Kurt Vile clearly remembers the first time he met one of his biggest influences, J Mascis. Or rather, he remembers how he felt. “I was pretty awkward then – I’m probably still awkward – but I was more nervous then,” the indie-rock singer-songwriter says, speaking at a motormouthed pace as he reminds Mascis of the encounter. “You told me you liked my album [2009’s Childish Prodigy] and especially that ‘Monkey’ song, and I told you I didn’t write that, since it was by [early-Nineties indie-rock supergroup] Dim Stars. You were like, ‘Oh, yeah. Huh. That’s why it sounds so familiar.'” Vile laughs.
Mascis, shaggy-haired frontman for the long-running slacker-rock archetypes Dinosaur Jr., doesn’t recall any of this – or at least he doesn’t let on if he does. Instead, he just listens politely as Vile recounts how he’d discovered Dinosaur Jr. as a teenager and quickly became an ardent fan of the band.
Regardless of who remembers what, however, Mascis and Vile have become friends in recent years. Dinosaur Jr. has invited Vile to join them onstage on several occasions, Mascis featured Vile on his Several Shades of Why solo LP and Vile got Mascis to perform his recent single, “Pretty Pimpin'” with him on late-night TV last year. Their individual knacks for unwieldy guitar solos, moody melodies and pensive lyrics make them sound like equals.
When they speak, however, it’s another story. Vile phoned up Mascis to talk about Dinosaur Jr.’s new album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – the fourth record the trio has put out since its original lineup of Mascis, singer-bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph reunited in 2005 – as well as the band’s history for this Rolling Stone interview, and he took the opportunity to ask all the nerdy guitar and musical questions he’d been holding onto since he was just a teenage fan listening to Dinosaur Jr. in Philly. “I’m going to jump around a little bit because I want to know a lot of random things about all your eras,” he says with a laugh that suggests he’s still sort of nervous to be talking to someone like Mascis. But because they’re friends, the Dinosaur Jr. frontman, who is typically a man of few words, was surprisingly up for the challenge.
Kurt Vile: Is there a story behind “The Leper” [on Dinosaur Jr.’s 1985 debut Dinosaur] or did that come out of some dark, punk-rock imagery conjured up on the fly?
J Mascis: I don’t know. It was probably just how I was feeling one day.
KV: Did you feel like a leper or an outcast at the moment?
JM: Yeah, many moments.
KV: The guitar sounds sick in that song. What guitar and amp were you using?
JM: I only had one guitar, a Jazzmaster. And I was using the amp at the studio, which was, like, an early Mesa/Boogie. And I had a Big Muff [fuzzbox]. That’s all I had going.
KV: That’s cool. I always sort of liked Mesa/Boogies, but I wasn’t sure if they were cool or not cool. Why did you pick up a Jazzmaster?
JM: Well, I went to buy a Strat and it turned out to be a bait and switch. I had 400 bucks and the paper said it was 400 bucks. I got there and it was a rip-off. The guy said the Strat was $450. They had a Jazzmaster for $300 and a Jaguar for $200. And I just liked the neck on the Jazzmaster, although the Jaguar looks cool. The Jazzmaster had Grover tuning pegs like the big ones on the Les Paul, just like on Peter Frampton’s guitar. I thought that might be good, so I just bought that. I learned to play on that one and my style came through the guitar. That’s the thing about Dino, we all just kind of learned how to play together. That made us sound a certain way.
KV: Jazzmasters look cooler.
JM: Now you think they do, but back then I thought they looked really uncool.
KV: Really, you didn’t think it looked cool?
JM: No. I didn’t think it looked cool. But I liked the whammy bar and the neck. And it was a Fender I could afford. The only people I knew that played a Jazzmaster was, like, Elvis Costello. I liked him all right but I didn’t think of him much as a guitar shredder.
KV: Did groups like Nirvana and Sonic Youth copy you with the Jazzmasters?
JM: Uh, you’d have to ask them. I don’t know. Later I saw pictures of the Cure, and they had a Jazzmaster. I never understood why no metal bands ever had a Jazzmaster. I guess in the Sixties, they were the top of the line and people were really into them but after Hendrix everybody wanted to get a Strat and the Jazzmaster fell off the map. Hendrix killed it.
KV: The first time I saw you was at [Philadelphia’s] Electric Factory on the Hand It Over tour and it was super loud. You had your hair in your face. You must have had the longest guitar cord in the world because you’d wander offstage and keep soloing and come back. Do you remember this?
JM: Yeah, I might have been just hiding or something.
KV: Were you stoned?
JM: No, possibly drunk.
KV: I love the way Hand It Over sounds. Didn’t [My Bloody Valentine’s] Kevin Shields help with “Nothin’s Going On”?
JM: Yeah. I remember he’d plug in different pedals and I’d play until I liked the sound, and then we’d try something with that sound. His studio in England wasn’t too easy to work in at the time. It was weird, like a haunted house. That’s one of the many years where he was recording but nothing came out after [MBV’s] Loveless. It was just a weird place to work. It had a weird vibe.
Then he came to my house next time I worked with him for the first Fog record [More Light] and I had to subject him to my lifestyle, small town, not too many restaurants. I definitely have different hours, so it’s a little hard sometimes because I want to work in the day and he’d be just getting up. He’s more of a night owl.
