"I Thought I'd Be Dead Already": Lou Barlow's Been Doing This for 30 Years, Damnit
We talked to the founding member of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh about what it's like to be a legend.
Photo by Rachel Enneking
Lou Barlow’s year is stacked. He’s gearing up to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dinosaur Jr’s debut album Dinosaur with a week of gigs in December at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, each night devoted to one of the six albums recorded by the band’s classic lineup. It’s been exactly 20 years since the unexpected breakthrough of Barlow’s side project the Folk Implosion’s smash hit “Natural One,” concocted when he landed a gig overseeing the music for Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s controversial New York City street kid vérité morality play Kids. Barlow has also returned to Massachusetts—where he grew up—after nearly 20 years in California, and released a folky new solo album. Recorded in just a few days, as Barlow’s return to New England situated him close by the Easthampton studio of Justin Pizzoferrato, engineer on the last two Dinosaur Jr. albums Farm and I Bet on Sky, Brace the Wave catches the artist understandably in flux.
Arriving also in the wake of Barlow’s divorce from his wife of over 20 years, Wave’s wispy repose might easily be mistaken for fallout; but where Barlow’s last full length, the 2013 Sebadoh comeback album Defend Yourself, seemed specifically informed by the relationship’s dissolution, the new record is maturely accepting of drift and change as unavoidable circumstances of growing up rather than wounded by any specific instance of it. I spoke with the man himself in late August, curious whether the striking seaside image of a couple bracing themselves for a big splash posited in the de facto title track “Wave” is the album’s big picture statement. Affable, but mildly preoccupied—it was his two children’s first vacation at his parents’ Dayton, Ohio home—he wouldn’t commit to an underlying theme, opting instead for a simple, sincere, “You never give up.” Coming from a performer renowned for two legacy acts of often diametrically opposing creative methods, it’s hard not to hear a statement of purpose.
Lou Barlow is a master juggler. Since the late 80s, when, intimidated by the writing chops of Dinosaur Jr. leader J Mascis, he began stockpiling brittle, tape hiss addled solo recordings as exercise, Barlow has defied easy classification. With Mascis, Barlow was the mannered, sometimes vacant bass player in a punishingly loud rock band who, given a song or two of his own to front, periodically played a apprehensive counterpoint to Mascis’ weary drawl. (Lou’s spectral “Poledo,” from 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, famously won the affection sight unseen of the woman he’d go on to marry.) As relations within Dinosaur Jr. soured, the home recordings became the main gig, and Sebadoh expanded from a fractious acoustic project into a scrappy rock outfit of its own over the still playful but increasingly accomplished III and Bubble and Scrape. Barlow also started the Folk Implosion in the 90s to fool around with new sounds and landed high up on the Billboard Hot 100 in just two years’ time. The pace dipped over the next decade as Sebadoh stopped recording, and the Folk Implosion went inactive, but ever since Dinosaur’s 2005 reunion, Barlow’s kept shockingly busy.
Part of the reason Barlow keeps going is that it has never occurred to him to do anything else. “When you’re young, you don’t plan on doing anything that lasts, and you can’t grasp the concept of permanence,” he says, reflecting on 30 years of touring and recording. “I mean, I thought I would be dead already. But I would look at the Rolling Stones, not that anything I’ve done is comparable to them… I’ve always gotten the impression that old men make music. I mean, you have these bluegrass musicians who go out and tour until they drop dead.” Barlow’s no one’s old man—he’s barely 50—but Brace the Wave, in its preoccupation with movement and change, is something of a meditation on aging. The undercurrent is teased out explicitly on “Pulse,” a bout of late night health worries (“I can’t take on nature by myself / It’s not a fight, it’s my body aging”), and “Redeemed” cuts to the quick in its exploration of the pain of memory: “Memories are made of razor blades, even when they’re good.”
Brace the Wave is stark as much because of the circumstances it was born into as by deliberate necessity of form. Its recording follows some significant changes in the life of the artist, but the album derives much of its midnight mood from his burning desire to set electric guitars aside for a while. “I definitely wanted to make this one all-acoustic,” he says of Wave’s drum-free, man-and-his-guitar construction. “I hadn’t done it in a long time. Even with the last solo record [2009’s Goodnight Unknown], it was partly electric.” The new album also motions to “recapture some of the space of the first three [Sebadoh] records,” a free-roaming, sprawling weirdness left behind as Barlow and mate Jason Lowenstein reined Sebadoh’s sound into hooky guitar pop around the 1994 masterpiece Bakesale.
The dueling urge to plunge full bore into titanic noise and to retreat from it forms a central plot in Lou Barlow’s work. By day, he’s a road warrior in one of the loudest rock groups of all time. (On Dinosaur Jr.’s fabled volume: “Our sound engineer Noel Ford saw the 13th Floor Elevators when he was 14 and also guys like Jimi Hendrix. He tells me ‘You’re not nearly as loud as Vanilla Fudge!’”) Elsewhere, Barlow gracefully eludes the conventions of the electric three-piece. “If it was all just big, loud noise all the time, I would lose my mind,” he explains. “That’s why I go back and make these quieter songs. It keeps me balanced. Pardon my expression, and I hate to use the word, but it keeps me chill, not that this record is very chill.” (If it feels strange hearing a lo-fi pioneer using cool teen lingo, chill: The kids keep him abreast of pop culture. He appreciates the new Taylor Swift record and seems excited when I bring up Carly Rae Jepsen. His daughter recently pushed him to try out Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance”: “I didn’t like that too much.”)
The fourth quarter of Lou Barlow’s banner year will involve a spate of autumn shows around Brace the Wave to lead up to the aforementioned Dinosaur Jr. Bowery shows. He’d love for the latter to involve everyone who ever played in the band—Mascis carried Dinosaur through the 90s with Mark Lanegan collaborator Mike Johnson and a few others after ousting Barlow in 1989 post-Bug—but he doesn’t know if it’ll work out. I fretfully ask whether it’ll be another decade before we get a Sebadoh record, and Barlow reveals geographic constraints as the chief obstacle to more music. (Lowenstein and Defend Yourself drummer Bob D’Amico live in Brooklyn, where, for a time, they served as the Fiery Furnaces’ rhythm section.) “I’d love to do another one with them,” he says, “but two of us have kids, and it’s hard to get the guys up to me from New York. I’m pretty busy with Dinosaur Jr., and I would need them to come to me.”
It sounds like a dream, but for 25 years, Barlow returning to Dinosaur Jr. seemed impossible too. That he would do so and end up sticking around longer than he ever did in the band’s first incarnation is doubly fortuitous. It’s the ability to set the band down awhile and pick it back up again that keeps the reconstituted Dinosaur Jr. going. J spent 2014 following his muse through acoustic, power-pop, and metal side projects, and Lou’s autumnal folk venture means the duo can come back with a fresh appetite for Dinosaur for the end of the year blast. There’s rumors of a new album on the horizon as well. As for special guests fans might expect at Bowery: “Not to let any cats out of the bag, but I think there might be some members of Sonic Youth involved.”
Brace the Wave is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings, and more information about Dinosaur Jr.’s “Celebrating 30 Years” event can be found here.
Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.