The Sebadoh mastermind/Dinosaur Jr bassist on cassettes, art and music journalism
|Photography by Eleonora C. Collini|
Barely any musician speaks to me the way Lou Barlow does. Starting in the early ‘80s first as the guitarist of hardcore band Deep Wound and then as the bassist/co-songwriter of almighty Dinosaur Jr, he consequently founded legendary Sebadoh with friend Eric Gaffney.
Initially an experimental home-recording project with Barlow and Gaffney sharing songwriting/singing duties, after Barlow was kicked out of Dinosaur Jr and Jason Loewestein was added to the lineup in 1989, Sebadoh gradually blossomed into an established band who, through seminal albums like III, Bubble and Scrape and Bakesale, pioneered the lo-fi style of rock music that seems so back in fashion nowadays. Following the departure of Eric Gaffney in the mid-‘90s, the subsequent recruitment of first Bob Fay and then Russ Pollard on drums, in 1999 Sebadoh went on a temporary hiatus, which allowed Barlow to concentrate on his solo career as well as reuniting with Dinosaur Jr. a few years later.
Whether written for Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr, Folk Implosion (another band, now unfortunately defunct, he co-founded in the ‘90s) or his solo records, the beauty of Barlow music lies in his ability to candidly sing about simple things like heartbreaks, complicated male-female relationships, falling-outs with friends and addictions in a language anybody can relate to. Barlow doesn’t try too hard, he just privileges pure emotions and honesty, and in that resides the magic of his visceral, confessional songwriting.
I caught up with him in London before Sebadoh played a wonderful show at Dingwalls, in the vibrant neighbourhood of Camden. After frequently touring in support of their first albums’ reissues, Barlow, Loewestein and new drummer Bob D’Amico (definitely the best the band has ever had) finally released new material in the form of the Secret EP (2012) and full-length Defend Yourself (2013).
The London gig was the penultimate of an over-one-year-long tour and therefore the perfect occasion to ponder on the new album’s reception. While the reviews of Defend Yourself weren’t always overly positive and some were even lamely speculating on some private matters going on in Barlow’s life, fans (yours truly included) seem to have totally loved the much-anticipated record. “We sold many copies at the shows and the people I’ve talked to have been very complimentary”, Barlow tells me while sipping a sugar-free Redbull. “I was pleasantly surprised in general, but especially the shows in Europe have done pretty well, more than I was actually expecting. We have also sold a lot of back catalogue on this tour. For instance people are buying Bakesale stating it’s their third copy or something”. I ask him if he thinks Sebadoh has made new fans thanks to the reissues and the new material. “I don’t see any young crowds, so I believe it’s just the same people that have been following us since the ‘90s”.
Usually after a record is released, Barlow doesn’t go back to it anymore and mainly concentrates on playing the songs in a live setting, where in his opinion they get more dynamic and much better. Playing songs over and over again never bothers him, and being his music so confessional and personal, he actually loves re-living those feelings. “I can play a song that I have played hundreds, probably even thousands times and every time I still try to find the best version of it. Also, every Sebadoh lineup had its strengths, but the current one with just Jason, Bob and myself is a particular good one”.
Following the last few years’ resurgence of cassettes, Defend Yourself was released on that format as well, but Barlow believes people bought all the copies more for fun than actual desire of playing them. “That probably mainly has to due with the fact that cassette players are so unreliable!”- he comments. “They really don’t age well, they are such delicate pieces of machinery and finding a functioning one is very difficult nowadays. I probably have a dozen, but they are all broken”. He seems to disagree with my theory that there is a strongly nostalgic reason for the recent cassette revival. “At least three or four young bands that toured with us over the last year or so were only selling cassettes, and it can’t be nostalgic for them as they basically grew up during the CD era. I like the way cassettes sound but not that much to be honest, I don’t think they are that great”, he concludes on the subject.
