INTERVIEW: J Mascis

written by Chris Familton

J Mascis’ recent solo album Several Shades of Why isn’t his first release under his own name, that honour goes to Martin + Me (1996) – a collection of acoustic Dinosaur Jr songs and covers recorded on tour. In that sense the new album is probably considered Mascis’ first true solo record as it was recorded in a studio with original songs of a consistent style and feel. Ahead of another return visit to Australia to play Falls and Sydney festival dates the enigma that is J. Mascis brought us up to date with what he has been doing of late.

Stepping out from the shadow of one’s band can be a blessing in that there is a ready-made audience waiting to hear what you’ve done on your own. The flip-side is that there are as many waiting to criticize any deviation from the sound and style of the band you’ve made your name with. Mascis is brief and to the point (as he always is) when asked if he was nervous about releasing  this album under his own name. “Yeah sure, you don’t know how it is going to be received or how it will sell.” That fear of how the audience will react to a solo album is somewhat negated by the fact that Mascis avoids reading any of the press for all of the music he releases. “Not really I can’t deal with that. Sometimes the record company sends me review but I can’t read them, they make me crazy whether they’re good or bad.”

The desire to release a solo record in an acoustic form came from the simple desire to make a record that didn’t feature his trademark distortion and spiraling guitar solos. That decision led Mascis to sit down and write most of the songs specifically for the album with a specific set of style parameters in mind. “Stephen Stills and Incredible String Band, Pentangle. I had them in mind when I was writing the record,” he recalls. He then farmed his songs out to a selection of musicians like Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Kurt Vile to ascertain who might work best as guests on Several Shades of Why. “I just asked them if they wanted to play. I gave a lot of people a lot of songs to see what they came up with and I used the bits I liked.”

Touring the album has meant stepping out of the safety zone of Dinosaur Jr and the wall of volume and electricity that defines that band’s live shows. In typical Mascis style it isn’t something he particularly relishes. “Its a bit nerve-wracking, I just power through and try and get through the show. It’s all about survival up there and a sense of relief when I get off the stage.” To flesh out his sets he throws in a couple of Dinosaur Jr tracks as well as a cover of Edie Brickell’s Circle which has been in his sights since first hearing it when touring the Bug album. “We played it on the Bug tour, I guess Murph had the album when it came out and Maggie from Sub Pop was selling t-shirts for us and she suggested I play that song. I used to listen to it in the van and stuff.”

There are other curious projects and events happening in Mascis’ universe at the moment with the Bug album currently being toured in America, complete with Henry Rollins doing a Q+A with Mascis onstage, the release of Dinosaur Jr’s first three albums as a cassette box-set as well as the production of a replica of Mascis’ unique Big Muff guitar pedal called the Fuzz Munchkin made by Queensland’s Tym Guitars. Most bizarrely is a Weezer tour on a cruise liner in January alongside Ween, Sebadoh, The Antlers and Yuck. “I’m scared about that. I’m bring a lot of friends to try and buffer myself so hopefully I have a good time.” frets Mascis.

this interview was first published on FasterLouder

ALBUM REVIEW: J Mascis | Several Shades Of Why

written by Chris Familton

J Mascis solo versus J Mascis guitarist/singer of Dinosaur Jr isn’t the massive shift in rock that you would expect from someone who trades in extremes of texture, noise, sonics and melody with that band. He has dropped the drums, dialed back the bite and growl of his distortion pedals (for the most part) and brought his plaintive, aching voice to the fore but it is still immediately recognisable as J Mascis.

Several Shades of Why can give the impression of sameness and a loose meander at first but by listen #3 the secrets and gems rise to the surface and an absolute classic record emerges. Listen To Me is a deceiving opener with its simple structure and gentle warm strum yet it works to enhance the impact of the following title track with its beautiful, weeping riff and the unexpected and soothing sound of strings. This is Mascis at his gentlest and folkiest and it works wonderfully.

Mascis voice always sounds like a woolly jumper – all cosy, worn and familiar – and here it fills that description even more so. The yearning tone and the way he rises into a thinner falsetto a la Neil Young are two of the elements that make his singing so damn emotive, even if his lyrical content never strays far from affairs of the heart, indecision and confusion. He reins in a few friends to help him out on Several Shades Of Why and they are great additions, particularly the backing vocals of Ben Bridwell (Band Of Horses) Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) and Kurt Vile on Not Enough. They add a country sing-a-long mood to the song and give it a real communal swing that Mascis doesn’t always possess on his own.

The theme of questions manifests itself all over the album and so it probably seemed like a foregone conclusion for Mascis to name it Several Shades of Why. He constantly queries and ponders everything from the mysteries of love to the basic confusion of existence and though he rarely provides answers it matters little when the result is such bittersweet songwriting.

Is It Done shows that Mascis can’t keep a great guitar solo down. The killer distorted solo that comes in two thirds of the way through the track is the closest thing on the album to the sonic buzz of Dinosaur Jr. It somehow sits perfectly with its acoustic surrounds and leaves before it overshadows the subtle beauty of the song. The closer What Happened revisits the same concept of disparate guitar sounds working in harmony and it is just as effective at tugging on melodic heartstrings.

The one track that Mascis allows to stretch beyond the five minute mark is the slow and dark Can I displaying an overt Neil Young influence both in his voice and the way he walks the fine line between electric and acoustic moods and sounds. Strings twang and rattle like open wounds while Mascis is content to let his fingers create the narrative as much as his voice. Like Young’s epic moments Can I feels like it could and should drift on endlessly.

Mascis has proved with this album that he can step back from the wall of amps and racks of effects pedals to reveal songs that can convey as much their heavier cousins. These songs may be more exposed and at times fragile but they carry themselves just as majestically as anything in Mascis’ back catalogue.

this review first appeared on FasterLouder

J Mascis | Not Enough: