Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis: “Retiring doesn’t seem like an option. I’d probably just think about dying all day”

Dinosaur Jr.’s contemplative leader on backstage brawls with Blur, the joys of cycling and that time he nearly joined Nirvana…

Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis: “Retiring doesn’t seem like an option. I’d probably just think about dying all day”
Mark Sutherland
Cara Totman

Some musicians are born rock stars, some achieve rock stardom, and others have rock stardom thrust upon them.

It seems fair to say that Joseph ‘J’ Mascis, singer, guitarist and leader of Dinosaur Jr., belongs in the latter camp. Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, the young J had no aspirations towards fame or fortune. Or, indeed, anything else.

“I don’t remember kids dreaming that big when I was one,” he shrugs. “Now, I notice with my kid and his friends, they’re all thinking on a pretty grand scale. But we never thought we’d amount to much. We never considered you could be a rock star or a professional athlete or anything, really. Our dreams just weren’t aiming that high.”

And yet, J – both in Dinosaur Jr. and in his innumerable side-projects – has achieved more than 99 per cent of aspiring rock stars, carving out a career as one of the most influential musicians of his generation via classic anthems such as Freak Scene, The Wagon and Feel The Pain.

But, despite the millions of records sold and the hundreds of legendary gigs played, J might have gone on to become an even more iconic figure – had one conversation gone a little differently…

Because one July 1989 night – at a typically raucous Nirvana show at legendary Hoboken, New Jersey rock club Maxwell’s – Kurt Cobain, growing weary of the limited musical contribution of second guitarist Jason Everman, asked J to join his band. But, rather than bite Kurt’s hand off, the famously laidback guitarist barely registered the offer.

“I didn’t really take him seriously,” J says, 32 years later. “Was he serious? Maybe, yeah, but I never really gave it much thought. Thurston [Moore, Sonic Youth singer/guitarist] was there so he’s making it into folklore, but I was just like, ‘Oh yeah’, and didn’t think about it really…”

Later, a pre-Dave Grohl Kurt would also make overtures for J to play drums on Sliver, and was again gently rebuffed. It wasn’t until 2014 that J would finally play with the band, after Nirvana’s Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction, by which time Kurt had long since departed the planet. So, did he ever regret not taking up the offer?

“I don’t know,” J shrugs. “Maybe I would have ended up dead also. It didn’t seem so great for them in the end.”

You see, unlike so many others in his chosen profession, J has never been consumed by personal ambition. He maintains he achieved everything he’d set out to achieve as far back as Dinosaur Jr.’s classic second album, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me. “My goal was to be on [legendary U.S. indie label] SST and tour, so we achieved that,” he says. “I haven’t set another goal since. I’ve just been riding along and going with the flow…”

Despite this supremely laidback attitude, when it comes to music, you would have to classify J as an over-achiever. The classic line-up of Dinosaur Jr. – completed by bassist/singer Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett ‘Murph’ Murphy – may have been famously dysfunctional as a family unit, but that didn’t stop them making three albums together that laid the groundwork for alt.rock’s ’90s explosion.

Lou left in 1989 to start his own band, Sebadoh, no longer able to deal with the tension. But J carried on, signing to a major and finding mainstream success on 1991’s Green Mind. Murph stuck around until he too departed in 1993, with Dinosaur continuing as, essentially, a J solo project until he officially went it alone at the end of the ’90s.

Given the bitterness of the original split, you would have got pretty long odds on them ever reuniting, but in 2005 that’s exactly what they did. J, Lou and Murph have now been together for longer (and made more albums) than the first time around, and new record Sweep It Into Space is proof of their enduring chemistry, stuffed with trademark howling guitars and surprisingly sweet melodies such as To Be Waiting, I Ran Away and Garden (perhaps Lou’s greatest-ever Dinosaur contribution). Does this mean they’re all getting on better these days?

“We always get along musically, it’s just trying to hang out that is the harder part,” says J. “I think Lou is happy on this album because I set up another drum set with Murph and helped write the drum parts for his songs. [The tension] bubbles up here and there but it’s not as bad now we have more ways to deal with things than when we were kids.

“We’ve grown up and worked through being young and not knowing what’s going on. And we also have a manager [Brian Schwartz] that helps us communicate – that was our big problem back in the day, we had no idea how to communicate. We needed a shrink like Metallica or something…”

J’s own famously taciturn inter-personal skills have been the bane of many an interviewer over the years. He can still deliver a pregnant pause to rival a woolly mammoth on maternity leave but generally, dialling in via Zoom from his house in Massachusetts with a snoring dog at his feet, today finds him in engaging, sociable form.

Despite his slacker reputation, he has found lockdown tough, with “not much to do except freak out and sit around”. Sweep It Into Space, co-produced by Kurt Vile, was almost complete when the world shut down, which means J’s been filling his time by finishing an instrumental album; working on a new solo record; watching Tiger King (“I was sad he didn’t get pardoned by Trump”); and riding his bike.

