Without a Sound
Can I help you, gentlemen?” The balding Brooks Brothers clerk looks worried. Above him looms J Mascis—the indie guitar guru not so long ago dubbed ”God” by one national rock mag-resplendent in ”Big Bertha” golf visor, oversize sunglasses, purple suede Pumas, and at the moment, an ill-fitting, navy wool 42-long.
”Everything in this store is pretty bland and boring,” the salesman babbles nervously. ”You probably want something a little livelier.” He shrugs helpfully. ”I mean, do you like that suit? You don’t look too enthusiastic.”
The faintest of smiles reveals that J appreciates the irony. ”I,” he mumbles in his famously sleepy drawl, ”am not usually too enthusiastic.”
Coming from J Mascis, that slacker mantra sounds like a Descartesian axiom. Ever since his band’s eponymous 1985 debut, the assiduously unkempt frontman for Amherst, Mass., alterna-heroes Dinosaur Jr has ruled the kingdom of fuzzy guitar rock with a limp wrist. While devotees (including Matt Dillon and Chris Farley) have gobbled up the slashing melodies and fiercely plaintive lyrics on Dino Jr’s four subsequent albums, Mascis, 28, has successfully branched out into producing (Tad, firehose), and film (acting in and scoring Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging). He’s also developed a reputation — one built on maddeningly comatose interviews, navel-gazing live performances, and his refusal to move out of his parents’ house until last year — as somewhat of a wuss.
These days, that’s not such a bad thing. Outside of elder statesmen like Mick Jagger, Cock Rock gods no longer walk the earth. While frontwomen like Courtney Love and L7’s Donita Sparks appropriate traditional rocker bravado, the cutting edge throws up male stars like Eddie Vedder, Evan Dando, and Mascis-shy, introspective, outwardly incapable of dealing.
Yet here’s Mascis actively hunting for a suit-sartorial foundation for pillars of the community-and at the tres stodgy Brooks Brothers, no less. With a new album (Without a Sound) on the college charts, and an amusing Spike Jonze-directed clip (”Feel the Pain”) in MTV’s star-making Buzz Bin, it appears that the quintessential alterna-Dude wants, if not to join respectable society, to at least dress as if he has.
”J likes giving out false impressions,” says Jason Apodaca, frontman for San Francisco band Cinderblock and a high school pal. ”He used to drive me crazy because every time I’d drink a beer (at a club), he’d go, ‘Let me have your bottle.’ And then he’d walk around with it, even though he didn’t drink.” Adds producer Sean Slade, who worked on Dinosaur Jr’s Bug (1989) and Green Mind (1990) albums, ”J likes to keep the world at bay.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than on stage, where Mascis has become legendary for hiding behind a Cousin Itt-like mane of hair, even on 1993’s Lollapalooza Main Stage. ”I’m more nervous than guys like Mick Jagger,” he murmurs, pausing often between sentences. ”I’m fine when I’m playing, but in between songs, I can’t think of anything to say. I’d like to be a better entertainer. I think it would be cool for me.”
The shrinking-violet Mascis, despite being an avid skier and golfer, is also known as a couch potato of epic stature. But the former drummer doesn’t exactly cringe from the spotlight: ”At one point, J was considering joining Nirvana—they were looking for a drummer (in 1990),” recalls Slade. ”I said, ) ‘Why would you want to do that?’ And he said, ‘Because they’re gonna be huge.”’
”It’s not like I want to sell millions of records but I would just like things to make sense,” says Mascis sadly. ”I thought our last record (1993’s crossover attempt, Where You Been) would do better. But it seems like the record company (Sire) dropped the ball. Maybe they were more concerned with Belly. Whatever. And when I see other bands, who I think should sell less than us, selling a lot more I get confused.”
At the moment, having bailed on Brooks Brothers in favor of the trendier Romeo Gigli boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mascis has grounds for feeling discombobulated. A rotund matron with a tomato pincushion strapped to her left wrist encircles his flabby waist, loosening the blue corduroy slacks he’s sampling. ”Step up here, and put on your shoes,” she orders. Mascis looks down blankly. ”These are your shoes?” the tailor asks, holding up a ratty Puma. ”Marco!” She claps her hands, and a clerk scurries off in search of spare wing tips.
For all his supposed helplessness, though, Mascis has developed a martial reputation in the studio. Until Without a Sound, on which he plays both guitar and drums, he wrote all of Dinosaur Jr’s drum parts and had former drummer Murph copy them exactly. ”Somebody ran into Murph at a club (this spring), and Murph said, ‘Yeah, I’m waiting for J to call me,”’ says Slade. ”And J had already been in the studio (working on Sound) for two weeks!”
Yet his friends adamantly deny that Mascis’ passive-aggressive and control- freak tendencies mean that he’s a cold fish. ”I think that this new album is far more accessible in terms of emotions,” says Anders. ”His father dying (in 1993) had a huge impact on him. I think J probably needed people after that, and he realized he was going to have to do what was necessary to draw supportive people to him.”
”I’m working on being happier,” Mascis admits, riding home with a $1,374.78 Romeo Gigli receipt tucked into his gray jeans. ”I even tried to learn how to meditate but this instructor told me I didn’t have enough energy.”