Interview: Lou Barlow

Creative Commons Photo by Mark Altosaar

In 2005, I spoke with Lou Barlow about his tour and new record Emoh.

What’s the setup for the tour?
Yeh, it’s just me and a synthesizer and a pedal, a sampling pedal.

Loops, and drumbeats and that kind of thing in it?
No. I’m kind of hammering it out now. I think ideally it would be great to have a band but I’ve got to be realistic about it and keep my costs down. So much like many of my singer-songwriter brethren, I’ve adapted. Adapted to the sampling pedal to try to add some elements to my sound, but it will be very simplistic.

Is it mostly acoustic guitar?
Yeah. I got one four string acoustic that I play a bunch of old songs on. And then a nylon string or classical guitar that I’ve been writing my songs on for the last couple of years.

Is the nylon string all you’re playing these days?
It seems to be the thing I pick up the most, yeah. You know, I guess cause I feel like I’m still learning and I like the way those nylons sound. Sometimes they sound great direct. Sometimes they sound horrible. Like I played a show last night and it just sounded, uhh. I’m taking a friend to do sound with me. So hopefully, I’ll be able to hammer out some kind of acceptable sound by the time I get to Nashville.

I’ve been pondering getting a nylon string guitar but I’ve never known how it would play live or how well it would record.
It’s funny cause I got mine and then I swear like three or four people that I know bought them after I bought it. Obviously, people are intrigued by the way just that softer sound. It just takes away that kind of strident strumming that a steel string can get. Some people play steel string beautifully but I’m not exactly a world-class picker.

I started thinking about getting a nylon string because I got a ukulele from my brother and liked the sound of the strings so much more. And my girlfriend especially hates me playing the steel string around the apartment cause it tends to be pretty harsh.
[laughing] Exactly!

She loves the ukulele. Hates the steel string acoustic.
It’s funny cause the ukulele was… when I started to really first write songs it was on a ukulele. Like it’s really cool. Really good. My mother found it for like five dollars at a garage sale and had given it to me. And when I was about 18 or 19… that’s the sound of that instrument and the simplicity of four strings. And I just went and put fat strings on it and it sounded so great and that’s how I started writing songs.

So is that what a lot of that high plinky guitar sound that you have on early Sebadoh releases is?
Exactly. Yeah. When I was in Dinosaur and I used to just travel around with that ukulele all the time and then leave in the van and then our drummer sat on it. And then I was trying to find a ukulele after that and I realized that they were all insanely expensive and the only ones that I could possibly afford were pretty much made out of plastic. That was a rude awakening.

Do you tune like the top four strings of the guitar or do you tune it in the ukulele tuning?
Well, I have one four string tuning now that’s like my standard, but it’s not a ukulele tuning. It’s almost like a banjo tuning, I found out. but I didn’t know that. And I used to, for every song… Back in the day, when I was first recording on four track and stuff, I changed tuning on every song and even within the songs, I changed tuning for overdubs and stuff.

That gets to be a little messy when you try to play it live.
Yeah, see that’s part of the charm of those recordings and it’s definitely part of the streamlining that I had to undertake to begin to play live which is obviously the meat and potatoes of trying to survive as a musician. I had to figure out the simplest way to streamline that kind of four string approach and adapt a universal tuning that I could adapt songs to and write with and so I’d be able to recreate stuff. But in the process of doing that I definitely did lose a little bit of the bizarre tonal stuff that was going on in the early, early Sebadoh, Sentridoh stuff. But whatever.

So have you jammed a pickup in the four string or do you just put a mic on it?
Well, now when I have a four string that I take on the road with me, it’s a regular Martin. I bought a decent Martin with a pickup in it and then I just take off the strings and have four strings on it.

So you’ve got a full scale guitar with just four strings on it.
Yeah. Exactly. But even that. I’d love to be able to take the time and fashion… I bought a tenor guitar a while ago that’s pretty cool. I’d kind of like to revert back to the four strings for recording and stuff cause now I do miss the tones and the weird stuff that can happen.

What’s the most common way you write songs? Is it words and then melody?
I guess melody and a scrap of words that points in some direction. It’s kind of one of those things where I’ll pick up the guitar and for whatever reason the first thing I play will sound good to me. And then I’ll start singing over the top of it. If the melody and this scrap of words just keep recurring to me like a couple of days later. If I remember it, that’s probably a good place to start for a song. And usually it’s this melody and a hint of where the lyrics are going. Like a concept. And then I spend time, I can spend any time from a week to five years, just picking these little scraps that are in my head just floating around, and depending on which one kind of comes to me, I sort of resume working on it. That’s the way a lot of the songs on the emoH record are like. There were things that weren’t so much like things I made demos of and, okay, I got to follow up on that. They were just like these weird… I could probably come up with some term for it… but just like demos that existed in my head as opposed to existing on a tape or even on a piece of paper. Just leave little scraps floating in my brain that I just pull down and work on whenever they kind of strike me.

That’s interesting. The record does sound to me like the songs are more–don’t take this the wrong way–completely formed than a lot of Sebadoh stuff but they still have a very old school feel to them. I’m reminded of the early Sebadoh stuff. Maybe it’s just those little snippets of melody and things that you’ve worked to put together.
I had tried sort of consciously to go back to my strumming style for the earlier… There was a period where I started playing electric guitar with a pick. When I first started writing songs I did play with my fingers and I had these kind of weird strums. There’s like three or four strumming patterns that seemed kind of unique to me. They seemed like bastardizations of folk and country strummings. And also the combination of that and the way — cause I started really playing guitar when I played hardcore punk rock which meant my wrist was fucking moving triple time and playing as fast as I could — so when I started playing acoustic I did bring a little bit of that “wall of sound.” You know I like to think I have this sort of strumming styles that were kind of unique to me and I wanted to, on this record, really incorporate those again into my songwriting. And kind of be true to that. Start this process of going back to my roots as opposed to trying to fit in with particular folk finger-picking songs and guitar playing, because I was just like, man, the thing I got to do is find the things that I’m most comfortable playing and play that way. And write from that perspective. And really follow up on the style that I began when I first began writing songs.