Dinosaur Jr.’s Lou Barlow talks life in transition and meeting Hop Along, playing Johnny Brenda’s

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Lou Barlow tours behind his first solo album in six years and makes a stop at Johnny Brenda's. (Photo by Rachel Enneking)

Is Lou Barlow emo?

“Probably something that would be good to know if you’re trying to understand where I’m coming from is I like heavy — I like sad music.” 

The musician, of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh fame, revealed his tastes — which currently include the devastating Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens — over the phone a week before Brace The Wave, his first solo record since 2009, was released. “I like music that puzzles over the difficult stuff,” he said.

His own music isn’t a far cry from that statement. Sebadoh’s last record, 2013’s Defend Yourself, outlined the unraveling of Barlow’s marriage. Brace The Wave, out Sept. 4 on Joyful Noise, hits on those moments of in-between. “Something’s changing and growing in me,” he sings over lulled guitar strums on “Pulse.” It’s nothing new, though. His life’s but a constant transition, he said. Fatherhood, middle age, relationships — everything is in flux.

“The songs are always transitional,” said Barlow, who’s playing Johnny Brenda’s tomorrow, “and they’re always about difficult stuff and changing: dealing with change, surviving change, overcoming things. Those are just consistent themes to all of my work.” 

The swirling vortex of change may dominate Barlow’s mind-set when it comes to lyrical content, but a peaceful and stripped instrumental production remains. Bare and resonant, Brace The Wave feels like a little secret into intimacy and identity that Barlow is only sharing with you.

It’s not unusual to feel this selfishness when listening to Brace The Wave because, in part, that’s how Barlow wrote it: alone in hotel rooms, in his new home. It wasn’t until he brought basic tracks and fragments to producer Justin Pizzoferrato, who worked on Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion albums, that the audience dynamic came into play. 

“I find that just by being around other people and playing things I hear it differently myself,” Barlow said. “[Justin’s] a very familiar presence so I kind of felt like I knew what he would hear when he heard it.” 

Other potential critics — or perhaps more incidental bystanders — of Barlow’s work include his children. 

“Do you have any opinion about my music?” he asked his 10-year-old daughter. After a brief pause: “She doesn’t really listen to it.”

So Barlow’s kin aren’t yet aware of his extensive catalogue of musical history (it’ll happen one day), but thankfully his JB’s opening act is. Frances Quinlan of Hop Along actually found out she got the gig while on the same Los Angeles-bound flight as Barlow last month.

Both en route to the FYF Festival (Barlow playing with Dinosaur Jr., Quinlan with Hop Along), Barlow became aware of the Philadelphia band through an encounter with Quinlan’s brother and Hop Along drummer, Mark Quinlan.

“We’re sitting in the gate in Philadelphia and some guy walks up to J [Mascis] and goes to J like, ‘Hey J, how’s it going?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh this is funny, he recognizes him,’ ” Barlow recalls.

“And then my wife and I sit down and the same guy came and sat next to us,” he continued. “We could hear him go, ‘J Masics and Lou Barlow are right in the front!’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, OK. This is great, this is awesome. They’re looking at me apparently in the front of the plane and I’m sitting right next to him.’”

After the cross-country flight and Quinlan’s “a-ha!” moment when he discovered who he was actually seated next to, the siblings Quinlan and Barlow got a proper introduction. 

“We landed and she was like, ‘That’s so weird, I was just asked to open your show at Johnny Brenda’s!’ ” 

As for Mark Quinlan, he ran into Barlow again on that same West Coast trip.

“He kept telling us, ‘I’m going to give you some vinyl!’ So maybe I’ll get my Hop Along vinyl at the show.”

Lou Barlow with Frances Quinlan, Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, 21-plus, tickets are still available.