Photo by Dana (Distortion) Yavin
If you wanted to get a barometer reading on the state of guitar-driven rock music in the ’90s, you needed to look no further than the annual lineup of Lollapalooza—the multi-act summer-long touring festival originally conceived and curated by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell. From 1991 to 1997, the traveling circus-styled fiesta brought together a wide-ranging assortment of the era’s leading alternative and underground acts and exposed them to audiences of 30,000 or more on a daily basis. Aside from keeping its finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest, the festival seemed to have a knack for sussing out the next big thing as well—Tool, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine, Beck, and the Roots were all second-stage undercard performers at one point or another. After its initial roadshow run, the Lollapalooza concept was revived in 2005 as an annual multiday festival in Grant Park, Chicago, and has since expanded to include events in Chile and Brazil as well.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original tour, as well as the release of their breakthrough 1991 album, Ritual de lo Habitual, inaugural Lollapalooza headliners Jane’s Addiction hit the road for several dates with fellow festival alumni Living Colour (1991 tour) and Dinosaur Jr. (1993 tour) in anticipation of their headlining set at this year’s weekend-long shindig.
Both Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro and Dinosaur Jr. axeman/vocalist J Mascis were recognized among the leading 6-string voices of the era—Navarro for his fiery psychedelic reworking of Zeppelin-esque heavy rock, and Mascis for his Neil Young-inspired take on edgy garage-rock melodicism. GP caught up with the two alt-rock trailblazers during their North American summer sojourn and asked them to share some thoughts on the original Lollapalooza festivals, their seminal recordings, and each other’s style.
Reflecting back on the Lollapalooza tours you were both a part of in the early ’90s, is there anything in particular that stands out in your minds or anything specific that you took away from it as artists and guitarists?
Mascis: It was 25 years ago so I really don’t remember all that much, honestly. We went on at 3:00 in the afternoon and it just seemed like wherever we were, it was the hottest day of the summer in that particular city on that particular day. Invariably, one of my amps would overheat and fry.
Navarro: For me, it was eye-opening because I got firsthand exposure to an incredibly eclectic lineup of artists. You had the Butthole Surfers who were ironic and “art-damaged” in a beautiful way; there was Nine Inch Nails, who introduced me to the aggressive side of synth-driven mechanical music; you had Living Colour, who were incredibly accomplished musicians that could convey intense emotion; and then there was Siouxie and the Banshees, who had a bit more primitive approach musically but were still able to express emotional intensity. When you’re around that varied of a spectrum of artistic diversity for a month straight, it’s hard not to be influenced by it.
What do you admire most about each other’s playing?
Mascis: Dave is a really accomplished musician and plays with a lot of precision. I was pretty impressed that they were covering note-perfect renditions of Zeppelin songs during soundcheck. Dave never seems to have a bad show. He’s always on.
Navarro: I love that J’s overall sound is identifiably him, because aside from being a great guitarist, he’s also an incredibly gifted singer and songwriter. When I listen to him solo, I hear a real frenetic security in what he’s doing. There’s no second guessing or posturing. My sense is that what he’s playing is what’s going on inside of him that’s not being revealed on the surface. When I play—or even when someone like Steve Vai plays—we’re probably very aware of what other people think of our playing and, as a result, it’s very affected. J plays as if he doesn’t really give a f**k what other people think.
Do either of you have a practice routine?
Navarro: I don’t sit at home and practice scales or stuff like that. If anything, I’ll go on YouTube and watch a lesson on how to play a song that I’ve always wanted to learn. The other day, for example, I was messing with “The Wanton Song” by Led Zeppelin. For this latest tour though, we’re playing Ritual de lo Habitual in its entirety, so I had to go back and relearn it, which was kind of a trip because I hadn’t listened to a lot of those songs in years. It was like joining a tribute band, but for a band you were a founding member of 25 years ago. It was definitely a strange-but-welcome mindf**k!
Mascis: I’ve don’t really practice, per se. When I was a kid I played drums and would practice them in the more traditional sense, but when I first picked up a guitar, my goal was to write songs and join a band.
One thing I’ve always liked about players of your generation is that you rediscovered pedals from the ’60s and ’70s, such as the wah, but tended to use them in new and interesting ways.
Mascis: Most people put the wah as the first thing in their signal chain but I put it after my distortion pedals. I think it produces a more piercing sound that way.
Navarro: I always liked the way Daniel Ash from Love and Rockets used the wah pedal in an abrasive way, as a kind of noise generator. I started using in in my solos subtly for tonal shifts. Also, in the “Digging something up…” part of the song “Obvious,” I rock the wah forward on the second beat of the chord. It gives it this really aggressive sound and it seems like I’m changing the chord I’m playing but I’m not—I’m just changing the tone of the chord. As a general rule, I’m opposed to rack effects, just because I don’t want to deal with scrolling through presets and parameters. The only rack effect on Ritual…was a chorus that our engineer Ron Champagne added to the track “Classic Girl.”
