Beats being on your back and dying
An interview (of sorts) with alt-rock legends J Mascis and Mike Watt
J Mascis, laconic singer and slacker prototype from mid-'80s pre-grunge trio Dinosaur Jr., has long hair that hides his face when he plays guitar live. Along with the Pixies, the Amherst, Mass., native carried alternative rock (then called college rock) into the ‘90s and is considered one of the greatest punk-guitar heroes of the last 20 years. Spin magazine (those whores) even went so far as to run a cover story that read, “J Mascis is God"—an event he called “the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
Mascis is currently on tour with another heroic rock figure, bassist Mike Watt (formerly of the Minutemen and, later, fIREHOSE). Both of these explosive musicians are proven influences on most alt rock of the last decade. Mascis practically invented grunge but never made it big himself, while bands like Nirvana, which used to open for him, helped bring punk into the commercial mainstream, where it subsequently morphed into stale vomit in the form of bands like Offspring and Blink 182.
San Pedro’s favorite son, Mike Watt released his first solo album with a virtual Who’s Who of celebrity buddies, from Eddie Vedder and Mike D. to Flea, joining him, but has himself remained a solo, small-club touring artist in addition to hosting a SoCal radio show. Mascis and Watt have played together before, once recording a cover of the classic Germs song, “What We Do Is Secret,” for a tribute CD.
The press is considering this 2001 tour “a punk rock summit” that proves these guys are still at the head of the class. To top that, original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton is performing with the group on select dates. Mascis and Co. (Watt and drummer George Berz) are touring in support of his latest self-produced release, More Light, an energetic album full of his trademark slacker-drawl (think Tom Petty OD’d on mushrooms) and cryptic lyrics, as well as guest appearances from Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and Bob Pollard (Guided by Voices).
A soft-spoken man capable of an endless stream of aching melodies with the same minor chords, Mascis is infamously known for brief answers and mumbling disinterest during interviews. Watt (who once lived in Red Bluff) is the opposite, a friendly guy who usually doesn’t mind talking with fans and press alike. On this interview occasion, the group had just spent seven hours driving from New Mexico to Arizona for a gig, so I expected the worst from Mascis. (At least his publicist, Thanh-Thanh Dang, is a joy to work with.)
Mascis called the N&R office by cell phone just before sound check at the Sacramento club Harlow’s and spoke in a deep voice that sounded like a heavily sedated person with a mouthful of charcoal (OK, part of the problem was phone static). His answers were typically short and sounded pained, but were straight to the point. He seemed to warm up a little toward the end, but we were pressed for time, so I got Watt on the phone.
N&R: What’s it like playing with Watt on this tour?
Mascis: Uhhh … pretty cool. I been doin’ it for a while, so…
Has he got you reading his Thomas Pynchon books?
Whah? … I don’t know who that is. Uh … yeah, we just pulled into Arizona.
So how is this tour different from all the others?
It’s been longer than most tours I’ve done (sigh). But it’s been better than a lot of them too … the energy and stuff. Yeah.
Are you ever going to release a live DVD or something with live performances and all your videos?
I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it really.
Your videos don’t get seen. I didn’t realize how many you had till I looked on the Internet.
[Little laugh.] Yeah I was thinking about that lately. It might be good to do a video thing.
Did you hear about Frank Black getting ripped off in Philly—plus Sonic Youth’s gear got stolen a while back. You ever worry about your stuff?
Yeah, I know. But what can you do, you know? You can worry but it doesn’t help.
I haven’t seen you in 10 years or so—at the Boathouse in Norfolk, Va. Your brother and sister were there the last time.
Oh yeah? Yeah, my brother used to live down there.
Anyway, I can remember walking out one time and thinking that I literally couldn’t hear myself think because my ears were ringing so hard. Could you explain your philosophy on volume?
Well for me, I started out playing drums. When I started playing guitar it felt really wimpy and I was trying to get the same kinda power and dynamics out of the guitar that the drums have. I play loud cause I like to feel the guitar more than hear it, like, feel it pounding against me and stuff, I guess.
Why do you always get compared to Neil Young?
Yeah, uhm. It’s probably about my voice. [Jumping back to percussive playing] I’ve played with other guitarists who are more washy kinda, it kinda annoys me; like my rhythm playing is pretty rhythmic, like kinda precise compared to a lot of people, I don’t know, like speed metal or something.
