Words by Jonathan Stout
Many musicians felt the rug pulled out from under them when the pandemic cancelled tours and regular gigging schedules. But certain prolific musicians, already in the habit of regular songwriting, took the last year to write, record and barrel forward.
Indie rock legend Lou Barlow did just that, and is having a big year of releases as a result. Dinosaur Jr., who Barlow rejoined in 2005, released their new Kurt Vile-produced album, Sweep It Into Space, in March. Reason to Live, Barlow’s highly anticipated new solo album, was released on May 28th.
Off Shelf: The pandemic has been hard for musicians who are used to touring and gigging regularly. I feel like you’ve leaned into the quarantine lifestyle, using the time to do unique livestreams, record new music and mine your archives to share previously unreleased gold to your Bandcamp. Besides it being your livelihood, what’s given you inspiration and motivation to continue and be as productive as you have been even in such discouraging times?
Lou Barlow: The quick answer is I don’t have a choice. Music is my only means to support myself. I’m not a particularly self-destructive person and I have a family so I wouldn’t even consider stopping! The other quick answer is that music is an emotional crutch for me, it makes me feel better. I was already in the swing of doing archival Bandcamp releases and writing new songs so I just had to figure out how to do that kind of self-involved work with the kids in the house 24/7. That was the only real challenge other than taming my various demons tweaked by the specter of civil war and an incurable lung disease.
OS: You said that with your newest album, Reason to Live, you were searching for a way to “connect your home life and your recorded life.” What did you do to achieve that, from a sonic perspective?
LB: Learned to shut doors and seek out private spaces. I sat in my attic in the middle of summer, sweating and singing. I get self-conscious about the amount of repetition involved in writing and producing music, I had to let that go and not be concerned about how it might affect my family! I also used headphones more than I had previously which really spiked my tinnitus.
OS: You’ve experimented with many approaches to recording, from hi-fi to lo-fi and everything in between. How did you record Reason to Live?
LB: I recorded everything at home using a barebones digital audio workstation. Somehow I have less to work with than I did 30 years ago. To compensate for my lack of gear I reverted to the warm fuzzy of cassette tape recording and incorporated it into many of the songs. The limitations of my set-up forced me to make drastic decisions about what I was recording as I was recording it, i.e. there was no opportunity to ‘fix’ things later. In technical terms: I have 3 inexpensive microphones, one 3-band EQ mixer and can only record two tracks at a time and 16 tracks in total. It’s very similar to how I did things 30 years ago when I acquired my first 4-track cassette recorder. I mixed the results of my home-sessions in a friends studio, it took three 8 hour days to complete.
OS: What was it like to welcome a child into the world again later in your life? Did that experience influence any of your recent songwriting?
LB: That question is honestly too large to answer. I have yet to write a song exclusively about fatherhood. I find songs like that simplistic when sung by other people so until I have some shift in perspective that can encompass the enormity of it all in a few lines I’ll continue to write around it. Everything influences my songwriting but I have no specifics about how it manifests.
OS: Do you have a favorite song on Reason to Live? Why is that song your favorite?
LB: I, honestly, love the whole LP. I view each song as its own possible worldwide pop-hit. That’s the joy of finishing things for me: being utterly convinced of each song’s importance. I understand that this is delusional but until I am forced to enter the workforce in a non-musical role – and even after that – I will continue this fantasy.
OS: It was recently announced that the Folk Implosion are reuniting. What members will the reunion include? Can fans expect any new music?
LB: The original duo, John Davis and I. The line-up of the New Folk Implosion was created strictly to fulfill a contract. I loved that band too but should have chosen another name!
OS: The new Dinosaur Jr. album, Sweep It Into Space, was also released recently and is being received positively by fans and critics alike. Did you record this album remotely or did you gather together in a studio?
LB: No, all of my contributions to the LP were recorded at J’s house with the usual crew around before the restrictions hit. 80% of the LP was finished before quarantine, the remaining 20% was what J needed to do to finish his songs was done in isolation. That’s not too different from how we traditionally finish the LPs with the exception of J having to engineer the final-touch recordings himself.
OS: Your songs always come as a welcomed change of pace on the Dinosaur Jr. albums. Do you approach writing your contributions to that band differently than your other projects?
LB: Not really, only in that I make sure I use traditional tuning and write on 6-string guitar for Dinosaur Jr for logistical reasons – ease of travel. Most of my work with Sebadoh and about 75% of Reason To Live are written on 4-string guitars in various alternate tunings.
OS: Did you communicate/work very closely with Kurt Vile during the production of Sweep it into Space?
LB: Kurt was there for some of the sessions and definitely a presence. He’s very funny and he lightened the mood considerably but Dinosaur Jr has an iron-clad method of recording that I can’t imagine anyone, ever, changing. Kurt added flourishes to J’s songs and that happened when Murph and I weren’t there.
OS: Did you ever expect the Dinosaur Jr. reunion to last this long? What’s been different the second time around/how have you made it work?
LB: I had to detach myself from any expectations with Dinosaur Jr. From the beginning of the reunion I expected it to end at any time, possibly abruptly. The longer that it has gone on the less anxious I am about it which probably contributes to the longevity! The second time around has been an absolute joy in comparison to the first and, also, in comparison to any other band I’ve been in.
OS: Are there any future Sebadoh plans?
LB: No, the pandemic killed our momentum unfortunately. I don’t know how we’ll recover. The last LP we did sold poorly and the shows were under attended so it seems the world is, again, letting us know that the future of the band is a take or leave it situation.
OS: What have you been listening to lately? What’s inspired you?
LB: I’m listening to music from a series called Analog Africa. Currently on a collection of music from Somalia in the 70’s. It’s heavy funk and pretty awesome. I listen to a pretty random selection of music and never for the express purpose of inspiration. Like my family, it’s a part of the fabric of my life and I can’t articulate how it influences me but it definitely does.
OS: Tour and gig opportunities are slowly beginning to trickle back in. Do you have any shows on the books for the rest of 2021?
LB: Yes, Dinosaur Jr. for sure and I am about to look into some more backyard/house type shows for myself.