Interviewing J. Mascis

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The howling guitar icon opens up about dedication and his low tolerance for club hockey.

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Mike Sheffield | March 28, 2011

J. Mascis. Photo by Timothy Herzog.

J. Mascis’s new album, Several Shades of Why, isn’t the kind of record that
calls out for a press-a-palooza blog circle jerk. It’s a subtle acoustic record, pinned to
his catalogue with a randomly assembled ensemble cast, J’s signature calloused finger
flips and a clearer shot of his boney Young-infused vocal delivery. This isn’t the kind
of album one should hear of from a PR agent or a blog. No, these are songs that need
to sneak up on you on WMFU when you’re on the interstate at 1am. This is the kind of
record that deserves to be shelved and dug up one drunken lonely evening, to pristinely
bookend a long sad stretch of sitting and thinking.

But negating all of this, I recently spoke on the phone with the wilted wisp shred-master.
He had just come home from an afternoon skiing near his lifelong home in Amherst,
Massachusetts, and albeit short with his words, he shed light on what he perceives as the death of the
dedicated musician, and his affinity for The WB’s Roswell.

You’re a skier over a snowboarder?

Yeah.

I’ve heard that once you learn one it’s harder to pick up the other.

Yeah. It always seemed like ‘why try to learn another one and fall a bunch of times.’
It didn’t appeal to me, cause I already knew how to ski. I guess if I lived somewhere
where there was a lot of powder – you know, out West – I may have tried it. But I
don’t want to fall all the time on the ice. I heard the fall is really hard, really fast on a
snowboard, like bang. You know?

Have you always felt a strong tie with Amherst or did it all kind of happen by
happenstance?

Yeah, I don’t know I guess maybe I wouldn’t have (lived here so long) if I hadn’t
traveled so much.

Traveling helped you appreciate the subtle beauty of Amherst?

Or I just saw that there was nothing out there that was so great that I had to move to.

Doing what you’ve been doing for so long, do you feel like there are any big
lessons you’ve learned that you could to impart onto a younger generation of musicians?

What I did was make some records and hope for the best. Just don’t wait for
something to happen or wait to be discovered or wait to be huge or something. Just make
your records and go play. It doesn’t matter, see what happens. I just remember when I
was starting out, people were like, “you can’t put out a record, you guys suck and blah
blah blah” but they were just sitting around and it seemed like I was more in the punk
rock scene, you know. Its like the Minutemen would say, “the record is the flyer for the
show.” So you just make a record and try to get some shows. I’m not even sure (of what
to do) right now because of the Internet. I suppose you should still make a record so at
least you still have something physical to hold on to.

Do you see anything lacking in contemporary music?

Just that there are too many bands I guess. There’s too much mediocre stuff just
kind of clogging all the (real) work. It’s easy to see a good one when you see it, but
there’s just too much clogging up all the good stuff. You have to sifter to get to the good
stuff.

You don’t think that it’s always been this way?

Not as much. It has to a certain extent. It’s just too easy now to get your music
out everywhere. Like, looking back at ‘paying to record’, that kind of was a certain
commitment, you know? That was one level of a commitment where you had to say you
are serious about music. Now anyone can record.

Do you feel like mastery of your instrument is something necessary to make
good music?

Definitely not, just dedication. It’s like, this is all you want to do; this is what you
have to do to express yourself; some serious dedication to it.

Nowadays, do you feel like it’s more important for musicians to concentrate on
melody or experimentation?

I guess it’s more important to do something good. I think you can’t really focus on
melodies as much, they either come to you or they don’t. So I guess experimentation is
probably better if you are trying to focus on something.

Do you constantly have a bank of songs you are pulling from for each record or
do you release them as you write them?

For each release, there are a couple parts that don’t get used for some reason and
then maybe they get used for the next thing or maybe four or five albums later you find a
use for this part you wrote a long time ago if it gets stuck in your head for some reason.

Is it revealing for you to make an acoustic record or is it all the same to you?

I’m not sure. I think maybe other people, people who aren’t into loud guitars or
something, can listen to it and just like it. Which might be interesting, to have some
different people have a chance to hear what I’m doing or something.

It’s an interesting cast on this album. How did you go about it? Did you just call
people up or did it just fall into place?

Both. Yeah, I mean, it was kind of random. I kind of called up random people to see
if they were interested doing anything and then, you know, I picked out stuff from what
the people had done. I didn’t give anyone much to go on. I just let them do whatever and
I just took stuff that I liked out of it.

That’s awesome. You had Kurt Vile, Kevin Drew, amongst other people. Are
these all people you met touring in the past or do any of them kind of have a funnier
story?

Uh, I suppose I met them through touring. Although there’s one: I did tour with
Suzanne (Thorpe, of Wounded Knees and Mercury Rev) who plays flute on a couple of
songs, I toured with her band a long time ago and actually kicked them off the tour. And
then later, we became friends.

Why did you kick them off the tour?

I think cause they were just annoying me, they were playing street hockey in the club
all the time when we were doing sound check. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for it.

Has having a kid changed your relationship with music at all?

Well yeah, I wonder how I could stay home more but I’m not sure if I want to do
that anyways. I’d just go crazy sitting around the house. But, yeah I guess that’s the only
thing I think about. I wouldn’t want to do never-ending tours. I guess I’m being more
selective, trying not to be away for as long.

What are some guilty pleasures that people wouldn’t peg on you?

I don’t know. That’s a hard question. I tend to watch a lot of bad TV shows that
people can’t really get into; like Roswell. I guess I have a high tolerance for some
TV series.

So, you don’t have a high tolerance for bad music but you do for bad TV?

Yeah, I guess so.

So, you’ve been playing for 20 plus years at this point. Do you ever find
yourself thinking about your career as following in anyone’s legacy? Or after awhile, do
ideas like that fade away?

I still worship a lot people.

Who would you say are the big three?

I don’t know. The Stones, the Stooges and Negative Approach.

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