by Gary Suarez
Lou Barlow has done time in America, figuratively speaking. He’s lived in cities on either coast and toured frequently if not damn close to ceaselessly across and over its well-trod highways and forbidding backroads to play venues large and small. And for more than three decades, he has made his indelible mark on rock music this way.
His short-lived early ‘80s hardcore punk act Deep Wound begat Dinosaur Jr., whose records during Barlow’s tenure cemented the group as one of the most important and influential bands of the 20th century. He subsequently carved out his own path with highly regarded projects like Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion, remaining a hugely relevant presence in lo-fi and indie rock circles across generations. Over the past ten or so years, Barlow shed his monikers to put out a handful of albums under his own name, including last year’s intimateBrace The Wave, as well as returning to Dinosaur Jr. to reform the classic trio lineup with J. Mascis and Murph.
As is often the case in American life, Barlow has seen some shit, and continues to see said shit at home in Massachusetts and elsewhere in this sprawling and divided nation. “I remember vividly being in Texas with a friend of mine, being introduced to her father who was a huge survivalist that lived on this little compound,” he says. “He told me how the North and the South exits were covered and where his guns were.”
There’s no hiding from this in daily life either for Barlow. He bears witness to the oh-so-American phenomenon of rolling coal, in which these imperceptibly disenfranchised and put-upon types take out their aggressions against our changing times by literally blasting diesel smoke from their pickup trucks against perceived opponents, namely environmentalists, Black Lives Matter supporters, and those blasted liberals.
“It’s so much of a projection of themselves onto the world,” Barlow says.
Of course, Barlow comes to terms with this stuff in the best way he knows how: through his music. Recorded back in May, the five songApocalypse FetishEP due out this week on Joyful Noise Recordings grapples with the sort of white American paranoia sweeping across the land, particularly on its unvarnished title track. In lieu of a six string acoustic, he plays a mischievously restrung baritone ukulele to tell these stories. An allegorical statement, the cover art features his infant daughter looking outward from her mother’s sling.
In advance of the EP’s release, I spoke with Barlow over the phone about the conception ofApocalypse Fetish, his longstanding songwriterly commitment to the ukulele, and whether or not we’re collectively willing the End Times into arriving.
VMP: Sound-wise, it seems like the songs fromApocalypse Fetishhave some connection with the material forBrace The Wave. Were they conceived around the same time?
Lou Barlow: No.Brace The Wavewas recorded in the same studio.Brace The Wavefelt really right and positive to me, that particular sound. I wasn’t done with that, you know? I started writing some songs last year and then was able to finish them earlier this year in that same studio. I went for the same sound. There were things I liked aboutBrace The Wavethat I wanted to bring out more with this EP.
Obviously working with Justin [Pizzoferrato] again you could achieve that sound quality, which is why it feels like a companion to that record.
Oh yeah, man. Same microphones, same room.
Not the same ukulele. I upgraded to a nicer one. I did a very short tour forBrace The Waveand I got this ukulele that was a little better so I recorded with that one.
You’re deliberately using ukulele throughoutApocalypse Fetish. What is it about ukulele that interests you as a songwriter and performer? You don’t play it like Tiny Tim.
Well, I restring it with heavier strings. When I was seventeen, I got a baritone ukulele from a garage sale for like five dollars and it turned out to be a good ukulele. I wrote a lot of my first songs on that. I wrote the song “Poledo” on Dinosaur Jr.’sYou’re Living All Over Me, and that’s primarily recorded with baritone ukulele.
I think that was kind of my gateway into writing. The jokey things I wrote when I was really young were on guitars with maybe two or three strings on them. There would be the family guitar lying around the house but all of the strings would end up broken. That’s when I started to quote-unquotewritesongs where I’d just grab it and start screaming things. The ukulele was my bridge between the jokey, early, young explosions and what I guess you could call serious songwriting.
Baritone ukuleles are the ones that I’ve taken and put regular classical guitar strings on them. The string is much heavier, the tone is much lower, and I come up with different tunings for almost every song. That’s something I’ve been doing for literally over thirty years. When I play a six string guitar and the regular chords, I’m pretty much doing what everybody else does. But when I do my ukulele thing, at least to me it feels kinda unique.
When you started doing albums under your own name likeEMOHandGoodnight Unknown, there was a lot more instrumentation. There were other band members and collaborators involved.Apocalypse Fetishseems like you’ve narrowed to make this more yours and intimate.
Well it’s just what I’m left with. [laughs] I’m alone. I moved back to Massachusetts to be closer to family and to be closer to Dinosaur Jr. I hate to use the word job for something that doesn’t feel like a job in any way, but my main gig is Dinosaur Jr. But it also kinda isolated me, got me down to basics. When I’m not playing with Dinosaur Jr., I’m alone. There’s something about being back here that triggers this sort of basic approach for me. I’m getting back to my roots, for lack of a better word. It feels natural to pick up the ukulele in a dusty attic and start writing songs. There’s something about the seasons here that does kinda trigger stuff for me creatively. I wouldn’t really wanted to have admitted to that before, but it’s true.