He exhibits the serious rider’s frustration with the lockdown cyclists clogging up his favourite routes (“It’s hard to even get bike parts, they’re all sold out”) and, despite having 127,000 followers on Instagram and interest in him as an unlikely fashion icon from the style press, J maintains that the only social media he really cares about is Strava, the exercise tracker. “Other bikers see what you did and say, ‘Good ride’,” he grins. “I’m into that but then again, I only have nine followers and I only follow nine people, so I keep it pretty small…”

His disdain for the other technological trappings of the modern music biz is palpable, however.

“I personally don’t like streaming because it sounds so bad,” he says. “I have a problem with being able to listen to everything and anything. It makes me not want to listen to anything, because there are too many choices. It clogs my brain. It’s like, I remember getting [1975 Black Sabbath album] Sabotage and I could tell immediately that someone had mastered it from a CD or something. I realised my whole body knows that album. I knew it so well and the way it hit was not happening. So much less of the music is coming through, it’s hard to get into as much.”

He does, nevertheless, ask Kerrang! readers to check out his ’90s metal side-project Upsidedown Cross on Spotify, where they currently have “only 286 monthly listeners”. But generally, he prefers to discover music the way he always has: the hard way.

The young J bought his records at a local store run by an Anglophile, who would regularly return from the UK with crates full of British punk and metal records. He’d listen to Motörhead, Venom, Raven and “anything else punk deemed to be okay”. Punk rock was his main interest – he spent years tracking down every 7” featured in a Punk’s Not Dead magazine list of the genre’s greatest ever singles.

“It wasn’t easy,” he laughs. “It’s very weird because no-one you know likes this kind of music, so you’re in a total bubble. You get a record and have no context for what a skinhead is or anything. So I just listened to the music and if I liked it, I liked it.”

Hence J being the only kid in town with a deep-seated fascination for the likes of Discharge and The Exploited – something that stood him in good stead when Dinosaur Jr. signed to Sire Records in the ’90s, and a label boss brought his son along to the studio. “He was a little punk kid, like 14 or something,” says J. “I let him play on my guitar and he started playing an Exploited song. I was like, ‘Oh, Blown To Bits’ and he was really shocked that I knew what he was playing.”

Dinosaur, of course, became key tastemakers in the U.S. scene, even booking the band J could have joined as support on their 1991 Green Mind tour.

“We had some weird manager because we were on a major label and they thought we should have a manager,” J sighs. “I told the guy we wanted Nirvana to open for us. He was like, ‘Why do you want that band?’ and I was like, ‘So that next year, when they’re playing stadiums, maybe we can open for them’. And he was like, ‘Yeah, whatever…’ It was obvious what was happening and it was cool because, for one second, something in the world made sense. Like, Nirvana should be huge and then they were huge. So that was comforting.”

Not everything else added up back then, however. J found himself a bemused bystander when Dinosaur Jr. joined the 1992 Rollercoaster UK package tour alongside The Jesus And Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and a then-obscure British indie band called Blur, who introduced him backstage to “a Scottish drinking game called Game Of Fists”.

“You hit someone in the face,” he explains. “But you maybe don’t hit them so hard, because they’re going to hit you afterwards. I didn’t really get involved but I would watch. It’s not every day you get to see one of Blur get punched in the face. Who knew they would get so huge?”

J’s own strategies for dealing with the pressures of fame after Dinosaur hit the big time with 1993’s Where You Been (featuring the band’s only Top 20 UK hit Start Choppin’) were, thankfully, notably less violent.

“I definitely wasn’t happy around that time,” he says. “It was the classic thing of: you get some money and a nice car, but you feel even worse than you did before.”

Eventually, he discovered the teachings of Hindu guru Amma, even writing an album of songs dedicated to her (2005’s J And Friends Sing And Chant For Amma), although today he seems at a loss to describe what he got out of it spiritually.

“I’m not really sure exactly,” he laughs after one of those trademark pauses. “But it helped.”

As with many things in J’s world, if it works, he doesn’t tend to question it too much. And right now, everything seems to be working out: with the new album out, livestreams booked and big plans for proper touring once the world gets back to normal, he’s untroubled by whether he and Dinosaur get the respect their 37-year legacy deserves.

“At some point I realised people are constantly rewriting history,” he says, nonchalantly. “So by keeping playing, you’re reminding people that you’re somewhere in history, so you don’t get written out.”

That’s unlikely, given the equally revered Frank Black once told Kerrang! J was the model for the Pixies’ success. The pair now live on the same street, which seems like a lot of seminal alt.rock talent to have on one road, but the vision of them hanging up their guitars in favour of sitting on a porch chewing the fat will have to wait.

“I don’t see us stopping,” he says, before bidding us a cheery farewell and contemplating another bike ride. “Retiring doesn’t seem like an option. It’s more something you’re forced to do. I’ll just keep going until I can’t do it anymore. I mean, what would I do? Probably just think about dying all day…”

Thankfully, this is one Dinosaur that’s not ready for extinction just yet…

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