J Mascis: 10 albums that changed my life – “The Stooges was definitely my guitar sound inspiration. That’s still the best sound I’ve heard for guitar on a recording”

J Mascis
(Image credit: Kieran Frost/Redferns)

J Mascis is unsure whether he wrote and recorded Heavy Blanket’s sophomore long-player, Moon Is, as a therapeutic, a tonic administered via electric guitars that have been pushed into warm sympathetic frequencies and heated under the hot lamp of overdrive and fuzz. 

When asked if that was the intention he takes a beat before confessing that, really, he hasn’t given it much thought. Maybe that’s the point. The album finds Mascis jamming out on big riffs and squirrelly lead guitar in the company of good friends Johnny Pancake on bass guitar, Pete Cougar on drums, Sleezy Crisp plays keys while Mascis’s Witch bandmates Graham Clise and Dave Sweetapple check in to offer ancillary rhythm guitar and bass respectively on the title track and Crushed. 

We can analyse it after the fact, talk about how Crushed is animated by a big syncopated riff that sounds straight out of an early ‘90s generator party, big and wooly, calibrated for the green-thumbed demographic, or how there is something of the Carlos Santana about Mascis’s lead guitar on opening track Danny. 

There’s no mistaking Heavy Blanket, a more psychedelic almost ‘70s proto-metal jam project, for a Dinosaur Jr record but the hydrocarbon vroom of the guitar tone exists on the same spectrum.

But Mascis isn’t hear to talk about all that anyway. He’s agreed ahead of time to dig through the collection to talk about the albums that changed his life. “Okay cool does this involve homework?” he asks over email. “The word on the street was that you had already made a list,” we reply. And he had.

It's a list that takes in the formative years, records stolen from his brother's collection, those that informed his sensibility when it was the drums that were his first love, going deep into hardcore punk with Deep Wound, and the others that showed him there was more to explore outside of punk's perimeter, and maybe he could move on over to the guitar – a move that worked out all right in the end.

Deep Purple – Machine Head (1972)

“When I was a kid it was mostly songs rather than an album, and then when I am looking at my list that I just kinda threw together, the first one chronologically is Machine Head, Deep Purple

“My brother had it and I started listening to it, and I think I really scratched it up. But I didn’t understand that a record is fucked up if it’s scratched. I just thought that if it skipped that was bad, but scratched I didn’t understand at the time. I was throwing it around, but as long as it played and it didn’t skip I thought I hadn’t done any damage to it. [Laughs]

“But I had pretty much fucked it up. Yeah, I guess that was the first record of his that I really got into that was a little bit harder stuff than what was on the radio. I guess it was more album radio but I didn’t hear that kind of stuff on the radio. My parents weren’t playing it in the car, so… 

“I think it was definitely the drums because the drums are amazing on that album. I was starting to drum and Ian Paice was a big influence. It was Ian Paice, Charlie Watts and John Bonham who were my three. I was trying to go down the middle of those three to make my style. I guess Deep Purple was the most impressive. He had the most chops. Ian Paice was like the fastest rolls and crazy stuff. I couldn’t figure out how I could get to that point. You had to practise a lot to play that stuff.

“I liked [Ritchie Blackmore] but I guess I didn’t think about guitar playing as such back then. I just listened to it and I don’t really know. Now I like it. I think it’s interesting. I guess I was just thinking of drums more back then. The guitar I didn’t know. I liked it but… My friend gave me a Rainbow T-shirt, it said ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’. As a kid I wore that a lot ‘cos he had a lot of cool T-shirts and I didn’t have any yet.”

Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975)

“Let’s see, let’s go for Sabotage. Yeah, I remember when I got it and would listen to it on headphones it really affected me. And that has always been my favourite Sabbath album. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh! It’s got synthesizers. It’s crappy!’ But somehow It works for me. 

“I remember when I got it I was falling asleep to The Writ, with the bit that’s really quite – [sings] 'do-doo-doo' synth – and then it kicks in and I’d wake up and then back to sleep again. 