You’re doing these weekly lathe cut seven-inches for each song off ofApocalypse Fetish. What was the rationale behind this?
I’m on Joyful Noise, and they’re always looking for unique ways to put out records. The lathe cut thing is something that really works for them. They’ve got a guy named Michael Dickson and he’s this very prolific lathe cutter, constantly doing it. To have him run off a hundred copies of a song is not a huge difficulty. So they make a hundred of them and they have a certain amount of people who have subscriptions to Joyful Noise who receive everything they put out. Then there’s what they can sell individually. That’s just something they came up with. I was like, sounds great, whatever. Lathe cuts, I kinda like them because they soundreallylo-fi. They sound like they’re from the ‘30s or something. I have yet to hear one of these lathe cuts. I did one before of an acoustic song and it sounded kinda cool.
I think there’s a collector thing that happens with fans of your music, because you’ve released so much over the years.
If I was to historically look at it, Sebadoh and stuff like that hasn’t really been collector’s stuff. I’ve put out so much stuff that wasn’t really me catering to that, but me taking opportunities to put out music. Like, if someone said they wanted to put out a seven-inch, I’d say great, let’s do it. I never did limited edition. There’s a lot of things in the ‘90s like Guided By Voices and Amphetamine Reptile and Sub Pop, all of those things were self-consciously, very willfully “collector! collector!” I’m about things being available.
Having said that, yes, Joyful Noise has a limited edition of one hundred lathe cuts of each of the songs on the record. [laughs] Which is fine with me, because anyone who wants one is probably going to get it. It’s ironic to me that after all these years thatnowI’m on a label that sort of caters to that.
Getting to the content ofApocalypse Fetish, the title track portends of the, as you call it, “self-fulfilling prophecy” of End Times. We’ve used entertainment over the years in countless ways to posit how the world will end. Given the state of things, especially in an election year like this, do you think we’re somehow willing this into existence and goading it on?
Oh yeah. [laughs] I’ve been listening to blowhards for most of my adult life. The world was supposed to end over and over again. I’ve listened to relatives talk about race war for the last thirty years. The millennium was supposed to be the big one. I’ve seen my relatives’ stash of guns. They’re all so transparently paranoid.
The interesting thing that’s happened is how this stuff has become more and more legitimate, that somehow this is a true prediction of things. It has concerned me, now that we have the Internet and all this information is being spread around. It’s not so much fringe anymore. You don’t have to go to a specialty bookstore to buy yourAnarchist Cookbookor whatever. So all these people on the Left and all the fringe Right people and coming together and creating this unease.
I find it ironic, as things have improved pretty dramatically over the last fifty years of my life. Socially, there’s been a lot of change. A lot of positive things have happened. The world is actually getting better statistically. The whole world is becoming a better place, slowly. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t awful.
It’s this building hysteria these people have, the idea that people are coming for their guns. It’s this paranoia that’s actually a very personal thing that they’ve chosen to inflict upon the world. That song, that concept, my somewhat articulate view is in the lyrics to that song. Speaking about it right now it sounds like a fucking mess.
Well you’re summing up a phenomenon into a short song.
That’s been stewing in my brain for a really long time. The riff that I came up with and just the timing of it kinda came together. I made a video for [“Apocalypse Fetish”] when I was on tour. There’s a lot of images of rolling coal, people rolling up to Black Lives Matter and blowing coal onto them. It’s just so nihilistic. It’s really sad. It’s sad. It reminds you that people are so fearful that they’ve just allowed this fear and the projection of fear to shape the environment around them. That’s sad.
And then to inflict that on other people, family members and friends as well as strangers in protest.
I think there’s so many people now that have to deal with this Donald Trump at the end of their table, going on and on about this stuff and being fueled by their hysteria, fueled by disinformation. It’s always gonna be there, but it’s slowly but surely becoming mainstream. It’s sad because I don’t think the times actually warrant extreme reactions.
Let’s say the end of the world isn’t nigh, and thatApocalypse Fetishdoesn’t end up being your final record. Are you writing or working on new material at the moment?
Of course. I write when the opportunity presents itself. For instance, this EP. When I travel with Dinosaur Jr., I have my ukulele with me. We played this enormous hall in Milwaukee called The Eagles Club, kind of this historic landmark. It’s this cavernous place with secret passageways and underground things. I went into that building with my ukulele and went to every stairwell, every shower that I could find and played. All the riffs started coming, and almost every song on the record is derived from the melodies I came up with while I was there. But then I didn’t have any opportunities for months after that. I’ll travel around with my ukulele to find the right place to sit and play. I don’t put the amount of pressure on myself [that] I used to. It seems to work out better that way.