BY BRIAN HOWARD Lou Barlow, as a founding member of the ear-splitting sonic barrage Dinosaur Jr., and later—after he and J Mascis had their very public falling out—with Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion (and Sentridoh and Deluxx Folk Implosion and Lou B.’s Acoustic Sentridoh…) was one of the architects of the 1990s indie rock revolution. As college kids scrambled to start wryly monickered bands and idiosyncratically named labels to release their limited-run seven-inches, Barlow was a godhead. After splitting from Dinosaur Jr., he began releasing, as Sentridoh, a prodigious array of spare, emotionally flayed lo-fi acoustic songs on cassette. With Sebadoh, he tossed those songs atop an often bombastic, discordant fury. Then, with the Folk Implosion, he recorded “Natural One,” the surprise hit from Kids, the twisted film that introduced America to the bizarro worldview of Harmony Korine. In more recent years, Barlow buried the hatchet, at least temporarily, with Mascis for a much ballyhooed Dino Jr. reunion, and has, in the last decade or so, released music primarily under his own name, including his most recent collections, the 2016 EP Apocalypse Fetish and 2015 album Brace the Wave (both on Joyful Noise). Today Barlow finds himself, after a nasty broken collar bone sustained slipping on the ice at his Greenfield, Massachusetts, home, resuming a tour of hyper-intimate non-traditional venues, which stops tonight at Philadelphia’s historic Bartram’s Garden. We caught up with Barlow last week to talk about life, kids, career, eating dinner with his dad, and why indie rock will never die.
PHAWKER: Superchunk played in Philly last week, and as part of their encore they played their cover of your song “Brand New Love.”
LOU BARLOW: Oh, they did? For their encore? [Laughing] Rock it. Sweet. That’s good news.
PHAWKER: It was a fun night. It brought me racing back to that moment in the ’90s when all these indie rock bands were blossoming and it all felt like we, as fans, were in this exclusive club. Everyone’s a bit older now, but judging by the faces I saw at Union Transfer for that show, and who I expect I’ll see at your gig on Monday—basically everyone you’d see at the Khyber week in and week out —that club still feels very much intact, with a little bit more gray hair I guess. Does it feel the same way as a performer?
LOU BARLOW: I don’t know. I remember being kind of like… I was younger, and I felt a little more adversarial about things then. I was more openly jealous of other bands. Although, I remember all the bands that we would tour with like Superchunk, Pavement. It was always really fun. That was the prime of my life, actually, if I think about it. Yeah, it was great. I’ve never stopped playing, so … now I’m grateful that anybody shows up when I play. Dinosaur’s reunion was 13 years ago, so as far as the reunion vibe goes, I’m kind of over that. [Laughing] And now it’s just like just trying to keep things together as I’m getting older, stay vital and hopefully get people to shows.
PHAWKER: I saw that you had to cancel some earlier stops on this tour because you broke your collarbone. How did that happen?
LOU BARLOW: Well, I slipped on the ice. Some snow had come, and it had all melted and created an enormous ice slick in my backyard. And then it snowed again and covered up all of the ice. I was carrying my then-not-quite-2-year-old daughter down some stairs, and I stepped right on it and pivoted so I wouldn’t land on her and landed right on my shoulder instead. I’m doing really good. Got a piece of metal in me now. I mean it turned out to be pretty bad, so I had to get surgery. I just mailed off all the bills today which was just [laughing] shocking.
LOU BARLOW: Only once before, the first show [on this tour] that I was able to go play before my surgery, and it was at someone’s house in Connecticut. It was fantastic. I mean it’s kind of like playing an in-store, which I’ve always really loved playing because they’re in a place that’s not a club. People who can’t really live the bar life anymore will come to them, come to the store, because it’ll be during the afternoon. I’ve just always imagined that doing something similar to that, but on an actual tour, and definitely playing earlier in the evening—not dragging it out past nine o’clock at night. I figured that would probably be a way to maybe tap the remaining fans of my music. I’m doing the bar thing now, and it’s just so incredibly hit or miss, and mostly miss. And even the hits are just like, it puts it in pretty stark relief—speaking of the old days—like, how am I gonna grow old gracefully? How’s this gonna work out? I love playing acoustic, and now I feel like I’m at a point where, you know what, I feel like I can actually legitimately charge $25 to have somebody sit in the living room and watch me play. I’ve always felt very inadequate as a performer, but when it comes to something like this, it’s something that I can really wrap myself around and bring everything I can to it.
PHAWKER: On Instagram you said that you’re touring your songs “in their natural form.” I know that you’ve always had a love for recording solo acoustic. Do you feel like all of your songs’ natural forms are solo acoustic?
