I arrive at the BBC Radio One studios in London and find J Mascis, a Fender Jaguar strapped to his tall lanky frame, isolated in a small recording booth. He doesn't look happy, and is pacing up and down like a captive otter at some decrepit metropolitan zoo. In the control room, a BBC engineer presses a button, unleashing a stampede of charging drums and bass. Mascis starts playing along, slumped over, his back to the control room glass. The nimble, kinetic riffs bursting from his amp seems oddly inconsistent with the guitarist's half-dead posture. The track halts and Mascis appears in the control room to the(sic) hear the playback of his solo. It's pretty good, though it starts off with a few tentative squeaks and squalls
"Do you want to keep these...uh...musings?" asks a BBC engineer. "Huh?" responds Mascis. "Musings?"
Clearly, the BBC's efforts to capture the sound of Dinosaur Jr. have run into a few communication snags. Which means that J's roundtable chat with Guitar World and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine will have to be postponed a few hours. Such is life when you're dealing with two of the most inventive, challenging young guitarists around today--not to mention two of the biggest misfits.
In this corner, we have J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.: the recluse of Amherst Massachusetts, the Boo Radley of the underground set, Mascis still lives at Mom and Dad's house in the 'burbs, even though he has made five critically acclaimed albums, gotten signed to Warner Brothers, and been called a genius by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Even sympathetic observers have described Mascis as lethargic, listless, while others use words like cretin, moron or half-wit. Characteristically, J himself doesn't say much of anything. I guess he prefers to let his guitar do the talking.
And talk it does. Mascis's frayed, frustrated leads slash thorugh Dinosaur's thrasy rhythms like a razor blade through an eyeball. The solos on his new album, So What Else is New, attain a new plateau of tortured lyricism.
In the other corner we have Kevin Shields: guitarist, singer, songwriter and overall mastermind of My Bloody Valentine. An Irishman by birth, Kevin has also lived in New York, Berlin and now London. Quiet and trippily introspective, he answers the general description of what's called a "shoe-gazer" in the UK. And he is positively obsessed with guitar sounds--the kind of person who could easily spend an entire day making minor adjustments to the angle of two Vox AC30's pointed at one another and miked from nine different sides. All of which helps explain why My Bloody Valentine's breakthrough album, Loveless, is a brilliant collection of warped, other-worldly guitar tones and mind-bending pop hooks. As soon as it appeared in 1991, the record was universally acclaimed as a masterpiece of the new Nineties guitar rock. The trouble is it took an awful lot of time and money to record. It's rumored that this is why the Valentines were dropped by their English label, Creation. Not to worry, though: Shields and his group recently found a new English home on Island Records. (They'll continue on Warner Brothers in the States.) Kev is in the process of building his own studio, where he will record the band's much-anticipated follow up to Loveless. He promises this one'll be done much more quickly.
Though they have very different personalities, J Mascis and Kevin Shields are actually good friends. They share a fondness for wringing bold new sounds from groovy old axes like Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars. They like to swap guitars. Both are avid studio hounds who do all the arranging and play many of the instruments on their respective bands' records.
J Mascis and Kevin Shields are two leading exponents of the radical new guitar aesthetic that is a byproduct of the alternative scene; they are helping to redefine what the electric guitar is supposed to do in a rock and roll song. So put them together and they're bound to have plenty to say about the state of modern guitar playing, right? Three hours after arriving at Radio One, I'm still waiting to find out, sitting around the dowdy BBC canteen with Shields while J completes his recording.
"The era of the spiky, pointy guitar is over," declares Kevin, referring to Eighties guitars, wang bars and all that stuff. "And it's time someone invented some new effects." Actually, Kevin and J are both trying to do just that, working in tandem with Roger Mayer, the engineer who designed many of Hendrix's pedals. Kev's theory is that the human brain just knows that present-day guitar effects aren't real.
"It gets back to primitive survival instincts," he says, "the ability to localize sounds in space--that feeling when you're in the woods and a twig snaps or something rustles in the underbrush and your heart starts pounding. I'd like to achieve something like that with a guitar effect." If anything sums up the new alternative guitar vibe, it's this spirit of sonic adventurousness.
It so happens that adventurous is just the word that describes anyone who tries to interview these guys together. When we finally settle down for a chat in J's hotel suite, the night is history and the clock proclaims the wee hours of the morning. By this point, Mr. Mascis is slumped down on a sofa, a Domino's pizza box lying horizontally across his chest. He's carefully arranged things so that there's the shortest possible distance between his mouth and the contents of the box. This is a man who really doesn't like to exert himself. Music critic Robert Hilburn has noted that interviewing J. Mascis is like throwing a ball to a dog that responds by just staring at you dumbly rather than chase the ball. Now try to imagine that same dog extremely jet lagged, stoned on pot and cranky from having just endured a long, difficult recording session. But with his good pal Kevin Shields by his side, Mascis somehow summons up the strength to speak.Let's talk about the new Dinosaur Jr. album. Have you heard it Kevin?
