J Mascis (Joseph D. for those who care) doesn’t want to admit it. The one-time frontman for the seminal Dinosaur Jr., and current captain of The Fog, is trying to avoid any blame for alt.rock. Some critics claim Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. helped lay the groundwork for the alternative revolution. Early Dinosaur albums like You’re Living All Over Me and Bug, crammed with Masics’ fur-covered guitar riffs and whiny, apathetic singing, set a budding example for groups like Nirvana et al, mixing aggression with melody. Mascis, frankly, thinks it’s all bullshit.
“Yeah, um, I refuse to take any blame for anything like that,” Mascis says, his voice whining through the phone. “Everybody has so many influences and stuff that I just don’t buy that I’m somehow responsible for that. I deny everything.”
In fact, Mascis doesn’t want to have much to do with his past or his “legacy.” He’s trying to put behind the early ’90s, grunge, flannel, success, whatever, and move on, starting at least partially over. It’s part of the reason that though by the end Dinosaur Jr. had become as much of a band as Nine Inch Nails, Mascis opted to retire the name after 1997’s underrated and overlooked Hand It Over. “It had run its course,” he says. “And I wanted to change it.”
But Mascis never intended to go MIA. Initially he figured he’d end Dinosaur, scurry back to his New England home, and ram out another record. He’d then come up with a new name; bang, everything works out great. Problem was, once Mascis started recording, time began to disappear. Weeks vanished. Suddenly a new millennium was looming. Mascis still can’t explain what happened.
“I don’t know. Time just gets mutated after a while,” he says. “You don’t realize that days and weeks are going by. Suddenly it’s a month later and you don’t know what happens. This album was done over a year ago, and I’ve been working on a new one already. The last one took a long time, though, and I really don’t know why.”
It was worth the wait. More Light (Ultimatum) is both a blast of nostalgia and a hope for the future. Drenched in feedback and Mascis’ signature Neil Young whine, the disc has all the passion of a Gen-Xer talking about his first encounter with Kurt Cobain. Sure, it doesn’t sound much different than Dinosaur Jr.—did you think it would? At the same time, it’s a reminder that rock doesn’t need samples and suburban flow to be powerful and interesting.
From the instant the disc’s first track, “Someday,” chunks through the speakers, you get the feeling that this is what rock was always meant to be: guys with guitars and serious problems. Mascis’ beef: depression, of course. He frets in “Waistin’” that he’s, well, waistin’, begging for someone to “Stop the sleep/Can’t vegetate no more/Snap me out of it.” And in “I’m Not Fine” he squeaks lines like “This is where it all went wrong” out of his nose before rolling off into some high-pitched mumble.
But like Dinosaur, half the time it doesn’t even matter what Mascis is saying. The guy can play guitar. From the fuzzy lick that drives “Where’d You Go” to the solo at the end of “Back Before You Go,” More Light is full of reminders that guitar heroes once walked the earth. But Mascis, continuing his push for full deniability, lays claim to the guitar-hero tag about as quickly as he does “alt-rock father,” pointing out that only, say, Yngwie Malmsteen has the clairvoyance and ego to consider himself a guitar god.
“I mean, a hero is someone I would worship, isn’t it? So I really wouldn’t be digging myself that much,” he says. “I can’t really step outside of myself and worship myself when I play. That seems kind of silly.”
But if Mascis is just your average guy, then at least you can judge his character by the company he keeps. He convinced former Gobblehoof and Dinosaur Jr. drummer George Berz and former Firehose bassist Mike Watt to hit the road with him as The Fog. Both My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Guided By Voices’ Bob Pollard appear on the record, Pollard singing backup on a few tracks and Shields adding some guitars and technical know-how. But while Shields lived with Mascis for seven weeks, flying over from his native England, Mascis never even saw Pollard.
“I just set him a tape,” Mascis says. “I called him. He agreed to do it. I sent him the words and sang it on the tape and then he just did his part and sent it back to me. That was all.”
Of course, even with all the high-powered help, things could still be rough for Mascis. Yeah, the album has soared up the college radio charts and gigs have been selling well. But with pop pushing ever closer to kiddie porn—you go, Britney—and rock lost somewhere between the chip on Fred Durst’s shoulder and the grease in Kid Rock’s hair, you have to wonder if there’s any room left for some shy and tortured guy who likes to play with himself—well, at least on tape. Most kids have probably not only forgotten how to spell Lollapalooza, but also why it was such a big deal. And how can angst compare to Christina Aguilera in hot pants?
“That I don’t know,” Mascis says. “That I really don’t know.”
J Mascis & The Fog play Liquid Joe’s, 1249 E. 3300 South (467-JOES), Tuesday Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m.