Perfect Way

10 April 2012 | 6:45 am | Steve Bell

“When I’ve done solo tours in the States they don’t usually go very well."

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It's a pretty invigorating, albeit hectic time, for Lou Barlow right now. Firstly, both of the major musical projects from his past – Dinosaur Jr, the band he co-founded and which occupied him for most of the '80s until he was evicted, and Sebadoh which he founded next and which similarly took up most of his '90s – are enjoying a second wind and entering new phases of recording and touring. Then there's his solo career. Originally just an adjunct to his main day job, back in 1996 here in Australia the then nascent indie label Spunk Records released Lou Barlow Plays Waterfront – a live recording of a Sydney instore he conducted while in the country on a Sebadoh tour – and people fell in love with the honest, forthright nature of his stripped-back catalogue. Since then he's toured here numerous times in solo guise and even released two solo albums – 2005's Emoh and 2009's Goodnight Unknown – and now, even amidst the flurry of band activity, he's found time to fit in another jaunt down to Australia on his lonesome.

“It's strange, people don't ask me to do it in general,” Barlow muses of the solo aspect of his career. “When I've done solo tours in the States they don't usually go very well. I've opened solo for Dinosaur Jr and it's always a real struggle. People don't ask me to do it, but for some reason people in Australia are always keen and manage to twist my arm – it's the only place where there's any demand for me to play solo. I don't know why. But to me it's great, because generally I don't pursue stuff – I just wait around for people to ask me to do things.”

Despite this laissez faire approach to his craft, playing acoustically is something that the affable Barlow genuinely enjoys. “I love it, I love it,” he enthuses. “I really enjoy every aspect of my career right now. I get to play with Dinosaur Jr which is awesome, and I get to play with Sebadoh which is equally if not even more so awesome. But when I play by myself, when I'm doing my own thing, it's so intimate and it's kind of my most natural state, when I'm playing solo. I'm absolutely the most relaxed I can be, and I love the intimacy of it, and I love to be able to hear people ask for songs.”

The intimate, stripped-back nature of these solo shows – which find Barlow covering the gamut of his entire catalogue, from the more well-known material of his main bands through to material from side projects such as Sentridoh and Folk Implosion right back to tracks from his first band Deep Wound – also brings his lyrics into focus, his ultra-personal musings having always been one of his main songwriting strengths. “Yeah, right, people can actually hear them, it's great,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “As a listener and as a fan I think that the lyrics are basically equal with the texture. I think that for me personally lyrics are incredibly important. Those are the things that really draw people into the music and make it interesting. And when I write songs I have to believe every single word that I'm saying otherwise I can't remember it.

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“I had this discussion with J [Mascis – Dinosaur Jr frontman and co-founder] a couple of years ago when we made the last record: 'Don't you want to work on the lyrics more? You'll be able to remember them!' And he was just, like, 'No. I don't care'. So then we went on tour with Dinosaur Jr he didn't know the lyrics to his own songs for months,” Barlow exclaims. “You make lyrics that mean something to you so then you remember them – that's my whole thing. I don't think I'm a poet and I don't think I write great lyrics, but if I write them about something that I've experienced then I will then remember them – it's very practical.”

Barlow is also fond of breaking his solo sets up with some choice covers – not usually songs which are that well-known, but ones which fit seamlessly amidst his own material. “When I just do my own things I feel that I bog people down in 'my deal',” he admits. “It can get kind of heavy, I guess, and then when you play someone else's song it just lightens things up – it just takes the pressure off everybody and it adds a space where people can sort of relax a little bit, because when they know it's just coming from me it creates this claustrophobic emotional atmosphere. Which is great, I think, but then in a more realistic way it's not great – it's good to just let people know that I have a fucking sense of humour maybe, or that I love other songs too.”

Although anyone who's witnessed a Barlow solo set will attest that there's indeed a sense of humour at play, one that manifests in the form of witty anecdotes and subtly hilarious between-song banter. “I can do, that can happen,” he laughs at the notion of being funny onstage. “It comes pretty naturally, but to be perfectly honest some days I'll think of something and be, like, 'Maybe I should say something about that when I play', but then if I actually contrive something to say it doesn't work that well, and it makes me more tense if I say it. If I thought about it beforehand and then I say it I'm like, 'What a fucking cheeseball! What an asshole!' Ideally it's stream of consciousness. But there's always funny people in the audience – I think that other people are funny, and if you give them the space to speak their mind they will make it easier for me.”

But for now it's all about the future, and with both his bands on the verge of releasing new records Barlow is well and truly in creative mode, and he wouldn't have it any other way. “I'm in a really got spot with writing – that's totally where I'm at right now,” he attests. “We're making the Dinosaur album so I'm writing songs for that, and we're making a Sebadoh record coming up. It's weird – I realise now that my song cycle is so fucking glacial. It used to be every day, or I'd have a day when I'd write five songs, but these days I end up writing all of these tiny bits and then they just slowly come together.

“They're almost like these things forming in space and then little bits gather onto them, and all of a sudden it's like, 'Wow! Holy shit, it's a song! I had no idea! How did that happen?' Or, 'It's a song with four parts in it – holy fuck!' I just let it all come together as things come into my head, in between doing all of the other shit that I have to do.”