J Mascis likes to play loud. Which is why it’s a bit weird that his second solo record, Tied to a Star, is decidedly quiet. There are a few songs with drums and some electrified guitar solos, but the bulk of the album is subdued and delicate, anchored by Mascis’ gently strummed acoustic guitar and his almost-whisper of a vocal. “I generally always want to have noisy guitars and drums, so it’s always a battle,” he tells Seattle Weekly. “And sometimes I just lose the battle on certain songs.”
Mascis found success in the early ’90s as the front man for pioneering alt-rock trio Dinosaur Jr., and he’s had a steady career ever since, playing in a number of bands, including Witch, a doom-metal act for which he drums, and J Mascis + The Fog. He’s also an indie-rock guitar hero, boasting a signature Fender guitar and making Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list.
Adjusting to life on the road as a solo acoustic act has been bumpy since Mascis is unaccustomed to being alone onstage. On most songs he accompanies himself via a guitar pedal sampler that loops his chord progressions, allowing him to play leads over his rhythms, which require his playing to be spot-on, a more difficult task on acoustic guitar. He’s also not used to the intimacy of acoustic shows. “You can hear people talking sometimes, and it’s not loud enough to drown people out,” he says—though he can appreciate that certain aspects of touring are easier as a party of one. “I’m very punctual and I get annoyed in a band situation. I always end up waiting for people, which drives me crazy.”
In a departure from the writing process he employs for his band projects, Mascis wrote Star on his acoustic guitar, most often sitting at his kitchen table or the couch while watching TV, recording the good bits on his iPhone. “I write for a specific project,” he says. “I’m thinking of the vibe I want to get across, so I’m trying to fit music into that concept.” A few guest musicians, including Cat Power’s Chan Marshall and Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins, helped him achieve that vibe, but the album tour was always envisioned sans other players.
Mascis’ solo set showcases a healthy dose of songs from his two proper solo albums, but also quieter selections from his large catalog and a couple of covers, which he has a particular knack for making his own. “It just has to sound good to me somehow when I’m doing it,” he says about the covers that make the cut, “or feel like I’m not ruining it.” About half the time it doesn’t work out. “We did a Zombies song for a B-side a few years ago, and it didn’t sound so good.”
With three decades of touring under his belt, the 48-year-old says the key to his success and longevity has been not having a backup plan: “I don’t have many other interests. I’m just into music.” An avid record collector and guitar geek, Mascis has a favorite stop in Seattle: Emerald City Guitars in Pioneer Square. He has a particular fondness for models from the late ’50s, which his signature Jazzmaster is modeled after. “I’m looking not to buy anything,” he confesses, “but if something really speaks to me, I sometimes buy it.”
J MASCIS With Luluc. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 789-3599, tractortavern.com. 21 and over. SOLD OUT. 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 19.