Universally considered a stalwart of American alternative music and an iconic player in the popularisation of indie music Lou Barlow, bassist of the seminal late 80s/early 90s low-fi rock outfit Dinosaur Jr and founding member of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, is the most humble of fellows. Disarming and down to Earth, the man chats with Tonedeaf from his home state of Ohio as he prepares to make his way down to Australia for a solo tour.
After releasing two solo LPs, Emoh and Goodnight Unknown, an extension of his ongoing Sentridoh project, Lou speaks about his excitement at showcasing a retrospective of his career: “I’m lucky I have a lot of songs to draw upon. I try and take requests and I try and touch upon lots of different parts of my career in my gigs, maybe things that I don’t really get to play with Sebadoh or Folk Implosion.”
With his musical career being so diverse in style and legacy, the fuzzed-up, low-fi garage punk of Dinosaur Jr juxtaposes the opulent arrangements of Folk Implosion and the acoustic intimacy of Emoh, playing them side by side is a matter of strategy. “The songs come from the same source, so for me it all kind of hangs together. I only play songs acoustically that I feel sound good acoustically; I make that editorial decision to which songs sound the best. My songs are simple, my approach is simple, it’s just me playing a guitar so it’s easy to make it fall together.”
This simplicity ties in directly to the ‘low-fi’ label that has hung around Lou’s neck since the release of Dinosaur in 1985 when Dinosaur Jr’s uniquely stylised sound had the band credited by the music press with pioneering a low-fi ‘brand’ of rock music. With electronic artists such as The XX and James Blake claiming low-fi influences and adopting a minimalist aesthetic more recently, Lou reflects on the musical legacy he has left behind on today’s alternative scene. “I don’t hear my music but I hear the approach, the philosophy. I think recording techniques and the recording process has become democratised in a way, people have easier and cheaper access to good recording equipment and they have the ability to shape their sound much more so than they had in the past. So that homespun approach is a lot more widely accepted and some very popular music is made like that, but I don’t hear my style or the way I play guitar or the way I sing or the kind of lyrics I write. I don’t think I made much of a dent.”
There is a certain amount of altruism in Lou’s principles when it comes to recording and sharing his music. His last solo tour to Australia resulted in a free gig and tape of an acoustic performance at Melbourne record store Missing Link and despite touring his own solo material, the man seems well aware of what the fans want to hear. “I wouldn’t personally be comfortable not playing the hits. To me that’s very selfish. I’ve always wanted my fans to like the show, bring people into it, have a good time, and probably the easiest way to do that is play songs that people like.”
“I like my early songs, I like to play them and it makes me feel good. And not everyone is a 45 year old like me you know? What about the teenagers in the crowd who may have just gone out and bought Bug? I know when I see bands like Sonic Youth, I wanna hear some of the old stuff, I wanna hear the band readdress their formative performances. As a performer it’s kind of your duty to play the songs people want to hear, we don’t have that much time together, I don’t go on tour all of the time so I don’t take these things for granted.”
Readdressing formative performances was something Lou was able to accomplish in the last five years with both Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh reforming and touring, as well as producing two critically acclaimed albums, Beyond and Farm with his old teenage band.
Lou is open about his emotions regarding the band that he was once kicked out of by lead singer J Mascis and looking back on the ups and downs of Dinosaur Jr, he’s passionate about becoming that band that spends afternoons jamming in their garage again. “I am really fortunate that I’ve got my musical brothers still around me and we can still play together and access that energy we had when we first started. As for J and I, we’ve been pretty good about moving forward, any kind of human relationship is very complex, some days you feel bogged down by all of the baggage you carry with you; other days it’s remarkable how little it all really means and how important it is to be in the moment and make the best of what we have.”
The nostalgia trip of jamming out with J Mascis has also given Lou a fresh appreciation for the autonomy of recording solo material. Controlling the sound from a production desk has given him a perspective not gained as a teenage bassist playing at (producer) Wharton Tiers house in the late 80s. “I’ve played in so many band environments with Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr that when I do get to record solo it feels incredibly fresh. I guess what is important to remember from a production point of view is that you’re entering somebody’s mind, it gets very intimate and the process is so personal.”
“When we recorded at Wharton’s place, he was an instrument to allow J’s opinions to come out. J had a lot of really strong ideas and Wharton was cool, he really just let it happen. But when I was recording Goodnight Unknown and I brought my material to Andrew Murdock, I had already recorded the bulk of the record and he just mixed it with me. I have to be in control, I have to be really comfortable recording things and capturing the songs. When it comes to putting things together, then I want peoples’ opinions, but the initial recording has to be as comfortable as possible because it is a very soul baring, intimate experience and it’s best done without too much discussion.”
So what is next for Lou Barlow? “I’m on a bit of a guitar kick lately, by the time I get to Australia we will have done the first ten days of recording for a new Sebadoh record. My experience with Dinosaur Jr has been overwhelmingly positive and I guess it has given me a lot of confidence to go back and do new Sebadoh stuff. I’m really enjoying trying to keep things simple and trying to record in a way that doesn’t sound like a studio, getting down to live tracks and creating vibrant instrumental cores that we can work off. I’m currently in that headspace, enjoying how each band has its own idiosyncrasies and I’ve rediscovered my love for being one of three people in a room working out song ideas together.”
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