Godfather of grunge J Mascis talks about the release of his band’s latest documentary Freakscene
Off the recent premiere of Freakscene, Dinosaur Jr.’s legacy has come to light. The documentary was played in a number of festivals last year including Film Festival Cologne, Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, and the Munich International Documentary Film Festival. Freakscene is meant to give more insight into the band’s history and how they operate as a “dysfunctional family.”
Dinosaur Jr, an Americana suburban alternative rock band from Amherst Massachusetts, was formed in 1984 following the transition from J Mascis’ previous band Deep Wound. It featured Dinosaur Jr.’s initial members, J Mascis and Lou Barlow. Later, Emmett Jefferson Murphy (Murph) took the mantle of drummer and thus completed the trio. Mascis plays guitar and sings lead vocals while Barlow is the bassist and supports Mascis in vocals.
Mascis’ efforts resulted in the band releasing their debut self-titled album within the first year of the band forming. Since then, the group has amassed a discography spanning over ten studio records and nine other records featuring live shows and extended editions. Known to be the godfather of grunge music, Dinosaur Jr. happens to be the precursor to bands such as Mudhoney, as well as the “Big Four” of grunge: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana.
Freakscene showcases never-before-seen footage of the band in their element, whether on stage or in their day-to-day tour lifestyle. Prominent figures in the music industry like Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü) make appearances throughout the documentary, shedding light on the hardships Dinosaur Jr. faced while on tour, from facing hippies from their hometown to struggling with internal conflict.
The Concordian chatted with J Mascis about the band’s history and the new documentary.
TC: I read something almost a decade ago that your initial concept of Dinosaur Jr. was “ear-bleeding country.” What sparked the idea of that concept?
JM: I was just looking for a different form of music. I guess I thought I’d never heard anybody do that so it would be cool. By our second album, we had developed our sound, when during the first album we were just looking for that sound.
TC: Using that sound, did you take anything from your previous band Deep Wound to apply to Dino or did you start with a blank slate?
JM: While learning the guitar, I was trying to incorporate the drums, trying to transpose it to guitar. I played drums in Deep Wound. The guitar felt a lot different than the drums. I was playing [guitar] loud so I had room to have dynamics and use effects to try and get different textures too. Drumming is a lot more expressive with the dynamics and power of it, the guitar didn’t feel as powerful as the drums. I didn’t know much about guitar but I liked the distorted guitar and I said “guess I’ll get a fuzzbox” and I learnt to use the effects and playing the guitar at the same time.
TC: The wall of sound that you, Lou and Murph created, did it remind you of past bands? If so, which ones?
JM: I remember seeing Motörhead and being impressed, it felt like the sound could hold you up. It was this all-encompassing kind of sound. That was definitely inspirational. [Lemmy] was shorter than we expected, I saw him walking around the club playing pinball.
TC: In the documentary, you were regarded as a “straight edge punk” by Murph who called himself a “hippie punk.” What were both of your influences and how did they differ in regard to you being straight edge?
JM: Murph liked a lot of jazz fusion, like Allan Holdsworth, he really liked Frank Zappa [and] Billy Cobham. A little bit of punk mixed in like the Dead Kennedys. But I was more fully into punk and hardcore. We were in this hippie town and I saw a lot of acid tragedies and I was sick of hippies so not taking drugs was kind of a rebellion in my town. I then met other guys like Minor Threat who were also at the same conclusion on drugs. That was another level of relating to punk rock cause I thought that it was all junkies from England so discovering there were other people who were sick of drugs was a revelation. I liked the music of Sex Pistols but I couldn’t relate to Sex Pistols, I couldn’t relate to somebody shooting heroin.
TC: How were you able to gain traction despite being banned from venues in West Massachusetts?
JM: Playing in New York and Europe, and people from our town then liked us better cause they’d see we played in England. I guess that’s what happened to Hendrix, he went to England to sell it back to America.
TC: How do you feel when Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon calls Dino Jr. “the perfect band”?
JM: That’s of course flattering to hear that. I guess we both have a certain sound together which I guess we all realize is valuable, we’re just trying to preserve, ‘cause we grew up playing together and worked hard at it we realized we got something cool so we’re just trying to stick with it.
TC: I remember watching the “Little Furry Things” music video when I was six and it freaked me out with all the transitions. What was your goal with it?
JM: Oh, our friends made it. They were film students at the college we hung out at. That was them experimenting with film and we were just kinda, you know, their subjects. Yeah, this college, Hampshire, there’s five colleges in our town but that’s the one that didn’t have grades and had a lot of crazy people and hippies and rich kids whose parents wanted them to go to school but couldn’t fit into regular school. So especially in high school, it was more fun to hang out there.
TC: Picture your favourite tour and walk me through an average tour day, from a budding musician to another, what was it like?
JM: Our best tour was when we opened for Sonic Youth. We were in Lou’s parent’s car with our stuff crammed in there and followed Sonic Youth down the road. We had never been anywhere and we were going to Detroit and other midwestern towns. It was good to just get out of our town and see a little bit of the world and get to play and somehow that was the best time we’d had.
TC: Could you tell me how you could define your relationship with The Cure?
JM: I guess I liked them more on their earlier albums before they got as poppy. When we covered the song [“Just Like Heaven”] it had recently come out. That was a thing that bands would do in the ‘60s where they would cover recent hits and it hadn’t seemed like people had done that lately. I guess it was kind of a nod to that.
TC: In the documentary, you said that Dinosaur Jr. luckily was not “a Nirvana success.” What do you mean by that?
JM: I guess the main thing is we’re not dead. I don’t know if we could handle it, they [Nirvana] couldn’t handle it. We’re just not built like these old rock stars who think Kurt Cobain’s a pussy like Ted Nugent or Keith Richards who don’t understand where we were at. They were all like, “Yeah we wanna be huge and big big big and it’s great, we’re coming out of the war!” We were all not thinking in those terms. We wanted to make great music but never thought about playing stadiums and stuff so I can see how it’s a bit much. I know how people can’t understand that. “If you got into music if you didn’t want to be huge, why are you playing at all?” It’s just frustrating not to be understood by this [older] generation.
TC: What was the song that you considered most fun to write?
JM: The song “Budge” from Bug, it’s two parts and before that, I was obsessed with having twenty parts in a song. To have a song with just two parts was revolutionary in my mind that could hold my interest; that was somehow fun to me.
TC: With Freakscene being released, what is your goal for the audience to experience? More insight into the story of Dinosaur Jr.?
JM: Just to have people see where we’re coming from, see a band from a different perspective. We definitely feel misunderstood half of the time and I feel that now I can now just show that movie and they’ll have a better understanding of where I was coming from. ‘Cause yeah a lot of people don’t get it.
I’ve heard people I know say “If you’d only talk between songs, you’d be huge,” that was kinda annoying and baffling to me. Just cause I feel too nervous on stage to just talk, I realize that’s an impressive skill but I didn’t really hone that skill.
Some interviewer in France I remember, the guy was like “I hear you’re boring and difficult so I bought some crayons I thought maybe you could draw a picture,” what an intro, oh geez, I’m really psyched to talk to him now. He literally brought magic markers and paper.
TC: Is there anything new in the works?
I finished a Heavy Blanket record which is my instrumental band… I’ve been recording a Witch album recently where I play drums. I’m also working on a new solo album!
Graphic by Miao