Q&A with Lou Barlow (Boston Phoenix, 3.24.11)

Posted on April 18, 2011


He may have been born in Dayton, Ohio and settled down in Los Angeles, but for a lot of us, Lou Barlow will always be a Western Mass kid. We’d settle more for any of his bands — Dinosaur, Jr., Folk Implosion, Sentridoh — but Barlow returns to Boston this Thursday with the band he’s most synonymous with, Sebadoh. They’re on tour to celebrate the coming deluxe reissue of Bakesale on Sub Pop, due out June 4. (Reissues of both Bakesale and Harmacy are also on the way from UK label Domino Records.) It’s a mid-’90s lineup, with Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and “new Bob” drummer, Robert D’Amico. Barlow talked to me from LA in between the West Coast and East Coast halves of the tour to talk about the reissues, dodging assumptions, growing up a Massachusetts townie, and the Meat Puppets.

So you’re supporting the re-releases of Bakesale and Harmacy, but you’re playing songs from all over the Sebadoh catalog? Yeah we are, but it’s mostly focused on Bakesale and Harmacy.

Was the idea to mostly get the records out before the tour? I suppose, yeah [laughs]. As logic would dictate, yeah. But that’s not really the way it worked out. I mean, ideally, yeah, we’d be supporting this new reissue and we’d have it for sale at the shows. But I guess we’re sort of pulling from this group of people who would probably come see us play anyway.

We put it together really slowly over the last year and we’re doing it through Domino, which is our European label. And they were kind of spearheading this whole thing, like, “Come on, we’ve got to reissue all this stuff before CDs are dead, and it’s a really important record for the label.” We put this whole package together. And we did this whole thing under the whole idea that Sub Pop really wanted to do the Bakesale reissue. So we said, “Okay! So, you’ll be in contact with Domino Records and you’ll know when it’s coming out.” They were like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll work on that, we’ll have everybody communicate.”

Then when we finally finished the package, I was like, “Okay. so, Sub Pop, are you ready to go with this?” They apparently had no idea, and not a whole lot of interest within the label to actually do the reissue. So I was like, “Well. . . . !” And that was one of my biggest fears: “I think some people at the label are into this, but I don’t think the whole label is into the reissue.” So sure enough, they said they couldn’t do it. But I sort of guilted them into doing it later in the year. But that will serve no purpose in terms of the US tour.

How many “reunion” tours have you done at this point? Does each one change your perspective on this music? I think the last time we toured was four years ago. Three or four years ago. On a kind of superficial level, when we did the last tour — we’ve done three “reunion” tours. The first one we did was, I think, in was 2004. It was just Jason and I and we went out and put all the drum tracks on a four-track and played it out through a boom box. We played sort of semi-electrically. That was awesome. Then we got Eric Gaffney back and were a three-piece. That was kind of a trip, because Eric was back in the band and he’s really got all of his own songs to play, as opposed to just focusing on just Jason and my stuff. With Eric, it becomes almost impossible to play everything. When Eric enters the thing, it sort of becomes about Eric. It becomes a huge balancing act and Jason sort of gets the shaft as far as playing his songs.

On this tour, we have a drummer but we’re kind of focusing on a lot of Jason’s stuff that he hasn’t really played before and it’s kind of awesome. That’s sort of been the cool thing about this tour, seeing people react to Jason’s stuff that they maybe haven’t heard played before. It’s a little different because rather than playing bass on his songs, he’s playing guitar. And he’s a really cool guitar player. And we’re splitting it evenly between our songs.

You’ve always seemed like such a product of that scrappy ’80s Western Mass scene and then, later on, the underdog Boston indie rock world — how long did it take to adjust to LA? I mean LA is a huge city. It’s not really Hollywood. The images that people attach to what LA is are parts of LA. The fact is that the way the whole city is laid out is just houses. There’s no big projects or anything. Even in the places that are considered “hard” here in LA are kind of cute. They’re cute little houses. It’s kind of amazing. The first time I went to Compton, I was like, “This is Compton? Wow, okay. Well, it’s better than Somerville, I gotta say.” Of course Somerville has changed, but when I lived there it was pretty slummy! Not to bash Somerville.

