Written by: Cameron Billon
Photo Credit: Adam Harding
Stereo Embers was lucky to catch up with singer songwriter Lou Barlow, one third of the renowned power trio Dinosaur Jr., champion of Lo-fi and overall indie rock legend. Whether it be Sebadoh, Sentridoh, Folk Implosion or under his own name, Barlow has a history of exploring the dynamics of noise, texture and melody, often times with more soft spoken and intimate efforts outside of the raging guitar god beast that is Dinosaur Jr.
As 2016 manifested in all its madness, Barlow dropped the solo EP Apocalypse Fetish. Barlow managed to take himself to a cavern, where he was able to craft songs off the walls separating inner and outer turmoil. Reflected in the songs is the fear and sometimes anguish many Americans face, and have been facing lately. The material can be seen as a neat accomplishment for an already ultra-accomplished musician.
Not to mention, Dinosaur Jr. has been kicking ass on tour all over the world coming off a new album that’s an instant classic.
Here’s my chat with Lou.
Stereo Embers: I wanted to start by saying thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. The EP is great and that’s what I want to focus on, but it also warrants mentioning that your two songwriting contributions to the latest Dinosaur Jr. record were pretty awesome. I’m one of those people whose route to discovering Dinosaur Jr. came via Sebadoh, so I’m always predisposed to look out for the Lou tracks. I was lucky enough to catch you guys again twice on this last tour and was blown away. Do you find that making music on the side of this huge touring band is still a vital part of maintaining your own musical identity?
Lou Barlow: I have always made music ‘on the side’ and, initially at least, didn’t consider it about maintaining a musical identity. I did always think it was important to play acoustic music and loud music. The most obvious influence and model for that would be Neil Young. From the beginning of his career he played aggressive music (‘Mr Soul’) and acoustic (’Sugar Mountain’) side by side. He had his band in which he shared songwriting (Buffalo Springfield) and a simultaneous solo thing. Also, for me, early punk and new wave emphasized diversity and open-mindedness so I never thought of focusing on one style above another or abandoning any aspirations for the sake of focus.
SEM: In regards to the title track of your new EP, Apocalypse Fetish, how does it feel to put out a song that is overtly political? As someone who’s listened to a great amount of your music, it feels to me that this is a newly developed theme, or maybe a side of you we haven’t had access to yet. Was it a conscious thing to write something that was a bit more edgy, especially in the whirlwind of 2016?
LB: I’ve always written political songs. The title of my second solo LP, Goodnight Unknown, comes from a Donald Rumsfeld speech. The Sebadoh song ‘Spoiled’ was written during the first Gulf War. My cassettes as Sentridoh during the early 90’s had overtly political songs. Even ‘Lighting Bulb’ on the Dinosaur Jr Beyond LP is a political song. I don’t think it would be necessarily easy to notice any of that and I don’t expect that anyone would. I’ve always written what I consider to be political songs. It all begins in the formation of our personal beliefs. This is a particularly sad time and I’ve been thinking about the rising anger in the U.S. for a while, so it naturally made itself into a song. I think the apocalyptic mindset spans the political spectrum and I find it all, from left to right, to come from intolerance and a refusal to accept complexity. That’s the theme of a lot of my personal songs, too.
SEM: Maybe you could tell us a bit about the video for “Apocalypse Fetish” and your vision there. I remember seeing something on Facebook where you were reaching out to fans for footage. I thought that was pretty cool, interacting with your fans and making your own video. What were you trying to capture? Is there something about Middle America in particular that you’re concerned with, or that the music is concerned with?
LB: The profusion of pick-up trucks with flags hanging off the back. From coast to coast you can rely on being tailgated and passed by a reckless ‘patriot’. It mirrored, in a real way, the impatience and anger in the country. You can find it in every state and I thought it was a sign of things to come and I wanted to capture it in the video. Also the practice of ‘rolling coal’ is a clear expression of the backlash to political correctness. Blowing plumes of smoke into the crowds at a Black Lives Matter protest is a great illustration of the nihilism and intolerance that we are accepting as normal.