We carried on talking about audio formats and the fact that these days people barely buy CDs anymore, preferring either downloading everything (legally or illegally) online or listening to music on Spotify and the likes. But then there are true music fans who still buy vinyls and are attracted to more experimental formats. As a consequence, bands are trying to come up with different ideas, like for instance Clinic released their last album as a Frisbee with a download code and Throwing Muses as a book. “I think packaging is very important but it is also extremely expensive”, Barlow, who has always been a supporter of the DIY ethic, points out. “That is probably why I have always opted for cheap packaging. It’s the same way we make T-shirts, we make sure it is just one ink. “
Last year Barlow started a new band, Tres Padres, with long-time friends Imaad Wasif and Melvins’ Dale Crover, but alas the material they recorded hasn’t seen the light of the day yet and probably never will. “The guy that made a thousand of copies wouldn’t give them to anybody”, he explains. “I personally can’t do anything as he owns the recording. I introduced him to a distribution company but nothing happened. Then I introduced him to Karl Hofstetter at Joyful Noise Records [the label Sebadoh is currently on] but nothing happened either. So I don’t know what else to do. He is a busy guy and has other things to do, so unfortunately I am not sure if that record will ever come out.”
At the moment he is also writing new music, but before getting into it properly he needs to concentrate on sorting some personal matters first. “I am in the process of moving from Los Angeles back to Massachusetts”, he reveals. “I need to get a house and settle back there before working on any new material. I will figure something out I am sure, worse case scenario I will sleep on my sister’s floor for a while!”
Just like in the mid-‘80s his early home-recordings were a means to escape the formality of Dinosaur Jr, when in the mid-‘90s Sebadoh started to get bigger, Barlow began Folk Implosion with singer/guitarist John Davis to get back to the pleasure of experimenting new music territories. Folk Implosion (in their original incarnation) was more beat and sample-oriented than anything else Barlow had ever done before and a style he later never revisited. “I have never felt the urge to go back to that as it was something I just did so intensely for a period of time”, he confesses. “It’s such a static form of creativity. I love the idea of tape collages and things like that, but if I went back to that, I would be interested in finding something more free-flowing rather than just the militant beat. Also I think samples sound terrible live, as they limit the music too much. For instance, I love rap but live it frustrates me almost immediately as I just don’t understand how something can keep sounding the same. I know some people do it creatively, but for me a live performance has to be more relevant.”
For Barlow it's very difficult to say how much the music he makes is art or just a job for him. “Every time I play a song live I am reaching towards something more, which makes it art. But it’s also repetitive because I do it every night, and something I get paid for, so in that sense it’s a job too.” He feels that everything can actually be seen as a form of art. “I am always amazed at what people can do. There is so much creativity in the world even advertisement, food and the way people shape their homes. We live in a very commercialized environment, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything comes from people’s brains, and I just don’t know what makes anything that is sort of designated any more artistic than little things I see every single day. Even just the IPhone apps, the way people put them together, and the technology that we accept in our life every day are incredibly creative and really blow my mind continuously.”
We finally discussed the current state of music journalism in this Internet era when anybody can start a music blog and the plague of the so-called “lazy journalism” is quite spread. “If I have to be honest I find music criticism really boring”, he candidly admits. “Back in the days NME and Melody Maker had great writers and because I am very impressionable I would end up buying some really shitty records all the time. Then I realised that whatever evocative language these people can use is not really relevant, as the only thing that really matters is how you feel about music when you listen to it. You can still be pointed in the right direction, but now that music is so easily available you can hear it yourself, which almost makes music journalism even more irrelevant. There are still good writers around of course!”
Though Barlow agrees with me on the generally low quality level of music criticism today, he is still a big fan of music books. He mentions Simon Reynolds among his favourite authors, and also appreciates the book about Dinosaur Jr’s You are living all over me from the 33 1/3 series, and the Dinosaur Jr coffee table book Rocket 88 recently published. “I read it as a bedtime story to my kids. I liked it in a totally vain way, as there are nice pictures of me when I was younger. I thought it was a nice gesture towards the band. Personally I am glad that someone captured that period of my life.”