J Mascis: Listen Carefully
J Mascis has been in the spotlight now for over a decade and a half while at the same time a strong case could be made he exists only digitally. Sure, he has appeared in and written music for several Allison Anders films (Gas, Food, Lodging, Grace of My Heart), made numerous music videos (1994's "Feel the Pain" directed by Spike Jonze being a classic), and is cited as a musical influence for bands such as Sonic Youth, Nirvana and The Lemonheads (to name a few.) Yet, he can still walk around the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago, unnoticed, as if he, along with Thurston Moore, Kurt Cobain, and Frank Black (formerly Black Francis) didn't rescue rock music from hairspray and spandex.
When I showed up at the Double Door, an interview set up with Mascis, I reveled in the chance to talk to the guitar hero. Unlike certain figures in the media who won't seem to shut up, Mascis is not known for his loquacity, thus I was more concerned with what he would say than what I would. Still, it was a chance to get some answers to questions that have eluded all but his most obsessed fans, answers that after about 15 minutes I suspected may elude me as well when Mascis was nowhere to be found. However, a few minutes later he walked in (with bags in hand apparently he had been out shopping), Alien Workshop tee shirt, NASA hat, and New Balances are what stick out now about his outfit. Dressed in clothes a twenty-five year old may have trouble justifying, the forty-one year old Mascis looked right at home as he slowly approached me and politely asked if we could do the interview after sound check.
So, after the sound check we walked downstairs, past a washer and dryer to a room with writing and drawings all over the wall, and he talked about an assortment of subjects. The most presently relevant one, concerning the next album, he addressed first by saying he hopes to have it finished by the middle of May, and when I asked if any musicians will be helping out on the new release, Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine and Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices helped out on his 1st, More Light, he simply responded by saying, "Yeah, Cobra Verde may be playing on it." Cobra Verde is one of the bands touring with him right now, and it is interesting to note that Mascis has always been involved in collaborations and side projects, like producing Buffalo Tom's first album and also one by fIREHOSE (a band which Mike Watt was formerly a member), though when I asked him what he has been involved in recently he mulled over it a few seconds and said, "Oh, um, I don't know, nothing really."
Since Mascis is in town solo, a lingering question of what The Fog (his backing band) is currently involved in had been on my mind. I inquired about Mike Watt and George Berz and he had this to say, "Oh, you know, Watt's always touring. Right now he is involved in a bass, organ and drums outfit." The outfit he was referring to is Mike Watt and The Secondmen, who are currently on tour until sometime in June. The Fog's drummer, George Berz, his whereabouts are unknown, though Mascis added, "George plays now and then in some other bands."
Throughout the interview I asked him about the nature of his relationships with a few other people I knew he had worked with in the past and they couldn't have been any more similar to his with Watt and Berz. Allison Anders, an independent film director, has called upon Mascis to write music for a few of her films as well as make cameos. How they hooked up was quite simple, "She came to a show after the Bug album in LA with her daughter and we have just kept in touch ever since." I felt then I was getting a small sense of Mascis as a person (small being important), rather than strictly the musician, as he always appears. He seems to let things happen, not really forcing anything or anyone but letting it fall into place, an "everything will take care of itself" approach to life, if you will. So when I asked if we could expect any artwork from Angry Johnny, the man responsible for the classic Dinosaur Jr. images of "Feel the Pain" and "Start Choppin'" amongst others, to grace J Mascis and The Fog cd covers in the future, I kind of knew what he would say, "I'm not really sure where he is right now." Exactly.
At this point I felt it was necessary to bring up Dinosaur Jr. even though it was ended in 1997 by Mascis. Mascis, serving as primary songwriter and musician of Dinosaur Jr. as well as in his current band, just sort of pulled the plug after 97's Hand it Over. J Mascis and The Fog still have strong Dinosaur Jr. ties though and this is evident in concert. "There are just so many of the old songs. On the last tour we usually played most of the new ones (off More Light)." He said "Blowin' It" off of 1991's Green Mind is currently one of his favorites to play. It was easy to see how important Dinosaur Jr. had been to him, as is not always the case when bands breakup. When I asked him about "Ear Bleeding Country," the Dinosaur Jr. Greatest Hits cd, I could see obvious resentment about some of the selections, like "I Don't Think So" and "Nothin's Goin' On." He was not given complete control over which songs were on it, and a J Mascis and The Fog song, "Where'd You Go" even showed up.
And towards the end of the interview, we talked about Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is from and some of his influences. "There are a lot of free jazz concerts, clubs that encourage artsy young bands, things like that…" he had to say about the Amherst area and Massachusetts in general, since it has produced bands like Jr., Buffalo Tom and The Pixies. So I could see how someone from that area might be drawn to less mainstream bands, like The Wipers and The Birthday Party, two groups that he said "were as influential as any." I suppose at this point, on the subject of Amherst, I could have asked some more personal questions that fans always like to know about their heroes. But I didn't, which breaks just about every journalistic law I would guess. I could tell he didn't think anyone should care about what he says, only what he does. I couldn't have agreed more.
After about ten minutes of conversation, Cobra Verde began to warm up and the rest of the interview had the apocalyptic backdrop of Verde's guitars and drums. Before we walked downstairs to talk, a member of the band asked if he (Mascis) was going to come up and jam with them and he said in a little bit. Once the basement began to be invaded by Verde's white noise I knew Mascis wanted to get up there, up there where he was a million times more comfortable and at home than downstairs answering questions about himself, as if any of it had to do with him rather than his music. So I thanked him for his time and his comments and as I walked out of there, through the narrow walkway, past the washer and dryer, I was not even thinking about whether I had enough engaging sound bytes for a great interview, or the fact that the only times in the interview I felt I was getting to know J Mascis was through his relationships with other people; no, instead I knew a few hours later I was about to see a truly excellent concert and the only important facts about Mascis that really need to be known can be found on stage or on a record, while he is playing his music.
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