J Mascis chats vintage guitars, Kurt Vile and the making of Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It Into Space

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


J Mascis chats vintage guitars, Kurt Vile and the making of Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It Into Space

Words by Will Brewster

Five years on from their last full-length effort, we speak with the iconic alternative rock frontman.

“It’s been a rough year,” J Mascis murmurs into a broadcast microphone, seemingly set up to capture his soft-spoken vocals with clarity to serve as a reprieve from the typical recording quality encountered over Zoom. 

The Dinosaur Jr. frontman is right in the depths of the band’s press cycle for Sweep It Into Space: the seminal Massachusetts alternative act’s twelfth full-length effort and their fifth record since reuniting after seven years apart in 2005, and its roll-out couldn’t have been any more removed from what Mascis envisioned it to be.

Read the latest interviews, columns and features here.

Largely recorded at the band’s usual haunt at Amherst’s Biquiteen alongside co-producer and occasional instrumentalist Kurt Vile in late 2019, Sweep It Into Space was originally slated for release in 2020. It, along with the majority of other projects from acts who lean into touring for their primary income, was inevitably pushed back as the realties of the pandemic began to settle, forcing Mascis to hole up and finish the album by himself as the world shut down around him. 

“We were recording right up until lockdown,” Mascis recounts. “Kurt was supposed to come back to finish it and then we told him ‘maybe you shouldn’t come back’, and that was the beginning of it (the pandemic). Then I kind of finished it up by myself.”

Though the lion’s share of Sweep It Into Space was finished by the time Mascis entered lockdown, the alt-rock identity notes that putting the final touches on the record proved to be particularly difficult, with his solitary confinement putting a spanner in the works of his usual recording process.

“I’m not a great engineer, so for anything I do, I usually have other engineers around, so I had to learn a little bit. It’s kind of annoying to try to engineer and play at the same time,” he says, hinting at some of the challenges he faced while recording in isolation.

“There wasn’t too much stuff. All the vocals were already done, so it was just some guitars to add. I had to do this keyboard part (on ‘Take It Back’), which was maybe was the hardest for me. I wanted to have this friend of mine who’s in the B-52s play the keyboard and that couldn’t happen, so I had to try to figure that out. I guess that was the most challenging thing for me.”

Although the band were gifted the liberty of having an entirely empty schedule to tinker with layers or make adjustments to tracks if they desired, Mascis swats away the idea of him chipping away at tracks on his own accord, making it clear that Dinosaur Jr. had no intention to delay the release of Sweep It Into Space for an entire year.

“Nah. It got mastered and everything,” he says. “I just like to finish an album all the way and then forget about it. It was all mastered and finished by April last year.”

Instead of endlessly revising the record, Mascis says that he used his stint in lockdown to lay down ideas for other upcoming projects. He reveals that he completed work on the follow-up to 2012’s Heavy Blanket LP – a collection of psychedelic jams driven by his trademark fuzzy guitar solos – in addition to beginning a brand new solo album.

“I was writing other songs, and I finished recording an instrumental album, the second Heavy Blanket album, and I was trying to write some songs for another album… and watching a lot of TV shows,” Mascis says.

Regardless of his reasoning, Mascis’ apprehension to tinker with the album’s stems ultimately serves for the better. Out today, Sweep It Into Space holds up as another quintessential addition to Dinosaur Jr.’s near-bulletproof back catalogue, and an extension of of the band’s creative renaissance following their hugely successful mid ‘00s reunion.

It’s a record that’s abundant in all the facets that make Dinosaur Jr. one of the most beloved alternative rock acts of all time – think frenzied guitar leads, monolithic drum and bass performances and urgent, yet deceptively poppy songwriting – yet sees the band take notable sonic detours to ensure it stands out within their discography.

‘Take It Back’, for instance, is propelled by a free-wheeling piano riff, while ‘Walking To You’ makes heady use of a Madchester beat to add a distinctive take on the classic Dinosaur Jr. sound. Meanwhile, ‘I Ran Away’ sees Kurt Vile take the band on a jangly twelve-string expedition, with his and Mascis’ duelling guitars throughout the track almost recalling acts like Thin Lizzy, showcasing the duo’s unlikely creative chemistry and making for a highlight of the album.