KEVIN SHIELDS: Yeah, it sounds good. Actually I think it's a lot warmer than the one before [Green Mind]. I was trying to explain this to J earlier. The top end is real open and vicious. All the lead bits are really agressive. but it's warm at the same time--without being over-trebly either.I thought the leads were more lyrical and sustained than what you've done in the past, J. Were you going for a different style or sound this time?
J. MASCIS: [long pause]No.It just came out that way?
JM: [irritated] It sounds exactly like all my other leads to me.Come on, even the solo on "Get Me"?
JM: That's one of my favorites. That's the best one.What about the orchestral tracks on the record?
JM: I thought this was Guitar World.I think we can talk about what's around the guitar playing as well.
JM: So what's your question?What made you decide to use an orchestra?
JM: A quartet.A quartet then.
JM: I don't know.Did the song call for it? Is it something you'd always wanted to do?
JM: No. I never thought about it. 'Cause we never had the money to do it before. But the timpani [on "What Else Is New" and "Not the Same"], yeah, that's my favorite thing to play. I always wanted to put timpani on a record. That's why even for this stupid radio session I said, "Get me the timpani!"How long have you two guys been friends?
KS: [obviously not serious] Oh, since childhood. We used to be pen pals.
JM: Yeah, altar boys.
KS: Except for late-Eighties and early-Nineties English punk bands, I'm not sure.
JM: I guess I just had the classic rock upbringing: buying records all the time, listening to everything my older brother had. And then I was into punk rock. And then hardcore. And then the Birthday Party [an experimental early-Eighties Australian group; Nick Cave was the singer].
KS: Yeah, The Birthday Party were also my favorite band at that time. They're pretty much why I formed a band. Them and the Cramps.
JM: Yeah, everyone went for the Birthday Party after the real hardcore thing died out.
JM: No. Come on! I liked the Beach Boys in grammar school and then I got into Aerosmith, Deep Purple,
Creedence...just different bands. Then I was exclusively into the Stones, probably for a year straight.
That's where I get the most of my guitar thing: the Mick Taylor/Keith Richards era. I played drums at
first. And I'd borrow other people's guitars. All I'd play were leads, I remember; I never played
any chords, really, until Dinosaur.
KS: You played lead guitar before you played chords?
JM: Yeah. I played with this punk band, Deep Wound, and I just played the lead. Chords hurt my hands.
JM: Uh, yeah. I just hated barre chords--pressing my finger down. So I'd just play lead along with the records.When you discovered punk, did you totally repudiate your classic rock past?
JM: Of course. I sold all my old records. But I bought them all back. I grew out of that. When punk first happened, though, it just seemed much more immediate and important than anything else around at the time. I remember sincerely feeling, "How could anyone listen to anything else?"Kevin, did you ever go through a conventional rock period?
KS: No. The only bands that played lead guitar that I actually liked were Jimi Hendrix and Dinosaur Jr. That's true. It seems flamboyant, but I've never been into the polished stuff.How did each of you discover Fender Jaguars and/or Jazzmasters?
KS: I've had a Japanese one since '82.
JM: Well, Slimy Bob ripped me off--Slimy Bob's Guitar Ripoff Shop. He was just this weird guy. He had a gun and mace in his store and he'd mace his employees for fun. Just start laughing. You could tell all his stuff was stolen. He'd have these ads that were all fake, like "Strat: $400." The bait and switch thing. So i painted this house and got about $500, and I went down there. I wanted to buy a Strat. I just wanted it to write songs on; I was still playing drums at the time. And of course Slimy Bob didn't have and kind of decent Strat for under $500. But he had a jaguar for $200 and a Jazzmaster for $300. The Jazzmaster has a beat-up neck, which I liked. It had no finish on it. And it had Grover tuning pegs, which I always admired from Peter Frampton and Humble Pie records. So I spent the extra hundred and bought the Jazzmaster. And it's the one I still play--my first guitar.
JM: Live, yeah. And on record, I use it for about half the leads. Not much for rhythm. I usually use Gibsons for that. I've got a Les Paul, but the SG Junior is my favorite. Anything with P-90's. I don't have any humbuckers at all.Are you into vintage stuff?
JM: Yeah, I refuse to buy anything past 1970. That really limits your choice of guitars; you waste
KS: That's okay though--I spent about 350 quid [roughly $550] putting my Japanese Jazzmaster in half decent shape. So if you want a good guitar, it actually is worth your money to buy an older one.
JM: I like the necks on older guitars. They've been worn. Somebody's played it. It's like a baseball glove which somebody has broken in for you or something. And even though the old stuff is getting more expensive, it still can be cheaper than buying some hideous modern Nuno guitar. Modern guitars are just shit. I can't understand why anyone would want one. And I don't understand why having a guitar that is real easy to play is considered a good thing. I always thought it was bad--you start playing too fast.
JM: Yeah. I can't play leads on Gibsons for that reason; it sounds sort of boring. Well not really
boring, but kind of Dicket Betts, you know? It's faster and smoother, but there's less style there.
KS: My first guitar was an SG, then I got a Les Paul copy. Then I went through a phase of 335 copies. Then I bought that Ibanez Jazzmaster I mentioned. It looked good--that's why I got it.
