When Lou Barlow answers the phone, he is recovering in a mountain-side town in the south-west of Massachusetts, following a week-long residency at New York’s Bowery Ballroom with the band widely considered to be his day job, Dinosaur Jr. The band performed the run of dates in celebration of the 30-year-anniversary of their debut LP, simply titled Dinosaur, and brought on guests as varied as Henry Rollins, comedian Todd Barry and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. Although Barlow has played on six of the band’s ten albums, there was quite an extended period of exile from the group following his firing in 1989. It would take 16 years to get the original trio back together again – a return that Barlow did not take on lightly.
“I entered it with an open mind,” he says. “I didn’t know where it would go, but I accepted it in as neutral a fashion as I could. I was just hoping for the best – and now, ten years and four albums in, I think it’s worked out the best way that I could. The shows we just played were really incredible. It was a lot of work to put in for them, and we were really busy in the weeks leading up to it. The payoff was really, really nice.”
The last few years have seen Barlow on one of his most creative streaks to date. 2012 saw the release of Dinosaur Jr.’s tenth LP, I Bet on Sky; itself followed by Defend Yourself, a 2013 LP by another Barlow- related project, Sebadoh, which was the band’s first in 14 years. Two years removed from that is Brace the Wave, Barlow’s third album to bare only his name. It’s a lush, stripped-back and warm folk record that’s far removed from the mane-thrashing fuzz of his other bands. It’s an intentional move on Barlow’s behalf, who says that a return to performing solo was an inevitability. “I tend to work in cycles,” he explains. “Naturally, if I’ve done a Sebadoh and a Dinosaur Jr. record, I’m inclined to do a solo record. I think it helps ground me, and it helps me approach the other bands with an open mind and a clean spirit. I’ve always tried to work on a few things at any time. Dinosaur and Sebadoh are electric bands, but I’ve always played acoustic music. Many of the better-known songs that I’ve written have started out acoustically. I’ve always liked the idea of folk music taking different shapes – folk music informed by punk rock, being an alternative to what’s generally accepted as folk music. I think that’s the kind of music that I’ve come to make as a solo artist.”
Brace the Wave was recorded over a period of just six days with long-time friend, producer and engineer Justin Pizzoferrato. The album features heavy usage of a baritone ukulele, which Barlow converts into various custom tunings and plays in his own unique manner. Having originally received the instrument as a gift from his mother in his early teens, the now 49-year-old has spent most of his life approaching it from a left-field perspective. “I started writing songs on the ukulele back in the 80s,” says Barlow. “That was when I was first really starting to write songs on my own. For instance, the Sebadoh song ‘Brand New Love’ began as a song that was just on the ukulele. I’ve never approached it in the same way that most people tend to think of the instrument – I always put on heavier strings and use my own tunings for it. I incorporate a few different strumming styles that tend to work best purely for the ukulele, and I’ve always been drawn to the size and the sound of it. There’s something about playing with four strings that I’ve always been drawn to – bass, ukulele, and I’ve got a customised guitar that I use in Sebadoh that takes out the D and the G strings where I modify the tunings to reflect the ones on the uke.”
Barlow will return to Australia for the first time in nearly two years as a part of Sydney Festival at the start of 2016. He intends to play a large portion of Brace the Wave, as well as favourites from his back catalogue stretching across all of his various projects. Although he might not be able to reach the lengths of the famous 30-song Sebadoh set some years ago, he looks to incorporate as much as he can. “It’s impossible to cover everything,” he says with a laugh. “I’m really looking forward to sharing these new songs, though. I recreate most of the new record live, and I try and take requests on the fly if I am at all able. I’ve got my uke, I’ve got my guitar and I’ve got an old vintage synthesizer from the 70s that I use with a loop pedal. It was originally used as a bass synthesizer, and it’s monophonic, which means you can only hit one note at a time. I really enjoy using it live. I like to use the synthesizer in my sets the way that folk singers like to use the harmonica. I’ve always loved the combination of acoustic instrumentation and synthesizers. People have been doing it forever, but it’s something I think needs to be explored more. I’m fascinated by it.”
Lou Barlow will be touring nationally in support of his latest album Brace The Wave throughout January For more information visit www.selecttouring.com.au. Brace The Wave is out now via Domino Records/EMI.