Lou Barlow and the Quest for Change Amidst Chaos

Few musical artists from the last few decades have been as prolific as Lou Barlow.

Ever since alt-rock luminaries Dinosaur Jr. burst onto the scene with their eclectic-sounding debut in 1985, the Massachusetts-based multi-instrumentalist has been featured in close to 25 full-length albums. These are primarily the result of stints in three different bands over a period of 30 years but have lately come to include a growing body of solo work beginning with 2005’s lo-fi folk record Emoh. Not only is Barlow one of the most sedulous musicians currently working, his penchant for exploring a wide range of sounds and genres reflects a musical appetite that’s equally omnivorous.

Born to a large Midwestern family, Barlow spent time moving around the Great Lakes before his parents finally settled in the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachusetts. It was there that from an early age, he began to develop an unnatural interest in his father’s tape recorders which he used to make sound collages. These early experimentations with analog recording devices had a profound impact on Barlow and informed his lifelong passion for home recordings as well as his appreciation for the DIY aesthetics that define his trademark lo-fi sound.

▼ Article continues below ▼

For Barlow, tape machines and home recorders are essential elements of what he considers an immediate and relatable approach to art and storytelling. And this principle appears as the cornerstone of his latest album, Reason to Live. A collection of candid and quiet moments, the record finds Barlow at the tail-end of a period of inner growth and self-reconciliation. Without eschewing the caustic sincerity for which he’s known, he proves unafraid to commune with the specter of boredom and dissatisfaction that seemingly roams so freely across the current landscape. The result is a record that whispers quiet kernels of truth to the attentive and sensitive listener.

I had the chance to speak to Barlow and discuss his lifelong obsession with recording devices and the role that “messiness” plays in making a solid record. We also talked about a newly released Dinosaur Jr. album and his plans for the post-Covid future.

At what age would you say that you developed an interest in music?

Well, I loved music when I was a kid. When I heard punk rock in the very early ’80s, I started to see that there was this movement of kids about my age that were putting out records, and it seemed kind of exciting to me. So, I formed a band with a kid I ate lunch with in high school and we put up an ad at a local record store looking for a drummer, and that’s when we found J Mascis and we formed a hardcore band. I guess it just seemed like something to do and something to be a part of, but I wouldn’t have imagined that it would become my life’s work. Even in the early days of Dinosaur Jr. I would never have imagined that it was something that would sustain me. It certainly gradually took over my life until it became my life.

Did you grow up in a musical environment? 

I have no professional musicians in my immediate or extended family. My parents come from families that had six or seven kids, so I’m the only musician in my family. But my parents did force me to take guitar lessons when I was seven. My mom forced me and it was kinda brutal. She wouldn’t let me quit, and I thank her for that because it taught me all the basic things. I learned all kinds of different ways of playing.

Were there any specific artists that influenced you growing up?

I loved pop radio. There was a friend that every week I’d go sleep over at his house when we were in fourth and fifth grade and we would just wake up on Saturday mornings and listen to the entire Top 40. At that time I also started buying singles. My parents would give me a dollar every time we’d go to the store so I could buy a seven-inch record. I would just collect seven-inch singles and listen to them on my little turntable in my room.

I’ve read that you started making home recordings at an early age. Can you tell me a bit about that?

So, my parents had a portable tape recorder and at that time we lived in Michigan and our entire extended family lived in Ohio. This is around 1968 or so, and my dad would make cassette letters that he’d send back to his mother. We would record all kinds of stuff. We would do fake wrestling, and as I got older that evolved into me recording stuff around the house. One of my cousins who lived in Ohio also had a recorder and I remember being at his house and him making all these weird voice effects with it. So, when I got back home, I figured out how to run my portable into a console stereo that we had and just started making these collage pieces. Then when I was around 11, I learned how to layer the tapes and then started to make guitar recordings. I just loved the way it sounded!

Were there any bands that shaped you when you were coming of age, or that influenced how you perceived music?

