Lou Barlow: "Every time we make a record, I hope to find some magic combination that approximates the growl of what we get live. I don’t know if I’ve done that yet"

Lou Barlow
(Image credit: Mariano Regidor/Redferns)

As part of one of the most legendarily eardrum-obliterating bands of all time, Dinosaur Jr. co-founder Lou Barlow naturally courses plenty of powerful-yet-poppy, gain-cranked basslines throughout Sweep It Into Space, the Massachusetts-based trio’s 12th album overall, and fifth since reforming their classic line-up in 2005. 

Live, he’s happily decimating crowds with multiple stacks. It’s trickier in the studio, however, with the bassist admitting he’s still seeking an idyllic boom to best complement – or perhaps compete with – the screaming leads of guitarist J Mascis

“To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to get a recorded sound with Dinosaur Jr. that I feel is there,” he reveals. “Because of the nature of the way the records are mixed, the bass really gets pushed back in the mix. I have a fighting chance live – I’ve got my wall of amps, and J’s got his – but once it comes to recording, and once the overdubs start, it’s hard to get the bass to sit in the right place. 

“Every time we make a record I start from scratch, hopefully finding some magic combination that approximates the growl of what we get live. I don’t know if I’ve done that yet.” 

Though humble about his presence, Barlow’s rhythms on Sweep It Into Space are nevertheless hefty.

During sessions at Mascis’ Biquiteen attic studio in Ahmerst, MA, Barlow tracked his parts pushing a pair of Gibson Grabbers through a Marshall JCM 800 2205 “with a bunch of tubes taken out of it” and an old SVT cabinet, which all gives a gritty, mid-range sneer to strum-heavy pieces like I Ain’t, Hide Another Round, and N Say

Having first formed the band in 1985 with Mascis and drummer Murph, Barlow loves the moments that reflect the dynamism of Dinosaur Jr. working purely as a power trio. “It really cuts it down to the bare essentials of the band,” the bassist says of their spare, yet steel-reinforced approach.

“I think it’s a lost art with a lot of rock bands and recording techniques. People are like, ‘It sounds too empty; you’ve got to put rhythm guitars in there!’ I’ve never liked that. I think it should be like the '60s, like, ‘No, fuck that! It’s 1967 – bass in the left channel, guitar in the right.’ Cut it down and let the guitar talk. Let the bass be heard.”

That’s not to say there aren’t overdub-embellished sections on Sweep It Into Space – check, for instance, the feral, sustained bends Mascis layers atop the chunky, Crazy Horse crunging of I Met The Stones, or the spangled 12-string which album co-producer Kurt Vile brings to I Ran Away.

But on Garden and Wonder Why, notably the two tracks that Barlow penned for the set, lead sections take a more streamlined three-piece approach. Interestingly, each of these arrives as bass-on-bass moments, with Mascis laying down both the groove and some high-neck noodling on a ’65 P-Bass; Barlow handles six-strings outside of those sections.

“It’s hard to teach my guitar parts exactly to J. You know, we both have idiosyncratic styles of playing,” Barlow says of swapping roles for those particular cuts. Though he has often switched from bass to guitar across various releases from his other longtime band, Sebadoh, he and Mascis first performed their instrument exchange on 2016’s Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. “It’s cool to change it up, and he’s into it.”

While Barlow cut his elegiac Garden and the closing alt-ballad You Wonder with Dinosaur Jr. before the pandemic shut down the sessions, a third track of his called Why Can’t It Wait didn’t make it to tape. 

Instead, it’s featured on Barlow’s latest solo LP, Reason To Live, as an acoustic piece. As for what was captured on Sweep It Into Space, the LP further refines the band’s unique, sand-blasted sonic blueprint.

“The sound of the band is something we forged when we were very young. There’s such a familiarity to it; I find it really comforting,” Barlow explains of locking into the instantly identifiable crunch of Dinosaur Jr. “My love of the Ramones’ first four or five records is just boundless; any early Black Sabbath, too. To be in a band that has this similar kind of lunk-headed energy to it plays so perfectly to my limitations. At the core of the sound, there’s something that reminds me of my youth, in a good way.” 

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.