SEM: I have heard you speak before on the idea that your melodies can sort of arise from the raw noise you’re creating, whether it be on a bass guitar or a three stringed guitar or whatever is handy. I have the weird feeling I know exactly what you’re talking about. Could you further describe that process? How did a tuned down ukulele become the medium for this set of songs?
LB: I wrote my first songs on a baritone ukelele that I would bring with me on early Dinosaur tours. I still bring a uke with me when I travel so if I have a day to sit and play, I do. If I play long enough, patterns repeat and songs are born. As far as songs coming from raw noise, I had a conversation years ago with a songwriter who described the method as hearing ‘crosstalk’ in the din. I would describe it as outlining the ghosts of the melodies that appear. It takes time and a nice echo-y room for me.
SEM: What was it like when you first started to hear the melodies this time around? I remember reading somewhere you were in a staircase or something. Does the environment play a role when you are song-crafting?
LB: Yea. The bigger the room, the hard reflective surfaces bounce the sounds around and I can begin to hear a second element to the patterns, then, if I’m lucky, a third and fourth. I can start to sing the other melodies I hear so the voice starts bouncing around, too. It’s probably one of the most satisfying things I can do and I don’t do it enough. It requires isolation and I’m rarely able to isolate myself enough.
SEM: I have to ask you about your lyrics. I would say you are one of the great guitar poets out there. “The Breeze” is a great example. Do you have a certain method, as far as where the words are going to come from? What’s your secret? Do the words come easy for you?
LB: I don’t know if it’s easy but if I have something to say and an idea of a melody it can come pretty quickly. It’s gotten easier recently because I’ve feel like it matters less that I am writing. There’s no expectations other than my own. Kind of like when I first started writing, I felt like no one was really listening or judging. I can write a song directed at someone and be certain that they will never hear it; it’s easier to be more direct feeling anonymous. I don’t think I’m a good writer but when accompanied by music mediocre poetry can sound more poignant. It’s a beautiful thing.There were long periods when Sebadoh was doing well that I could feel myself freezing up. Now that it’s all receded into the past and covered over by years and years of successive ‘next big things’ I’m back where I started.
SEM: Along those lines, would you say that you’re a more prolific songwriter now, as you get older? Maybe more efficient? The EP manages five solid songs in a tidy 17 minutes. I find myself replaying the record as soon as its finished.
LB: Definitely not more prolific. I have real-life obligations that prevent the kind of immersion it would take to out records out ala Robert Pollard. But, efficient, yea, maybe! I definitely get to the point much quicker now because my time is limited and the money for recording is tight.
SEM: On the track “Pour/ Reward” theres a synth or something, kind of mellowing over the bridge of the tune. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the same instrument that can be heard on a few of the tracks from your last EP, Brace the Wave. What exactly is that instrument, and what draws you to it? Why do you think it compliments the mood of your solo music so well?
LB: It’s a Korg Bass-Synthe. A monophonic (one note at a time), analog synth from the 70’s. I’ve been incorporating it in my music since finding it in the mid-90’s. It’s even on the new Dinosaur Jr record on ‘Left/Right’. It’s a very simple synthesizer with a limited amount of settings but there’s a few features that make it more expressive than most other keyboards I’ve played. There’s a slider called the “traveler” which allows me to filter the notes on the fly. On a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I realized it is the same synthesizer the early B-52’s used for their bass tones. I love early B-52’s so that was kind of exciting and I like the feeling of giving homage to them every time I play it.
SEM: Lastly, I thought the talk of of this being your final project was extremely ironic, considering that the title plays on this theme of looking toward the end. Is there any truth to that sort of talk? Is there any reason why Lou Barlow would stop putting out music? On the EP closer, “Try 2 B”, you say you won’t shut up until you should. Yet I don’t get the sense that time is close at all. What are you still working on as a musician, and what are some of your remaining aspirations?
LB: Unless fate has other plans I’m definitely going to make more records. Calling it my last record was more a statement on the times. I want to make a more produced and layered solo-record. I want to expand on Brace The Wave and the EP, meaning, I want to spend more time producing the songs. It would be cool to do a Sebadoh record but the days of being able to rally my bandmates are over. I’d want to spend far more time and collaborate more than the situation would likely allow, but, we’ll see.