Written by Chrissy Mauck for Fender.com
As founder and guitar hero of alt-rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis could easily be content with sticking to the sonic formula that’s worked so well for his century-old band, his long string of side projects — Deep Wound, Gobblehoof, Velvet Monkeys, the Fog, Witch and Sweet Apple, and during his innumerable guest sessions. Instead, the 45-year-old seasoned vet left behind the comforts of his stacks of amps, sidestepped his gargantuan guitar tones, blistering solos and balls-to-the-wall hard-rock drumming, and entered the Bisquiteen Studios in Amherst, Mass., with only his acoustic guitar in tow.
“I used to play a lot of acoustic shows and my friend Megan (Jasper), who worked for Sub Pop, was always asking me to do an acoustic album because she liked the shows,” Mascis explained when he visited our Fender digs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. “I just hadn’t gotten around to it because Dino got back together. So it’s been probably eight years or so in the making.”
The result, Several Shades of Why, is significant not only because it marks the first solo studio album in Mascis’s 25-year recording career, but because its acoustic setting reveals a whole new vulnerability and delicacy that’s not usually associated with the Dino Jr. mastermind.
Although not one for being loquacious when it comes to interviews, Mascis has plenty to say on Several Shades of Why, where his raspy, Neil Young-like vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics are front and center, revealing a quiet firestorm of emotion.
“Listen to me/I can’t wait to see you/I can’t wait to be you,” he pleads on “Listen to Me,” wearily croons “I know my soul is battered and I know my mind is gone” on “Is It Done,” and tenderly professes, “I’m not saying much, I tried hard, that’s all I do” on the folk-tinged title track.
But despite our attempts to glean deep insight or significance behind these words, Mascis insists his lyrics are more of an afterthought.
“I just sit around and play the guitar and come up with little riffs that I like, and then I piece them together and add the lyrics at the end,” he says. “They are nothing specific. It’s not like a certain line comes from something specific. I just sing lyrics at the end.”
Mascis was deliberate, however, in choosing his album’s guest collaborators: Kurt Vile, Sophie Trudeau (A Silver Mount Zion), Kurt Fedora (long-time collusionist), Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses, Pall Jenkins (Black Heart Procession), Matt Valentine (The Golden Road) and Suzanne Thorpe (Wounded Knees).
“I wanted it to sound different than I thought I could make it sound myself,” Mascis says. “I wanted to have different atmospheres and textures so I asked a lot of different people to play on it. Like Sophia, she played violin on ‘Several Shades of Why,’ which I thought came out really good (huge understatement), and Suzanne plays flute on ‘Make it Right.’”
Still, Mascis was surprised by how some of the collaborations ended up sounding.
“For some people, I had it more in my head what it would sound,” he explains. “Like Ben’s vocals or Kurt Vile (who toured with Dinosaur Jr. in 2010). I liked the way some of Kurt’s stuff sounded and so when he played, it was what I expected and not as surprising as some people. I didn’t know what Pall was going to play and it was interesting.”
Although he sticks with acoustic guitar throughout the album, the silver-haired wizard of fuzz still lays down a contrasting bit of thick-toned electric-sounding soloing right about the three-minute mark on “Is It Done.”
“I just played that part through a fuzz box that Jim (Roth) from Built to Spill built,” shares Mascis. “I guess it’s a copy of a tone bender. I can’t remember which one it is that he copied, but I used that a lot for the fuzz on the acoustic.”
Although Several Shades of Why departs from the heavy-hitting vibe of his current projects with Dinosaur Jr., Witch or Sweet Apple, his songwriting and instrumentation are as dynamic as ever. As the Sub Pop press release notes, “Every note even, bears that distinct Mascis watermark, both in the shape of the tunes and the glorious rasp of the vocals. Ten brilliant tunes that quietly grow and expand until they fill your brain with the purest pleasure.”
But for those who just can’t be moved without his distinctive Jazzmaster wail, squeal and laconic roar, rest assured, his go-to models are never far from reach.
“It’s kind of become a point of contention for my wife because I have guitars strewn all over the house,” says Mascis. “There were about six or seven Jazzmaster guitars sitting on the couch when I left for SXSW. Hopefully they’ll at least keep the dog off the furniture while I’m gone.”