After 13 years fronting Dinosaur Jr., one of the most enduring and respected bands to emerge on the early 1980s post-punk music scene, J Mascis has stepped out as a solo artist with the recently released CD, "More Light." He plays in Richmond at Alley Katz on Friday, April 13, with Mike Watt of Firehose and George Berz of Dinosaur Jr.
Those who miss Dinosaur Jr.'s distinctive sound will be pleased by what they hear. The CD sounds much like the work of Mascis in his previous band. Stellar songs like the crashing "Same Day," the concise and catchy "Where'd You Go," and the propulsive and brash "I'm Not Fine" feature the familiar blend of melody and crunch, and show that Mascis remains a force on guitar.
But in a recent interview, Mascis doesn't shed much light on the end of Dinosaur Jr. This, of course, is no surprise, considering Mascis is well-known as a man of few words when it comes to his discussions with the press.
Formed in 1984 by guitarist Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph (Patrick Murphy), Dinosaur Jr. debuted in 1985 with a self-titled CD on the indie label Homestead Records. The group moved in 1987 to the influential post-punk label SST Records (home of H�sker D�, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets) with "You're Living All Over Me." The album earned the band strong reviews and a higher profile on the indie-music circuit.
It was also an album that cemented Dinosaur Jr.'s musical trademarks a thick yet melodic rock sound built around loud and fuzzy guitars and Mascis' grainy, laid-back vocals. Today, that sound is considered an early blueprint for the grunge rock style popularized by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Also, Dinosaur Jr.'s liberal use of guitar solos sets it apart. To that point, guitar solos had been a missing ingredient in the minimalist hard-charging sound of virtually all other post-punk bands.
With the release of the 1991 CD, "Green Mind," on major label Sire/Warner Bros., Mascis became the unquestioned frontman of Dinosaur Jr. Barlow (who later formed Sebadoh) quit the group, leaving Mascis to record most of "Green Mind" himself. Mascis became so much the focal point of Dinosaur Jr. that many wondered if the band essentially had become a solo project.
Against that backdrop it is only natural to wonder how doing a solo CD like "More Light" is different from working within Dinosaur Jr. Mascis' answer raises as many questions about the demise of Dinosaur Jr. as it does answers. "It feels more fun somehow," he says of the "More Light" project. "It's like a burden or something has been lifted."
In 1997, Mascis declared Dinosaur Jr. extinct after the group's final two albums, "Without A Sound" (1994) and "Hand It Over" (1997), failed to generate much buzz. Mascis then retreated to his home in Amherst, Mass., and scored the music for the Allison Anders film "Gas Food Lodging." From October 1998 to June 1999 he began working on material for "More Light" in his basement studio, named "Bob's Place," after his dog.
As the songs took shape, Mascis recruited Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices to sing on three tracks, and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine to play guitar, percussion and sing on several tracks. Mascis invented a name for what was a nonexistent band, crediting the "More Light" CD to J Mascis and the Fog.
On "More Light" Mascis makes one significant departure from his Dinosaur Jr. days, writing several songs on electric piano instead of guitar. "I can't play piano," he says. "I've had one for awhile. I bought one after the major label [deal]."
The fact that he hasn't mastered the piano is a main reason that he chose to try writing songs with the instrument. He says he thought his lack of knowledge would bring out dimensions in his songs he couldn't achieve by writing on guitar.
"I like the fact that I can't play it," he says. "I like how people write things when they can't play particularly. I can't get back to that point on guitar, so it's more interesting a lot of times [to write on piano]."
The impact of Mascis' foray into piano-land is heard most blatantly on songs like "Waistin'" a hazy midtempo pop tune built around electric piano and washes of synthesizer, "Ground Me To You," another gentler song that actually features a brief yet effective piano solo. Recording those songs, though, has presented one challenge Mascis has not been able to fully resolve.
"It's a totally different feel. It's kind of hard to play the songs live," he says "We're actually only doing one [song written on piano]. We're doing eight songs off the album. One of the ones, 'Waistin',' we're doing [live]. ...That one's coming out all right. It's the only one I do."
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