- Rachel Enneking
- Lou Barlow
When Rush's prog pop single "Limelight" emerged in 1981, Lou Barlow was on the verge of something else. Roughly a year away from beginning his on-again, off-again musical partnership with J. Mascis – first with the short-lived semi-seminal hardcore punk act Deep Wound and subsequently with the alternative rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. – the then-teenaged Bay Stater wasn't listening to that end of the radio dial.
"I heard the Dead Kennedys on the radio when I was 12," Barlow recalls, a perk of growing up within signal range of Western Massachusetts' many colleges and their respective stations. "Classic rock is fine, but when Rush would play the local EnormoDome, I wouldn't go."
More than three decades deep into a robust career making music in bands and bedroom projects like Sentridoh and The Folk Implosion, Barlow has somehow found himself staring down Neil Peart's lyric sheet, courtesy of The Onion's A.V. Club. "They have a huge list of songs where they invite bands into the studio to cover the songs," he says. "'Limelight' happened to be on the list." Though his bandmates were both fans of Rush, the Sebadoh frontman most certainly was not. "It was pretty much a no-brainer because Bob [D'Amico] and Jason [Loewenstein] know the song pretty intimately."
Recently released as a 7" via Indianapolis' own Joyful Noise, with cheeky artwork paying winking homage to Rush's Canadian roots, their recorded rendition is in many ways quite faithful to the original, that most antithetical anthem of alienation. Loewenstein dutifully replicates Alex Lifeson's riffs while D'Amico admirably makes do with a drum kit far more econo than that of Peart. Yet, Barlow's defiance is palpable from the very beginning, bellowing, "I HATE IT! I HATE THIS! I HATE IT!" repeatedly while adjusting his stompbox knobs for a bargain basement Geddy Lee routine. Apart from recitation, he plays no other instrument and clearly takes joy in its collapsing completion. When prompted after the fact, he laughs and concedes, "It would be hard to say that I'd ever heard the song all the way through."
Admittedly, it's just plain weird hearing the man who penned "Gimme Indie Rock," the tape trader's cynical equivalent of MC5's "Kick Out The Jams," singing one of the most recognizable radio rock songs of all time. In recent years, fans have witnessed Barlow slosh his way through sold-out Sebadoh blowouts, burn through raucous Bug anniversary sets with Dinosaur Jr., and plaintively strum fragile love songs on his ukulele. Short of his apparent proclivity for performing in power trios, there's scarcely any similarity between what he does and what Rush does.
- Rachel Enneking
- Lou Barlow
Still, it's not the first time the Dean Of American Lo-Fi Rockers surprised with the hard rock covers. Sebadoh completists will no doubt recall his turn-of-the-century acoustic take on Foreigner's "Cold As Ice" for a London radio station compilation of in-studio performances. A subdued but sincere version of Ratt's 1984 hair metal hit "Round and Round" appeared on his uncharacteristically non-pseudonymous solo record Emoh. "I love that song," Barlow confirms, quick to defend that choice.
After so many years of making records his own damn way, inadvertently becoming a hugely influential figure for generations of musicians, these are the sorts of creative curveballs Barlow can throw without threatening his living lo-fi legacy. A little levity definitely can't hurt. Via song, he often lays bare the unvarnished truths of his personal life, most recently on Sebadoh's hiatus-busting Defend Yourself. Following a divorce from his wife and partner of 25 years, he's moved from California back east to Massachusetts, continuing to tour with no fewer than three active projects.
Currently with Dinosaur Jr. on a midsummer stretch alongside art rock oddballs Primus, he's already gearing up for some September solo dates to coincide with the release of Brace The Wave, a brand new solo album written partially while on the road. His first solo album since 2009's Goodnight Unknown for Merge Records, the record promises nine songs "without drums, without regrets" and further extends his working relationship with Joyful Noise. It was recorded in Easthampton, MA with Justin Pizzoferrato, whose production credits include records from J. Mascis and Speedy Ortiz, as well as several of Sonic Youth members' recent projects. "There's also a Dinosaur Jr. record coming up," he says. "So I have to write my usual two of three songs for that."
On the road constantly, satellite convenience trumps traditional radio's promise, with the Sebadoh guys in particular favoring "a lot of Howard Stern" alongside SiriusXM stations like Willie's Roadhouse and Little Steven's Underground Garage. "They play great stuff, but they actually repeat a lot of what they play," Barlow gripes about the latter channel. Chalk it up to his hardwired punk rock brain and the undeniable influence of college radio over him, but Barlow contends that there's not nearly enough underground going on there. "Satellite is a piss poor substitute for terrestrial radio," he says.
Now what if he happened to wrench control of that virtual dial from Steven Van Zandt? "I would go nuts," Barlow laughs, alluding to hundreds of choice cuts off compilations like the crucial Pebbles series of unearthed and virtually unknown garage and psych rock records. Successfully corporatized into conformity, classic rock radio makes no room for groups like The Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ Top band, while reliably pumping out FM favorites "Legs" and "Tush" ad nauseum every few hours. In contrast to Barlow's vast discography, the overwhelming majority of which remains in print or otherwise reissued, there's a loss that comes with letting less known bands fall by the wayside.
"It's a shame those songs can't be heard," he says.