J Mascis Would Rather Let The Music Do The Talking
Forget about Shrek. Forget about the just-released Rango with Johnny Depp providing the voice for the lead-role chameleon. Forget about Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, and any other talking cartoon creature you know. I’ve got an idea for the best animated film character ever, boys and girls.
Try this on: Buzz the Three-Toed Sloth. Liking it so far?
Buzz is a lovable, lethargic, slow-moving rainforest-dweller who speaks like he’s totally lambasted on quaaludes most of the time, but does his heavy communicating when he comes to life with a guitar in his furry mitts, sitting way up high in a tree.
And here’s what totally seals the deal – we’ll have J Mascis do the voice for Buzz. It’ll be perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, boys and girls – I’ve enjoyed Mascis’ music for years: from his speaker-shredding guitar work with Dinosaur Jr. to 2010’s impressive debut of Sweet Apple (with J behind the drum kit). And one of the coolest things about Mascis’ music has always been the yin/yang of his massive guitar sound paired against his laconic, almost-but-not-quite-late vocals, delivered in a Steven Wright-like monotone that refused to acknowledge the violence erupting from the speaker cabinets a few feet away.
It’s been a distinctive, one-of-a-kind trademark sound that I’ve got a kick out of for years.
Yeah, well … I’m here to tell you that it also makes for a challenging interview.
Wait – let me take that back. I shouldn’t have been surprised; and if anything, it proves just how real the cat is. The J Mascis that I just did a phoner with in an effort to discuss his new solo album Several Shades of Why sounded exactly – exactly – like the J Mascis who made me grin back in 1993 when I first heard Dinosaur Jr.’s “Start Choppin’”.
You know the tune, right? It begins with a few moments of breezy Hendrixian chords flavored with little hammer-ons and hand-muted rhythm flourishes. And then there’s the truly J Mascis-defining moment at about the 15-second mark when the vocal begins – a slurring croak that sounds like someone who’s just been prodded out of a deep sleep in front of the mic, but manages to find the first word: “Uhhhthere’s no goin’ back to that/I’m so numb, can’t even react …” Even when the bass and drums come crashing in and the guitar slams into full-blown overdrive, the vocal shows no sign of being intimidated. (The occasional falsetto note on the second syllable of “goodbye” is only there because it wants to be.) It’s classic Dinosaur Jr. and classic J Mascis.
And I can tell you that, 18 years later, the voice on the other end of the phone sounded pretty much like the voice that came out of the speakers back then. So there you go.
One thing’s for sure, I didn’t intimidate him.
So what follows may not be the most riveting interview I’ve ever shared with you, boys and girls, but it is the way it went down. And, believe me – I still think the world of the guy.
Our conversation begins after the nice folks at Sub Pop Records connect us up. There’s a rumble of road noise on the line and off we go …
BR: So, I know you’re kicking off your tour with a gig in Ithaca, NY tonight. By the road noise, it sounds like you’re still on the way there.
JM: (long pause) Oh … yeah. We’re lost somewhere … we’re … in … Florida? (slight – very slight – chuckle)
[At this point, I begin to laugh, thinking, “Ha! J’s already laying some humor on me – driving from Massachusetts to New York and he’s wound up in Florida? Ha!” It’s not until later that a little research reveals my ignorance – there really is a Florida, NY. A couple of them, in fact. Good going, Robbins. The poor bastard is lost and you’re laughing, on top of being a word jerk who’s got him on the cell phone while he’s driving and trying to read the road signs. Nice.]
BR: So, let’s talk about the new album, Several Shades of Why. Did you record it at your home studio in Massachusetts?
BR: Cool. Did you have some of these tunes in your pocket for awhile – or were they written specifically for this album?
JM: I had a couple, but most were written for this album.
[Now I’m getting cocky; we’ve had two fairly rapid questions and answers in a row, okay? I figure the best way to keep J engaged is talk gear.]
