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J Mascis, Of Dinosaur Jr., Turns Down The Iconic Loud Sound For More Melancholic Melodies

J Mascis. (Courtesy of the artist)
J Mascis. (Courtesy of the artist)

J Mascis has held the unofficial title for three-plus decades: the most laconic rock star extant. Although, “rock star” may be pushing it a bit.

Mascis, the 53-year-old leader of Dinosaur Jr., is now nearing the end of a 25-date North American solo tour. Mascis has a certain measure of fame in the alt-rock world. But I doubt the idea of “stardom” crosses his mind much.

In the beginning, 1984, there was Dinosaur. But that didn’t last long. A rock group from the ‘60s had been called Dinosaur and, though extinct, still claimed the rights to the name. So, the three guys from Amherst — guitarist-singer-songwriter Mascis, bassist-singer Lou Barlow and drummer Murph — shrugged and added a “Jr.” to the moniker and, as such, Dinosaur Jr. was born. And a pioneering post-punk noise-rock band they became, inspired equally by Hüsker Dü and Neil Young.

Certainly, Dinosaur Jr.'s early loud/soft/loud juxtapositions were heard a coast away by Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. One might think fellow western Massachusetts band Pixies gained some of their vibe, but guitarist Joey Santiago says he doesn't know their music very well (though he calls Mascis "one of the real artists out there").

The last time I saw Mascis play was 11 years ago in Cambridge with the reunited Dinosaur Jr. (For a brief history, you should know that Mascis had booted Barlow out in 1989, but continued with the band until 1995. Mascis and Barlow buried the hatchet in a manner of speaking and reunited, with original drummer Murph, in 2005.)

Neither Mascis nor Barlow were under any illusion that Dinosaur Jr. was now one big happy family. "I wouldn't say we're friends, exactly," Mascis said, of Barlow. "Not that we ever were friends. We were just the only people [in mid-'80s Amherst] into the kind of music that came out back then: first hardcore, then the stuff that came after." Barlow saw it as "a practical move on J's part. We're all 20 years older, and there's a lot of water under the bridge. We have a formula that works."

The Cambridge gig was loud, with Mascis peeling off squalling guitar licks. (Barlow passed out earplugs to audience members before the show.) The long-haired, prematurely gray Mascis didn't quite smile or emote on stage, but he seemed in the zone with his guitar swaying gently side-to-side. When we spoke, he said, "I kind of like playing more now than I ever have. Not sure why. I remember talking to Sonic Youth when I was younger, and [guitarist] Thurston Moore said he really liked playing and I was perplexed by it. Now, I understand it. I don't know if I ever enjoyed anything before.”

His output since 2005 is indicative, perhaps, of Mascis’ continuing enjoyment — four Dinosaur Jr. albums, three studio solo albums, including the September release of “Elastic Days,” and this tour, which extends to the U.K. for nine gigs.

Mascis isn’t doing interviews on this tour. It’s just not his forte. Some people have found him diffident or dismissive. I’ve found him to be droll and shy, mostly. You have to get used to long pauses before responses. I bet he subscribes to what PJ Harvey once said: “Music is what you do when you can’t speak.”

And his shows certainly speak. You won't hear the eardrum shattering volume of Dinosaur Jr. shows. Mascis will be mostly seated, playing a Gibson electro acoustic guitar with an array of foot pedal effects. It won’t exactly be unplugged, but, if the songs on “Elastic Days” are indicative, most tunes should be in the mid-tempo range, employing both acoustic and electric elements. (Singer Zoë Randell and singer-multi-instrumentalist Steve Hassett, of the opening Australian band, Luluc, will join occasionally.)

There should be clean guitar lines and vocal clarity solo. Expect roughly half the set to come from the Dinosaur Jr. catalog — re-worked versions — and half from Mascis' solo career, four of those from the new record. And, as likely encores, a divine cover of Mazzy Star’s sublimely sad “Fade into You” and/or the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” a longtime Dino Jr. staple. A gentle glide with a ripple of turbulence. And probably not a lot of chat from the guy on stage.

A clue to Mascis’ current sound and vision may be offered up in the first song off this year's album, “See You at the Movies.” “Finding you was easy, but finding me is hard,” Mascis sings in his trademarked drawl. “Finding you was easy/ I’ll just try to stall/ I don’t peak too early/ I don’t peak at all.” Though he does, then, kick it up a notch with a Neil Young-esque electric guitar lead. A sly mini-peak, maybe.

What Mascis is doing may be somewhat analogous to what Pixies' Black Francis did when he created smaller scale solo albums and tours under the Frank Black name and different supporting musicians.

A certain meditative melancholia seems to be at the root of Mascis’ music these days. He’s not a Morrissey-esque mope by any stretch — too much bust-out guitar for that — but the insular landscapes he’s exploring seem decidedly unsettled. If Mascis has mellowed somewhat as a solo artist, it may be because he’s trying to carve a more distinct path from his Dinosaur Jr. work.


Editor's Note: A previous version of this article included information about J Mascis' show at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Dec. 13. The show was postponed so we eliminated the information. J Mascis will perform at The Sinclair on Feb. 19. 

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Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for The ARTery.

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