LOU BARLOW: Probably not. [Laughing] Although, if I really boiled it down, almost everything does come from just sitting down and playing acoustic. There are definitely some songs along the way that were created in an electric way, experimenting with samplers or something like that. But even the most popular song that I did, “Natural One,” we created it as a studio experimentation, but the melody on top of it was something that I had done on acoustic guitar several years before that. So even that has acoustic roots.
PHAWKER: How did you pick the venues you’re playing? Bartram’s Garden is this beautiful historic place here in Philly, but it’s also not a place that’s done many shows like this.
LOU BARLOW: I got in touch with this woman who’s been booking these types of shows in offbeat places for The Posies. They go out and do all of these duo shows, and they’ve been doing it for a while. Plenty of other people have also been researching this kind of alternative venue circuit, so the “circuit” has grown. I put out the word when I wanted to do this tour, and Tina, who’s booking the tour, said, well, the number one step is to appeal to your Facebook friends: “Say, ‘Where’s a good place to play?’” And Bartram’s Garden came up pretty quickly in the initial query that I put out. A lot of the venues did come from just asking people. Using social media for it is great, it makes it direct for me, makes me a part of it. People can complain about social media all they want, but for me as an artist, it’s pretty much the only real way that I have of getting the word out about anything that I do or promoting myself in any kind of a real way.
PHAWKER: The description for the event says you’re going to be unleashing acoustic guitars and your back catalogue. You’ve got a pretty extensive back catalogue. How do you choose what you’re going to play?
LOU BARLOW: I’ve got a fair amount of new songs, ’cause I put out a couple of acoustic records in the last couple of years that I feel really good about, songs that I feel really comfortable playing. I play a chunk of those, and after that, I really like to ask people what they want to hear. I don’t get bogged down in making a set list. I try to go in as open-minded as I can, with a few new songs I’d like to touch on. I go between different guitars and different tunings determine what I can play. But the other day I did an early evening show in Manchester, England, and right before I stepped onstage someone came up to me and said, I can’t remember what song exactly, but can you play, like, “Magnet’s Coil,” you know, one of those obvious Sebadoh songs. I’m like, “Great. Of course. Great place to start.” [Laughing] Start out right away by playing something that somebody wants to hear. I like doing it that way. I like taking requests because it brings me much closer to people. It breaks down the wall, makes me feel a lot less nervous, ’cause I still carry a lot of nerves into performing.
PHAWKER: One of the ticket options for the Philly show was, for $100, dinner with you and your dad. How many people took you up on that, and what can they expect?
LOU BARLOW: Three or four I guess. That was an option that I was the least comfortable with. But that’s like a big thing [with these more intimate shows]. People love it, and you gotta do it. And I’m like, really? I mean that’s kind of a lot of money, but the other side is that actually I really enjoy meeting people. I like hanging out with people that come to my shows, especially now that I’m older, and the people that do come are—they’re like familiar to me, so it can be really fun. Charging people to do that feels very uncomfortable, but I’m also working so… My dad’s going to be with me, and that actually made it a lot easier to say yes, because that’s funny. It’s my dad and I. [Laughing] That’s just funny. I don’t know why. We haven’t done [a dinner] yet, but my dad can… he’s a very, very friendly person. And this is a real opportunity for me to spend time with my father. He’s in his late 70s. We’ve never done this before. I’ve never dragged him into my life [laughing], forced him in, day-to-day, to face my life and what I do and where I’m at as his 50-year-old son. It just kind of adds flavor to the day like, “Nope, Dad, now’s the time where we got to go eat with these people.” “What do you mean we gotta eat with these people?! Why?” “Well, ’cause they’ve all paid a hundred bucks to eat with us.” “A hundred dollars?! What’s that about?” “I don’t know, Dad. Let’s just do it.” That just sounds funny to me. That appeals to me.
LOU BARLOW: Well, he’s still threatening not to come. He’s got a doctor’s appointment today ’cause he’s had some health issues, as most men in their late 70s have had. And he, there’s a few things that he wants to get cleared up before he goes. He basically told me yes and then, like, the other day he’s like, “Ohhh, there’s a few more tests I gotta do.” Not only do I want the company of my father, I just really want company. I really don’t want to be driving myself all the way down to Florida in the car. So, I’m hoping for the best over this doctor’s appointment.
PHAWKER: You’ve been at this for more than three decades now, so how do you keep it fresh?