Merle Haggard lives around here, and, you know, he’s back in style with “today’s hipsters.” Do you think that if you do something long enough, if you keep doing the same kinda thing like you have, that success comes in cycles?
[Half-laugh.] Yeah. I don’t know. I think they’re a lot of cycles in life and stuff, but all you can do is just play the music you wanna play. Sometimes maybe people will like it, sometimes they won’t like it. But it’s kind of ridiculous to follow trends. That’s not why I want to play music—it’s for myself, mainly. Hopefully, people will like it.
You were on Saturday Night Live and have a role in the next Allison Anders film [Things Behind the Sun]. You gonna do any more acting?
Not really. I’ve only done it for her, and you know—I’ve never gotten any other requests for acting work, so … I don’t think about it too much. I don’t think I’m really that good at it or anything. It’s not my bag. I like seeing how movies are done and stuff …that’s fun. …I play drums in the movie. I wrote one song for the soundtrack.
How come you’ve never been on The Simpsons? Would you do the theme song for that show?
[Pauses] Uh, sure.
[Wearying] Watt’s not around, is he? Can I talk to him?
Uh. All right. Hold on a second.
This is Watt!
What’s up man? How’s everything going for you on this tour?
You know I was sick, right? [Watt recently had an internal abscess in the perineum area that almost killed him—and would have if not for an emergency removal.] At least I’m getting better. I’m learning a lot by playing with J. He’s widening my horizons.
Is he ruining your hearing?
No, no, but that’s quite an experience, though. You pretty much feel it on stage. Hey Chris, have you seen my diaries? On my Web page, Hootpage.com. You can see exactly what’s going through my head.
You haven’t played Harlow’s (Sac) before, have you?
No, I’m a Cattle Club guy.
I hear it’s some swanky place, like they might have a dress code.
Well then, I might not be able to get in.
You have a favorite opening band this tour?
Yeah, the one with us right now, bro, is really good. Love As Laughter. We been jammin’ with them. J plays drums a couple times. I play bass on “What Goes On in Old Velvet Town.”
When are you guys gonna break out that Germs cover?
Oh yeah! We gotta do that, bro. Can you give us a cassette of that—we need to hear that.
How’s it been, playing with Ron Asheton [original guitarist from the Stooges]?
That is wild. That is great. I grew up with them you know. We’re doing songs off those early Stooges records. “T.V Eye,” “I Gotta Right.” Ian McKaye [Fugazi] wanted to sing some in D.C., but he was on tour.
You guys should record some of these live shows, man.
We are! J’s got a fuckin', uh, one of these T88’s—it’s an eight-track digital recorder, and he’s got two, so 16 tracks. … I think his plan is to release something later on.
What about you? What are you doing after this tour?
We got a Europe one that ends in July, then I’m going to make a record in August. I wrote a lot of songs when I was sick. I’m gonna do a bass, drums and organ record. I gotta guy on organ named Pete Mazich, he’s a great Hammond player, lives in Pedro, too. He’s from a Croatian wedding band but can play like a motherfuck. And Barrett Martin from the Screaming Trees is gonna do the drums.
So this is a long tour.
I been touring since Sept. 11. It beats being on your back and dyin', bro. Hey can you put “Sludgefest” on that tape? That would be great, cause I wanna learn that song.
What do you think about them using the Minutemen song, “Corona,” for the theme to that popular MTV show, Jackass?
Yeah, Spike Jones is a friend of mine, and he asked me. Oh man, it’s very sad. Last week, D. Boon’s dad died [D. Boon was the Minutemen lead singer killed in a van wreck while on tour with Watt in the ‘80s].
I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah, me too. He was like a dad to me. That’s where that money [from the MTV song] was going—to his father.
Yeah… Hey, the Fender people want to take my picture for the 50th anniversary of the Fender Precision Bass and we got soundcheck. I’ll see you in Sac. Out.
And so it goes, talking with two old school punk rockers who never became stars but certainly deserved to be. Two guys raised on noise who might have mellowed personally over the years, but not sonically. Two guys who dispense, like the Dragnet saying, "just the facts, ma’am."