I had a weird Neil Young experience with Sabotage. I bought a new copy that was on some weird label in England... it was the weirdest feeling. The frequencies that my body recognised were gone. It made me just think of Neil Young complaining about MP3s

“I got to interview Ozzy on the phone once and he didn’t like Sabotage, so I asked him why he didn’t like it and he just said because there were all these lawyers in the room, it was a bad time and it just reminded him of that, which I understood because I had that kind of feeling with the Bug album, with Dinosaur Jr. It reminds me of a bad time with the band.

“Ozzy was great ‘cos he just answered all the questions that I had. Like, boom, boom, boom! It was awesome! Like, my favourite line is, ‘Smoking and tripping is all that you do’, and I was asking him about writing songs and he was like, ‘Blah blah blah, Geezer wrote most of the songs. I wrote some of the stuff.’ I asked him, ‘Who wrote that line?’ He said, ‘That was me!’ That line… [Laughs]. 

“I saw them live about five years ago for the first time and I was struck by Iommi. I had never thought about Iommi as a guitarist. I just thought that the sound of Sabbath as one thing, but live he really shined and I was really impressed with his guitar playing, and it was interesting to see them play. He definitely stood out as being the most awesome. It was cool. Yeah, you see with the album, I just hear the whole thing and I don’t think of the parts. Seeing him play made me realise how good he was.

“I had a weird, like, Neil Young experience with Sabotage, like I don’t know when it was, maybe 10 years ago. I bought a new copy that was on some weird label in England, some repress, and I put it on and it was the weirdest feeling. My body knew. I felt like my body knew the album so well it didn’t recognise this album anymore, so I figured they must have cut it from a CD or something. 

“Somehow it wasn’t the same, the frequencies that my body recognised were gone and it was the weirdest feeling when you’re body’s telling you, ‘No, I don’t know this album.’ Yet you’ve heard it a million times. It was such a weird feeling. It made me just think of Neil Young complaining about MP3s and stuff.

“Yeah, it’s like you hear music, but people don’t realise your whole body is hearing music, resonating. The way it’s hitting your body is different and your body is like, ‘Oh no. No. I don’t know this album.’”

Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street (1972)

“Now into my Stones phase. I’m going to do two at one time, Exile… and Ron Wood’s I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. Those are two albums that really were big for me. I remember telling my mom I would do the food shopping and then I took the money and first bought Exile… and then with the rest of the money bought food. Yeah, just the whole album, it’s just amazing how I can still listen to it and discover different things. 

“It’s so long. It’s great but it’s not so great that you remember everything about every song. It’s murky, too. There’s a lot of stuff you can keep rediscovering. It’s somehow a good mixture. It’s too long and a little too murky. Some albums if they are too good you just don’t want to listen to them. They’re in your head too much, and it’s just there. Something that Exile… got right is you can listen to it a lot.

Ron Wood – I’ve Got My Own Album To Do (1974)

“I don’t know how old I was, like 12 or something – I got the Ron Wood album and it just felt like another Stones album with Keith and Ron harmonising on it. 

“Mick’s on it, and Rod Stewart. It had a lot of cool songs that have stuck with me, but it definitely just felt like if you ran out of Stones albums you could buy Ron Wood and there’s another Stones album. And then they went into the reggae phase. It’s got a little bit of that feel to it, too.”

Didn't everyone go a little bit reggae at one point? Even Eric Clapton shot the sheriff. Though that didn't work out so well.

“That’s the thing with Clapton, soon as he put on one of those pastel-coloured sports coats and then started playing a Strat it was all over. I don’t know what happened. But then again, Steve Winwood did the same thing and somehow it doesn’t seem like he has lost it. I saw him sort of recently and he was pretty amazing. He somehow did the same thing but it wasn’t as bad I don’t think. [Laughs]”

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady (1979)

“How about the Buzzcocks? Singles Going Steady, even though it is just a compilation of singles, it is amazing how there were so many good songs in a row. 

“I got the album so it was an album to me rather than singles, and later I got all the singles and stuff, but it was the quality of how just every song was awesome was pretty cool I thought. I guess getting into punk, and it was so poppy, and the production is really good. 

