Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lou Barlow (Sebadoh) interview: 2011


Lou Barlow’s musically formative years were spent not only avoiding the synthetic sounds of the first new wave, but rather languishing in the potential of low-fi analogue recording before it became the must-have sound of a whole scene. His grasp of what would one day be known as the ‘slacker sound’ and love of chunky, distorted bass was eventually put to good use in indie monsters, Dinosaur Jr. – the band he formed with high school mate Joe (later sheered down to simply ‘J’) Mascis in 1984. But it was Barlow’s home recordings side-project Sebadoh which has reigned consistently in the artist’s life. Now with sackings, bickering and ego-clashes behind him, Lou is back working with both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh; the latter of whom are currently celebrating the reissue of 1994 breakthrough album Bakesale.

Giving his side of the story of two bands, that never really split up but rather went from functioning to malfunctioning in ongoing cycles until their fractured fairytale finally gained its long overdue happy outcome, Lou Barlow begins from the rarely known comfort of his home. “I’ve been home in LA for almost two months, which is so weird. I haven’t been at home for this long… ever in my life!” Barlow’s chosen path – two active bands and a solo career – has of course meant that the road is always calling. Although a self-confessed DIY junkie preferring to work alone, Barlow couldn’t be more removed from loner-dom, but not as begrudgingly as one might expect. The re-formed ‘classic line-up’ of Dinosaur Jr. have been regularly touring since 2005, while Sebadoh continue to have reunion tours every couple of years. But for Barlow, this duality is just the card he’s been dealt.

“The two bands occupy different parts of my brain; they both have their own very distinct musical identities. I play different songs with different people in the two bands and that separation has ruled my existence for most of my life now, so it’s not something I really think about anymore.” He continues, “Dinosaur are touring the US in about a week before I bring Sebadoh out to Australia, so the two are almost overlapping at this stage.” Most fans are in agreement (and Lou himself), that Dinosaur Jr. produced their best work with Barlow in the line-up. Their first three albums, Your Living All Over Me, Dinosaur and Bug - for the most part - defined the growing, underground indie scene in America which culminated in the grunge explosion. Now that the original line-up are touring and recording again after many ‘lost years’ - during which time Dinosaur Jr. produced albums Lou is only too happy to offer his opinion on - Barlow concedes it was an inevitable reunion.

“In hindsight I think, how could Dinosaur not get back together.” He shrugs, “In Sebadoh, we never had the kinds of problems that I did working in Dinosaur, I mean, I’ve never felt the need to split Sebadoh up. We never had a falling out or anything, it was more of sigh than a shout,” he says of their regular hiatuses, “We were like, ah, this isn’t going so well at the moment let’s just go do something else for a while. But Dinosaur felt like a very definite end… for me at least.” Lou laughs, recalling his unceremonious booting out by Mascis in 1988, “I really didn’t know if it would be possible for us to work together again until J (Mascis) was actually right there asking me, you know. It was wonderfully natural when it did happen and I didn’t even have to think about how I was going to respond. The bottom line is, I love the music we made together way more than I disliked anyone in the band or any of the personal bullshit that went down between us.” At the start, Lou and J Mascis bonded well as both were singers, writers and fans of weird, musical cross-pollinations, but Mascis soon began throwing his weight around as leader in Dinosaur Jr.  Lou’s contributions to the albums became lesser as Mascis’s in-band domination grew until there was no room left for anybody else. Barlow continues,

Dinosaur Jr; "Going somewhere, Lou?"

“Music makes it all better for me, but looking back I am really glad I was kicked out of Dinosaur. It was an amazing gift awarded to my mental health.” Lou laughs, “Murph (Emmett Murphy – drummer) and I talked about this - he stayed on longer in Dinosaur than me - but we were both having these panic attacks and neither one knew at the time about the other. When I got kicked out of the band, my panic attacks stopped and the same happened to Murph.” He adds, “When we both rejoined the band (in 2005), thankfully they didn’t return, but the difference was I knew what I was getting myself into rejoining that band. I wasn’t going like ‘yay, it’s gonna be all different now’, it was more like I felt I could take it.” When Barlow found himself out of Dinosaur Jr., he already had his own back catalogue of music – some of which had been released independently – to continue adding to. The name Sebadoh was given to all his home-done tape albums, which had up until the late ‘80s, all been solo recordings. Although free to do as he pleased, Barlow didn’t automatically jump at the chance to launch Sebadoh – the band – onto the world.

