Masterful Mascis
Dinosaur Jr. declared extinct yet one member evolves
By Alan Sculley

J Mascis looking toward the future, not the past

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.

In an interview last week, Mascis didn't shed much light on the end of Dinosaur Jr. This, of course, was no surprise considering Mascis is well known as a man of few words when it comes to his discussions with the press.

Since the 1991 CD, Green Mind, Mascis had been the unquestioned frontman of Dinosaur Jr. This shift followed an early period when Mascis shared songwriting duties with Lou Barlow (who later formed Sebadoh) after Barlow quit the group in 1988. An attempt to form a new four-piece lineup fell apart, leaving Mascis to record most of Green Mind himself. From that point on, Mascis was so much the focal point of Dinosaur Jr. that many wondered if the band essentially had become a solo project.

Against that backdrop it was only natural to wonder how doing a solo CD like More Light was different from working within Dinosaur Jr. Mascis's answer raised as many questions about the demise of Dinosaur Jr. as it did answers.

"It feels more fun somehow," Mascis said of the More Light project. "It's like a burden or something has been lifted."

Asked what burden surrounded Dinosaur Jr., he elaborated. "It just felt good to let it go or something."

Formed in 1984 by guitarist Mascis, bassist Barlow and drummer Murph (full name Patrick Murphy), Dinosaur Jr. debuted in 1985 with a self-titled CD on the indy label Homestead Records.

The group's move in 1987 to the influential post-punk label SST Records (home of Husker Du, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets), in Mascis's view, remains one of the most memorable moments of Dinosaur Jr.'s career.

"Our goal was to be on SST (Records)," Mascis said. "So early on we achieved our big goal."

In the eyes of the music world in general though, the SST years had a more wide-reaching impact. The band's 1987 debut for SST, You're Living All Over Me, earned the band strong reviews and a much higher profile on the indy 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's 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 in the 1990s.

The original lineup, though, would make only one more album, Bug, before Barlow left in 1988.

"That was like the first album that was kind of like a disintegration of the band," Mascis said of the Bug era. "That's like my least favorite album."

The next CD, Where You Been, featured the debut of bassist Mike Johnson, and is considered by many to be among the band's strongest and most accessible efforts. Its sound retained the sonic punch of earlier albums while upping the melodic content. It also produced the group's biggest hit with the song "Start Choppin'."

The final two albums, Without A Sound (1994) and Hand It Over (1997), though, failed to generate the same buzz, and in 1997 Mascis officially declared Dinosaur Jr. extinct.

Mascis then retreated to his long-time home of Amherst, Massachusetts. He scored the music for the Allison Anders' film Gas Food Lodging. Then from October 1998 to June 1999 he began working on material for the More Light CD in his basement studio, named "Bob's Place," after his dog.

Those who miss Dinosaur Jr.'s distinctive sound will be pleased by what they hear on More Light. The CD sounds very 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 also show that Mascis remains a force on guitar. Overall, the CD sounds fresher, hookier and more inspired than the final two Dinosaur Jr. records.

But Mascis did make one significant departure from his Dinosaur Jr. days, writing several songs on electric piano instead of guitar.

"I can't play piano," Mascis said. "I've had one for awhile. I bought one after the major label [deal]."

The fact that he hadn't mastered the piano was a main reason Mascis chose to try writing songs with the instrument. He said he thought his lack of knowledge would bring out dimensions in his songs he couldn't achieve by writing on guitar.

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 said. "We're actually only doing one [song written on piano]. We're doing eight songs off the album."