I remember just wanting to hear Orgasm Addict just ‘cos it sounded funny, but then I was hooked after that. I always thought the drumming on that is was really amazing, too, the propulsion

“Just the sheer quality of song after song is pretty impressive. In England, you’d see them on Top Of The Pops every week but that wasn’t a thing over here. It was just like you gotta get this album. Yeah, I couldn’t believe how good all the songs were.

“[Orgasm Addict] draws you in. That’s like the hook that gets you into it and then you realise there are actually all these really good song. Oh geez, I must have been 14 maybe. I remember just wanting to hear Orgasm Addict just ‘cos it sounded funny, but then I was hooked after that. I always thought the drumming on that is was really amazing, too, the propulsion. It’s got a propulsion to it. I think that everything sounds better with an English accent.”

Eater – The Album (1977)

“Then we can go into Eater, an album I listened to a lot. The record store that we had, the guy was obsessed with England, and he would go buy records in England all the time. 

“He came back with all these cutouts. Like, any punk record, I’d check out, and he had 100 copies of this Eater album which was a cutout [so called because the discounted album would be marked with a cut-out on the cover or case]. I really related to it because they were the youngest punk band. The drummer was 14 and I was probably 14 when I heard it.

Eater have a single-album and are not mentioned that often. Are they a little underrated?

“I was in a bubble over here. I didn’t know what was going on anywhere. It was all new for me and I was just making it up on my own, whatever records I liked, so I don’t know if they were rated or underrated. I had no idea. It was only me and one other guy who would listen to it, and they weren’t written about in any magazines that I could get.”

The Faith/Void – Split (1982)

“I was really into hardcore. I was pretty much only listening to hardcore and punk at one point, and this was on Discord Records, and I would buy everything that came out on Discord. 

“I already liked Void from getting cassette tapes from fanzines. You could buy tapes from bands, so I was already into Void. Faith, I knew the singer [Alec MacKaye] because he was in some other bands, and he was the brother of Ian MacKaye. When that came out, it was really where I was at at the time, all the lyrics and everything hit me. 

“And Void was just an awesome band. I really liked Void, the music and the intensity of it. I think the lyrics and singing of Faith I was really into. I liked both sides, both bands, and it was hard to have a hardcore album that was on both sides because the songs were so short. It’s cool to have one band on each side.”

The Birthday Party – Junkyard (1982)

“All right, let’s go to Junkyard, Birthday Party, that was the album, the transition out of hardcore, like, 'Hardcore’s over but I wanna still like music!'

“And that seemed to be where it went, where people who liked hardcore went when looking for something else. The Birthday Party stepped in to fill that void.”

Was that when punk got more exciting, when bands started taking it some place else?

“Who knows... I mean, as soon as I heard punk, there were already so many different things, like Throbbing Gristle at one end, then Eddie And The Hot Rods [at the other]. It seemed to encompass such a lot of different styles anyway.” 

The Wipers – Over The Edge (1983)

“This and the Stooges’ first album were the two albums I studied when I decided to play guitar after Deep Wound was over, and hardcore was over but I still wanted to have a band, and play guitar. 

“Over The Edge by the Wipers and the first Stooges albums were what I took to learn how to play guitar. Those were the albums I was trying to make to make my own music, and then I still had a holdover from the Stones, Mick Taylor and Keith. So those were my four guitar influences starting out.

“I can only do what I am doing. I was not trying to copy anything specifically but pull a little, pull something from these things to make my own music. [Greg Sage’s] solo album was really good too, right? [Straight Ahead, 1985] I got a lot of inspiration from that when he put out the solo album and he’s playing on the acoustic guitar, but it’s still coming through an amp so it’s not fully acoustic but acoustic enough.”

The Stooges – S/T (1969)

“I’d be 13 or something, right before getting into punk. Yeah, that was definitely my guitar sound inspiration. 

“That’s still the best sound I’ve heard for guitar on a recording. Funhouse, the record is awesome, but the guitar tone itself isn’t as awesome to me. I’d be 13 or something, right before getting into punk.” 

With some of these records like the Stooges, you wish you could go back and hear them for the very first time for that same thrill.

“Well, you can’t. Too bad! [Laughs]”

  • Moon Is is out now via Outer Battery Records.
Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.