Julian Lynch on earning national buzz, Ph.D

ANDREW PENKALSKI | Updated 3/6/2013

Wisconsin musician makes a rare tour stop Saturday at Icehouse.

Musician Julian Lynch balances a burgeoning national profile with graduate school.
Photo by Jacqueline Kursel

Julian Lynch’s music doesn’t get out of his apartment very often. The multi-instrumentalist from Madison, Wis., via New Jersey spends the heartiest chunk of every year chiseling away at his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin. Since he’s crafted four excellent albums in as many years, it’s safe to say that Lynch has discovered a healthy balance between academics and indie rock. But as his one-off Saturday show at Icehouse suggests, that synthesis isn’t as organic as it seems.

“A bunch of my friends are full-time touring musicians, and I can’t do that extensively,” Lynch said. “That’s a sacrifice I make as a Ph.D. student. But it’s something I’m willing to do, because I want a Ph.D. And I want a career in academia.”

Because of his limited road exposure, most people hear Lynch on record before they ever see him on stage. His 2010 breakout, “Mare,” took a back seat to East Coast day-trippers that year such as Beach House and Woods. While those peers strive toward concrete songwriting, Lynch has always found more excitement in ephemeral hominess; his instrumental musings bend from contemporary guitars to county-fair woodwinds. Pitchfork, Spin and other tastemakers have all praised the young musician’s lawn-chair rock.

Lynch’s position as an ethno-musicology major — a discipline he described in layman’s terms as “the anthropology of music” — shifts the perception of his output from humble exploration toward something more theoretical. Even as Lynch preps his fourth LP, “Lines,” for a late March release, he discusses his heady sonic pursuits in a down-to-Earth manner.

“When I learned how to play rock music, I was surrounded by a lot of punk rock,” Lynch said. “Being ostentatious is not particularly virtuous in that arena of thought. I think that’s always kind of stuck with me.”

Virtuosity is still prevalent in Lynch’s approachable songwriting. On “Lines,” tracks such as the clarinet-guided “Yawning” have the capacity to dizzy, but they never bore. While his previous material’s gentle percussion could likely find a home in any Midwestern back yard, the songs on “Lines” stand at stronger attention. In keeping with his punk sensibilities, Lynch seems to be working against the DIY limitations of his own recording processes, which leave him confined to his Madison apartment.

“I have this tendency where I’ll lay down a drum track first, and I will start out slow but then get nervous about my neighbors hearing me,” Lynch said. “And it makes it into this Wagnerian romantic kind of thing where it gets more excited toward the end. But that’s totally not what I’m going for sometimes — it’s just me being anxious about neighbors hearing me.”

Lynch needn’t concern himself with such courtesies on stage, where the musicologist plays with a rotating cast of performers. Minneapolis’ Soft Abuse Records released Lynch’s “Mata Hari” 7-inch in 2011, and he’ll be playing with label operator Chris Berry’s girlfriend, cellist Anna Rodell, on Saturday.

“Aesthetically, with the kind of music I’ve wanted to play, it just became more feasible to involve more people,” Lynch said, adding that the experimental bent of his live show is deliberate. “Back when I used to do improv clarinet solo sets, people who heard the first records would hear that and then be pissed off.”

But any fan of Julian Lynch wouldn’t approach a show expecting to hear a mirror of what’s on rec­ord. And with an artist as expressively diverse as Lynch, most consider it a pleasure to see him at all.