Los Angeles based instrumental post-rock maestro’s Barrows completed a west coast tour over the summer in support of their excellent new album Red Giant (Barrows Recordings). Drawing inspiration from the same pool that ISIS, Pelican, Rosetta and Russian Circles are immersed in, yet possess their own unique vision and style too. Pure artists who are unfettered by traditional expectations of what a band is supposed to be, they have a refreshing take on music that serves as a clear sign to creative longevity. Jarred Christenson caught up with Jim Leonard and Richy Epolito for a Q & A session to learn about all things Barrows.
How did you guys meet and get started playing music? Can you describe an early jam session and a current one to give us an idea of how things have changed (or not) since then?
Jim:Rich’s older brother Tom was one of my best friends in high school. I spent a lot of time hanging with Tom at the Epolito house and that’s how rich and I met. Rich’s guitars and drums were always lying around so It didn’t take long for us to start playing music together.
Richy: Jim and I have been writing and playing music together for a long time but the ideas behind Barrows started within the past 5 years. We understand and respect each others opinions equally which is highly important to us.
What was the genesis of the astral concept for Red Giant? Were there any particular books/ media/experiences that inspired it or that you consumed during the writing process to stay in that epic frame of mind? Did you binge watch a bunch of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos?
Richy: One night we were out partying with some friends and we ended up crashing at Jim’s place. When we were trying to fall asleep, the words Red Giant came to my mind and they sort of spilled out and it struck a chord with both of us. I like the idea of a star expanding to its largest state while also becoming low in density and then eventually expiring because of that imbalance. I think we can all agree Carl Sagan is a total badass, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can rock a turtleneck as hard as he did.
Jim: Once we knew the title of the record, we began forming a linear story line for the album based on a Red Giant. The Red Giant explodes, which creates a ‘Black Hole’, which creates a ‘Wormhole’, and then ‘Beyond’ is where you end up at the end of the Wormhole. The opening track ‘Nebula’ is the space in which the Red Giant exists. I have never seen Cosmos, but Kubrick s 2001 definitely had a strong influence on the wormhole/beyond part of the concept for the record.
What order did you develop the songs in? Did you build the album out from the title track or did you write it sequentially from start to finish?
Jim: We figured out the title of the record, and then the story line for the record, and once that was set we began writing the music for the songs based on their titles.
Richy: The very first thing that came about was the beginning of ‘Nebula’. After that it was just a lot of bits and pieces and working on songs as they naturally flowed out of us.
That makes two concept albums for you. What appeals to you about albums that have a unifying theme?
Richy: I think we enjoy melding visuals in our heads with musical ideas. For us it sort of gives us a very specific focus to work off of. Its similar to writing a soundtrack for film in a lot of ways. We enjoy creating fiction, it is a very rewarding way to explore ourselves and our surroundings.
Jim: As an instrumental band, sometimes it’s easier to know how a song should change and move forward when you have an idea as to what the song is about and how it relates to the rest of the songs on the record.
Let’s talk about the recording process. Red Giant has some fairly sprawling songs on it. Did you use any weird tricks for keeping things straight in the studio? Give parts nicknames?
Jim: We made very detailed demos for each song before we went into the studio. The final songs have the exact same composition and structure as our final demos. That helped keep things straight while in the studio.
Was the gear you used pretty similar to what you play on live, or did you pull out some extra tricks to get the sound you wanted?
Jim: Rich and I write and record as a two piece, but live we play as a four piece with our bandmates Brock Haltiwanger and Ryo Higuchi. Our sound is a bit different live because Brock and Ryo use their own gear.
Follow up question: your Instagram feed has a pic of a mic’d up bathroom stall. What’s that all about? (Please tell me that’s how you got the whooshing sound at the end of ‘Red Giant’)
Richy: Hahaha. The bathroom mic was a genius idea from our engineer Toshi Kasai. The basic idea was to create a chamber far away from the amp to catch sound. So what we did was place the amp about 15 feet from that bathroom and then put a microphone inside the bathroom. When the amp is played the sound travels 15 feet and is trapped in this like mini chamber and recorded by the microphone. It creates a natural reverb. Samples of that sound can be heard on the guitars at the beginning of ‘Nebula’ and at the beginning and end of ‘Beyond’. This technique helped convey the feeling of space.
Jim: That whooshing sound at the end of ‘Red Giant’ is the sound of the star exploding. For the initial drop we used a whammy pedal, and the swell that follows was created by double tracking analog delay pedal swells.
What do you feel like the high point of the recording process was for you? What was the low point?
Jim: We are not huge fans of recording in general our favorite thing is the process of making the songs and watching/hearing them come into form. I wouldn’t say there was any high or low points, it all just blended together. Toshi made our recording process super comfortable and relaxed which we appreciated a lot.
You guys are about to hit the road for a West Coast tour. What’s your touring rig look like? Do you have any special detours planned along the way? And what kind of entertainment are you bringing with you to stay sane on the road?
Jim: We are going to rent a van for this tour. We are playing a show every night we are on tour, so we don’t have time for any major detours, but we have good friends in almost every city we are stopping in so it will be good to catch up with them. As far as road entertainment, were just bringing a bunch of music.
Richy: Luckily I will have my pogs and Magic cards to make the drive go by faster.
What’s your approach to set list? Do you plan to pull out a cover?
Jim: We will be playing most of Red Giant, and a few songs off of Imprecari Island. We will definitely be playing ‘Pirates’ at every show. We have never worked on a cover before, maybe someday.
WORDS: JARRED CHRISTENSON
LIVE PHOTOS: CURTISS DUNLAP PHOTOGRAPHY