When Clash calls Lou Barlow, lo-fi legend of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, sound-tracker to perhaps the most gritty film ever, Kids, he’s in the middle of something refreshingly un-rock n’ roll: a family reunion. It’s an annual affair for the Barlows apparently, the last Sunday of every August.
Hanging out in the sunshine with his kids, back in his hometown of Dayton Ohio, seems a pretty apt setting to catch him, given how he describes his peeled-down, drum-less, acoustic solo record: “back to basics and personal.”
The personal is nothing new though, says Lou, in fact it’s a bit of a habit. “There’s the term ‘too much information’ that people use,” he says. “I’m always giving too much information in my songs. It’s something I’m compelled to do, rather than a more traditional songwriter – using characters or story telling. I’m always drawn to just coming out with too much information.”
The new record is cut through with a sense of truthfulness and of the confessional – from the rawness of the sound, without drums or amplification adding any fuss, to the laid-bare lyrics.
And it’s not that he isn’t a storyteller, just that Lou chooses to tell his own stories. At times ‘Brace the Wave’ seems to be about renewal, his new life with Adelle (the knitwear designer, not the Bond-singing pop star). “The story of my innocence is brief,” he sings on Redeemed. “Then I was redeemed/You gave me everything I need.”
At other times he’s looking back, reflecting – it was only a few years ago that he split from long-term wife Kathleen Billus – or the need to push past failed or damaging relationships. “Will I learn to walk away/Die the death of former life,” he sings on Moving. “I was feeding on a leash/Without a thought if it was right/ The day I moved/The way I moved.” Repeat feels even more direct, the title alluding to a refusal to enter into another painful relationship: “Can’t you see how I’ve protected you/And I expect your blind respect for all you put me through.”
Maybe all this lyrical over-sharing has something to do with being an under-sharer in real life, Clash wonders. Lou concedes, but only a little: “I’m a pretty private person. I don’t have many friends – I keep my circle tight I guess.”
“But it’s more that I’m always drawn to music that’s personal, things that are more real, so when I started writing my own songs, I wrote songs that I’d like to hear.”
He says that even though he uses the same approach with Sebadoh, that with Dinosaur Jr. things are less specific: “It’s more about texture rather than actual songs, so when it comes to lyrics I’m not as much as a perfectionist.”
But on ‘Brace the Wave’ he did want to be specific, and not just the lyrics: he wanted the music to sound exactly like it does when he plays on his own. “I didn’t want anyone else to play with me,” he says. “Every single sound on this record I played myself. I wanted it to reflect how music sounds when I play to myself, as natural as possible.”
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He talks about the rhythms and strokes that he uses when playing alone – “Three or four different ways of strumming that I use” – and how he wanted them all there on the record, half on ukulele and half on acoustic guitar. “I really thought it was time to make an acoustic record in a studio – to try to reflect the home recording process there.”
This search for a homemade sound was helped along by a home-coming of sorts. Lou moved back to Massachusetts – where he formed his first band, Deep Wound with J Mascis, back in 1982 – and hooked up with producer/engineer Justin Pizzoferrato, who he’d worked with before on the Dinosaur Jr. ‘reunion’ LPs.
“I knew I would be really comfortable with him”, says Lou, “which is half the battle if you want something to sound natural. I didn’t have any plans, I thought I would probably just do an EP. But then it came together really quickly. When we finished I was like, ‘This is almost an LP’, so I just booked one more day.
“To be honest I could have gone on and on, every session was more fruitful than the next. I felt really good about it.”
This almost superhuman ability to go on and on is another hallmark of Lou’s 30+ years in music. After a recent scare in hospital left him thinking he’d had a stroke, or grown a brain tumour (luckily both untrue) he’s back on tour for ‘Brace the Wave’, and in a few months will be marking the 30th anniversary of Dinosaur Jr.’s 1985 debut LP with a week of gigs in New York, during which the band will perform their debut album in its entirety each night followed by a set of songs from across their catalogue. Busy much, Lou? No wonder his Spotify bio pronounces him the “most prolific songwriter of his generation”.
