Absolutely nebulous: J Mascis and Kurt Vile in conversation

Kurt Vile was completely unqualified to produce Dinosaur Jr’s new album, but they asked him to anyway

“Hey, what’s up J?” beams Kurt Vile as the face of J Mascis materialises on screen. It’s been nearly a year now since the two last spoke in person and both men are clearly thrilled to be reunited. Sweep It Into Space, the fifth new studio album by Dinosaur Jr to be released during the 13th year of their rebirth, was originally scheduled for mid-2020, but both the recording and its imminent presentation were thwarted by the pandemic. On the surface, this is an album for purists who revel in Dinosaur Jr’s post-hardcore fuzz tones, but delve a little deeper and a fully-functioning pop sound emerges, with impressive melodic depth. There are very few moments where you wouldn’t know you were listening to Dinosaur Jr. but the band move seamlessly from guitar howler to classic rock power ballad, taking in a huge variety of string sounds. Through the years they have crafted a signature sound, sometimes taking it in surprising directions, and joining J, Lou and Murph on the Sweep It Into Space journey was Kurt Vile, who travelled to Amherst’s Biquiteen Studio in the late autumn of 2019 to take on a producer role for a first time. As I discover, things didn’t entirely go to plan.

Kurt Vile: The last I saw J was more or less when the pandemic went down, which seems like ages ago. We heard it was coming, we knew it was coming. Basically we were at J’s house when there was talk of everything literally shutting down and you were saying you were not looking forward to things closing but I was still in denial. When I got home though, it was all happening and here we are a year later.

Ian Roebuck: It sounds like you were braced for the worst, J, and you almost knew what to expect in the US?

J Mascis: Well I have a friend that works for the UN in Rome and she told me that everything will certainly shut down as it was already happening in Italy so you need to get your shit together, which I tried to do my best.

KV: You were forced to finish the album yourself J weren’t you? You had to move mics around yourself by the end!

JM: I know right, I had to play keyboards which was tough too.

IR: You seem to know each other well. Do you remember the first time you met and what was the story there?

KV: Playing shows mainly. I mean I knew J from his music since I was a teen but J invited me on tour back when I released Childish Prodigy [2009] which was great. Also through John Agnello who’s produced tonnes of Dino and is a good friend of ours. Between shows, John and guesting here and there on each other’s studio projects we’ve got to know each other.

JM: I don’t remember the first time but I remember very vividly seeing you play in Vermont. That was cool.

KV: We also share a drummer, Kyle [Spence]. We have a lot of friends in common really, because Kyle was J’s tech and sometimes drummer for a long time. It’s a pretty crazy but incestuous world when you think about it.

IR: You mentioned knowing Dinosaur Jr. music from when you were a teen Kurt but do you remember the very first time you listened to their music?

KV: Well, the first song I ever heard was ‘Start Choppin’ on the radio as a single. I was pretty young and I definitely liked that song but I hadn’t heard the whole record at the time. Then ‘Feel the Pain’ [1994] came out and that was very impressionable and undeniably catchy to my teenage brain – well, to anybody’s brain really, but I was susceptible because I was at the right age. Then we saw J on the Hand it Over tour at the Electric Factory in Philly, which was awesome. He’d be doing things as if the audience didn’t exist, all these really loud guitar solos and just walk off stage. I guess you had a really long cable right, J? And then he’d keep playing the solos and walk straight back in. In a good way, he was completely unapproachable.

IR: Is he still unapproachable?

KV: I would say yes, he is, but in a good way! In real life he’s approachable, although in some ways not so much. I don’t know, it’s weird as I know him now.

IR: What was going through your mind then, heading into the studio to produce J’s record? Were you intimidated?

KV: I actually was intimidated… well, maybe that’s not the right word. I was definitely nervous because I was asked to be involved in the production and I wanted him to know that I had been listening to the demos because I had been and they were so great. It was the first time for me as producer; it’s not like I have done anything like that before. All these things were going on in my head.

JM: Well nobody really knows what a producer does anyway. It’s a very nebulous job.

KV: It was pretty cool because it ended up all I had to do was nothing, which was awesome! I just got to sit in the corner and get excited about what was happening in front of me. The pandemic put a twist on it as it didn’t end the way we all wanted – it would have ended differently if I had finished it off. I heard certain things in my head and I was excited to see how they would unfold. At the end of the day though, it didn’t matter because J is so particular, he wraps it up like he always does so it was just really cool to be there. It was inspiring to me and I got to play all his guitars and things like that. This is a real classic record – a classic Dino style but kind of in your face, it really cuts through, so I am glad to be part of it.

IR: J, how would you describe Kurt as a producer and why did you decide to get him involved?

JM: He was there to keep things moving. You know, keep Lou (Barlow) in line – headlocks, stuff like that. He has certain melodic ideas and I like hearing him play guitar on the songs as it’s stuff I would never play and it really helped fill out the sound and give a different dimension.

IR: What was it like when the pandemic came and Kurt was no longer around? Was his presence missed or do you enjoy working on your own?

JM: I never thought about whether I liked it or not, I just thought I have to do this, the task at hand, you know? I had to set up the microphone and try and become an engineer, just finish things off as best as I could. I don’t like the pandemic at all so in that respect I didn’t like working on my own.

KV: Yeah well dude, we can see the light now. You gonna get a shot?

JM: I got a shot already, so that’s cool.

KV: They’re going around, they’re going around.

JM: I got my second one a week ago.