People’s perceptions of LA generally are totally based on Hollywood and that stuff, and that’s not really where I live. I have a house in Silver Lake that I bought 12 years ago.

With the early Sebadoh records, you got a lot of attention for taking a lot of lo-fi punk aesthetics and turning them on their head, which hit a lot of people out of nowhere. But you must have had some sort of examples to follow, right? The band the Meat Puppets. The very first Meat Puppets recordings were like the craziest hardcore ever. Really fast and absolutely avant-garde noise hardcore. To my young ears, they were the pinnacle of hardcore. They were the best. They made the craziest, angriest, evilest-sounding records. But they also made these really dramatic switches with the style of music that they played. They turned into a country band, which was incredible. They were a hardcore band that mutated into a country band, and that made a huge impression on me.

And there were the bands that I really grew up on — Young Marble Giants, Gang of Four, all these post-punk bands from England that made lo-fi records and went between being very scratchy and noisy and also having very acoustic qualities to them.

Along with that, a reputation as a sort of über-college rock songwriter seemed to emerge for you, despite the total lack of college attendance in the band. It’s hard for me to tell people, “No.” Nobody in Sebadoh went to college. We were all townies. But the thing is, I wear glasses — I look like I went to college. And if you say “Massachusetts” and “Connecticut” everybody in the rest of the country thinks “blue bloods.” You know, they think there’s a lot of money there and you definitely went to college and your parents are rich. They don’t have any experience with what most of Massachusetts and Connecticut are — a collection of dying mill towns and these industrial cities that have lost all their jobs. They just associate it with the Ivy League and Boston. My wife is from Waterbury, Connecticut — you tell people that and they’re like [impressed gasp], “Oh, Waterbury!” and you have to be like, “No — she’s from fuckin’ Waterbury, Connecticut.” It’s just people’s perceptions. There’s not a lot you can do about it, I can’t waste time protesting it too much.

But at the same time, the band seemed so into pulling these sort of contrarian pranks on people — expectations like that must have been fun to mess with. Early on, I don’t know, it seemed funner and more — I just liked to make really angry songs, I guess. Now I’m not into that. But also, I’m not really a contrarian. I’m really just all about the music and making it accessible. Even the things I’ve done that seem inaccessible, to me in some way when I was making them and recording them, I felt like I was reaching out. I’m not really that into playing games, you know, when it comes to songs. The whole root of what I do, where I really come from, is closer to country music than it is, you know, math rock or something. It’s closer to that than any kind of smart-guy music. I’m not real clever. I understand why maybe it seemed like they were trying to be clever, but I can’t say that was my goal. I just wanted to be as simple as possible.

Are you working on new music right now? In fact, I just got a new studio setup and yesterday was the first day I got all the mics working at once, so I recorded a song. If Dinosaur makes another record, I realized that if I write for Dinosaur, I have to tell J. and Murph everything — they don’t collaborate very well. So if I enter that situation I have to have everything formed out. So I’ve just got a bunch of ideas and see where they go and where they find a home. It’s not really contrived. People say, “How do you know Sebadoh songs from Dinosaur songs?” I don’t know.

For several years, this band and Dinosaur have been pretty active on a regular basis. Is it weird to look back 10 years or so ago and think that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, everything seemed like it was over? Ten years ago just wasn’t a very good time, when I look back on it. I moved from Boston, ended up in LA and simultaneously the last Sebadoh record tanked. People hated that record! It was going from touring and playing sold-out shows to playing in front of 20 people. There was just no doubt about it that something really bad happened. It was like, “Fuck!” I thought that record was pretty good compared to the one before it.

And with Dinosaur, it was like, J. had kind of moved on. That might be when he started the Fog and was working on his solo shit. I don’t know, 10 years ago? Fuck yeah, I didn’t think anything would. . . . Although I can’t say I ever gave up on Sebadoh, because Jason and I have always had a really good working relationship. Whenever we’ve entered touring, it’s really easy to snap into it. We never spend a lot of time wondering if we should be doing it, or why we’re doing it — the kind of questions that really get in the way. We’re just like, “Hey, let’s do this. We know a bunch of songs. We’re a band.”

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix here.