LOU BARLOW: Writing songs and playing shows is just really fun, and it’s always eternally new. I struggled a lot with performing early on. Unfortunately, when the band was absolutely at its peak, that’s when I was struggling the most, but I never doubted the value of it, ever. You know, it was like I was more conflicted with my own talents and whether I was doing a good job… I was really caught up in the details of it, but what’s been really great about being able to do it as I get older is those details just don’t become as obtrusive, it’s just the pure enjoyment that I derive from sitting and singing and from just writing songs. It’s been an improbable life, as a career choice, and I’ve struggled with that too. I’m like, why the hell should I be able to sit around and come up with this stuff off the top of my head, and be able to pay my rent and then be able to pay a mortgage on my house? Why should I be able to do that? That’s crazy. The longer it goes on and the longer I’m able to do it, the more I’m struck by how lucky I am, so that’s something I bring to it, whenever I play, and whenever I sit down to write. It’s become an energy source that feels very similar to the energy I had when I was a kid, just getting really excited by the pure act of creating. I’ve definitely had some really hard times, but the thing with Dinosaur Jr. has been really great, too. That’s been really enjoyable, watching how that managed to keep itself together, this kind of cohesion that we found under what seems like the most unlikely circumstance, that’s been really, inspiring too.
PHAWKER: You mentioned you have a two-year-old at home. And I know you’ve got two kids from a previous marriage. How did fatherhood change your approach to all of this?
LOU BARLOW: The way I look at it is: My life is not my own anymore. My time is not my own. It’s kind of shocking in that way. It basically it took my time away. I kick myself for all the times when I was younger and didn’t use my time. I mean, if I can find four hours to sit down and write a song in a month, I’m lucky. So, as far as time management goes, every bit of time I have to do anything like that becomes so incredibly precious. And it’s made it so that when I am with my children, I totally give myself over to that experience, like, you know what, this is what I’m doing right now, and this is where I’m at, and I’m here to be as present as I can be with this kid. They’re thieves, you know [laughing]. They just take your time. But then I go on tour, and I have tons of time where I’m not with them, so when I’m home, they’re very central to my life.
PHAWKER: We were talking a little bit about the “good ol’ days” of indie rock earlier. So many of the institutions that drove that indie movement, like the homogenization of culture at the hands of major media conglomerates and labels controlling distribution and all that, they’ve ostensibly been toppled by the internet. But sometimes if feels like nothing’s really changed as a result. As someone whose whole life has happened in that “indie nexus” do you feel like the movement is still as vital now?
LOU BARLOW: Purely in the sense of like an underground music movement, that’s always going to be there. Always. And there’s always going to be young bands that nobody’s heard of that are gonna get 500 people jammed into a space somewhere. I think sometimes people are like, “That’s not happening anymore!” That’s because it’s not happening to you. Doesn’t mean it’s not happening, you know what I mean? If you don’t think there’s good music, it’s because you aren’t looking for it. Or it’s not finding its way to you in the normal way that you think you should find it. If you wanna find music, just spend a couple of hours randomly searching Bandcamp, and then tell me that there’s no good music. Something like Spotify is, to me, kind of amazing ’cause my favorite music is music I haven’t heard. It’s always been that way. A lot of times that might mean music from the ’50s and ’60s, but also new music. Some people might wanna say, “There’s too much! Too many choices! It’s not the same.” Like no, of course it’s not the same, and yes, there are too many choices, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there’s still music happening. Kids are still going to see bands you’ve never heard of. It’s happening, somehow, some way. It’s happening, and it always will.
PHAWKER: Who are some younger bands you identify as kindred spirits? Are there bands you’ve come across where you say, “Hey, I can hear a little bit of what I’ve done in what they’re doing”?
LOU BARLOW: I never really hear myself in stuff. I mean, one thing—and when you say “younger bands,” they’re not even young anymore—I feel kind of embarrassed saying I hear [myself] in something like Sufjan Stevens, his really, really super-intimate acoustic stuff. But he’s beyond anything I ever did. It’s developed to a point that I never ever reached, but the basic kernel that that guy is working from, of this close and emotionally almost claustrophobic thing that he does so brilliantly, I’m like… that’s kind of what I wanted to do. Maybe I wonder if somewhere, you know, “Did he ever hear some really early Sebadoh?” But he’s old now, so he’s not even young anymore. You know, in the 2000s I was really into like Animal Collective. Not because I thought they heard Sebadoh. I just thought the spirit of the band was really cool, just throw everything at the wall. Here’s some people who completely organically put themselves to the task of coming up with a sound that was really individual to that collaboration. Some of their stuff is absolutely brilliant, and some of it is almost unlistenable, which really appealed to me. Like, wow, that reminds me of what I did when I’ve made something, to be true to your little world that you’ve created with a couple of your friends, and the world be damned, and consistency be damned.
PHAWKER: Do you have any records in the works right now?
LOU BARLOW: I just managed to record a couple songs in January with guys in my town, that’s going to come out on Monday. So I’ll hopefully have some of those in Philadelphia.