J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr's teenage obsessions: 'When I turned 13, I felt I had to drop out of society'

As he prepares to release Dinosaur Jr’s 12th studio album, the slacker icon discusses his conflicted attitude towards hippies and his unlikely affection for Harold and Maude and All My Children

Harold and Maude

I live a mile from the house I grew up in in Amherst, Massachusetts. Our dad was a dentist, but like a cobbler’s son has no shoes, he didn’t like to treat us because work was his own space. So my mom would make appointments to see him under a fake name. As a teenager, I was kind of a dick. I had opinions on everything.

I saw Harold and Maude when I was 13. It’s a film about a kid who attends strangers’ funerals and repeatedly fakes his own suicide. I guess it’s not the normal thing for a teen to relate to, but I was never accused of being normal [laughs]. He drove a Jaguar which he had converted into a hearse. The film really spoke to me: I didn’t like the world, either, and when I turned 13 I felt I had to drop out of society. He meets a 79-year-old woman called Maude who opens his eyes to the world. Maybe I was looking for a Maude but I never found one, although this guy Charlie [Nakajima], who became the singer in my hardcore band Deep Wound, schooled me in punk rock. A few years ago I bought a giant Harold and Maude movie poster from Belgium and I have it up in the house now.

Woodstock (the film)

Woodstock
Woodstock. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

I saw this in a big old rundown theatre in town at around the same age, and the music resonated. I really liked Richie Havens, the Who, Ten Years After. Later, I got into the Canned Heat footage which wasn’t in the movie originally. Amherst was a hippy town and I got sick of hippies pretty quickly – the film probably accentuated my punk thing. I cut my hair with scissors and looked awful because it wasn’t quite right all the way round. My grandma liked it, because she couldn’t see that well. She’d hated my long hair, so thought it was an improvement.

I think this film is why I wasn’t into drugs, because I saw all the hippy acid casualties and it seemed really lame. The hippies in town would have thousands of Grateful Dead live tapes and they’d trade them with each other. “Oh, Winterland 71!” It was too much for me, but I was very impressed that everyone at Woodstock had Marshall [amplification] stacks. When I started Dinosaur Jr, people would give you shit for playing loud. So Marshall stacks made us louder. I thought: “Well it worked then, why can’t it work now?”

Kelly Ripa
Kelly Ripa. Photograph: Steve Fenn/Walt Disney/Getty

All My Children

This was a soap opera that ran for four decades in the States. I liked the fact that it was on every day and endless, like the longest movie ever. If you missed a few months it was easy to jump back in. It was set in a suburb and really wasn’t that interesting. One guy played his [own] evil twin brother. There wasn’t anything that would obviously appeal to me – it wasn’t about kids or anything – but I associated it with skipping school. There were very few channels and nothing else to watch so I guess it was comforting that it was on all the time. When I was 26, I got to go to the set in New York ’cos Ben Stiller’s mother was in it and he wanted me to do some music for a movie. I met Kelly Ripa [who played Hayley Vaughan] and other stars from the show. It was awesome.

Eater

Eater – No Brains

We had a cool record store run by an Anglophile who had records from England that no one had bought, so he had 50 copies of the Eater album [The Album, 1977]. They were the youngest punk band – the drummer was 14, so relatable to me. I might have listened to this album more than any album ever. I liked their version of the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane, and they covered Alice Cooper’s I’m Eighteen but renamed it Fifteen and sped it up, which I thought was pretty cool. Here, nobody knew anything about punk. These records would just show up with no context, so you’d make up your own story about them. I liked the Dead Kennedys and the Ramones but when I discovered American hardcore I could relate to that even more. They were bored teenage kids. They didn’t necessarily have any problems. They were just pissed off. A magazine had an article on the best 100 punk singles ever and I collected them all. I got into the third generation [Scottish] punk bands like the Exploited. I ran into Big John [Duncan], their guitarist, when he was Nirvana’s roadie. I was really starstruck.

Nick Cave
Nick Cave of the Birthday Party on stage in Brixton, 1982. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

The Birthday Party

I was 16 or 17 and starting college. Hardcore seemed like it was over and I was looking for the next thing to listen to. I landed at the Birthday Party. Very noisy. I discovered them the way I discovered everything then, probably through the record store or reading about them in a fanzine. I liked the Bad Seed EP the most, with Mick Harvey playing drums. My room mate in college hated it ’cos I would play Deep in the Woods and he’d be like “‘The knife feels like knife …’ What the fuck does that mean?” There was someone [Nick Cave] screaming in your face. It seemed very antisocial. He thought they were horrible. I’m bummed that I never got to see them, but I saw the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds tour and they played Mutiny in Heaven, which is as close as I got apart from VHS tapes. When I started Dinosaur, the Birthday Party were my favourite band, but what came out of us didn’t sound anything like them. I’ve met Nick and the first few times I was pretty freaked out. Now it’s not so bad.

Skateboarding

We didn’t have the concrete skateparks they do now, but there was an indoor one and the ramps were made of fibreglass or something. One of the ramps was really cool. It had circles on and if you put a quarter in and skated, each circle would light up as you went over it. Some were so high up you were almost vertical. Only one kid could do them all. But people would skate at college and we made a ramp on my street. When skateboarding was on TV they played Ted Nugent, so you’d have to mute the music. It was difficult not to get hurt while skating, which steers me away from it now, but I still skate a bit. Nowadays, I think about ramps and the feeling of being weightless a lot for some reason. I have an Alva – a remake of my teenage skateboard – and I got Tony Alva to sign it. I can still do the daffy, which is [riding] two skateboards, doing a wheelie. I do that to impress people, cos kids don’t do that now. I haven’t really changed much since junior high.

Dinosaur Jr’s new album, Sweep it Into Space, is released on 23 April on Jagjaguwar

This article was amended on 25 and 26 March 2021. The Exploited are Scottish, not English as previously stated. Mascis discovered the Birthday Party as he was starting college, not graduating, as was said owing to a transcription error.

Contributor

As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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