A few months ago, J Mascis was interviewed by ten-year-old Elliott Fullam, the son of Daniella and Justin Fullam, creators of the fashion and design website Little Punk People. Confronted by Elliott’s enthusiasm and excitement, Mascis is typically deadpan: when Elliott suggests Mascis is ‘a guitar god,’ Mascis demurs; Elliott responds by repeating the superlative, brushing past Mascis’ humility as if it were cobwebs covering a Renaissance painting. Whereas most interviewers greet Mascis’ enigmatic demeanour with frustration and occasional annoyance, Elliott is unflappable. “Do you like to dance?” Elliott asks. “My kid is a better dancer than me,” Mascis replies, with just the vague hint of a smile.
Mascis isn’t sure how the interview opportunity came about – you get the impression he remains slightly bemused by the promotional conveyor belt he’s occasionally forced to travel on each time he releases a new record - but he claims to have enjoyed the experience. “I’m not sure how that came about. But it was pretty interesting,” Mascis says. Mascis did learn one thing from the interview and its immediate aftermath: don’t read the comments box. “I made mistake of reading some comments underneath, and was kind of surprised that people thought I was a complete dick to the kid or something,” Mascis deadpans. “It was strange to read – I couldn’t work it out. And I didn’t know why I was reading it - it was such a strong reaction. It was weird.”
Mascis is notoriously a difficult interview subject; his answers are succinct, generally followed by a stony silence during which you wonder whether he’s counting down the seconds left in the interview. There’re no profound philosophical observations on the nexus between music, art and life, no colourful stories of sex and drugs on the road, no slanderous observations on his contemporaries or the wheelers and dealers of the music industry.
A few months ago, Mascis released his latest solo album, Tied to a Star, the follow-up to 2011’s Several Shades of Why,and his upcoming Australian tour to promote the record. Given his fraught relationship with the other members of Dinosaur Jr., Mascis revels in the opportunity to create and refine his own songs, free from the commentary of his bandmates: “It’s good not having not to deal with those guys, or care what they did or didn’t play. It’s good to not have that around to think about,” he says.
In solo recording mode, Mascis is notionally confident of the type of music product he’s looking to create: “I know what I like, and I always have a definite idea of what I want to come out. It’s not hard for me to work out what I like,” he says. On Several Shades of Why, Mascis stepped away from the hardcore-cum-Neil Young sound of Dinosaur Jr. in favour of a lighter, more acoustic sonic aesthetic: “In general, I suppose I was influenced by English folk, Fairport Convention, that Crosby, Stills and Nash scene,” Mascis says.
Those aren’t bands that you’d ordinarily associate with Mascis in his original hardcore days, an observation with which Mascis concurs. “Right at that moment I was pretty exclusively into hardcore, and I couldn’t think of listening to anything else. It was the only time that I felt that exclusive into what I was doing,” Mascis says. “I sold some of my old records, and I didn’t know why I ever liked them. It was pretty interesting being into only one thing. But that changed, and I got out of that mindset, and back into liking different types of music again.”
Mascis doesn’t give impression that he spends too much time pondering the balance of light and heavy in his musical world: “It’s about taking a breath from the noise, or something,” he muses. “I don’t know if it’s important, but I get sick of listening to the same thing all the time. Not that I have really varied tastes, but a little bit I suppose.”
While Tied to a Star eschews the overt acoustic style of Several Shades of Why, Mascis is equivocal on whether the new record is a deviation from its predecessor: “On the first album, I gave up the songs to a lot of people to play what they wanted on them, and some of the stuff I’d recorded I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to sound like in the end,” Mascis says. “With this album I didn’t use as many people, and I had a more definite idea of what I wanted it to sound like. When I asked someone to do something it was more specific, like I already had the sound in mind.”
So is there a specific theme or idea at the heart of the record? “It’s more just a vibe that I want out of a record, it’s hard to describe. I know what I want it to feel like in the end, and I want all the songs on the record to work toward some kind of vibe. It’s hard to put it into words, but I knew what I was going for.”
On his upcoming Australian tour, Mascis will be joined by Adalita, whom Mascis met originally when Magic Dirt supported Dinosaur Jr. on their 1995 Australian tour. Mascis remains a fan of Magic Dirt, though his lasting recollection of touring with Magic Dirt concerns the band’s shabby instrument casing. “My main memory of Magic Dirt on that tour was one of their guitars having a really crappy case and being checked into the airport,” Mascis says. “When we’d watch it come out on the belt on the airport I’d worry that it was going to be in pieces every time it came out.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
J MASCIS is playing the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday February 13. Tied to a Star is out through Inertia.