J Mascis Interview: Dinosaur Jr.’s 1990s LPs, Nirvana, Lou Barlow – Rolling Stone
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J Mascis on the Nineties, Nirvana, and Dinosaur Jr.’s Forgotten Masterpiece

With extras-packed reissues of Green Mind, Where You Been, Without a Sound, and Hand It Over out now, the singer-guitarist looks back on the band’s unlikely commercial peak

J Mascis backstage at Lollapalooza festival, 1993

Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, pictured backstage on a Lollapalooza '93 date, reflects on the band's Nineties albums, including 'Where You Been' and 'Without a Sound.'

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

When J Mascis thinks about all of the albums Dinosaur Jr. put out in the Nineties, he says his favorite is the one most people know the least: Hand It Over. The record came out in 1997, as the alternative-rock boom was fading away, and the LP barely made it onto the Billboard 200, peaking at Number 188. The only song from that period to chart anywhere was the ultra-poppy “Take a Run at the Sun,” and that was in the U.K.; the song wasn’t even on Hand It Over. The band’s label dropped them shortly after the record came out, and Mascis dubbed Dinosaur Jr. extinct that year.

Now people will get another chance to rediscover Hand It Over — with all its attendant B sides and forgotten tracks — and the three other albums Dinosaur Jr. put out in the Nineties, since the record label Cherry Red has reissued each of them with bonus material. The records chronicle an unusual period for the band. After becoming college-radio heroes in the Eighties with their uniquely slacker-ish brand of downer rock, the trio splintered in the early Nineties, with bassist Lou Barlow departing to form Sebadoh. Without Barlow’s softer-edged songs, Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. fully embraced aching first-person tales of depression, punctuated by brittle, heavenly, unpredictable guitar solos.

Mascis ended up recording most of 1991’s Green Mind himself, with original drummer Murph only playing on a couple of songs. The group’s lineup remained in flux, with Mike Johnson joining on bass, on 1993’s Where You Been and 1994’s Without a Sound, and by the time the band made Hand It Over in 1997, Mascis was once again recording most everything himself. Nevertheless, in the midst of all of this, the band became alt-rock darlings thanks to tons of MTV exposure for songs like the spasmodic “Start Choppin'” and frown-tastic “Feel the Pain.”

Dinosaur Jr. eventually reunited with its three original members in 2005 and have since put out four records. But because they reunited the Eighties lineup, they play only a few songs from their most commercially successful era.

Mascis, now age 53, is excited that people will finally be able to buy some of these albums on vinyl again. “I know a few diehard CD people, but I’m not one of them,” Mascis tells Rolling Stone in a long, wide-ranging interview about Dinosaur Jr. in the Nineties that’s full of all his trademark “umms” and “I don’t knows.” “Green Mind was hard to get on vinyl. It was only in Europe; it never came out in America way back then. So I’m just glad that people can get them.”

What was going on around Green Mind? What happened with Lou Barlow? I read that you hadn’t spoken for two years leading up to his departure.
Oh, yeah. I don’t know. It just seemed like he wanted to not be in the band but he didn’t want to be the one to quit, or something. He wanted the band more to just break up. And yeah, he wasn’t contributing anything. We weren’t talking, and then I had a five-piece band after that. Then it was only me, and Murph left by the time we were gonna record.

Did you and Lou talk out your differences when you reunited?
We were all there. We know what happened. He did apologize, which I appreciated. So we went on from there.

You recorded most of Green Mind yourself. Why is that?
Uh, it was weird ’cause Murph wasn’t adjusting well. We were just a two-piece, and I was trying to teach him songs so we could record them, and he wasn’t showing up to practice. I don’t know … He was just kind of not into it that much. By the time we were going to record, he only knew a couple songs so I ended up playing the drums on a lot of them. I had written the drum parts for Murph, so it wasn’t like a solo album to me. I was thinking of what Murph could play. So that factors into it. So it was me playing drum parts I wrote for Murph, which is kind of weird.

Were you happy with the way it came out?
I don’t know. Yeah, it sort of sounded a little weird. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with it. I like the songs, but something about the production, I wasn’t that crazy about.

