Lou Barlow doesn’t deal in easy answers. Across his work in Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, and a number of other musical projects, including solo releases, Barlow has amassed an astounding catalog of music. Speaking with him, he is cautious to praise himself and eager to let that catalog do the talking for him. Brace the Wave, his first solo offering since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown, is filled with songs that ask the hard questions a man on the verge of turning 50 might be wondering. Covering topics ranging from ukulele to anxiety, Barlow spoke with SF Weekly by phone ahead of his performance at Bottom of the Hill on Tuesday night.
In the written statement that accompanies Brace the Wave, you write that you are most comfortable writing uncomfortable songs. What makes a song uncomfortable to you?
To me? I guess it’s more like what it is to other people. That’s what I’ve figured out over the years – the way I write makes people feel uncomfortable. And it makes me feel uncomfortable to play it for people, once I’m actually playing it. I can’t really sit down and press play on a song that I’ve done unless it’s with the person I’m working with.
Brace the Wave is your first album under your own name since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Are the songs on Brace the Wave reflective of the last six years of your life?
Sure. These are a group of songs that have been hanging around for a while, as melodies or maybe concepts. I guess at some point I had to address them to my solo project. Like OK, I want to make these songs acoustic or I want to try a little bit more experimental acoustic/electric approach to it. I felt like I hadn’t done that in a while, and I wanted to do it again, because I’ve had a lot of ideas about it, a lot of things I feel like I hadn’t really done yet. I just wanted to advanced the way I was making solo songs and incorporate the way I used to work and the things I’ve learned recently.
You use the ukulele to great effect on your new album.
A lot of the songs started on ukulele. The first songs I ever wrote — my first like serious offerings — were all written on ukulele. It’s always been a part of the way I write for a really long time. A lot of Sebadoh songs started on ukulele. I think I felt like I hadn’t really captured how I play the ukulele recently. I have a lot of old recordings done on four-track but I’ve never really sat down and played the ukulele the way I really play it: a little looser, a little more ambitious. I felt like I’d never really captured that in the studio, and I thought now would be a good time to do that.
How do your songs benefit from the choice to tune down your ukulele on recordings?
I’ve always gravitated towards really low stuff. I always want it lower. If you put heavy, regular classic guitar strings on a baritone ukulele, it gets pretty low. It has a really nice low, warm feel to it.
Between Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, and your solo work, you have an immensely prolific output. Are you ever worried you’ll run out of songwriting mojo?
I guess I don’t think I’m that prolific. When I was younger, I was putting out a lot of records every year. Now this is my first solo record in six years. I did a Sebadoh record that’s almost two years old now, and that one I only wrote like six songs for. So if you actually look it, my output is actually really staggered. I had the reputation early on because I was prolific and it was too much, so I’ve slowed down considerably. I can really think about everything I do. I can be really methodical about it now. I can really craft it to be something that I want to do, not that I never wanted to do anything before, but there is a compulsion when you’re younger where it’s just “It’s out! There it is!” You get it out as quickly as it comes in, and now I’m almost 50. I don’t really think of things that way. I have to manage my time. I have family and all kinds of shit going on, so I’m like a real adult now. I have to really manage my time.
After living in Los Angeles for 17 years, you’ve relocated to western Massachusetts. Does a drastic change of scenery like that have an effect on your music?
I don’t know yet. I love Los Angeles. I loved it. Now I’m moving back to my home, to the place where I actually grew up. Los Angeles was really beautiful, and California in general is a great place to live. Where I live now, where I came from, it’s a beautiful area, but there are seasons here. There’s seasons! That really does affect people. The fact that we recorded this album during the winter could speak the simple fact that I was inside a lot more. It was almost familiar, as far as the climate goes, because I grew up in the Midwest and the East. The climate change had a really primal effect on me, so there could be something to that, that’s made me want to be more creative or be quicker about getting stuff out, or even to feel more inspired. I don’t know. California is so overwhelming to me. Sensually it’s such an amazing place, but it’s mind-blowing. Coming back to a place I’m so familiar with, I think maybe it’s easier to focus.
You recorded your new album in a week with Justin Pizzoferrato. What was that experience like?
