“I feel more clarity right now than I have had in a very long time, probably since my early twenties. I know what I want to say, what I want to hear, I can instinctively feel the shape of the songs and where I want them to go. It is the clarity that comes from the truth of what you feel about things”, Lou Barlow tells me from his new home in Massachusetts.
After seventeen years in Los Angeles, he recently moved back to the state in which he grew up and now lives in Greenfield, a small Franklin county town where his parents, sister, ex-wife and kids also are. He recently re-married and in a whole new chapter of his life, you can feel his optimism even across the ocean.
The bassist/co-songwriter of Dinosaur Jr and mastermind of Sebadoh and (the now-defunct) Folk Implosion, Barlow has been one of the most influential alternative-rock musicians of the last three decades. Incredibly respected within a range of scenes, from indie-rock to hardcore-punk, from folk-rock to post-punk, his talent is legendary regardless of opinion on his sound.
Better known for his work in Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh, since the late ‘80s Barlow has also been consistently putting out interesting solo material, first under the Sentridoh moniker and then since the mid 2000s under his full name. If Sentridoh releases were murky, occasionally abrasive, stripped-down home-recordings, the first two solo albums under his own name (Emoh and Goodnight Unknown) showcased the more melodic, romantic side of Barlow’s music, backed up by a full band.
Barlow is finally back with the beautiful Brace The Wave, which in a way represents a comeback to the early Sentridoh works, mainly based around ukulele, acoustic guitar and his warm, melancholic vocals, but with the bonus of a crisper, more polished sound.
The album was recorded in six days at Easthampton’s Sonelab studios with Justin Pizzoferrato, who also worked on the three Dinosaur Jr ‘reunion’ LPs. Brace The Wave is “an acoustic electric album, recorded with digital analogue and digitally analogue equipment”, which (though it’s true that the mixes come from both cassettes and real tapes, and purely digital recordings) is in fact a joke, aiming at making fun of the digital-versus-analogue debate some seem to take so seriously. “People talk a lot about the integrity of all these methods of recording, but I am not that concerned, and I use a combination of all those things”, Barlow explains. “For me if something is good, it is not going to make much of a difference if it is recorded analogue or digital. Especially now that digital technology is constantly getting better and better, all that debate is sort of nonsensical.”
Apart from a couple of tracks (‘C + E’ and ‘Lazy’), which have been around for a while, most of the songs were written during the recording process. I tell Barlow that my personal highlight is probably ‘Pulse’, a melancholic ballad which mentions ageing and the connection between body and soul, he reveals that the song is about FVT, a heart condition he was diagnosed with a few years ago. “If I am under stress, I have eaten salty food or I’m hungover, my heart starts beating randomly and very fast. It isn’t a life threatening condition, but when it first happened to me and I ended up in a hospital, it was very shocking.” Since then, Barlow has been very conscious of his pulse and can feel it racing when talking about certain things or feeling certain emotions. “You are taught since an early age that body and mind are connected, but learning that, truly understanding it, takes much longer.” he continues. “It’s interesting because since then I have met people that also have it, for instance Thurston Moore, so it’s not so unusual.”
On Brace The Wave and elsewhere, Barlow openly (and beautifully) sings about getting through difficult times in a very confessional, visceral, yet endearing way. “I find it hard to sing about things that I’ve never experienced. If I could do that, be more of a fictional writer, it would be wonderful, but I write genuinely from my own experience.” His confessional writing is catharsis and celebration, and though it sometimes can seem to, it doesn’t come from depression at all. “A lot of times I don’t write about things till after they have happened, so I tend to write more from the point of view of having been through something rather than an anxiety or depression. I’m not depressed when I write music, music to me is very enjoyable, so even if I am writing about something that would seem depressing, I’m not experiencing it quite that way.”
The older I get the less concerned about credits I am. I’m more interested in what other people do and wondering if I am adding anything to music at all.
Between Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr, Folk Implosion and his solo work, Barlow has been making music almost non-stop for a considerable amount of time. It was only in the early 2000s, when Sebadoh went on hiatus and Folk Implosion (in their first incarnation) broke up, that he seemed to be willing to take a proper break. “I didn’t want to call it quits, but the message I thought I was getting from the world was that I should probably stop, or maybe just look for another job.” He explains that he wasn’t seeing a lot of opportunities in the way people were approaching his new music at the time, and there just seemed to be a very hostile environment. “I thought I might have to figure something else out to keep myself going, but it just happened that I didn’t. In spite of having moments like that, I’ve just kept playing and opportunities have kept presenting themselves, I keep following the leads and I am still going. When the leads stop and there is nothing else for me to do, then I guess I will stop doing this.”
Always self-conscious and self-critical when writing, Barlow feels the most pressure coming from himself. “I’m very open to new music and often I think that what I’m listening to is so much better than what I do. People are doing things that are constantly blowing me away, there is so much high quality, beautifully rendered stuff that it is discouraging, almost intimidating. The older I get the less concerned about credits I am. I’m more interested in what other people do and wondering if I am adding anything to music at all.”
Reflecting on his thirty-year career, Barlow thinks that Sebadoh III and Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me are probably the best records he has ever worked on. “I don’t know if I will ever be able to surpass those, to me especially Sebadoh III is so on the moment, there are certain atmospheres, a certain truth on it, and I am not sure if I will ever be able to do something like that again.” But at the same time he feels that the best has somehow yet to come, talking about individual songs, there is a real possibility he could write something better, especially in this part of his life where he feels so inspired. “Music itself is still very exciting to me, there are still many possibilities. So hopefully yeah, I will do better things.”
His new marriage, and his now ten-year old daughter and five-year-old son are definitely playing a key role in this new found clarity and inspiration. I ask him if he ever tries to push his kids to play any instrument, but he doesn’t want to, especially now that they have got through a lot of changes, moving from Los Angeles to a smaller community. “I just make guitars and keyboards available to them, but I don’t want to force them. I was pushed to play at a very early age and I hated it, I wasn’t really a great player at the beginning and didn’t really embrace it till much later. So it is difficult, because in a way I do want to push them, and in another way I really don’t want to at all.”
Barlow has a very strong relationship with his kids, but though music obviously plays a huge part in his daily life with them, hearing him sing can stir up weird reactions in them. “Every time I put my music on they start yelling at me! I think the way I sing acoustic songs almost frightens them.” He uses the analogy of getting used to his father growing a beard every year as a kid, and then being in shock at seeing his father’s skin so pale and soft after he would shave off. “In a way it is the same thing for my kids when they see me behind the guitar singing in this weird strain of my speaking voice. It must be strange to them, and it might take them a while to appreciate it. Though, I wrote a song for my parents recently, then sang it for them with my son playing harmonica and my daughter singing it with me, so I think they are coming around a little bit, we’ll see.”
Barlow is about to embark on an acoustic solo tour, the first without a backing band since his debut solo album Emoh. He explains “It’s basically just going to be me on guitar and some embellishments like a synthesizer and a loop pedal. I haven’t done a real solo tour in a while and I will probably see it in a whole different way than before.” he adds “It’s so much more intimate than with Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr, I’m much more vulnerable when I play solo, and so is probably the audience as I can hear and see them.”