BR: Did you have a primary acoustic that you used during the recording process?
JM: Uh, yeah. (pause) It was a Martin 000-18 from the 50s sometime.
BR: It’s a great sound, man. Did you go direct or did you mic it?
JM: Mic’d it, yeah.
BR: So that neat rhythm guitar on the opening cut, “Listen To Me” – that’s the Martin, then?
BR: Straight tuning? Did you do much with alternate tunings on the album?
JM: No … some capos, but not on that song – it’s just regular.
BR: How about the title track – who’s on violin? That’s just beautiful, man.
JM: Uh, this girl – Sophie Trudeau. She’s in …
[There’s silence. Dead, dead silence for several stages of the moon. Civilizations rise and fall. The road noise is the only way I know we still have a connection. I’m not completely sure what J was saying, so I almost speak, but then-]
JM: Godspeed You! Black Emperor … and some other bands.
[Now, truth be known, I didn’t know that was all the name of one band when J first said it in his croaky, sort-of questioning manner. And believe me: the exclamation point was silent. But yes – the multi-instrumental Ms. Trudeau does indeed play violin for the Canadian-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor and others, including Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and The Mile End Ladies String Auxiliary. She is also the founder of Bangor Records.]
BR: Oh, man – the first time I heard that, the hair just stood up on my arms.
[Let me just say that what follows turned out to be the session’s strongest reaction on J’s part. He was definitely moved by my reaction to the song.]
JM: Oh … yeah?
[I know, I know – mere printed words don’t do it justice. You had to hear the tone of his “yeah?”]
BR: Who are the background vocalists on the next cut, “Not Enough”?
JM: Umm … Kurt Vile, Ben Bridwell – he’s from the Band of Horses, and Kevin Drew, who’s in the band Broken Social Scene.
BR: How about the tambourine? Is that who I think it is?
JM: (little chuckle) That’s me.
BR: Ah! The drummer rears his ugly head.
JM: Yeah …
BR: Hey, speaking of drumming, I had a blast reviewing the Sweet Apple album last year. Not to get off track, but are there plans for Sweet Apple in the coming year?
JM: Uh … I don’t know. Probably.
[I wait for a moment or two, but we seem to have exhausted the subject of Sweet Apple. Moving right along …]
BR: The guitar sound on “Not Enough” is a little different – do you happen to remember what you did when you recorded that track?
[There’s a sighing sound, then nothing. I wait.]
JM: You know … it could be a different guitar … but I can’t remember.
BR: “Very Nervous And Love” is next and –
[Suddenly there’s what sounds like a rapid busy signal. The call’s either been dropped or J’s had enough. Either way, he’s gone.
I try calling Sub Pop back but keep getting my contact person’s voicemail. What to do? Quick – an e-mail … and then wait. Who knows? Maybe J is refusing to talk any more. Or maybe – Heaven forbid – I’ve cause the poor bugger to get so lost that he’s driven out into some wasteland where the cell towers can’t reach. Oh, man …
And then the phone rings – it’s the Sub Pop lady: “I have J on the line again.” I thank her.
He actually speaks first, which does my heart good.]
BR: Hey, man – I was worried there for a minute … you okay?
JM: Oh, yeah … dropped calls …
BR: Gotta love those cell phones, right? Well, both hands on the wheel, now. Keep ‘em at 10 and 2. And remember – don’t drive angry.
JM: Yeah. (chuckles)
BR: So let me see … I was asking about “Very Nervous And Love” – the background vocals and some of the guitar accents sound like they were, like, seven steps in back of your mic, you know? It’s a cool effect. Do you remember what you did on that particular track?
JM: Well … the backing vocal is this other guy … we recorded at a different studio and I don’t know what he was doing.
BR: Ahh …
JM: And the other guitar that’s in there was playing through, like …
[This thought sort of hangs there, for a moment, then slowly floats to the ground.]
JM: … a reverb pedal?