What’s the story behind the song “The Wagon”?
I don’t know, we always had a [station] wagon. Me and Lou, our parents both had a wagon, and that’s how we’d get around, in our parents’ cars. On our first tour, we did it in a station wagon. I guess that was all we knew of cars. It was a good car ’cause it held a lot of stuff. It was kind of a part of the band when we started. I wish cars still had the wood paneling.

One of the bonus tracks on Green Mind is a cover of David Bowie’s “Quicksand,” where instead of singing “I ain’t got the power anymore,” you sing, “We ain’t got the wagon anymore.” Why is that?
I was going for a meeting with Columbia Records. They wanted to sign me at the time, and I got in a car crash on the way, and I ruined the wagon, so I didn’t have the wagon anymore. I took it also as a sign not to sign with Columbia.

You ended up signing with Sire. Did you like working with them?
Yeah, it was good ’cause we got paid, firstly, which we’d never had by any other label. They never asked us to do anything or had any comments on our music. We’d just hand ’em a record, and that was it. So that was pretty cool.

What’s the story behind the cover of Green Mind? Is that a boy or a girl?
It’s a girl. Kim Gordon had this book of photos. It’s called Almost Grown and this guy [Joseph Szabo] had taken all these photos. That was one of them. I just asked for permission to use it. It was cool.

The Green Mind reissue also has a recording of a gig you played in Hollywood in 1991. You were touring with Nirvana on parts of the tour, as well as Jane’s Addiction and Jesus and Mary Chain. What do you remember about the tour?
It was cool touring with Nirvana because it was right before they got huge and you could see all the energy coming behind them, like this wave. It was cool to witness that. Like, ohh, they should be huge, and then they got huge. It was like something made sense for a minute in the universe. That was kind of a reassuring moment, I think. Nirvana were really good then. I always liked them live.

I remember the Jesus and Mary Chain didn’t speak. We were touring with Blur and My Bloody Valentine. And Mary Chain would headline and the rest of the bands would rotate every night. I don’t think the Mary Chain spoke to anyone until the last night of the tour. They were even more socially inept than we were.

What about Jane’s Addiction?
There was always some big thing, just a lotta people everywhere like a backstage party after the show. It looked a lot like Spinal Tap, or something.

The gig on the reissue was at the Hollywood Palladium. Does anything about that show stand out to you?
Oh, yeah, I remember that show, just ’cause Hole was also playing, and Kurt and Courtney were just starting to meet and stuff. And I always remember the Palladium, the room, not sounding too good.

The next album, Where You Been, seemed like more of a band effort. Was that the case?
Yeah. Murph didn’t want to get left behind again. He was really motivated, too. We recorded at Dreamland, this church in upstate New York. It was pretty cool.

How did the song “Start Choppin” come together?
I remember the title came about because we cut the tape to put some different versions together. I think I just said, “Start chopping,” or something. All the stops and starts is just how the song was written. I think the edits were just, like, maybe the verse sounded better on one take, so we could end the whole thing. It wasn’t very big edits on tape; it was little things. It was just like one verse or another.

I did an interview with Kevin Shields a couple of years ago where he told me how difficult it was to redo the edits for Loveless on tape.
Yeah, I remember visiting ’em when they were recording Loveless in the studio. He had a whole 24-track machine just with vocals that he had to sort through and I just thought that to pick one out of all of those, it seemed like a headache-inducing task.

Where did the sleeve for Where You Been? come from?
It’s by a local guy, Angry Johnny. He was a local artist and he just painted.

Was he angry?
Yeah [laughs].

The painting looks a bit like something Edvard Munch would do.
Oh, yeah. He’d always keep painting over things. His paintings were really thick. He’d just keep painting over ’em. He showed me a painting and I liked it but then he kept painting over it and I didn’t like it as much. So we tried to get the head from a picture I’d taken of the painting before and it kind of spliced it in to the painting now.

Getting into Without a Sound, you’ve said you were pretty depressed around this time. What was going on in your life?
I don’t know. I’m just not sure. I was just kind of in a depressed state. Both my parents were dead at that point. I just wasn’t feeling that great. I remember writing a lot of songs when I had pneumonia so I’ll just sit in my apartment for five weeks, or something. Maybe that has something to do with the vibe too.