Well he and I have worked together a ton, so I knew that I could just go in and completely focus. I trust his quick judgments on things: “How do you feel about that?” “That sounded really good.” “Oh really? Ok, great.” [Laughs] I can really trust him, and we’ve worked really intensely on the Dinosaur Jr. records over the last…God, it’s been seven or eight years. Every couple of years we’ve worked together really intensely for about a month. So I feel a real kinship with him, and, to use a cliché, I was chomping at the bit to work with him again, especially in his own space, and just the two of us. I knew that we could get somewhere really quickly, just sonically that we could get right to the place I needed to be almost immediately, and we did.
In the song “Pulse,” you have the line “I can’t take on nature by myself/ But it’s not a fight/ It’s my body aging.” Do these lyrics speak to your present feelings on companionship and relationships?
I have a lot of companionship. I’m not a lonely person. As I’ve been getting older and having children, I think the quality of my relationships has come into question. I’ve really been questioning a lot about how I deal with people and what I get from people and what they get from me and how I can give more, and can they give more. It’s serious, you know? Getting older is a serious business. I have a lot of people to take care, myself included. I have to really watch out for myself.
I think “Pulse” especially deals directly with my health. My level of stress that I’m under will directly affect my health and once you get into your forties, you have to accept the idea that stress can kill you. Literally kill you. So it’s not just having a bad trip anymore — smoking too much dope and having an anxiety attack. You can really seriously think yourself into illness and you can die. Like myself, my heart is the vulnerable player in my game, in my body. My heart is not the strongest part of me, so it’s very necessary for me to monitor my pulse and find out where I’m at physically, because if I don’t, my mind can truly kick a whole in my body and really fuck me up.
You’ve called the tracklist for Brace the Waves “Lou’s Anxiety Song(s) 2015” in reference to a song of yours from 1983. After all these years and so many different records, do you still see yourself as writing from a place of anxiety?
I’m definitely speaking to it. I don’t know if I’m necessarily writing from an anxious place, but I’m speaking to it and I’m speaking about it. Managing anxiety is something I spend a lot time doing. Even being happy is just a less anxious state. [Laughs] I can’t lie — I’m not really a cool person. I carry around a lot of anxiety pressure in me. There is an impulse to sort of downplay that, and when you are anxious, people are like, “Stop being so anxious!” Yelling at you. It’s a funny thing: everyone feels that anxiety, but very rarely are we that compassionate about it to each other.
We rarely forgive ourselves for being anxious, and we often don’t forgive other people for being anxious. I think it’s a centerpiece theme, you know? I would love to write from a less anxious place, but I’m still probably going to be addressing anxiety. In some way I’ll be talking myself down. In some way I’ll be trying to tell the story in a warmer way or a more compassionate way or a way that’s more inclusive, but until I reach that spot, I have to hash through a lot of really basic anxieties and issues in my life.
You once told an interviewer that you hoped you were remembered for the songs you wrote and not the bands you were in. Do you feel you’ve written the songs you’ll be remembered by, or are there still more out there for you?
Well, I'm definitely really satisfied with certain things. I think the problem with that is that my satisfaction of those songs is really enjoyable, so I want more of it. I want to make more songs I’m satisfied with! I get comfortable when I’m playing solo, once I get into a tour and I’ve been playing night after night. I get so supremely comfortable and confident and I’m this real bubble of self-satisfaction for a while and it’s really, really great. Yes, I feel very strongly that I’ve written some songs that really nailed it and really got something right. When I play them, it makes me feel good about myself. I guess I have that basic restlessness that all people have. I think we all want to think that the best is yet to come. Like, “No, I can really do it better! I can outdo what I did before!” To have that going on, whether you do or not, and chances are you won’t, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. It doesn’t really diminish the satisfaction that I get just from putting out another record. Every time I put out a record, I always feel like there are one or two songs that really do add to what I feel like is my little bag that I’m carrying around that I can point to and say, “Yeah, these are all pretty good. This is good.”
Well, I’m glad to hear you think so. I can tell you that you’re fans definitely think you’ve written plenty of songs to be remembered by.
Thank you. I feel like I should clear up… sometimes I don’t think people understand how much I enjoy myself. [Laughs] I know I was just talking about anxiety, and yes, I’m an anxious person. I can exude nervousness, but it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with what I’m doing or unhappy playing.
Lou Barlow plays at Bottom of the Hill on Tuesday, September 22. Tickets are available through Bottom of the Hill.