J Mascis playing a Gibson Songwriter dreadnought outfitted with a Sunrise
pickup at a March 15, 2008, SXSW solo gig. Photo by Brian Birzer
J Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr. broke onto the burgeoning indie music scene just before Nirvana set off a seismic shift in the music industry in the early ’90s. And in many respects Dinosaur Jr.—along with bands like Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, and Mission of Burma—set the stage for Nirvana and the rest the alternative music movement.
While the rise of indie felt like nothing short of a musical revolution, the party didn’t last. And somewhat ironically, indie artists became the new mainstream. But while success changed other band’s agendas, Dinosaur Jr. stuck to their original sensibilities—making albums riddled with hooks and polluted with thick layers of sonic chaos.
Mascis (born Joseph Donald Mascis) formed the band with bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III more than 25 years ago in Amherst, Massachusetts. His droning vocals and controlled-noise guitar work were the backbone of the band’s sound, and his style—a fusion of punk and classic-rock moves—was revelatory at the time. He often included fierce guitar solos in Dinosaur songs at a time when solos bordered on passé in indie circles. They also reflected Mascis’ uncommon compositional chops—they were integral to the song while being lyrical, rabid, and punctuated with wild, out-of-control bends.
In the late ’90s, Dinosaur Jr. disbanded and Mascis went on to form J Mascis + the Fog. But Dinosaur reunited in 2005 for a short tour, and their early records were also reissued that year. In 2007 and 2009, the band also recorded new material for the critically acclaimed albums Beyond and Farm. But recent years have also brought out a different side of Mascis’ musical persona. In 2008, he released J + Friends Sing + Chant for Amma, a folk-influenced album featuring devotional songs dedicated to Indian saint Lady Amma (Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi).
This year’s Several Shades of Why is Mascis’ first solo studio album and first acoustic album. Sonically, it is a departure from the Dinosaur Jr. sound, offering many surprises like the contrapuntal interplay heard in the intros to songs like “Several Shades of Why” and “Too Deep.” Of course, Mascis also includes gnarly fuzziness on the record, but rather than all-out sonic barrage, it appears in the form of elegantly subdued fills like in “Where Are You” or as backdrops like the haunting theme in “Can I.”
Mascis is a quirky, one-of-a-kind character. He’s also a massive gear fiend. Although his instrument of choice is a Fender Jazzmaster—in 2007 Fender honored Mascis with his own purple-sparkle signature Jazzmaster—he’s a big collector of vintage guitars. And he finds them the same way we all do—by obsessively scouring internet listings.
We recently caught up with Mascis—whose wry, taciturn disposition distinctly contrasts with his over-the-top, purple-sparkle Jazzmaster—to get the details on his vintage guitar collection and his beautiful unplugged excursions on Several Shades of Why.