J, your sound has always been closely identified with the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. Is that still a mainstay of your pedalboard?
Mascis: Yes. My distortion for rhythm is a ’76 Ram’s Head Big Muff. I have a MK I Tone Bender that I’ll turn on for leads as well. I just recently got a JHS Muffuletta, which is supposedly all these different versions of the Big Muff in one. Like most of the pedals I use, though, I just found the one setting on it that I like and keep it dialed in there.
Dave, Ritual de lo Habitual was Jane’s Addiction’s third album, but if I’m not mistaken some of the tracks were in your repertoire since the band’s earliest days.
Navarro: That’s right. Back then, we weren’t thinking about writing records, per se. We were just focused on writing songs. When it came time to make a record, we just looked at the arsenal of material we had and pieced together a record from that. The concept of writing songs for a particular record wasn’t something I encountered until I joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers a few years later.
Do you have a favorite moment on Ritual…?
Navarro: I always liked the way the first three tracks “Stop,’ “No One’s Leaving,” and’ Ain’t No Right” fall one right after the other. They’re simple, short, and aggressive. I also really love “Then She Did…” which is experimental and weird. We had a hit single with “Been Caught Stealing,” but that was Warner Brothers’ idea to release it. We never really thought about specifically writing a single. I think some of the more experimental tracks like “Of Course” came about because there was no A&R person telling us what to do. We were very influenced by the Velvet Underground and Bauhaus and on some of their albums are moments that I think of as fully realized mistakes. That carried over into the making of Ritual… There was something very pure, organic, and natural about the way we made that record and I haven’t really experienced anything quite like it since. It was after we were aware that people were listening but before we were aware that a lot of people were listening, and that’s an important time in a band’s life. It’s when you put a lot of care into what you’re doing but you still have a sense of abandon.
What, if anything, surprised you the most about exploring those songs again?
Navarro: I had forgotten how fast the tempos were! We’d kept some of the songs in our repertoire over the years, but the tempos have gradually relaxed over time.
Your guitar solo on “Three Days” has always been a particular favorite of mine. Was that improvised on the spot or did you work it out in advance?
Navarro: I’ve never really written out a solo, I’ve always done them off the top of my head. It can be pretty frustrating if what you’re trying to do doesn’t hit, but when it does, I think it’s way more effective. When I was a kid, we used to get bootleg live records, and I noticed that Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page rarely played what was on the studio recordings. In my own naiveté, I just assumed that as a guitarist that’s what you did—you always improvised your solos.
J, do you generally improvise you solos on the spot?
Mascis: Yes. Pretty much everything you hear on record was improvised. I can’t replicate them live, either. I wouldn’t even know how to do that. When we play live, the guitar breaks are pretty open-ended and dictated by what I’m feeling in the moment.
Dinosaur Jr. is currently touring behind a new album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not [Jajaguwar]. Given that the current lineup, with bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph, is the same one from your 1985 debut, is there anything new or different about your approach this time around?
Mascis: I wrote the song “Goin’ Down” in a Keith Richards open-G tuning [D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high], which is something I’d never really done before. I used a Rickenbacker 12-string on a couple of tracks, which is kind of a new thing for me as well. I also layer guitars a lot less than I used to when we were making records like Bug. Now I usually only put down two tracks. I actually think it sounds bigger that way because you don’t lose definition.
You record in your home studio. Do you experiment with a lot of different signal chains or do you generally have a go-to rig?
Mascis: I usually record with a Fender Jazzmaster into a Fender tweed Deluxe or a tweed Bandmaster for rhythm and a ’59 Vox AC15 for lead.
That’s a lot different from your live rig though, correct?
Mascis: Yes, live I use much louder amps. I have two 100-watt Marshall plexis, a 100-watt Hiwatt, and a ’60s-era Fender Twin.
Are you plugged in and cranked up when you write songs?
Mascis: I actually like to write unplugged on my Gibson ES-330 semi-hollowbodies. They’re great guitars, but I never use them live because I find that can’t play lead on them very well. Whenever I try to play lead on a Gibson, it seems too easy, and my solos come out sounding too smooth. I also prefer high action, because I think I play better when I have to struggle a little. I actually like to feel that I’m at war with the guitar.
Was there anything in particular you enjoyed, or do you have any specific takeaways from this tour?
Mascis: I was just happy that a lot of these dates like Coney Island and Asbury Park were outdoors on the water where it’s usually cooler.
Navarro: It’s made me miss the days of guitar virtuosity in music. That aesthetic is still alive in metal, but you don’t really hear it in the alternative and indie scene as much anymore. I was really inspired to be out on the road with J and Vernon, two major guitar heroes of my generation, for whom I have tremendous love and respect. We all come from the same era, yet we all have completely different takes on the instrument. I’d like to think we all contribute our unique voices to the overall sound of our respective bands.