In the great indie-rock index in my mind, Lou Barlow’s name figures prominently. There are entries for his work in the 1980s with Dinosaur Jr., and for his tempestuous relationship with Dinosaur cofounder J Mascis. There are a whole bunch of entries for Sebadoh, the influential group he led through the 1990s, and for The Folk Implosion, another great project of that era. Barlow also appears as a subcategory under several larger headings, such as “top songwriters” and “influential innovators,” along with “lo-fi,” “home recording,” and “cassette-only release.” His enduring contribution to music can be measured by the sheer number of unforgettable songs he’s collaborated on — which is a lot — and by the emotional directness of his approach, whether he is playing acoustic or electric.
These days, when Barlow is not performing with either Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh, he likes to slip into towns unannounced to play solo on the down low in art galleries and at house parties. He uses these gigs to meet his fans and engage with them in a music-driven conversation. There’s one of these little get-togethers Monday, December 3, at 7 p.m. at the Gone Gallery in the Funk Zone. When I emailed with Barlow recently, he told me about this kind of tour and why he likes doing shows this way.
What gets you motivated to go on the road these days? Do these small-venue shows offer something that you particularly enjoy? I never consider that I have to get motivated to tour. It’s so much of my life and what I do and love. I would never be able to do solo shows in large venues simply because I couldn’t fill them. I don’t have a choice! But I really like playing solo acoustic to a small group of people. It’s direct. It’s not too loud. I talk; people talk to me; I get to play my songs and feel like I’m special. It’s my speed, if that makes sense. It’s my scale. Playing shows is an integral part of writing new songs for me, too, so it’s all part of a cycle that I have to continue to keep myself above water in so many ways.
What’s a good show like circa 2018? Is there a pattern to the requests or to how people respond to the sets? I’ve definitely evolved an approach to each show where I can feel out what will work the best. There are a few songs that people always request, so I’m not in the dark when it comes to a place to start or move toward. It would be very difficult to have a bad show on a tour like this, and I can say that of the 70 or so shows I’ve done this year, all of them have felt kind of special. The only difficult ones have been in traditional bars or music venues. Stages and lights really get in the way when I’m playing like this.
Do you write with anyone these days? You’ve been such a successful collaborator over the years. Is that still something you gravitate toward? No, I don’t have anyone I’m close to in that way right now. I have bandmates that I work really well with (and most importantly travel well with!), and they are great songwriters, but writing together is a very personal thing, and it’s difficult to find and maintain the sense of intimacy and vulnerability it takes to really collaborate. I’ve only had it once, and it spun out after a few years. The only thing I can equate it to is a romance, and we all know how rare it is to have a romance that lasts. I feel like I’ve had to learn to collaborate with myself, and playing these solo shows has allowed me to turn my catalog inside out, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, and learn to edit myself in the moment.
Lou Barlow plays Monday, December 3, at 7 p.m. at the Gone Gallery (219 Gray Ave.) in the Funk Zone. See independent.com/barlow.