Definitely, The Ramones. And I also saw the B-52s and DEVO on Saturday Night Live around 1978 or 1979. Those were really intense experiences because I was pretty young, and it all just seemed really radical and scary. And I got bit by this new wave and punk rock bug. And then when I moved to Massachusetts, I discovered all these college radio stations that were playing some of the most cutting-edge music. I listened to Joy Division, Gang of Four, Dead Kennedys, and the early Dischord Records bands like The Teen Idles. I also bought this record for one dollar that had everyone from The Residents to Renaldo and the Loaf, MX-80, and Snakefinger and it was just mind-blowing so strange and beautiful.

You once said that “messy” records are close to your heart. What do you mean by that?

Well, messy brings out honesty. What I loved so much about the music I was hearing growing up is that it felt impulsive. It just seemed incredibly honest. When you hear someone like Black Flag it just sounds like someone just got tantrums set on records and it’s just incredibly honest and exciting.

Your new record Reason to Live has been described as a statement of preference for ‘sincerity over anger or venom.’ Do you agree with that?

Yeah, I’m not really into anger so much. Anger is kind of a dead end. It’s something you can respect or draw upon and definitely address, but it’s not particularly constructive. I usually try to articulate my emotions to myself in order to calm myself down. One of the main functions of my music, at least for myself, has been just to talk myself down.

A theme that you seem to come back to in the record is the idea of embracing chaos and change. How important is that to you both as an artist and as a person?

I think that accepting change is pretty important. And not being overwhelmed by chaotic circumstances is also important. I’ve had mental health episodes in my life and addiction, chaos in other words, and so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a thread in what’s going on to sort of keep myself together.

Was the album recorded at home or in the studio? Is this your “quarantine record”?

I’ve always recorded at home. One of the last records I made back in 2014 or so was done in the studio, and so after that, I made up my mind long before the quarantine that whatever record I made next would be recorded at home because I like my home recordings better. I have more control and can be more extreme or impulsive. It’s also cheaper. So, I wouldn’t say that this is my “quarantine record.” With all that said, though, I usually gather all my home recordings and I take them to the studio to mix them there.

‘Reason to Live’ LP artwork

You just put out a new album with Dinosaur Jr. this past week, Sweep It Into Space. Were both albums recorded simultaneously?

Yeah. There are songs on my solo record that were potentially going to be Dinosaur Jr. songs. I think I brought five songs to Dinosaur Jr., but we only managed to record three before the quarantine. At that time, one was unfinished and two were done so that’s what we got. In fact, the title track from my solo record, “Reason to Live,” could have actually been a Dinosaur Jr. song. 

How do you approach your songwriting in each band? Is the process different depending on the group?

Mmm…it depends. With these last two records, a few of the songs could have gone to either band. I’d say about seventy percent of my songs are written on four-string guitars. Usually, I separate the songs based on whether they were made on a four-string or not. If they were, then I usually bring them to Sebadoh or use them for a solo project.

Do you have a preference for any of these processes in particular?

To me all songs are created equal. I feel like every song has its own little life and potential or limitations and I see them as my little creatures each with their own life. I just wish the best for all of them.

What’s on the horizon for you? Are you taking this record on its own tour or are you gonna plug it on tour with Dinosaur Jr.?

Dinosaur Jr. is on the calendar and we have dates that are listed. So that’s definitely happening. But as far as what I’ll do with my own stuff, I’m not really sure yet.

Can your fans expect another Sebadoh record in the near future? What about a Folk Implosion reunion?

For Folk Implosion, John and I have actually reconnected during quarantine. He’s been sending me some music and I’ve been trying to make something out of that, so we’re in this cool back-and-forth thing right now.  I could definitely see us putting a single together.

Any other plans for when the world goes back to normal?

I just got a hold of a couple of home tape recorders recently and I want to see if I can maybe make collages again. So, I’m thinking it might be really fun to start songs on tape and transfer them to my digital stuff and see what…I can come up with.

Like this? Share this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.