Lyrics are third-rate poetry. You can write crap and make it sound legitimate by singing it.
BY JAMIE ROBASH
Most musicians would consider themselves lucky to have been a part of one of rock history’s pivotal bands. Indie rock demi-god Lou Barlow has been in three: Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, and Folk Implosion. Not to be overshadowed by these giants of indie lore, Barlow has also released a handful of impressive solo records over the years. The latest is this year’s Brace the Wave, which will bring him to Chicago in the dead of winter as part of 2016’s Tomorrow Never Knows. Chicago INNERVIEW chatted with Barlow about his thoughts on musical technology and manhandling a ukulele, amongst other things.
Chicago INNERVIEW: I read somewhere that you used your smartphone to record early demos of Brace the Wave. Is it safe to say you embrace new technology as far as your working life goes?
Lou Barlow: Portable 4-tracks were new technology back in 1986, so yes! I always have. I used a Walkman cassette, handheld digital memo recorders…smartphone is the next logical step and even more convenient.
Chicago INNERVIEW: As a veteran musician who’s dealt with record companies big and small in the past, I’m curious about your perspective on Bandcamp.
Lou Barlow: I like Bandcamp…I sell about three downloads a month, but I think it’s great. Back in the olden days if you wanted someone’s demo, you’d have to mail the $5 and wait a month to get it to find out you loved or hated it…Bandcamp is far more efficient and I like the level playing field it offers.
CI: You’re playing shows in support of Brace the Wave. You’re also playing a string of shows with Dinosaur Jr. You’ve got a family. Do you ever take time off to just do nothing?
LB: I do nothing all the time. Just this morning I did nothing for about an hour and a half…It was great.
CI: If I can be blunt, I think your lyrics are amazing. They have a poetic quality to them. Do your lyrics come naturally to you or do you revise a lot?
LB: I revise constantly. I love revising. I also love the fact that it doesn’t really matter, ultimately, what my lyrics are to a casual listener…I do it for myself and it’s my passion…Lyrics are third-rate poetry. You can write crap and make it sound legitimate by singing it. I’m glad you like my lyrics though, thanks.
CI: Brace the Wave is all acoustic and a good many of the songs feature the ukulele, which you use to great effect. On a whim I Googled ukulele players and your name comes up on a Wikipedia page devoted to famous ukulele players, among them Buster Keaton, Eddie Vedder, Madonna and three-fourths of The Beatles. How did you get drawn to that instrument?
LB: No way! My mother bought me a baritone ukulele for $5 when I still lived at home, age 17…I never used the standard ukulele tuning and changed the strings to a heavier, more resonant gauge to achieve the sound I wanted. It’s small, has only four strings and was easier to manhandle. It made playing and writing feel more accessible to me.
CI: Brace the Wave is a very personal album. When I listened to it the first time, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. Was it difficult at first to play these songs before an audience when everyone sort of knew what they were about?
LB: Not really, I worked through my embarrassment on stage a long time ago. Many of my favorite artists from Black Flag to Joni Mitchell wrote personal songs. I think it’s important to be unashamed and vulnerable even if you’re screaming your head off while doing it…I know how good it makes me feel when I hear and see that, so I want to do it too…Give back a bit of what I was given. Plus, I’m probably an exhibitionist.