JM: I thought my Jazzmaster looked like shit. I was bummed. I liked the Jaguar, but I hated the Jazzmaster's pickups. I kept thinking of Elvis Costello. I said, "well, I'll never play it outside my house, so no one will ever know I have it." Jaguars look cool. But Jazzmasters--uggh, those pickups!
KS: Yeah, but the Jaguar's got a short scale neck, like a Gibson. Only it's a bolt-on neck, unlike
Gibsons[which have a glue- in neck]. So it's crappy--a short-scale neck but without the Gibson sustain:
you get all the disadvantages. You can't get that nice open string sound on the Jaguar, because the
short-scale neck doesn't sustain as well. It's more of a pokey guitar. But then the Jazzmaster can get
JM: I always replace the bridges on Jazzmasters. 'Cause that first one I bought didn't have the original bridge, and then when I got another one I looked at the bridge and said, "What is this piece of shit?"
KS: Yeah.How did you discover that anyway?
KS: I was trying to imitate string bending and slide-playing, which I couldn't really do. I thought maybe if I tuned two strings to nearly the same pitch and then bent them with the wang bar, maybe it would sound like I was doing that. I borrowed a nice Jazzmaster from a friend, but it had a re-made tremolo that was really big. So I put tape on it to keep it from going all the way into the socket.J, the rhythm guitars on your new album sound grungey but thick, and very warm-sounding. Did you layer the guitar tracks more heavily this time?
JM: No. Much less.
KS: Maybe that's what it is. You can hear the dynamics in the rhythm.
JM: And I have a good amp now, too--a '59 Bandmaster. It sounds great with an SG Jr.
JM: Sure. A '52 gold top Les Paul with P90's, through my Big Muff and into a '64 blackface Fender Deluxe.Do you use a lot of pedals?
JM: No; just a Big Muff and a custom-made Roger Mayer wah. It's really hard for me to play with
things like Boss pedals. Brutal.
KS: Older distortion pedals that work on circuit boards seem to be better than the ones that use chips, like the modern Japanese distortion pedals. So I also go thorugh some older-style distortion pedals that Roger Mayer made for me.
JM: Live, I've been using Roger's wah to, like, kill people: step on it and watch people fall down. You always see people out in the audience sort of squinting.
JM: Yeah, I do.
KS: Me too!
JM: [to Kevin] Yeah, I didn't like that part of your show when I first saw it, 'cause it was only around
12 minutes. It didn't last long enough! But later on, when I saw you headline a show, it lasted 20
KS: Once we did it for 40 minutes.
KS: No, half the audience left. But we had to try it. It is better longer; it only works because
it's so long. 'Cause after a while you lose all perspective.
JM: That's when you start hearing something.
JM: Huh? What?Grunge bands,--new groups coming out in baggy shorts and with unwashed hair?
JM: I can't admit to knowing anything about that. I like Seattle, it's a nice town.
KS: Good trees.
JM: And Nirvana is awesome. Their whole success is very easy to understand. As for the other bands, I don't know. I don't see any scenes, really. Except for ska. That was a scene. And hardcore. What bands do you think sound like Nirvana?
JM: I don't know.
KS: I think it's just good for business people. If the people who control the media think that's a more viable form of music, maybe they'll put more of a push behind it. I don't think the average person could care less, but because of it, maybe some people will be able to accept music that's not so easy to absorb--something besides corporate mainstream rock.
JM: Right. I hate the idea of alternatives. I just like to work within limitations; otherwise, I
can't get anything done. If everything is possible, why do anything?
KS: I just use alternative tunings because I can come up with songs and ideas without trying that hard. And they're no worse than songs that people try real hard at. It's like an inspiration thing.
JM: I get that same inspiration from using different guitars. Neil Young once said that every guitar's got a couple of songs in it. I read that last year and thought, "that's exactly how I've always thought of it!" It's weird, that thought that you can play a guitar out totally, until there's just nothing left in it. That's why I buy different guitars occasionally--just so I can have a couple more songs. It's a lot more expensive than alternative tunings, though!
KS: I don't know; I just make them up, so it's hard to remember them. Even writing down is a problem, because I'm slightly dyslexic. I copy anything I see written down backwards. So I just make up a tuning and use it till I get bored with it. Or until a string breaks.What's your outlook on technique, J? Do you practice?
JM: [as if emerging from a deep sleep] Ahhhh, in what sense?What do you do to keep your chops up?
JM: Chops? I don't have chops. Who do you think I am, Yngwie?Come on, you can play some lead guitar.
JM: Mmmmwwwell, I've been screwed up all year from touring. I don't know--some kind of tendinitis or whatever.Cramping?
JM: No, my hand is just kind of weak--but weak because it's too strong. The muscles are too big and the tissue around them squeezes them. So you feel weak, but your arm's actually too overdeveloped. It's weird.Anything else you'd like to say to the young, guitar-playing kids out there?
JM: [after a profound silense] I just don't know if they'd listen to me.Well assuming they would listen, what would you say?
JM: I have a lot of things to say. Never use humbuckers. And don't buy any Japanese pedals.I'm sure Bob Dylan couldn't have put it any better.