We’ve Got A File On You: J Mascis

Cara Totman

We’ve Got A File On You: J Mascis

Cara Totman

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

J Mascis is, more often than not, a man of few words. The 55-year-old Dinosaur Jr. singer and guitarist is somewhat notorious for giving interviews where his responses are brief and economical, but not in an antagonistic fashion. Mascis simply seems content to be who he is in his own world, and even though he was pretty loquacious during the span of our 40-minute long interview, that didn’t stop him from living his life in the moment. Throughout our chat, I’d hear doors closing, cabinets opening, and drawers being ruffled around in; at one point, while I was in the middle of asking a question, the unmistakable sounds of an acoustic guitar being strummed rang through, practically straight into the receiver.

Of course, Mascis’ guitar-playing is why he’s beloved amongst heshers and gear freaks alike. Paired with a endless and perfect-sounding yawn of a singing voice, his six-string reveries are monoliths that gleam in the middle of Dinosaur Jr.’s music, and it’s certainly no different on the band’s twelfth album to date, Sweep It Into Space. But even for someone so relatively reserved and stoic, Mascis has made his way around during his 30-years-and-running career, from SNL appearances and film roles to almost joining Nirvana back when Kurt Cobain was still alive. Even without Dinosaur Jr.’s remarkable resurgence over the last decade and a half, Mascis’ accomplishments would be plenty impressive, and we had a great time talking about the experiences he’s accrued through them.

Deep Wound (1982-1984)

J MASCIS: We broke up when I was 17, and the band started when I was 15. I found a flyer in my local music store that sold punk records and had some bands that I liked. I met this kid the week before in the store looking through those records — he lived in Westfield, 45 minutes away, so I went and jammed with him. My dad drove me over. Lou [Barlow] was in the band, so we had two kids from Amherst and two kids from Westfield, which was fairly inconvenient. I just had to do that with my son — drive 45 minutes for him to play basketball.

What were your earliest formative experiences as someone who loved music?

MASCIS: I remember listening to Black Sabbath’s Sabotage on headphones. There was a song, “The Writ,” that gets quiet and then kicks in, and I remember falling asleep until that kicked in and I woke back up. That was really intense. I got into punk, and then hardcore. I listened to Minor Threat and DC bands and I was like, “Wow, these guys are where exactly where I’m at.” I was sick of hippies taking drugs, and our way to rebel was not taking drugs, since I grew up in a hippie town with acid casualties everywhere. It was cool to find out that other kids were the same way. They were into punk, but they didn’t want to be junkies. I pretty much only listened to hardcore after that. I sold some of my rock albums. I was really focused on punk rock and hardcore.

What was your first impression of meeting Lou as a teenager?

MASCIS: He looked like your typical nerd when I met him. He had tape on his glasses and didn’t really talk much.

You met Gerard Cosloy around that time too — he eventually signed Dinosaur Jr. to Homestead.

MASCIS: He contacted me to see if Deep Wound had any extra songs to put on his compilation album. We did have a couple that we didn’t put on our EP, but we didn’t put ‘em on because they were worse, so I’d get bummed out when they’d get reviewed by Steve Albini or whatever. “I thought Deep Wound might’ve been good, but I’ve heard these two songs and I guess they suck.”

Gerard decided to go to college in Amherst, and so did I, and we made him our manager at the time, but we soon broke up. Then he left and got the job at Homestead and said he’d put out a record if we had a band. With Dino, we always knew we could make a record, so we made one right when we formed. It was cool to have a record to get gigs at clubs with instead of a tape or something.

Upsidedown Cross (1991)

MASCIS: The Upsidedown Cross record is one of my favorite records I’ve ever played on. I was flirting with real punk rock. Those guys were serious degenerates — not like anyone I’d ever met. I’d previously played a gig with Gerard and G.G. Allin, which was a similar experience but also not so great. It seemed good in theory, but when you’re on stage and he’s shitting… it’s just not that pretty. Maybe I’m not as punk as I thought I was. But with Upsidedown Cross, I just went there and recorded and didn’t hang out with the guys as much, so it was a great experience. I loved the record too.

You’ve played on a lot of other bands’ records. Is there anything specific you look for when making the decision to collaborate with others? Any dealbreakers?

MASCIS: There aren’t dealbreakers, but it’s also hard to tell until you’re there. One time, I was asked to play on an Annie Lennox album, and I went down to the studio and she did “Take Me To The River,” but it was the Talking Heads version. I was really into Al Green at the time, and I was never really into Talking Heads, and somehow I just couldn’t deal with the fact that she was doing the Talking Heads version, so I just left. I didn’t want to play on it. I was like, “I can’t do this.” Oh well. The record sold millions. It would’ve been cool to be on it, but I just couldn’t deal with it.

