Lou Barlow doesn’t quite get J Mascis’ production process, and he’s never really asked.
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“He [Mascis] hasn’t explained his process,” says bassist Barlow. “I mean, he doesn’t really like talking. That’s kind of his thing.”
Working mostly on his own, Mascis typically starts with two or three demo that’s he’s done before adding on more. Shifting between his tiny attic studio and separate downstairs setup in his Amherst, MA home is how Mascis pulled together Dinosaur Jr.’s 12th album Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar).
On a steady schedule since the band’s first reunion album, Beyond, in 2007, Sweep It Into Space is the band’s fifth release since their decade-long hiatus and has followed a fairly routine process.
“For the first three reunion records, I would fly out here and I’d stay at my parents’ house, and go back into this old life where I would drive to J’s house every day,” says Barlow, who was living in Los Angeles when the band first started playing together in the mid-’00s following a nearly 10-year hiatus. “Due to circumstances in my life, I’m back here [MA] now, and I live 30 minutes from J’s house, so I’ve been here for the last two records.”
Dinosaur Jr. record by a regime that goes something like this: “We go to J’s house, walk to the kitchen, J’s usually at the table, you get some water, go upstairs and sort of puzzle out these demos that J hands you,” says Barlow. “I sit there with Murph and we power through, build it instrumentally, then the last step is J putting his vocals and guitar overdubs on it. That’s something that happens with him alone at the end of the basic recording and then so that was actually identical for this record.”
Co-produced with Kurt Vile, and partially recorded during the fall of 2019, Sweep It Into Space finds the power trio loose and raw, hammering through a mess of their jangly guitar medleys from opener “I Ain’t,” through “I Ran Away,” with Vile offering up his 12-string. Melodically moving into “Garden,” one of two tracks penned by Barlow, who wrote the song after seeing a sign that read “Back to the Garden,” which articulated getting back to one’s musical root, Sweep It Into Space is Dinosaur Jr. returning to their core, again and again, roaring through the Barlow-penned close of “You Wonder.”
Barlow doesn’t typically hold on to songs, but he’ll often return to songs he wrote in his earlier years. On his upcoming solo release, Reason to Live, he reverted to lyrics he wrote when was 13, including one track, a recording from 1982, which he built a new song around.
“I’ll pull out stuff that still sticks with me,” he says. “I remember that, obviously, there’s some value to it. I love that there are songs that I have carried around for decades.” Often using his iPhone to save song song ideas, not to record melodies or lyrics, but “mini movies.”
“Not only do I get the recording of the thought, but I can tell what chords I’ll use,” says Barlow. “It’s incredibly helpful to have these little videos that show me what I was playing, so I just took it and picked five ideas that I thought were relatively strong and started playing.”
Feeding off artists like Alex Chilton, who wrote the song “Thirteen” when he was 13, or the baroque rock of The Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” and “Walk Away Renée,” which were also written during their early teens, is what inspires Barlow most these days.
“It’s that moment, when you’re first reaching into the peak of harmonies or melodies, and it just comes from a place where those are the first of your batch,” says Barlow. “You’re gonna get older, and you’re gonna do versions of all of these same things over and over again, but there’s nothing quite like the initial discovery. To be able to go back and hear something and you’re like ‘wow, I can’t believe I did that,’ that’s always a signal to me.”
He adds, “Neil Young has a great quote like ‘the first thing off the top of your head, realize how important that is.” That’s becoming more inspirational the older I get, because you don’t have to give yourself a hard time about repeating yourself. Maybe it’s just a new little interpretation of this basic thing that you have.”
And the older they get, “the less emotional baggage is associated with everything” says Barlow, who likes where Dinosaur Jr. is planted today, far removed from its more produced beginnings. “I like it because we are kind of a formula band,” says Barlow, comparing it to The Ramones, also his 11-year-old son’s favorite band. “The Ramones were absolutely a formula band. For me to hear it again and to realize how important that music was for me when I was a kid and how much predictability of the music there is, it’s so comforting. I like being part of a band like that. We’re creatures of habit.”
Dinosaur Jr. has always been the perfect fit for Barlow, who jokes that he’s never been the greatest musician. “To be blessed to be in a band where my limitations are a part of my strength is pretty extraordinary,” he says, “so when I’m able to tap into that and go right to that same place when I’m a teenager and just wagging my head, it’s like a real gift. It’s cathartic.”
He adds, “Here we are, these three weird guys who got together when we were young. We got together and we start playing and it makes this particular sound, and to be in a band like that.. that’s pretty amazing.”