KV: That’s great, I am right behind you.

IR: When you hit the studio together, Kurt were you thinking about how to capture the unique Dinosaur Jr. sound?

KV: Well if I was nervous about anything it was probably asking myself those questions. I wasn’t engineering though so I didn’t know exactly how they wanted me to be involved, but once I arrived, I just knew it was going to be cool. They have a very specific process – in the beginning I was saying, “Do you think that’s the take?”, because honestly, they all sounded close to me, but J was saying, “No, not yet.” Then he told me they like drilling it over and over and it takes them about a day to learn the song. J hears everything in his head and sometimes I couldn’t necessarily hear the drums – how they’re supposed to be – but it didn’t matter because I just realised I was there as a friend keeping the vibe upbeat. Keeping the conversation going with Lou and Murph, they both talk a lot and so do I. J talks a little less, you could say.

JM: He would just pick up guitars, we would try it out and see what was sounding cool. It was just throwing stuff against the wall to see if anything sticks. If Kurt had any ideas we were very open as a band to hearing them.

KV: It has been pretty awesome as the experience has made me get my own home studio together and has forced me to learn Pro Tools so that’s the one thing this pandemic has been good for – everyone is figuring there shit out because they have to. 

IR: J, earlier you said nobody knows what a producer really does, so what makes a good producer in your experience?

JM: I haven’t really worked with many. I worked with Buffin [Dale Griffin], the drummer from Mott the Hoople, who was pretty scary. He was not in the best mood and I was a big Mott the Hoople fan when I was a kid so I was kind of taken aback. I just remember saying to him, “Can you take some of the reverb off the drums?”, as he put an insane amount of reverb on the drums and we weren’t a very big reverb band, and he just yelled, “Jesus Christ it needs something!” I have tried to be a producer sometimes and I didn’t really like who I became. I would get really annoyed and want to play everything myself because they were playing out of tune and I was like, “Just give me the guitar!” So that’s why Kurt did a good job. We all realised that nobody knows what they’re doing, or what a producer should do, it’s just being there and helping out. I would also get really mean as a producer too, start abusing the bands, which is not cool.

KV: I heard a funny story and I don’t know if it’s true – John Agnello said that when you produced Buffalo Tom apparently you turned up and said, “Well the first thing you need to do is get that out of here”, pointing at a Roland Jazz Chorus amp. 

JM: I wouldn’t even let them bring it into the studio. I said, “You can leave this in your car.” He protested saying, “That’s my sound, man,” and I just said, “Well, not anymore.”

KV: Meanwhile, I really like that amp lately.

JM: Maybe I didn’t give it a chance.

IR: You guys must spend a lot of time talking about your gear. Who has the best guitar?

KV: J’s got so many guitars so why would I play mine! I bought a few guitars from being at J’s. He had a Rickenbacker 12 string that I really liked, so I got myself one of those. It’s nearly as nice as yours J but it still needs work. It was all inspiring to me you know, I was living it, being in it.

IR: You describe Thin Lizzy as the band of the album, why is that?

JM: I was in a phase. There is usually something I am into during every album session. I had never really gone that deep on Thin Lizzy and I watched this Gary Moore video where he was playing and the Thin Lizzy guys were his backing band. There’s a few of them out there – they played together in front of the Sydney Opera House which is worth watching. You can’t hear much of it come out on the album apart from a few times I tried a couple of guitar harmony things. 

IR: Do the pair of you have similar tastes in music?

KV: Well, he was playing Thin Lizzy when I was there. J is always playing records and I love that about him. He’s got a good sound stereo and a wall of records and he is forever flipping some sweet wax. 

IR: Kurt, do you have a favourite track on Sweep it into Space?

KV: I love ‘I Met The Stones’, that song really rips. I really like how the lyrics go, “I got excited, I got depressed”.

JR: That’s my life in a nutshell.

KV: I heard the back story though J, of how you did meet the Stones and this did really happen, you actually were excited and then depressed. I can totally relate myself as you meet somebody like Neil Young for a second, always just snapshots, and you’re just so excited and try to say something without being awkward and then the moment has passed. I have also been completely excited and then completely depressed – it’s so true. 

IR: Never meet your heroes.

JM: But if you don’t meet your heroes then who else are you going to meet? Might as well. I know Charlie Watts’ roadie, so I have ended up seeing him around a few times, and on one occasion I got to hang out. It was really surreal because he started talking and I completely froze and then I was saying, ‘I really got to pull my shit together’ to myself, and eventually I did, which was a relief. I played drums as a kid and Charlie was one of my inspirations. He definitely wasn’t disappointing to meet, he was very cool. 

IR: Both of you must be very excited at the prospect of playing live again?

KV: It’s hard to imagine. We never knew what was going to happen and I hope to return to the stage at the beginning of next year and turn in a new album in the fall, but if there are people out there playing music I am going to go and see them play as soon as possible, it’s going to be awesome. 

JM: We have a long tour planned, it’s just a matter of when we can actually play, but we have to remain positive. 

IR: Would you say you’re an optimist or a pessimist, J?

JM: I did win most optimistic in my high-school year book. I know what you’re thinking… Some people thought it was maybe a joke but I took it seriously. I think I am optimistic because if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t be able to be a musician. If you’re not optimistic then you wouldn’t have any idea that you would survive playing music.

IR: Would you work with each other again?

KV: I would, sure!

JM: Why, are you cooking something up Kurt?

Photography by Joe Salinas