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J Mascis isn’t much of a talker. Which is fine, considering his prolific musical output: 10 albums with indie rock legends Dinosaur Jr., five solo efforts, two records with his band J Mascis and The Fog, and a plethora of obscure curiosities by various side projects.
When asked about the material Dinosaur Jr. might play at their upcoming shows at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Dec. 14 and 15, Mascis answers with habitual vagueness. “We don’t have any plans really for the shows. I guess just whatever we feel like playing at the time.”
Hailing from Amherst, Mass., Dinosaur Jr. released their first album in 1985 and are famous for pioneering a growly, lo-fi rock n’ roll that helped usher in an era of mainstream grunge and alternative rock. Then, of course, there is the infamous falling out between Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow, who was kicked out in 1989 and subsequently channeled his sense of betrayal into his band Sebadoh with songs like “The Freed Pig,” which contained lyrics aimed at Mascis such as “Your big head has that ‘more room to grow’/ A glory I will never know.”
Following Barlow’s departure and later that of drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy, Mascis produced three Dinosaur Jr. albums on his own before retiring the name. Then, in 2005, much to the delight and bemusement of their fans, the trio reunited. Murphy now sported a cap to cover his bald pate and Mascis looked thoroughly Gandalfesque with his trademark mass of stringy hair turned silver. Barlow seemed to have calmed. Were those frown lines around his mouth, or just evidence of the inevitable softening of middle age?
Dinosaur Jr. have since put out three albums and show no signs of letting up. Mascis, always the driving force behind the band, still writes and sings most of the material. One can only assume that things have changed between him and Barlow. Though the latter has spoken candidly about his own journey, there is little to suggest that Mascis is still anything but the Mascis of lore: reticent and immovable, an enigma wrapped in a mystery covered in hair.
Speaking over the phone from his home in Amherst, Mascis is slow to answer with a tendency to mumble, but courteous in his own fashion. He is simply uninclined (or unable) to reflect on his process, preferring to talk about the film he saw recently—“A Band Called Death,” a documentary about an all-black proto-punk band—and the music scene in western Massachusetts. It’s “kinda more experimental,” he says. “There’s a lot of shows and the same 20 people always go. I see a lot more stuff than when I lived in New York. If something’s happening it’s more exciting, like ‘oh, something’s happening!’ In New York there’d be like 10 bands playing the same day. ... It’s too much.”
As a songwriter, Mascis has always been at once emotional and ambiguous, prone to strange metaphors and inscrutable phrases. “I'll be grazing by your window/ Please come pat me on the head/ I just want to find out what you're nice to me for,” he sings on “In A Jar” from the 1987 album “You’re Living All Over Me.” It’s a sweet but off-putting image, with the singer as some nameless, docile beast and his love interest a benevolent human. The animal may be dumb, but he is acutely attuned to pain. “When I look up, don't think I don't know/ About all the scabs you dread/ It's hard to stomach the gore/ I know you don't have the patience/ To peel them off no more,” Mascis continues in his characteristic whine. “In a jar where you believe/ All I could do was lick your hand.” A lover is both a comfort and a threat; best to keep him contained, like a creature in a jar.
Then again, that might be reading too much into it. “Yeah, I just write the words the day before I have to sing them, or something. Kind of like, the best thing I can come up with at the time,” says Mascis.
His unwillingness to elaborate on his writing process may be a subtle rebuke to his fans, eager as they are to obsess over lyrical and sonic minutiae. The forums on the Dinosaur Jr. fan site freakscene.net contain archive after archive of heated debate over the best Dinosaur Jr. material, and threads with titles like: “Which sound influenced J the most?” and “dinosaur jr is NOT sad or depressing music.”
Yet the persistent appeal of Dinosaur Jr. to the young and the weird (or, more accurately, the formerly young and continuously weird) is unsurprising. In Mascis’ songs, angst is not some overwrought, easily outgrown cliché; it is a deep, unfathomable, shifting state of being.
Now, more than 20 years later, Mascis writes with the same haphazard fluidity, forever groping towards some unknowable expression of self. You have to admire his purity of vision, too: the original Dinosaur Jr. sound is quite intact on their more recent albums, Mascis’ pop-inflected melodies enveloped, as usual, in snarling, overdriven guitar. He sings with the same irritable lethargy, though he is (slightly) more in tune now, and his voice is mixed a little closer, a little warmer.
Yet to give him all the credit for Dinosaur Jr. would be folly, something he explains with classic Mascis restraint.
“We have a certain energy, you know, playing together, that we knew was special,” he says. “When Lou mellowed out a bit and wasn’t as angry, I guess like we felt like we could try to play, see how it goes. We just kept playing cause it seemed alright.”
Did he think that he, too, had mellowed out?
A long pause. “Yeah.”
When asked how he hopes the band will evolve, you can practically hear him shrug.
“I don’t know. We just keep plodding along.”
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