rise dorms. “Kegs and TVs fly out the windows a lot.” Nearby stands a towering building. “That’s the tall library. People jump off it sometimes.” We head deeper into the sticks. “Stewing is a big thing here, sitting around being bitter and twisted. And the freaks. In New York there are freaks doing weird shit, but nobody really knows who they are. In towns like this, you do.” There’s the guy obsessed with deprogramming cult members, the paranoid who’s covered his house with aluminum foil to ward off government microwaves, the phone lady who hangs around public phones all day waiting for calls that never come. Mascis sounds almost like a connoisseur. “Freaks liven up the day.”
Mascis should know, for he has drunk deeply of freakdom.
According to Murph, Mascis was mighty weird in high school. “For a while he cut his own hair like a skinhead, but it was really patchy, like he had chemotherapy, and he was really thin and gaunt.” he says. “You could say hi to him and he would just stare at you. He would just stand there like this weird fixture.”
At that point, there was no hardcore scene in western Massachusetts. By collecting singles and wearing Doc Martens and suspenders, Mascis was not participating in some kind of alternative “community,” but was digging his heels into the culture of refusal. As Murph puts it, “He was one of those kids who just grew up and went home instead of hanging out with kids, and played drums and listened to music. He never went to a party, never did any of the normal things people do. Lou was the same way. Those guys were totally into straight edge, and totally hard-core about it.”
When Mascis and Barlow teamed up with friends to form the hardcore band Deep Wound, and later, when they formed Dinosaur, there was no cultural niche to draw from, and the bands got little support. “Later on they tried to have a scene,” Mascis says. “They even had a scene meeting. They came up to me and were like, ‘Hey man, you didn’t go to the meeting.’ I was like, ‘Get away from me.’ “
Mascis wasn’t rebelling against his family, but against Amherst’s liberal hippie environment. “It was such a baked atmosphere. To rebel, you couldn’t just do stuff like in normal high schools. You couldn’t spray-paint the wall and have them just say, ‘You’re caught, you’re punished.’ They’d try to get inside your mind, torture you by talking to you. ‘Why’d you feel you had to do that?’ But there’s no reason why. I just wanted to do something wrong. There’s nothing worse than people trying to understand you instead of just punishing you.”
But after high school, Mascis still stuck around Amherst, attending the jock haven, University of Massachusetts. “J stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Matador Records honcho Gerard Cosloy, who befriended Mascis at the university. “He had big hair. He also had these weird superstitions about food. Sometimes at the cafeteria he’d take piles of things — potatoes, brownies, pudding — and make mountains with the stuff. Like Close Encounters. These U Mass drinking-team members sitting across the table would see this guy with plastic animals taped to his shirt building this huge moon mountain. It was very inspiring.”
All the while, Dinosaur was coagulating in Mascis’s basement. At first, party-animal Murph wasn’t into playing with such reclusive dudes. “But musically something just clicked,” he says. “Instantly this bizarre dynamic was formed. It’s an awkward situation to sit down with somebody and realize that musically you’re really close but socially you’re miles apart. We all saw it as a challenge. We were kind of awed by it.”
Other folks were awed as well. “They weren’t exactly careful about anything they did,” says Cosloy of their early live shows. “There was an audacity there, playing that loud, not communicating with the audience, or fucking around with the digital delay until people got sick and wanted to throw up.” Cosloy’s Homestead Records released the band’s self- titled debut album, which was followed two years later with the masterpiece You’re Living All Over Me (SST).
The follow-up, Bug, was disappointing, partly because Barlow and Mascis were no longer really speaking to each other. “It was fine until he started talking,” Mascis explains. “Lou didn’t talk for years, then he got a girlfriend and started talking. I realized I didn’t like what he had to say. We just did it until we absolutely couldn’t take it anymore.” Only instead of being up-front with the bassist, Mascis and Murph told Barlow the band was finished, and Barlow had to find out on the street that Dino had hooked up with another bass player. “We basically wimped out,” Murph says now. “It was pretty lame.” Barlow went to work full time on his own project, the increasingly popular Sebadoh.
After Dinosaur Jr.’s disappointing major-label debut, Green Mind, (basically Mascis’s solo project), Mascis and Murph hooked up with Mike Johnson, a punk guitarist originally from Eugene, Oregon. Mascis liked Johnson’s playing, but he also liked his attitude. “Me and Mike are always totally negative, just as a way of being,” Mascis now says. “I much prefer cynics, abusive people. They’re funnier, more truthful. Nice guys grow on trees.”
Between Mascis’s sour outlook, gnarled quips, and air of lethargy (“I’m 27 going on 90,” he says), Dino’s frontman can come off as something of a troll. But he’s neither a deaf-mute nor an asshole. He’s just a laconic dude who recognizes mediocrity for what it is and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “Interviews are stupid,” Mascis says. “It’s so not reality. It’s not conversation. Most of the time they want to talk about the album. I have absolutely nothing to say about it. It’s an album, listen to it.”
The only interviews Mascis likes are the ones for guitar magazines, where he can talk about his beat-up Jazzmaster, his amps, his custom-made Roger Meyer wahwah (Meyer made many of Hendrix’s pedals). “If you’re in Guitar Player, people treat you differently. It’s the only measure of success in towns like these. The normal, bar-band people can relate to it, the guys who work in music stores.” Mascis is one of those guys who relates to the world through his guitar. As Gumball’s Don Fleming says, “He’ll sit around the house and have a guitar in his hands all day, and just be playing, not rehearsing, just doodling. He always needs to get his hands on a guitar.”
If you want to know Mascis’s outlook on life, listen to his music. The sonic world of Dinosaur Jr. oscillates between chaos and longing. Mascis’s melodies are yearning, his cracked voice suggesting a weariness born not of age but of inexorable drift. Riffs crunch massively until they burst into shards, only to be fused again in a lonesome bridge. It’s the soundscape of relationships. Mascis’s lyrics are an offhand poetry of ambivalence — they sketch the shifty moves, murky yearnings, and twisted messages that cross the gap between people. Where You Been captures all the resentments, aches, and bummed-out funks that follow a breakup. “It’s a lingering that comes to me / Does it come to you / Are we really through?” he asks in the icy “Not the Same.” In “Get Me,” Mascis spews his endless internal ruminations over a chunky, lumbering chord progression: “I don’t see ya /1 won’t call you /1 don’t know enough to stall you / Is it me or is it all you / guess it’s on and on.” It’s a stream of consciousness that has taken everyone for a ride.
When I ask Mascis which has been his most successful relationship, he pauses, laughs, and says, “None of them have really been.” The “heaviest” thing he had was with a girl in Brooklyn, but it sank like a stone. “Sad stories of life,” he says. “I’ve never had it together enough to live with anyone. It seems like asking for trouble.”
According to Murph, “J’s fascinated by the different levels of communication that go on within relationships, whether they be personal or business or whatever. He’s like an addict; he loves to see that interplay between people.” Perhaps that addiction explains Mascis’s famous love of All My Children and other soaps, though Mascis claims he likes them only because “it’s comforting to see the same old faces on the TV.”
If he wasn’t a musician, Mascis says he’d like to be a shrink. “I’m not scared of talking to insane people or telling them they’re insane. Everybody’s pretty much in need of therapy.” I ask Mascis if he’s done it. “Haven’t. I should.” He says Dinosaur Jr. practices were already enough like therapy sessions. “We were totally nuts, babbling on and on. Everyone was always talking about how no one else could understand them.”
Murph points out that this dynamic in part accounts for the power of the music. “Most people who do music have a really good time, and it’s this way of escaping. For us, it’s a real struggle. It’s a way of dealing.”
If Mascis said anything to me that amounted to a philosophy, it was, “Whatever happens, I have to deal with it.” This should explain why Mascis doesn’t seem too concerned, whether it’s getting his own place, the tedium of producing other people’s records (“it’s a horrible job”), or his image (the only reviews that bugged him were bad ones his parents read). Nor does he worry that making music in a corporate environment will compromise him. “They have no clue, so if you have an air like you know what you’re doing, they don’t really care.” And even though he has a bad case of tendinitis in his left arm, and everything from lasers to Chinese herbal medicine has failed him, Mascis seems to accept the fact that he can’t play as much. “It’s a pain, but it’s not to the point where I can’t do anything. We don’t like to tour very much anyway. But I’d rather have another excuse.”
It’s this deep acceptance of life’s underlying lameness that seems to explain Mascis’s superficial apathy. Even when I asked him about the recent and unexpected death of his father, he kept an even keel. J and his father were close. His dad always supported his music, schlepping J to Deep Wound practices the way some kids are shuttled to Little League, going to shows, and even handing out articles about Dinosaur Jr. to his dental patients. “He was like our press person in Amherst,” Mascis says. Before Mr. Mascis died, J shot a video in his office, and is thinking about putting a photo of him on an upcoming single. “It shows him in swim trunks, with these two Italian babes in bikinis on each arm. He was pretty swinging in his last years. He was never home.”
A few minutes later I ask Mascis if he wants to be famous. “Sure,” he shrugs.
“That’d be okay.” He pauses, and by now I’ve learned to wait before jumping in with another annoying question. “But I don’t have as much motivation now that my dad can’t see what’s going on. I don’t care what happens, really. Just keepin’ busy. As long as there’s something to do.”