Bracing For Waves: Lou Barlow on the origin of songs, hardcore’s emotion, and the creative process as a lifestyle
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s much as we would all love to dance upon the grave of popular music in this post-post-modern pre-apocalyptic age, the truth is that we as human beings still don’t really understand what it is exactly that we get out of music. If it were merely a drug then we could quantify and classify its causes and effects and regulate the dosages of this aural toxin — but really, our strange way of bonding with other human beings via our ears and our brains is still, in this time of wonder and transparency, opaque and unknowable at its core. Where does a song come from? Why do we like songs? If someone sings a song about something, why do we believe them? Is music just a way of transmitting human mythology via sound waves?
“When I was first able to put together a melody line on guitar and piece it together with a few words, it felt like opening a treasure chest, the feeling was so revelatory,” says Lou Barlow, a life-long student of this scientific process, constantly questing to understand music’s secret powers no matter what the cost to his psyche. Along the way, whether through his solo work (which appears in various guises, be they Sentridoh, Folk Implosion, or under his own moniker) or during his time within Sebadoh or the occasionally spirit-crushing ’80s indie guitar powerhouse Dinosaur Jr, he has explored the various manners in which, loud or soft, intimate or crushing, music can communicate in the bearing of an alleged soul from one human vessel to another. “Writing songs,” he explains, “creating songs, you can just make it into this mythological event in your life. I mean, this mythological view, some people just never let go of this feeling ever.”
Barlow, who plays Great Scott tonight, is currently preparing to tour solo, taking a break from Dinosaur Jr reunion gigs to bask in the release of Brace The Wave (out now on Joyful Noise), a recording comprised primarily of acoustic tunes without rhythmic accompaniment that finds Barlow’s plaintive vocal wail naked and dry scraping against the steady chug of his signature low-strung guitar-or-ukulele. The nine songs on the album speak of rebirth (explicitly on “C & E”, as in “crack and emerge”) and change (especially on the soaring “Moving”); but don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are mere travelogues of Barlow’s recent life events, events that have seen him leave Los Angeles, his home of 17 years, for the leafy expanses of Western Massachusetts.
Nor should you be hunting for lyrical clues that might speak of the dissolution of a marriage, or the elation of a new marriage, or the trials and tribulations of being a parent. “I don’t really see my stuff as being particularly confessional,” Barlow explains, “I actually hear it as being pretty fucking general! I mean, my songs definitely speak of very different things or feelings, but in a lot of ways they’re just composites, and the subject of a song is a composite of people that I know. A song might on the face be about one person, but actually be about my feelings about several different people. And I do that because, to me, super personal confessional songwriting is incredibly difficult to pull off. I mean, I guess someone like Sufjan Stevens can pull that off, he’s incredibly good at it. But I don’t — when I listen to my own stuff, I like thinking that I’m a stranger and I don’t know exactly what I’m singing about.”
Barlow was a sensitive adolescent when his life intersected with the late-’70s/early-’80s punk/hardcore movement; he eventually found himself in the Northampton band Deep Wound, where his interest in composition and exploring feelings were shanghai’d by the bum rush of pure male punk aggression; a song he wrote for the band called “Pressures” became “Lou’s Anxiety Song” when run through the meat grinder of HC posturing. “The thing about hardcore,” explains Barlow, “is that it was this stark, almost unmusical tribal form, just short bursts and proclamations. But it was also emotional and vulnerable. Hardcore was really, I think, driven by vulnerability. It was all ‘Stay away from me’ and ‘I’m staying pure!’, that sort of thing. Just trying to survive this tidal wave of adolescent feelings, with all this political stuff swirling around as well.”
Barlow has struggled ever since to put his voice through in song, whether in the tumult of his post-Deep Wound band Dinosaur Jr (founded with ex-DW drummer J Mascis) or in his later projects. And although he maintains his composite approach to putting his feelings to song, he has long been tagged as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve in his lyrics. “Whenever anyone reviews my records, they make these assumptions about what the songs are about. Like, you know, Sebadoh songs were always assumed to be about band politics. Reviewers always want to draw these conclusions, and I think that’s odd. I mean, if you understand songwriting, on a basic level, or if you have any awareness of the history of songwriting… Like Lennon and McCartney, did they directly experience every single thing that they wrote about? Did Jagger and Richards, or Rogers and Hammerstein? Leiber and Stoller? Of course not! These are just basic examples of how songwriting is a craft and what makes it good is that there are real things in there, but then a songwriter will take those things and use craft. It’s not just like every song is a diary entry! It just surprises me that, given all the examples of how complex the craft of songwriting is, how simplistic seemingly-knowledgeable people think it is.”
The thing, though, is that Barlow is underestimating the effect that a well-made song, coupled with a provocative artist mythology, can have on the listener, and how the listener can hear a song and think that the artist is being truthful and honest, speaking of their own life in a way that connects directly to the audience; when done right, no one sees the strings being pulled. “Sometimes, someone will tell me ‘I love this song of yours because it helped me with this certain situation.’ I may listen to a song and it can bring me to tears, it can become a healing or cathartic force. I’m relating to it myself and it is speaking a truth to me in that moment, based solely on how it’s interacting with my life. And none of that has anything to do with the ‘truth’ of what the song is actually about!”
The wide gulf between the artist’s intentions and the listener’s interpretation speaks to the difficulty in specifically crafting a song for consumption; “I have to be honest with myself, and I think it’s worth saying, that the process of creating is a selfish thing. It can be really delicious and there are moments where it’s good and feels really special, but make no mistake, you are delusional. I mean, 99% of us are totally deluding ourselves — I mean, we’re lucky if what we make, at the end of the day, is, you know, just okay!” Which might explain why so many artists turn the creative process into a never-ending lifestyle, sequestered in a confined world where they are never confronted with the yawning indifference the world has to their creation. “You have to balance keeping a well of optimism of yourself with just being like whatever, letting things go. Everything I’ve done, I’ve had moments of thinking ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and then a month later I’ll listen again and go ‘I fucked up!’”
In the end, Barlow, and any who pursue the creative arts, must be aware of the mystical properties of this process they endeavor to be a part of; the process of self-discovery that is a part of creating something worthwhile must ultimately be its own reward, even if the fruits of that process get confused and misinterpreted along the way to the great unwashed. “I kind of think that most people, when they hear songs, don’t process things deeply. Music lovers like myself do, maybe, but most people don’t go that deep — well, maybe ‘deep’ isn’t the right word. It’s more like ‘I love that song, I don’t give a shit what it’s really about. It just speaks to them, they’re like ‘I love it, it’s mine.’ It’s kind of why, as a songwriter, you really have no choice but to just go on emotions. I mean, ultimately, what makes something good is the emotion. Right? It hurts and all, sometimes, sure, but that emotion is so important.”