Hard Chargers

No one has ever called J. Mascis verbose. Slacker, sure, a genius, yep ... hell, during grunge's heyday, Spin put the meditative former Dinosaur Jr. frontman on its cover with the headline "J. Mascis is God." But the man is not a talker; during the course of our 15-minute-long interview, he let loose a slim 540 words, not including "umms," throat clearings, soft grunts and two chuckles. Compare that to Mike Watt, touring bassist for Mascis' current project, The Fog, founding member of seminal hardcore band the Minutemen, and its successor, fIREHOSE, the gregarious Watt has so much to say that he started his own Web page to have a place to say it. When I spoke to Watt, via phone, at his hotel room in Omaha, he used 151 words in his description of Mascis alone.

"J.'s definitely not a slacker," said Watt in his characteristically gruff, regular-Joe tones. "He's definitely not stoned out of his mind. But I can understand (why people think that) because I've heard him talk to people. He definitely doesn't say a lot of words. But he does, when he's feeling secure. And he plays his guitar like a hard charger; that's for definitely sure."

Mascis has been letting his six-string speak for him since the early '80s, with hardcore outfit Deep Wound, and then with Dinosaur Jr. into the late '90s. His creaky, warm whine and fuzzed-out pyrotechnics became the most distinctive sounds of '90s rock, and their maker's shy, enigmatic persona fed the flames of figurehead status. To put it simply, Mascis looks and speaks like someone who's perpetually just gotten out of bed, and kinda wishes he hadn't.

Mascis' acrimonious split with original Dinosaur Jr. bassist (and Sebadoh main man) Lou Barlow is legendary in the indie rock canon. Contrasting that is Watt's friendship with, and mourning of, the late Minutemen guitarist/vocalist D. Boon. Childhood friends Watt and Boon formed Minutemen in San Pedro, Calif., in 1979, with drummer George Hurley. Boon was killed in a van crash after a Minutemen gig in late '85, a loss that Watt still talks about, and pays tribute to. Telling me what a good show J. Mascis and The Fog had played the night before in Omaha, Watt says, "D. Boon's dad, he's from Nebraska, so I've always had a thing about wanting to play here good."

For his part, Watt's bass playing in the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, even as a member of Porno for Pyros, has inspired a generation of "thunder broom players." Though Watt uses a pick when playing with The Fog, normally, to quote Dumbwaiters bassist Jeremy Davis, "he uses this strange, funk-based slapping and pulling technique that makes Flea look like a pussy."

Asked about his own early inspirations, Watt cites The Who's Jon Entwistle, Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler, funk player Larry Graham and Motown bassist James Jamerson. Those were "the first guys," he says, "... where I could actually hear the bass, and I didn't know what it was. Gigs were so big and they were so little, you couldn't see 'em. ... but in punk rock, I got to like a lot of bass players because it wasn't such a subordinate role. It was really strong — everybody was lame," he laughs, "so the bass player was equal.

"The physics is real intense against bass," Watt continues. "The more notes you play, the littler you get, so you have to find the right ones. ... the bass is kind of a nurturing thing. Bass players, basically, they look good making the other guys look good. And there's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's kind of interesting because it kinds of puts your ego in check. It's not like you're subordinating anything, but you've got to be kind of responsible, maybe, more than the strutting and swaggering."

Watt sees his "side-mouse" slot with The Fog as a new challenge, for many reasons, and not just that he's in the band instead of leading it. He hasn't had to play with a pick for 18 years, not to mention that he spent most of 2000 laid up due to certain life-threatening conditions below the waist (go to www.hootpage.com and let Watt tell you himself — this ain't the New England Journal of Medicine). It's also the latest in a series of risky ventures that includes 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room (a "punk rock opera" based on the lives of D. Boon and Watt's father) and a bass-organ-drum trio record that he'll record this summer.

After more than six months of holding down the low end of The Fog, Watt says he's getting the hang of it. The tour has included stints on Saturday Night Live, and at South by Southwest in Austin. J. Mascis and The Fog appeared on the same SNL that was hosted by teen-pop tomato Christina Aguilera, and though Mascis can't really gauge the ratio of Aguilera-to-Fog fans in the audience that night, the band did have a good time. "It was fun," says Mascis. "It was really stressful just seeing how stressed they all get. You know, live TV — for a few hours before the show, through the show, it's such a high stress level. I can see why they were all drug addicts."

The Austin showcase afforded Mascis a chance to play with one of his early idols: The Stooges' guitarist/bassist Ron Asheton. Watt was probably impressed as well. Picking up his bass again, post-illness, he played Stooges songs first. "There's not a lot of chord changes in Stooges," laughs Watt, "so it was good to learn again."

"It was pretty wild," Mascis says of playing with Asheton. "It was kind of weird looking over and seeing him. Jamming, he sounds the same."

Otherwise, SXSW was a blur to Mascis. He missed the two bands he wanted to see, White Stripes and The Black Crowes, due to press engagements. But at least the band got to show off, to an enthusiastic industry audience, the excellent tunes from More Light (Ultimatum/Artemis), Mascis' first effort under the Fog moniker.

Co-produced by Mascis and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, More Light features some backing vocals by Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard, and a more vigorous feel than later Dinosaur Jr. output. Electric piano swims through the cha-cha-cha of "Waistin'" and "Ground Me to You." "Can't I Take This On" is an eccentric, wistful foray into fluffy pop territory (think They Might Be Giants, not Shaggy) and, of course, there's riff-rock and comforting billows of static throughout.

But Dinosaur Jr. always succeeded best when they were catchy. "Freak Scene" and "Start Choppin'" were as infectious as they were indispensable to the genesis of '90s underground rock. Hummability is a big, fat factor in the charm of More Light, especially in songs like "Where'd You Go" and "Sameday." Mascis is doing his part, it would seem, to make his listeners smile, "just trying lighten up my life," he says of the album's title, "or other people's lives. Like that's what the world needs at the moment."

As for Mascis himself, at least he's got his touring bassman to entertain him. And the dynamic's just fine between them, thank you very much. "It's all right," says Mascis. "I don't think Watt wants to hang out with a bunch of other Watts or anything."

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