“I remember my friend telling me to listen to his Childish Prodigy album and he opened for us around that time, and then I had him play on my solo album. We’ve just seemed to cross paths and hang out a lot over the years,” Mascis says of his friendship with Ville, noting that the Philadelphia native’s role on the record extended far beyond merely playing and assisting with production on Sweep It Into Space.

“I like having another perspective, and I like his perspective,” states Mascis. “I think it gives the music some different depth, because it’s adding another whole personality in there. He’s not shy. 

“He’ll listen to stuff and he can try some kind of vocal or a guitar part, and I’ll use it if I like how it fits in the track, but then I don’t have to use it if I don’t like it. He’s also pretty easy going and kind of lightens the mood, because sometimes it gets tense between me and Lou and Murph.”

Mascis begins to open up significantly as talk turns to guitars, defying all expectations of being a man of few words as he offers an insight into how the instrument – or perhaps, the abundance of them that inhabit his personal collection – shapes his songwriting process with the group and as a solo artist. 

“I tend to pick up the acoustic more for writing for my solo stuff. Writing for Dino, I maybe tend to write more on a hollowbody electric or something,” he reveals, describing one notable addition to his collection and its role across the record. 

“Lately, I’ve had this guitar for a couple of years, this cheap Gretsch Double Anniversary from the ‘60s, that seems to be good for writing songs. Some seem to have more songs in them than others, especially if it’s a new guitar to me, you know, like this old guitar that I just got. I’m hoping there are some new songs in it.

As one would expect him to be, Mascis is an absolute fanatic for music gear, and his fondness for vintage guitars is well documented, particularly when it comes to the Fender Jazzmaster. He’s been synonymous with the offset instrument for the better part of three decades now, and is considered in the same regard as fellow alternative flag-bearers like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth when it comes to the guitar’s recent resurgence in popularity – and consequently, pricing.

“Generally, I used to think vintage guitars were from ’65 backwards. Now as time’s going on, I’ve gone all the way up to maybe the mid ‘70s when buying some guitars,” Mascis says of his changing tastes in vintage instruments and the financial damage that comes from chasing those golden era guitars today. “Then for acoustics, I have some even older ones, like ‘40s Gibson’s and stuff, but you know, the ‘50s is generally the sweet spot for electrics.

“It just seems like all the guitar gear seemed to peak in ’59 or something. ’59 was a great year for all of the best amps, and my best Jazzmasters are both ’59s too, even though they’re not as valuable as a ’59 Les Paul or something. But whatever it was, something about that year was great for guitar sounds and equipment.”

J Mascis’ relationship with the Jazzmaster doesn’t just extend to those vintage models, though. He’s also played an extremely understated role in designing what many consider to be one of the best bang-for-buck electric guitars on the market today with his Squier J Mascis Signature Jazzmaster, which even he tends to gravitate towards for live use despite having such a vast hoard of other vintage and rare guitars.

“It just has the features I like, I guess I can just play it easily,” he says of the guitar. “I generally like old guitars for writing songs – I always think the old guitars have songs in them already. With a new guitar, no one has played it, so I don’t know if it could have any songs in it, but for playing live, it doesn’t matter as much. I’d rather play an old guitar, but I’m happy to play a new one also.”

As the world begins to return to some form of normality, Mascis makes mention of his anticipation to return to touring. He notes that he’s already received his COVID-19 vaccination, and is rearing and ready to perform in front of crowds for the first time since 2019 when the band start touring Sweep It Into Space around America next month, reminiscing on the near-spiritual experience of patching your pedals together and preparing to perform in front of crowds.

“I’ve missed it – just playing, you know? Setting up all my stuff and just playing ” he says. “It was weird, we recently did a livestream without an audience and it was really hard to play, because you get so much of your energy from the crowd, and just sitting there playing with no one there and all your stuff out is kind of draining. I was exhausted at the end of it. I thought maybe I’d ride my bike around afterwards, but I was just destroyed. You just really need the crowd to get through the show.”

Although it feels unlikely that we’ll be seeing international acts perform in Australia like they once did any time soon, Mascis does hint at the prospect of a tour somewhere in the near future – however, it seems that there’s one very obvious factor that looks to put an end to that possibility.

“We were actually thinking about Australia and I was reading up on the quarantine thing, although it sounds a little bit sketchy, so I don’t know. It seems like you don’t know if you’re going to be in a good hotel or a shitty hotel, that’s the problem,” he says, letting slip a rare laugh as he goes.

Sweep It Into Space is out now via Jagjaguwar.