On the opening track, “Feel the Pain,” you sing, “I feel the pain of everyone and then I feel nothing.” What’s the story behind that song?
I had a riff for it. It might have been on that Jesus and Mary Chain tour, on the tour bus or van; I don’t think we had a bus. I think it was in England. I was singing, “I feel the pain of everyone,” when I was playing the riff. Then a friend, John Brattin, who was with me, said, “and then I feel nothing.” And he let me keep the line. He actually did the artwork on my last solo album, and he did some artwork for the “Get Me” 12-inch.

Who did the artwork for Without a Sound?
That was Neil Blender, the skateboarder. I think the label picked maybe something he was doing at the time. You know The Mighty Boosh, that TV show? Yes, one guy Noel Fielding is on a cooking show [The Great British Baking Show] and he was wearing a Without a Sound sweater the other day.

Without a Sound was your best-charting album in the Nineties. Did you feel successful?
Right around when “Feel the Pain” came out, it was on MTV, which was still happening then. If you had a video on, suddenly you were way bigger than you had been. So yeah, you could definitely tell. It was cool at the time. We weren’t huge but we’d gotten a bit bigger. Then after the next album, all the MTV kind of fans were gone.

Why was that?
‘Cause I wasn’t on MTV anymore.

What was your headspace around Hand It Over? What was going on at the time that you felt you were writing good songs?
The album before it was kind of a low point. I was kind of depressed. And I felt like I was just getting it together or something, feeling better. I was just feeling a little bit better about everything.

Hand It Over is the best of these records. I like how it came out and the songs; my favorite is “I’m Insane.” I was a little sad at the time at the time that more people didn’t get to hear it. I think Warners was dropping us and didn’t tell anyone that it was even out really.

You haven’t played many Hand It Over songs live. Why is that?
Murph and Lou aren’t on that album at all. But I guess maybe we should. I don’t know.

What’s the story behind the cover?
Oh, that was me deciding to do the cover myself. I thought maybe my best medium was clay. And that’s what I came up with. I got myself a purple board to put it on. And then that’s what I came up with. It kind of just fell apart after I photographed it for the cover. The clay wasn’t dried or anything. It was just kind of still wet. I just had to take a picture of it and next thing it kind of just fell apart.

What do you remember about retiring Dinosaur Jr. after Hand It Over?
I don’t know. I just felt like it was over. Time to try something else.

What did you want to do differently on the albums credited to J Mascis and the Fog? Did you approach them differently?
I did. But it’s still me, so I think a lot of people think it sounds the same. I wrote a lot of songs on keyboard and guitar, which I’d never done. I was playing drums and stuff. I didn’t have anyone to think about the limitations on it so I can do lots of other kinds of feels or something that I wouldn’t do with Dino.

How did you end up reuniting Dinosaur Jr. and working with Lou and Murph again?
We were putting out the first three albums again, and I guess my manager contacted Lou and Murph to see if they’d be interested in playing. And then he had to convince me. I was the last one to sign on for it. I’d seen Lou when we’d play around, but he was finally apologizing for some stuff. He was so angry for so long; I couldn’t really penetrate his anger. Whatever. So I just took the time and mellowed out. That was the main thing. And we had something to promote, the first three albums. So we just did it piece by piece.

We agreed to do a TV show and a gig. It seemed OK, so I agreed to do another thing and then a tour. It’s kind of like, each thing that came up, I’d decide if I felt like doing it or not. And then it just kind of went on and on, and we’re still doing it.

Speaking of Lou’s anger toward you, what did you think of the Sebadoh song he did about Dinosaur Jr. called “The Freed Pig”? You ended up producing a cover of that song by the Breeders.
I don’t know. Lou’s gotta vent.

So what do you like most about these reissues? What should people pay attention to?
I just hope people check out Hand It Over. It seems to be the one that slipped through the cracks. I just like it and I think people are like, “What’s this song from?” And they like some song they’ve heard from it. They have just never heard it before.

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