by Rob van Alstyne
At this point in his 20-plus years career, Lou Barlow’s had more musical lives than Madonna. His resume is staggering: bass player in the original lineup of legendary ’80s collegiate rockers Dinosaur Jr., warped lo-fi noisemaker in Sebadoh, unlikely top 40 artist with his band Folk Implosion (whose slinky 1995 single “Natural One” was an unexpected smash). Despite Barlow’s storied career, there was one (seemingly minor) achievement he hadn’t managed until now—making his own solo record.
Download an mp3 of the Lou Barlow’s song Home.
it’s basically because I don’t really have a band now,” says
Barlow somewhat sheepishly of the impetus for EMOH, the first proper
album in his cannon released under his own name. “Folk Implosion just
kind of fizzled out and with Sebadoh we live on opposite ends of the country
so we can’t even really entertain the idea of getting together and recording.
It just turned out to be a situation where I had reached the end of the line
with all of my bands and was kind of left alone for the first time.”
Left to his own devices for the first time at 38, Barlow doesn’t waste
the opportunity. Fusing the slick production values of his latter-day Folk Implosion
records with the spare acoustic sounds he’s typically reserved for more
casual recording affairs in the past, EMOH ends up sounding unlike any
of his voluminous back catalog. Many of the songs are powered by little more
than Barlow’s acoustic guitar and voice, with the occasional backing vocal
harmony or overdubbed guitar lick. “I had been wanting to do a more acoustic-based
record for awhile,” claims Barlow. “When I work with other people
I’m always wanting them to be collaborators or co-writers. I’ve
always been into pretty democratic bands and coming up with something that couldn’t
happen without other people’s input. But with this I didn’t have
anyone around and suddenly had a whole group of songs that I was pretty happy
with just with my own acoustic base.”
At EMOH’s core are Barlow’s innocent tuneful voice and typically
lovelorn lyrics—don’t worry longtime fans, the man’s 20-year
run of relationship anxiety remains intact—but the more full-bodied moments
on the record (“Caterpillar” and “Mary” being the strongest)
bear the stamp of some talented collaborators.
much as this was my solo record I definitely collaborated with someone on every
song,” admits Barlow. “Whether that collaboration was just with
the person who was recording it or my buddy Imaad [Wasif] who wrote his own
guitar parts to add onto some of the songs. It worked the same way with everyone
involved, I just played the songs until they found the part they wanted to add.
What took the weight off of it a little was that they knew it was for my solo
record so no one was feeling very pressured about what they were bringing to
it. Things get a lot more complicated [when you’re figuring out arrangements]
in the context of ‘this is our band and we’re going to go on tour.’”
Notably among the list of collaborators was drummer Jason Lowenstein, Barlow’s
longtime partner in crime in Sebadoh. It was Barlow’s nod toward the past
on a recent Sebadoh reunion tour with Lowenstein that ended up providing the
unexpected spark for his current album. “When we did the Sebadoh reunion
shows I had just sort of begun [working on EMOH] and the tour was such
a cool experience,” recalls Barlow. “The energy from [the tour]
definitely carried over to my work on the new record. It was a really great
way for me to revisit that past with Jason. There was a lot of heartbreak involved
with the dissolution of Sebadoh and the kind of brutal reaction to our last
record so it was great to say, ‘Fuck all of that!’ and tap into
the positive things from that time.”
continues to define Barlow’s outlook as he sets out on the initial touring
run in support of EMOH and adjusts to his new life as a father (he had
a baby girl with his longtime partner in late January). While many musicians
who’ve been through the record industry wringer like Barlow (he’s
gone from massive feature articles in SPIN to massive critical backlash and
back again) would be crotchety and embittered, Barlow remains passionately committed
to his music-making muse.
“[I could never get bored] because there’s just so many things [in
music] to learn how to do and things like I feel I don’t do well enough
yet,” answers Barlow when I ask him if putting out albums ever starts
to feel routine two decades into the game. “I just try and do different
little things each time. For the next record I might decide I want to learn
to write songs on the piano—I’ve never done that. That’s the
simplest way to make sure you stay excited. And it’s always based off
of what I want to hear. I really do want to hear more piano on my records. As
an artist you have to do those things just to keep your brain working. I feel
like I have to be vigilant and fight getting lazy. Staying away from routines
and things that are locked in styles—that’s just a good way to live
in general.” ||
Lou Barlow plays on Tue. Mar. 15 at the 400 Bar with Planes for Spaces.
9 p.m. 21+. $8. 400 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls. 612-332-2903.
Find out more about Lou Barlow on his official website at
Download an mp3 of the Lou Barlow’s song Home.