Gas, Food, Lodging (1992)

You had a cameo in this Allison Anders film, and you also contributed some songs to it.

MASCIS: Allison came up to me at a show at the Roxy during the Bug tour and asked me to do stuff for the movie. That whole experience was really cool. I’d never done movie music before. You watch the scene and the music writes itself. It seemed really easy — to pull that out of thin air.

Do you like movies in general?

MASCIS: Oh, sure, I loved movies when I was a kid. I prefer TV, but the big influential movies on me were Harold And Maude and A Clockwork Orange. I really liked Evil Dead and Basket Case, and music movies too.

What’s the last movie that you watched?

MASCIS: Bad Trip.

What did you think?

MASCIS: I liked it. I think I like The Eric Andre Show a little bit more.

Grace Of My Heart (1996)

This was another Allison Anders movie you were in and contributed music to, but you played a slightly bigger part in it — and it was about music, too.

MASCIS: The concept for that movie was essentially “What if Carole King married Brian Wilson,” so I was writing for the Brian Wilson part that was played by Matt Dillon. It was pretty cool to be able to hire every studio musician in LA and play stuff that I thought resembled Brian Wilson when he was going nuts. I remember Matt Dillon being in character trying to talk to me as Brian Wilson. The camera’s not rolling, and he comes up to me and starts talking in character, and I looked at him, turned my head, and walked away. Maybe this is your thing, but some method actor? I just can’t deal.

What’s your relationship to the music of the ‘60s in general?

MASCIS: I’m all about it. I love all them ‘60s music, it’s pretty rad. I listen to all of it. I don’t know. So many bands and records… it’s hard to generalize that period.

Playing As Part Of The SNL Band In 2000

Dinosaur Jr. never played SNL proper, but you ended up playing with the house band regardless.

MASCIS: I was friends with Tim Meadows, and he hooked it up. That was the night they did the cowbell skit, so it was really awesome to watch that right there, and then right after I’m playing out there for the commercial. It was pretty bizarre, to stand on stage and be near Christopher Walken. It was really cool.

You appeared on SNL again in 2013.

MASCIS: Fred Armisen’s last show.

What was that instance like?

MASCIS: Some of the crew guys there remembered me. “Hey, remember the last time?” “Yeah.” It was fun. We just had to wait around in this room for nine hours with Steve Jones, Aimee Mann, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein — all just sitting there, waiting. We weren’t sure that the sketch would happen or not. Steve Jones, of course, is so pessimistic. “We’re not gonna make it — we’re gonna be cut!” The whole day. It was pretty fun, but weird. It ended up happening. We went through a few different things. At first, they were gonna have all the cast members come out with guitars and join us, but Lorne nixed that. That was a fun night.

Do you typically watch SNL?

MASCIS: I watch highlights here and there. It had a big impact on me as a kid. My favorite sketch was the stunt baby one. Buck Henry was on, and he’d go, “Bring in the stunt baby!” And they’d throw it across the room and kick it. I thought that was amazing. It stuck with me.

Do you have an all-time favorite SNL cast member?

MASCIS: Maybe Phil Hartman. The unfrozen caveman lawyer… that was great.

J Mascis’ House And Studio Burns Down In 2003

This happened a few years after you started making records with the Fog.

MASCIS: I was watching the Ozzy show. It was 11 at night. I was with my wife, and the fire alarm went off. We thought it was a malfunction. We had a wood stove, and it turns out that the guy who cleaned it didn’t do a good job, so it caught fire on the basement floor. When I figured out what was going on, I opened the door to the basement, saw all this smoke, closed the door, grabbed a few things, and left the house. We never went back. We had it rebuilt, sold it, and bought another house.

Did you lose anything irreplaceable?

MASCIS: Not really. A lot of studio gear. But it’s strange — a lot of the stuff that melted was newer digital stuff. The older analog gear didn’t melt, which was the stuff I liked better. Some of the guitars got a little toasty, but they were playable. Had some drums that charred up. But nothing that I was that worried about.

J And Friends Sing And Chant For Amma (2005)

You started studying the teachings of Hindu guru Mata Amritanandamayi in the ‘90s.

MASCIS: Someone told me to go see her. I was open to whatever and was kind of depressed, so I’d try anything. I checked it out, and every year I’d get more into it when she came around. Then I went to India. I don’t know, I just kind of really liked the whole scene.

You made this record dedicated to her as well.

