“I’m not confident about anything,” says Lou Barlow from his Los Angeles home, amid deep sighs and nervous laughs. “My confidence just comes and goes.”
Barlow is one of rock music’s most curious characters, mainly because he has maintained a down-to-earth modesty in the face of ample success. That success began with Dinosaur (later Dinosaur Jr, for legal reasons). After the blow of being tossed from that band in 1989 without its leader, J Mascis, even telling him to his face, Barlow flourished as both a singer and songwriter.
Out on his own, Barlow formed Sebadoh and began releasing his own, extremely lo-fi four-track recordings. Barlow then branched out into a side project with Folk Implosion, scoring a Top 40 hit with “Natural One,” a song that remains one of the greatest stabs indie rock has ever taken at the mainstream.
Despite a hit single, and despite being able to actually sell home-recorded four track releases with such bare-bones instrumentation and production that many record company execs would laugh him right out of the studio, Barlow isn’t looking for rock stardom. That’s not what gets him off. So what does?
“I really like it when people say stuff like, ‘I had this boyfriend and he tortured me with your music for the entire six months of our terrible relationship,’” Barlow says. “Or, ‘I was being tortured by someone for six months and I listened to your music to get through it.’ I like people using my music somehow in life. That’s totally cool.”
Attempting to explain Barlow’s music, particularly in light of all of his various projects, can be unnerving. When asked how he usually describes his own songs to someone who’s never heard him, Barlow replies, “I just kind of mumble and I’ll say so many ‘likes’ and ‘I guesses’ that they’re just like (deadpan), ‘Oh.’”
What makes Barlow an anomaly in this modern pop-rock world is that his songs are actually saying something.
“I write about self-awareness and understanding,” Barlow says. “And about how many of the things that you think are other people’s faults—well, we all work together to create these problems. But the more self-aware you are and the less we react on our most basic impulses of anger and self-protection, the more we’ll be able to listen to each other and solve problems.”
It’s not Buddhism but a smaller sub-sect we’ll call Barlowism, and the essential tenet is Socrates’ “Know thyself.” Then again, let’s not inscribe a name or tenets to Barlow’s music just yet. That implies faithful followers, and Barlow will be the first to admit that he doesn’t have it all figured out yet; much less is he ready to take on apprentices.
Playing just as integral a role in Barlow’s catalogue as his deeper, philosophic works, is an array of love songs. These are not idealized sonnets, but explorations of a more real, human love. The kind that carries warts or maybe even a couple webbed toes.
“People have these ideas of perfection, but my romantic ideal is finding someone you’re good friends with that you can talk things through with,” says Barlow. “I believe in love, and I’m optimistic about it, but I’m also realistic. People can’t be trusted. Nobody. If you’re looking for something in your life that’s going to last forever, you’re deluding yourself.”
Barlow has been married for seven years and has known his wife for 15. He met her, to some extent, through a song he had written with Dinosaur about meeting his kind of girl. The song, “Poledo,” apparently caused her to swoon.
“You can make crazy shit happen if you write a song about it,” Barlow says.
As for the live show, Barlow states that his definition of an awesome concert might not square up with most other people’s. For him, a “great show” most often occurs when there’s a fight onstage or the power goes out.
“Then I become even more obsessed with making it a great show against all odds,” he says.
Barlow tells the tale of a Sebadoh show in Brussels that found him drunk and unable to play or sing without slurring his words. He hit himself in the head with his own guitar and then walked outside, swearing at himself. Then, he came back in and sang the rest of the set a cappella with the rest of the band making odd noises in the background.
“I’d never want to recreate that,” he says, “But the memory of that show can’t be beat.”