There’s been a noticeable shift in the American underground over the last couple of years, as young bands have switched their retro sensibilities from I Love the ’80s to I Love the ’90s. Crunchy guitar riffs and lo-fi pop sensibilities are back in vogue. The influence of seminal ’90s acts like Liz Phair, Archers of Loaf, Pavement, Juliana Hatfield, and (sigh) early Weezer can be heard in the work of modern artists like Speedy Ortiz, Snail Mail, Charly Bliss, Soccer Mommy, and Mitski. And while some of the artists from that era are seizing the moment by going on anniversary tours or releasing egregious covers of TLC songs, other veterans of the indie rock come-up era could care less.
“I can’t say that ’90s indie rock is my favorite era of music,” Lou Barlow muses. If anyone qualifies for elder statesman status in the American indie rock scene, Barlow has the bona fides. He first made in his mark in the mid-’80s as a part of Dinosaur Jr., and while that band’s early records were mostly filled with J. Mascis songs, Barlow was able to get a few of his own tunes on there, haunting collage tracks that had more in common with, say, Jandek than Dinosaur’s sludgy guitar workouts.
Barlow would go on to do solo work as Sentridoh before forming Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney in 1986, with Jason Loewenstein, the group’s third songwriter, joining in 1989. Sebadoh created a unique medley of sounds and styles: ultra lo-fi rock mixed with copious amounts of weed references, noise, and irresistible earworms. This kind of kitchen-sink recording wasn’t new, exactly — pioneers like Martin Newell of The Cleaners from Venus and New Zealand DIY rockers like Chris Knox had been messing with four-track recording for years. But Sebadoh were one of the first American rock groups to really take advantage of the creative freedom that home-recording can offer.
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Barlow isn’t afraid to acknowledge the influence his music has made. “I do understand my own role in that era, when someone talks about the ’90s to me,” Barlow says. “But I just thought it was sort of an awkward time for rock music, whereas I find pockets of the ’60s and ’80s more satisfying as a listener.”
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Now a father of three, Barlow still manages to be a prolific songwriter. A new Sebadoh album is set to be released this summer, and Dinosaur Jr. is gearing up to go back in the studio to cut another record. And he’s released songs under his own name, like 2016’s “Apocalypse Fetish,” a haunting ukulele-driven rumination about conservative America’s paranoid, violent fantasies.
Last year, Barlow started doing house shows on tour — intimate backyard and living room gigs capped at 50 attendees, where the location isn’t announced until the day before the show (fellow ’90s rocker Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf is also doing the house-show circuit). Unlike club gigs with locked-in setlists, Barlow goes into each show with a loose framework and then takes requests to keep things interesting.
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“Over the years, I’ve gotten to know what songs people are gonna request,” Barlow says. “But people do stump me all the time. That’s part of the fun: having people ask me for songs that I don’t remember.”
As someone who’s been touring steadily since his Dinosaur Jr. days, Barlow says he prefers doing these kinds of shows to more conventional gigs.
“It’s totally direct,” he says. “At a club, where you’re onstage and there’s lights and a PA — that tends to get in the way of presenting your songs in the rawest, most direct way. Playing these backyard shows with smaller audiences earlier in the evening, that appeals to me far more with where I’m at now as a 50-year old man.”
An Evening With Lou Barlow. 7 p.m. Sunday, February 24, location TBA; eventbrite.com. Sold out.