KV: I’m the same way as Kevin Shields. I like the idea of getting up early and doing it normal but …
JM: Yeah, these days I like to record between, like, 1 and 5, and that’s about it.
KV: What time do you go to bed?
JM: Like, 11. Or maybe 12 sometimes.
KV: Didn’t Dinosaur Jr. tour with My Bloody Valentine back in the day? Was that amazing or insane?
JM: Oh, yeah. Before that I remember doing sound for them at [Hoboken, New Jersey, venue] Maxwell’s on the Isn’t Anything tour. That was pretty funny. Maxwell’s had a knob on the mixing board that was marked “deaf” so I turned it up to the “deaf” setting. Half the people left.
KV: Then you toured with them for Loveless when [Dinosaur Jr.’s] Green Mind was out. Who was louder, you or My Bloody Valentine?
JM: I guess probably they were. Not onstage but on the club PAs and stuff.
KV: You toured with Neil Young back in the day, too. Was that just a few shows?
JM: That was, like, four shows in ’93. He was playing and Booker T. & the M.G.’s were too. It was pretty hot.
KV: Have you seen Neil performing with Willie Nelson’s kids, Promise of the Real?
JM: No. How is that?
KV: It’s really good, dude. It’s nuts. It’s totally organic. Hypnotic. Those kids are just bouncing around. It’s the best I’ve seen him. You gotta check it out.
JM: I saw Buffalo Springfield a couple of years ago in Oakland. That was the best thing I had seen. They kinda pumped up Neil to play however he wanted.
People are always telling me they hear Neil in my songs. I guess I sound more like Neil than Mick Jagger.
KV: Oh yeah, totally. We’re just not British, even though he wanted to sound American once upon a time.
JM: I got my Southern accent from Mick Jagger’s singing. “Dead Flowers.”
KV: Do you have recollections of that time around Hand It Over? Was it fun making that record?
JM: Yeah, I really liked that record. It’s one of my favorites. I was sad when it came out because the record company didn’t tell anyone that it was out. They were through with us at that point.
KV: It has that song “Alone” on it. You ended the set every night we toured together with that song, which is just three chords. You’d loop it and play leads forever. That was an important part of my life. I even got a [ZVEX] Lo-Fi Loop Junky [guitar pedal] because of that.
JM: I remember Kevin definitely dialing in the first solo in “Alone” at the start with Kevin’s pedals. It was cool.
KV: What is your favorite Dinosaur Jr. record?
JM: You’re Living All Over Me, just because it kind of set up everything we wanted to do. Everything came together. We got on SST [Records]; we reached all our goals. But then Hand It Over is probably Number Two.
KV: The record after You’re Living All Over Me is Bug, and I think I remember you once told me that the record was cool, but there were too many lawyers coming around, effing with your psyche during that time.
JM: Nah, it was just the band kind of falling apart. I had to pretty much do it all myself. I like the sound of it.
I got to interview Ozzy once on the phone, and I asked him about Sabotage because that’s my favorite Sabbath album, and I knew that was his least favorite album. And he said all these lawyers were in the studio and it was lame. And he hates it because he thinks about that time.
With Bug it’s kind of similar for me. It was just a bad time. I wasn’t talking to Lou. It was a bad vibe. He wasn’t contributing anything to the band. He didn’t bring any songs. He was just really hard to work with. That’s different now.
KV: I must have remembered the lawyers thing as being your story. What’s your favorite Lou song?
JM: I like some of the later Sebadoh stuff. I don’t remember the title but the chorus is just, “I’m not happy where we are something something” [“Love Is Stronger,” on 1999’s The Sebadoh].
KV: Do you have a favorite Murph moment on the drums?
JM: I think this new album is maybe Murph’s best actually.
KV: My bandmate Rob [Laakso] told me you’d demoed all of the Bug tracks on a 4-track, playing everything yourself. Do you still have that? Will you ever release it?
JM: I don’t know where that is. I have 58 cassettes floating somewhere around my house. It was pretty much the same.
KV: It would cool to find that one day. When you were coming up, who were some of your favorite guitarists?
JM: [The Wipers’] Greg Sage, [The Stooges’] Ron Asheton, [The Birthday Party’s] Rowland S. Howard, [The Rolling Stones’] Mick Taylor.
KV: What about [Black Sabbath’s] Tony Iommi?
JM: No, he recently became one of my favorites after I saw him live. He was very impressive when I saw him last year. His whole sound and the way he played was really impressive.
KV: When you were making the original Dino records, were you not a fan of Black Sabbath back then?
JM: I loved Sabbath; I just never thought much of Tony Iommi specifically. It was just one big sound and Ozzy.
KV: Were you into metal early on?
JM: Yeah, like Motörhead, Venom and Sabbath. For sure. The first Metallica album.
KV: I’ve been listening to your new album and my favorite song right now is “I Told Everyone.” It’s a killer pop jam. How are you feeling about the new record?
JM: I’m trying to think of ways to learn the songs now that they’re out. We learned two of them to play on a show. It feels like a big task to learn them to play live. I guess we should practice.