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Few Words: On Tied to a Star, J Mascis Lets His Songs Do the Talking 

Tuesday, Nov 11 2014

A famous musician who doesn't especially enjoy interviews isn't really that rare a concept. But unlike so many other divas and rock stars who are difficult to engage in conversation with the press, there's something inexplicably endearing about J Mascis's particular brand of awkwardness.

Part of it is that the singer-songwriter-guitarist and notoriously reticent former Dinosaur Jr. frontman doesn't seem like he's too cool or too bored to answer questions. It's more like he, too, is somewhat mystified by his own music, to the point that he long ago stopped trying to determine (let alone explain to others) exactly how it comes out of his brain, through his vocal chords and guitar and PA, and directly into the specific, deeply resonant place in your gut that J Mascis songs almost always land.

"It's all just kinda different aspects of me, or whatever," says Mascis by phone from his native Amherst, Mass., where he's lived all his life, when asked if he sees a through-line between his punk upbringing, the trailblazing, distortion-loaded alt-rock he made in Dinosaur Jr., and the melodic, emotive indie-folk of his past half-decade. "I decided, 'I'm gonna do an acoustic album, and write songs for that.' So if some other kind of song came out I might save it for something else."

The acoustic album that came out, as it were, is a gorgeous one, and that's saying something. Tied to a Star, Mascis' sophomore solo album, released in August, had some big footsteps to follow in. His solo debut, 2011's Several Shades of Why, earned resounding acclaim from critics and longtime fans alike, including more than a handful of listeners who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead listening to melancholy, fingerpicked, acoustic confessionals. After decades of hiding his distinctively weary voice and lyrics behind a wall of reverb, the man dubbed "the first American indie rock guitar hero" by Michael Azerrad in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life had suddenly — without much explanation, naturally — stepped forward.

As a follow-up, Tied to a Star might not break much new ground, but that's only really ever a criticism if you're sick of the old ground. In the case of Mascis singing earnestly, crafting wistful, deep-cutting melodies while playing intricate, clean, masterful guitar, well, we're not.

"Every morning makes it hard on me / Then I wake to who I'll never be / Then it hits me it's the life I lead," wails Mascis on "Every Morning," his signature creak during the chorus making his self-deprecation palpable over an effortless, incongruously upbeat guitar riff. Mascis is at that point now where, whenever you're tempted to compare his style or technique to that of another alt-rock crooner, your brain twitches a little as you realize that it sounds familiar because many of them were (are) all copying him.

If you needed any further reminders of the guitarist's place in the annals of post-punk history or the reverence with which he's treated by other musicians, guests on the record include Cat Power, Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins, and former Miracle Legion/Polaris frontman (and vastly underrated solo artist) Mark Mulcahy, whom Mascis says he runs into often because they live in the same area.

"We used to belong to the same farm," says Mascis of Mulcahy, when asked how they first met. A long pause. "Actually, he probably still does."

As for what kind of musical diet led to the shift toward acoustic songwriting: Mascis can't remember what he was listening to during the time he was writing this record.

"I don't know what was on the playlist then," he says. "I have so many records. I can say that the other night we were having a party and I was being the DJ, and people were impressed that I could keep a rap set going for a while, one that was good for dancing. I exhausted my rap collection, but it went on for a while."

Who were you playing, J? "ODB is probably my favorite rapper," he says. "I had some NWA, and some DMX."

Setting aside for a moment how much money we would pay to be at a party where J Mascis was spinning ODB, NWA, and DMX, we move on to the tour he's about to begin (the one that will bring him to The Independent this Saturday, Nov. 15, for a sold-out show).

At 48, after playing in bands for well over half his life, is touring enjoyable, or a necessary evil?

"A little of both," he says. "Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it seems daunting. Right now I feel a little bit overwhelmed with thinking of all the touring I'm gonna do. I have a lot of people to see in San Francisco, though — people I went to high school with, random people I've met over the years. It's one of their 50th birthdays the night I'm playing."

And is that about the makeup of his following these days? Obviously, he occupied a revered place in the minds of indie rock fans who were in their teens and 20s when Dinosaur Jr. was first starting out, and they continue to make up a good amount of his fan base. This also explains, in part, Mascis' recently announced Record Store Day release, a 7-inch of him covering Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," which he initially made by request as party favors for a Sub Pop employee's wedding.

But these past two records have been so sweet (while still maintaining an edge), so vulnerable (while Mascis' guitar badassery allays any accusations of "going soft"), and so accessible (in strictly the best sense of the word) that he's essentially birthed a whole new generation of Mascis devotees, younger fans who now find themselves working backward through his oeuvre, people who are probably listening to Dinosaur Jr.'s records from the SST days at this moment and having fits of inspiration as creative doors swing open in their minds. Right, J?

"I see some young people in the crowd," he says. Another long pause. "I don't really look at the crowd that much."

About The Author

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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