“Well I never really wanted to be in another band after Dinosaur. I kinda just wanted to be on my own and play my ukulele,” He jokes, “But Eric Gaffney (Sebadoh co-founder) convinced me to make it into a proper band, and so we got Jason (Lowenstein) in to play drums and I decided that after Dinosaur, if I was going to be in a band again, it was going to have to be fun.” Lou suddenly had the resources to make his own mark alongside Dinosaur Jr. with Sebadoh - only in his band, Barlow insisted on an even, split-three-ways approach that Dinosaur Jr. had completely lacked. “Just the way in which Sebadoh formed, and the fact that we all wrote and were equally responsible for the output of the band, meant a natural democracy kind of happened anyway. Dinosaur was J’s deal – he was The Man and that was that as far as anyone was concerned.” J Mascis, carried on with Dinosaur Jr., replacing Lou and Murph with Mike Johnson and George Berz, having some post-Barlow successes with the albums Where You Been and Without A Sound. But the momentum - and any shred of a recognisable ‘Dinosaur-sound’ - had dried up completely by 1997 and the band ended with a whimper.

"Yeah I thought the records J made after I left were just awful.” Lou recalls of this time, “They were kind of like this weird hair metal version of Neil Young.” He dead-pans, “It just sounded like a bloated half-assed, crap version of Dinosaur Jr. and so I was glad to be off doing Sebadoh and not making shit records.” Lou finally cracks up after his onslaught, taking the edge of his harsh words. “But J totally needed me back in the band. I don’t think either of us realised how much better we worked together until we completely fell out and went our own ways.” After signing to Sub-Pop in 1992, Sebadoh gained moderate popularity with their wistful, unpolished rock albums before making their breakthrough record; 1994’s Bakesale. Having dropped a lot of the more experimental sounds found on previous Sebadoh albums, Bakesale felt like a push towards a broader audience which, if in fact true, worked for them. Now as its fully tricked-out reissue is set for release, and a Don’t Look Back-style tour is to follow, I press Lou for his honest opinion of Bakesale, and if it at all matches the general consensus that it was Sebadoh’s finest hour.

“I liked the record when it came out.” He pauses before adding, “I remember it being a really happy time in my life and there’s a good spirit on that album, but I guess as time went by I found I didn’t think it sounded very good. Then when we had to go back and listen to it for the tweaking and remastering, I think I finally - for the first time - got why people think it’s our best album. I mean I don’t personally think it is our best, I like our earlier, fucked up shit more, but I do think it is our most consistent record.” What has always driven Barlow from the time spent making his strange and murky home demo tapes to his clashes with J Mascis over Dinosaur Jr.’s direction, may well be the belief, as he was quoted as saying in an interview, that all music is mired in clichés. Lou, no doubt thankful our time is nearly up, takes the opportunity to explain his possibly off-hand observation.

"The reality is, whatever you do is gonna be clichéd once you’re aware of avoiding clichés.” He sniffs, “The way I make music is with an economy of sound in mind, if you know what I mean. Instead of adding layers and guitar solos or any of that, I like to strip it back and to sing in the purest, most unaffected voice I can find. If there’s any clichés I’m avoiding, it’s just in having nothing where the guitar solo should be, and clipping off extended intros and outros, I guess, and there’s your economy of sound.” Lou adds, brightening up, “You know, I just thought of that expression today and I decided I needed to use it in a sentence. I hope that ‘economy of sound’ comes across better than ‘music is mired in clichés’ as a quote - I think that sounds a bit fatuous now. I actually love clichés; I love pop music, and none of my pleasures are guilty ones, but I guess when I’m writing my own music I just try to side-step all that is what I’m saying.”


1 comment:

  1. Would be awesome to see them live, even if it's at the corner... Great interview!