Brace The Wave: A conversation with Lou Barlow

By Jackson Maxwell

Courtesy of Rachel Enneking
(Courtesy of Rachel Enneking)

Though Lou Barlow’s reactions to the events in his life may not be as raw as they once were, his minimalist chronicling of the peaks and valleys of human relationships and desires are still just as passionate and intimate as they were two decades ago.

Barlow, the legendary co-founder and bassist of Massachusetts rock institution Dinosaur Jr., and singer/guitarist of the equally venerated band Sebadoh, recently moved from southern California to western Massachusetts, where he recorded his stellar third solo album, “Brace The Wave.”

Released on Sept. 4, “Brace The Wave” revisits the lo-fi, acoustic guitar and ukelele-only sound of his earliest work with Sebadoh. The resulting record – seemingly a small statement at a scant nine songs and 30 minutes – is a reminder of why Barlow’s output remains so influential.

You moved from California back to western Mass., and the instrumentation on “Brace the Wave” is primarily made up of acoustic guitars and ukulele. I hate to use such a cliché term, but do you consider this a sort of “back to your roots” record, so to speak?

 I guess it is, but if I stayed in California I probably would’ve made an acoustic record. I guess I didn’t think about it that way, I mean, coming back to where I grew up is a big deal. And then being able to go to Easthampton and record with someone that I know really well and have recorded with before was pretty necessary. There’s definitely something very familiar about recording with a ukulele in western Massachusetts.

How did the songs on this new record come about?

Well, they all have their own story I guess. One of them I had recorded primarily in California in my garage – the song “Wave” – and then I finished the vocals when I got here to Greenfield. And, I had the song “Moving,” which I also had a very basic idea for that I had recorded in California and jelled out the rest of it when I got here to Greenfield to my house.

One of the songs in particular, “Lazy,” had been around for a while and then other ones came together quite recently.

Justin Pizzoferrato, who worked on the three most recent Dinosaur Jr. records, produced “Brace the Wave.” What sort of style did he have as a producer? Did he mostly let you do your own thing, or was it more collaborative?

 It was very collaborative. I mean, he engineered the last three Dinosaur Jr. records, which meant that he was there day to day recording. And, he communicates with J (J. Mascis., Dinosaur Jr.’s lead guitarist and vocalist) about what J. wants and I told him what I wanted and we worked together towards that goal.

One of the highlights of the record is the song “Moving.” You’re known for your more direct lyrics, but the lyrics in that song are a bit more vague. Was there anything you were trying to convey with that track in particular?

Yeah. I mean, a lot of times what will happen is I’ll do lyrics for a song and I’ll start out big and then get very, very specific as I work on the song. With that song, it looked kind of like my first draft of lyrics when I got done, so they were sort of vague drafts; just the words that felt the best right away.

It was sort of meant to be a sketch I guess at first, and then when I listened to it once or twice I thought ‘Well, you know what? This sounds great.’

I mean, there are things that are very specific to me. I think that for a casual listener yeah, it would be vague for sure, but they all mean something specific to me, but they’re just not as explicit I guess as a lot of the stuff I write.

Was there anything you were listening to that inspired you?

Well, at first I thought the record was going to be an EP but then I ended up with eight songs and then I thought it would be really good to do one more song. And at the time, this was like December or January, I had gotten the new Sufjan Stevens record and the record has songs with a lot of deliberate picking in them.

And of course the lyrics are very intense and the approach is really intimate and I thought ‘I need one more song on this record to really finish it.’ You know, nine songs, then it’ll be a half an hour long and it can be an LP. So, the last song on the record, which is called “Repeat,” was vaguely inspired by Sufjan Stevens.

 When you wrote these songs, did you know they would be part of a solo album? Or did they just not feel right for Sebadoh or even Dinosaur Jr.?

 I guess I didn’t really think about it, I just really wanted to record. I had a bunch of ideas and I sort of took stock of the ideas that I had at that moment and took the most viable ones. I guess there were some things that I started to do for this record that, once I got a little ways into it I thought ‘you know what, maybe I should save this, saving this would be better than if it had a band behind it.’

So there wasn’t much thought as far as that goes, you know, maybe some things are better suited to a solo record.

There’s been a huge revival in the sort of cassette culture and bedroom pop sound that you embraced early in your solo career. Is it strange to see that all these years later?

 No, it makes sense. I mean, certainly with the way that digital recording has almost kind of democratized the whole recording process. Because when I started doing it, there was a huge gulf between a four-track recorder and what was considered a legitimate studio recording. A huge gulf.

And then also there was the financial thing as well, it was also financially prohibitive, so to really be able to make a recording in your house, it would still require a lot of equipment to do it, a lot of really expensive equipment. So digital recording has become a lot more accessible for people so it makes perfect sense that it would become more big I think.

Sebadoh was on the road for a while promoting “Defend Yourself,” do you guys have any new material in the works?

No, we don’t. We’re actually playing in Europe in a few weeks and then I’m going to begin recording a Dinosaur Jr. record. I guess with Sebadoh ideally I would’ve started the record months ago, but it didn’t happen.

Dinosaur Jr. is celebrating their 30th anniversary in December with a weeklong stand at the Bowery Ballroom. How does that feel?

Oh, I don’t know, man.  I mean, I could say that I never thought that would happen, but that doesn’t really mean much, of course I never thought it would happen, I didn’t think I would live to be 49. A lot of stuff was really outrageous to me when I was younger, when the band was starting.

But I mean, I’ve spent 10 years since we started our reunion, I’ve been in the band now longer than I was originally. Now I’ve got two kids, a lot of stuff’s happened. I mean it’s not that crazy; ‘oh, yeah it’s 30 years.’ I mean especially to think of the beginning, when Dinosaur Jr. recorded our first record, which was really in 1985, the year after I graduated high school. So yeah, 30 years, sounds about right.

As you said, you guys have been together longer, in this sort of incarnation, than you were originally. How have the dynamics within the band changed?

 I don’t know, I mean it’s just a matter of being older and much more tolerant. I mean, for me personally, I think I’m a much stronger person than I was when I was younger and I’m not as sensitive. I think we have a unique dynamic and I think now that we’re older, I’m happy to have anything with anyone.

You know, I really appreciate those guys. I appreciate their importance in my life. I appreciate J. revisiting this and allowing this to happen, you know, that was a big step for him to take and he took it. I’m grateful for that. You need to be philosophical about it now. But, back in the day, when it was my day-to-day troubles, it was hard.

What’s your most fond memory from your days in Amherst?

We played all of our early shows in Amherst. Dinosaur Jr. is essentially from Amherst. I mean, I’m not, I’m from Westfield originally. Dinosaur played our first show, when we were actually called Mogo, at the Amherst Common. We played multiple shows at the Blue Wall at UMass. J. went to UMass, I think he was briefly a roommate with one of the Pixies.

Courtesy of Rachel Enneking
(Courtesy of Rachel Enneking)

I think Frank Black and Joey Santiago (of the Pixies) went here.

Yeah, I think Joey and J. might’ve actually been roommates very briefly. Although I didn’t go to UMass, I was constantly driving from Westfield to UMass to hang out with my friends and to play shows. I mean, UMass was a huge part of the early years of Dinosaur Jr.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82