“Not true!” he laughs. “Maybe there was a point in the 90s that could have been true, just certainly not in the last 10 years.”
Lou points out, self-deprecatingly, that over the last decade he made “just” three solo records, “only” released one Sebadoh record with just seven songs that he recorded, and that only two songs on the last Dinosaur Jr. record were his…and kind of negates his own point while he reels this off.
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It’s something I’m compelled to do...
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Output is clearly a big deal for Lou though - he talks in awe about the output of bands like Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Guided By Voices, and how much he loved 30-song albums when he was starting out. “You could expect at least an album and several EPs a year by bands that were active in the early 80s,” he remembers.
“They were just producing constantly – it was part of the punk rock ethos. If you went to see a band like Hüsker Dü you wouldn’t even know what they were playing – they’d have already moved onto their new songs. That was a big part of it for me and I wanted to contribute by making my own sprawling body of work.”
Which is why, to him at least, it seems natural that all his projects ebb and flow between one another. Sebadoh started when he was in Dinosaur Jr., and became his main band after he got thrown out, as well as solo stuff on the side. Then in the early 90s he embarked on The Folk Implosion, and had his biggest commercial hit with Natural One on the soundtrack to Kids, which he also curated.
“I guess I’m working all the time, though it doesn’t really feel like that,” he shrugs. “I’ve always done that. It’s kind of natural for me to do that, have a few things going on, a few concerns. If I didn’t I don’t know if I’d get bored, but almost, like, angry? I think it’s healthy for me.”
Even though he describes the loud, abrasive task of playing live in Dinosaur Jr. as a “cathartic experience”, Lou says he’s always needed other types of output: “Some people who really embrace playing heavy metal, or aggressive music, often don’t want to play anything else, but I feel like if I play very soft music it makes the louder music more expressive, and playing loud music makes the soft music more expressive when I do it.
“Each approach nourishes the other. For me it’s important to do both.” And nowadays, technology is helping him stay true to that. “Now I have a smartphone I can constantly capture ideas and log them all,” says Lou. “I used to carry around tape recorders to capture stuff, and then there must have been a period where I stopped carrying round tape recorders but didn’t have a smartphone…kind of dark days! So I’m really happy to have a smartphone now.”
He used his phone to record the comically down-beat trailer for the new LP. His friend, vide-maker Adam Harding had cut together some footage of the recording process, and Lou just watched it and narrated along off the cuff, into his phone. “I didn’t think it would be funny but when I watched it back I guess it kind of was.”
Lou reels off a fictitious album review for the audience: “Outmoded Melody Review says: ‘Brace The Wave' is a triumph of physical coordination, it would be heard to imagine something somewhere quite ‘this’ as this is. Six hands out of seven and a half.”
In the trailer we see producer Jason - “Recorded by fellow bearded man, Jason Fitzperado…look at us, looking at things,” says Lou, totally deadpan – and the family cat, Bob. Who, Lou tells us, is actually a girl. How very Blackadder.
In true 2015-form, special special editions of the LP are being sold with a Lou Barlow selfie tucked into the sleeve – he had to take 200 of them. Clash wonders if, even for this 21st Century man, this was a bit of a chore? “They come really quickly, it’s surprising,” he laughs. “If I hook up my phone to my computer there’s always so many pictures downloading. Like, how can there possibly be 150 pictures on my phone?!
“My wife and kids took a lot of the pictures too – it was actually pretty fun.” As if on queue, his little boy Hendrix wanders into earshot, and it sounds like he wants his dad to come hang out in the pool. Lou patiently tells him to go back to the party and wait - “It’s funny trying to teach kids social rules, you know?” he says - and we think it’s kind of cool, combining parenting and family life with press interviews, touring thoughtful, reflective acoustic solo material back-to-back with the noisy alt-rock of Dinosaur Jr.
“I like that people think I’m prolific, but I’m not.” We beg to differ, Lou.
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Words: Emma Finamore
Photo Credit: Rachel Enneking
'Brace The Wave' is out now. Catch Lou Barlow at London's Hoxton Bar & Kitchen on October 5th.