The first thing you notice about Lou Barlow when you call him at his Los Angeles home is how nice he is.
The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and veteran of such indie-rock acts as Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion seems genuinely charming. He's not some unapproachable, reluctant alt-rock icon; he's simply pleasant to talk to as he shuffles about the house, seeing to an infant son while entertaining an ill-prepared journalist's questions about a 25-plus-year career.
Barlow will return to Tucson to play a concert Friday, June 11, at Plush. Sarah Jaffe, a young singer-songwriter from Texas, will open the show. (See Rhythm & Views, Page 46, for more on her.)
The gig will include tunes from throughout his career, he says.
"I'll open up the show acoustically, and then play some with a band, and then end the show with some more acoustic stuff. That's the advantage of doing a solo show: I can call on each part of my career. Having all those combinations, and the ability to do them all, that's what makes me the most excited."
On the current tour, Barlow (who primarily will play bass) is performing with his new group, the missingmen, which is composed of guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales. Both are "pretty well known for playing punk rock around Los Angeles, and in fact, they both play with Mike Watt," Barlow says.
Barlow, fresh and rested after recently coming home from Europe, is preparing for the American leg of a concert tour to promote his second solo album, Goodnight Unknown.
He's also pensive. Who can blame him if he's thinking a little about the past and looking toward the future? "I'm 43, and I have a family and a house now."
He never stops working, but his ambitions are modest. "I just have to get better," he says. "Become a better player, a better singer, a better writer. Don't suck. Don't take it for granted. Don't get lazy. Plow on."
It sounds almost as if Barlow is giving advice to a younger version of himself. Is that the sort of thing he might tell a young musician starting out today?
"Yeah. Be fully ready for someone to tell you that you suck at any given time. You're surviving on your wits, literally. If you want to continue to make music, make it your passion, no matter what anyone says. String up all the flakey things someone tells you, and make them your strength rather than your weakness. You have to be strong. Nothing happens unless you work for it. And if you don't work for it, be prepared to lose it."
Barlow debunks the idea that indie rock is about slacking. Good old-fashioned work ethics never hurt anyone, and it's nice to hear that Barlow still considers the do-it-yourself approach and anything-goes aesthetics of punk rock to be guiding forces on his music and in his life.
"It's really the only way to survive: You have to be really ready and willing to do things for yourself, and really control what you do. ... Don't assume someone else is going to do it for you. That's what really makes people see the artistic integrity in your work, and if you stay true to that, it's what matters."
Barlow remembers early punk-rock shows in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"Every band on the bill was completely different; the sound wasn't so standard. You could sound like what you wanted, not what someone thought 'punk' should be. ... The overriding message of punk in the beginning was individual, unique voices saying what hadn't been said.
"By the mid-'80s, what they were calling punk became just another style."
Barlow never has been restricted by genre, and the tunes on his new album speak to that.
From the expansive '80s-style alt-rock punch of "Sharing" and the dramatic title track to quieter acoustic-folk numbers such as "Too Much Freedom," "Modesty" and "The One I Call," Goodnight Unknown seems to encompass a wide range of styles. There's the burbling, catchy "The Right" (which sounds like a lost Simon and Garfunkel outtake), the spooky, funky rocker "One Machine, One Long Fight" and the stripped-down primal blues-folk of "Gravitate."
It could be argued that Barlow's modus operandi lately is to consolidate the various flavors of his music from the past couple of decades. That's how he sees it, too.
Goodnight Unknown "doesn't differ that much from what has come before it. But in a way, it's more like a composite of all the other stuff that I have done before. You can hear some Sebadoh, some Folk Implosion, some Sentridoh. It's all there, merged into one thing. It's all pretty much what people would call lo-fi, too, which I think is the way I am most comfortable working."
Barlow has frequently been referred to as a pioneer of lo-fi music, meaning his recordings most often have been created using less-advanced recording equipment and techniques.
As an impressionable teenager, Barlow listened to the Ramones, Young Marble Giants and Swell Maps, groups he calls lo-fi.
"It was all music that, to me, sounded very emotionally direct. That was probably very influential on me then, because it really empowered me to record stuff on my own. It showed me that I didn't have to be afraid to record what I wanted, that I didn't have to be a big-budget rock act to record music."
Barlow hasn't always made lo-fi music, but he prefers it.
"I have put out a lot of high-fidelity recordings. We've spent nearly $100,000 to make records. I've been in a lot of different recording situations, low- and high-fidelity. I guess, though, that the things I really like the best that I've recorded, and that have been recorded by others, have been the roughest-sounding records."