On “Nerve,” a typically candid track from Lou Barlow’s latest solo LP, Brace the Wave, the lo-fi legend demands an answer to the question “What’s wrong with wanting more?” It’s one of the most plugged-in songs on a record that seems incredibly stripped-down given Barlow’s past output, which includes roughly 30 albums across a handful of seminal alt-rock projects — Dinosaur Jr., the Folk Implosion, and Sebadoh among them. Even with the extra layer of guitar fuzz, “Nerve” documents a raw one; it’s an autobiographical narrative around the dissolution of a relationship with a long history, and the theme pops up again and again on Brace the Wave as Barlow picks through the wreckage of his 25-year marriage and his lifelong career in music. He says that he wants more, but Brace the Wave is a miraculous revelation of what he can do with less.
“Usually I have this almost contrarian aspect to the way that I work,” admits Barlow. “I build these barriers, make things that are almost counterintuitive. Sometimes when you do that, what you come out with can be really unexpected and really beautiful. But [this time] I was more interested in something that was natural, as opposed to trying to make something where I imagined that I was charting some unknown territory. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I just want to showcase what’s good and what’s different about the way that I play instead of being too clever about it.’ ”
As straightforward as Barlow’s lyrics are, he’s been less upfront about his playing style, which hinges on a low-tuned baritone ukulele. “People play ukuleles, but they play them like ukuleles, which I don’t like,” Barlow says. “That’s cheesy; it’s novelty music.” The baritone ukulele, though, is larger than a traditional one, closer to the size of a tenor guitar; both have four strings. “Even when I was younger and I would play [guitars], they would lose strings and I didn’t have the money or the wherewithal to replace them. So when I did start writing songs I was often writing songs on regular guitars with only three or four strings.”
His mother found his first ukulele at a garage sale and brought it home when Barlow was in his teens. “Gearheads like me, they like to know details. I’ve never really been explicit about the way that I do it,” Barlow says, explaining that, from the beginning, he put heavier strings on the instrument. “Over the years, no one’s really noticed that I was playing a ukulele because the end result sounds more like a guitar. Even with Sebadoh, half of the songs I’ve written originate on baritone ukulele. This time around I thought, you know, that is unique — maybe I should explain it.”
Besides his emphatic strumming and grizzled voice, Brace the Wave has stark instrumentation — a drum machine here, a swell of noncommittal synth rising there. It lays his lyrical confessions bare, doubling up on mics for a wistful, echoic effect. “I’ve found it difficult to get engineers who really want to capture the voice in a room,” Barlow says. “It’s an eternal battle.” He worked on the record with Justin Pizzoferrato, the same engineer Dinosaur Jr. used on their three most recent albums. Brace the Wave was tracked in just six days, with Barlow penning lyrics for many of the songs as he went along. “I was surprised at how easy it was,” he says. “I could have just kept going. Honestly, if I could afford it, I would go into the studio two days a week for the rest of my life and continue to make song after song. When I started doing it I was like, ‘I’ve definitely tapped into something here that feels really healthy.’ ”
For Barlow, that feeling doesn’t exactly come from processing via heartfelt lyrics, as one might imagine. “[These songs are] not really that different than the songs I’ve been writing for most of my life. Honestly, I can’t look [back] and say, ‘Oh, that was a really placid part of my life!’ It’s never like that,” he says. “It’s all coming from me trying to talk myself down from something, and this record is no different. What I like about the record is that all of the melodies and the phrasings I use when I sing feel really good. The songs all mean something very specific to me, but I’m not reliving every single moment when I’m singing. How I breathe when I sing and the physical act of playing itself is really cathartic and reassuring to me. This record has that flow, just natural enough and just raw enough.”
Surprisingly, the inspiration to refocus on solo material between Dinosaur Jr. tours came in part from that band’s caustic lead singer, J Mascis, with whom Barlow notoriously feuded. Barlow was booted from the band unceremoniously in 1989, after touring behind breakout LP Bug, and until their 2005 reunion the relationship between the band’s masterminds wasn’t just strained — it was downright volatile. “It’s funny how positive the Dinosaur Jr. thing has become, because it was profoundly negative for a long time,” Barlow remembers. “My memories of it, the way I coped with it, the issues that it brought up in my life….It’s been a psychodrama at times and I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
He continues, “I spend more time playing and recording with Dinosaur Jr. than any band I’ve ever been in. J’s shaped the way I view music — he was a big part of my life from a very early age, so he’s an incredibly influential figure. He has a very unique enthusiasm, but it’s enthusiasm nonetheless.” Before the reunion, Barlow was frustrated by an attitude he says is too common among his peers: “I don’t know whether it’s punk rock that did it to us or what but there’s this ‘Too cool to try hard’ [mentality]. But within a few years [of reuniting], I really noticed how truly dedicated [Mascis] was. He started doing these acoustic-based solo records, and to see him in these later years embracing what he does inspires me to do my solo records every once in a while, [knowing that] if I do all of these things together, it’s gonna make my contributions to each stronger.”
Having turned 49 this past July, that wisdom might have come with age. He dissects pop music with his two kids, who don’t care much about their dad’s musical legacy. “My oldest is ten, and she hates depressing music,” he says, adding that she begs for Charli XCX or Katy Perry if she so much as hears a minor chord. He doesn’t worry about the salacious content. “One of my favorite songs when I was a kid was ‘You Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate,” he says. “It gives you perspective. I love listening to pop music through the ears of a ten-year-old.”
He’s also buoyed by the youthful enthusiasm of his label, Joyful Noise, which encouraged him to take a hundred Polaroid selfies to enclose in the vinyl package for Brace the Wave. ”I’ve worked with a lot of very jaded people. In my day I’ve had meetings with ridiculously successful record executives who say the most depressing things on earth. After dealing with that kind of shit, being able to talk to somebody who says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you did a bunch of Polaroids and put ’em in the records?’ — I’m like, ‘Yeah! That would be really funny, I can certainly do that.’ ” Barlow laughs. “Joyful Noise are excited by putting out records. They’re not jaded.”
Brace the Wave does touch on the physical nature of aging, most notably on “Pulse,” but that isn’t slowing him down much; Barlow’s bicoastal tour in support of the LP washes ashore at Rough Trade NYC on September 9. “As long as you’re working, and doing your thing, and really being honest, you can find your niche. It’s not a tragic story of getting old in a world obsessed with youth,” he says. “I hope that I can play coffeehouses or bookstores, to like twenty people, well into my seventies, until I drop dead.”
Lou Barlow plays Rough Trade NYC on September 9.