MASCIS: Amma has a lot of music playing all of the time — it’s a big part of her thing, music as worship. I just wanted to get involved with it. I remember the first time I went to India, I sang a song that was way too much for the people there. They didn’t know what I was doing. I could tell they weren’t digging it. It was a room of people who definitely don’t know about Western stuff at all or want anything to do with my music. So I tried to write a song that I thought would work in that setting, which was the song “Help Me Amma.”

Vocals On Mew’s “Why Are You Looking Grave?” (2005)

I’m always surprised to hear your vocals on this song, even though I’ve listened to it a lot over the years.

MASCIS: One of the guys in Mew would always come around to shows in Denmark. I’d see them here and there. I didn’t know he had a band at first. Then they asked me to do it, so I had to go to LA. It was pretty interesting, with Michael Beinhorn. He produced Soundgarden. There was the process of this band on a major label with a producer, and it was interesting to see how someone else works. I thought it was funny that they wanted me to sing. It was the first time someone wanted me to do that. No one’s ever telling me that they like my singing. I don’t even know if I like my singing. So that was interesting.

The Lemonheads (2006)

MASCIS: Bill Stevenson, the drummer from the Descendents, was working on it and asked me if I wanted to work on it. I was psyched that Evan was working with him, because we’re all big fans of the Descendents and Black Flag. So I was psyched to come up with some shit for Bill Stevenson.

How long have you known Evan for?

MASCIS: I met him at this show we played at Jamaica Plain in Boston. Evan and his mom were there. That was a long time ago. We were playing with Screaming Trees, must’ve been ‘87. I’d just see him from time to time. He was always hanging out somewhere.

Garth Hudson played on this album, too.

MASCIS: That’s the first I’ve heard of it. That’s cool. The Last Waltz was another big movie for me.

The Double (2013)

MASCIS: Richard Ayoade just asked me, and I was a big fan. I knew him mostly from Mighty Boosh, I loved that show. He was a fan, he said one of his first concerts was Dinosaur Jr. It was pretty weird working on it, because Jesse Eisenberg was really strange. He was really perplexed that a director would like someone’s band and put them in the movie. He was really having a hard time wrapping around it. “He just likes your band?” “Yeah.” He really fixated on it.

What do you like typically in terms of comedy?

MASCIS: What everyone likes. Chappelle’s Show. Eric Andre I really like. Todd Barry.

Would you say there’s a specific strain of humor that makes you laugh?

MASCIS: Usually, the darker the better.

Playing On Strand Of Oaks’ “Goshen ‘97” (2014)

MASCIS: I’ve still never met him. I just got sent the stuff, and I played on it. It seemed to fit pretty well. I thought that came out pretty good.

Were you familiar with Timothy’s work prior to working on that track?

MASCIS: No, I wasn’t. I didn’t really know him that well.

Nirvana “Reunion” Show At The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony

MASCIS: I got the call from somebody. Maybe their manager, I don’t know. That was very surreal, the whole experience — going into the club, with the security. Something heavy was going on. I was quite nervous about it, so I practiced a lot, which helps. It was fun to play the songs. It was such a weird night. Joan Jett was there. People were definitely psyched. Kurt Cobain’s mom and sister were there. It was pretty surreal.

You knew Kurt back in the late ‘80s. He asked you to join Nirvana at one point.

MASCIS: Right.

What are some of your memories about that time?

MASCIS: I remember a show at Maxwell’s. I was a big fan, the first album had come out. I remember buying the first single in Hoboken, then going to a party in Staten Island, and leaving it there. Still pretty annoyed about that. He definitely didn’t seem like some tortured, depressed guy that he’s been made out to be. He just seemed like a regular guy at the time. He was funny and cool to hang out with. Not hard to be around or anything. It’s just too bad, what all went down.

As someone who experienced their music at the time, why do you think Nirvana’s music has endured? It seems like they’re the rare band that young people continue to discover.

MASCIS: It’s very relatable, and it just sounds good. His voice sounds great, and the production — everything. It was a great moment in time, too. Nevermind comes out, and you’re thinking, “These guys are gonna be huge!” And then they do become huge. For one second, something happened in the universe that made sense. That was really cool.

The Postal Service Zoom Reunion Comedy Short (2020)

MASCIS: I guess I was emailed? Someone just asked me. It seemed like a cool idea. I thought it came out pretty cool.

You’ve been adjacent to more than a few comedy-related projects throughout your career, and you’re friends with comedians. Why do you think that is?

MASCIS: I’m not sure why, but I’m happy about it. I guess some people find me funny.

Do you think you’re funny?

MASCIS: I guess so. I have my moments.

Cara Totman

Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It Into Space is out now on Jagjaguwar.

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