A Conversation with Lou Barlow
The New Puritan ReView
Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
The New Puritan ReView
Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation; most (if not all) of which ended up in the published article, as it appears here.]
Once upon a time, there was a band from Amherst, called Dinosaur [Jr., following a lawsuit in 1987 by a group from the Bay Area, forcing the name change]. While much of the attention was focused on the guitar damage of one J. Mascis, there was an abundance of songwriting talent that had yet to be recognized on the behalf of the group’s bass player, Lou Barlow. When personality conflicts had surmounted beyond the level of tolerance, Lou exited the band, and it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him in the long run. Free of the apparent monarchy that existed in his former group, Lou began releasing an seemingly endless supply of some of the most imaginative and introspective material grungy guitar audiences could ever hope to hear outside of their sacred genre.
Sebadoh and Sentridoh were the first manifestations, two homemade cassettes which inadvertently received a good deal of publicity and established Lou in his own right, along with his friend Eric Gaffney. The Freed Man and Weed Forestin’ LPs soon followed, an act of faith on the Homestead label; demonstrating a new tolerance for low-fi recording as well as a sensory overload of blunt sensitivity and a raw level of communication that had been absent from underground music since the late-’70s exorcism of punk rock. Asshole, a 7″ E.P. that summed up the lost love between Lou and Dinosaur (Jr), and the Gimme Indie Rock 7″ followed shortly thereafter, showing signs of an unexpected evolution into a larger rock sound; taken to somewhat refined heights with the release of the Sebadoh III CD, and a Siltbreeze 45, Oven Is My Friend. Superchunk paid high praise and raised the ante by recording three Sebadoh songs on a 7″ titled The Freed Seed.
As of this writing, Sebadoh have been signed to the prestigious SubPop label, a move that should raise the consciousness of grunge-rockers across the globe, and grant them the rock star status they deserve. Sebadoh were interviewed at the luxurious New Puritan Manor / de facto band hotel on May 8, 1991 by J. Free and AmRep public relations mogul Mike Wolf; following a brilliant set of their original American rock at The Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. Also present – but a bit less talkative – were bassist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob Fay (filling in for Eric Gaffney). The next morning, Lou woke up before the rest of us, and shut off my alarm clock, which resulted in my being more than an hour late to my day job – but at least I had a good excuse, and one that my boss laughingly said he had never heard before. Ah, the power of rock.
Q Every time I look at one of your recordings, it will say something like, “recorded between 1982 and 1990”, or something like that. How many recordings are there that have been done that could be released tomorrow?
A Countless, countless.
Q How old were you when you first started noodling around like that?
Q Did you know how to play guitar then already?
A I learned some chords …and then quit lessons, and de-tuned my guitar.
Q What kind of songs were you doing then, if you want to call them songs?
A Very short, very noisy songs.
Q Just by yourself?
A Oh yeah.
Q How much of this material survived the phase known to most of us as Dinosaur Jr.?
A All of Weed Forestin’ except for the last song; everything I did on Freed Man; almost everything that’s on the Losers cassette. A lot of that is old, but we have a lot of new material.
Q So most of the really older stuff is just sittin’ around somewhere on a tape?
Q So in twenty years we’re gonna see The Lou Barlow 20-CD Boxed Set of Unreleased Rarities?
A We can only hope so. It would mean great riches for me, I must say.
Q WeedForestin had almost a suite-like quality, due to the use of found sounds, noticeably absent from the later records. Was that an initial part of the Sebadoh “sound”, or was it incidental?
A It just seemed to make sense on the first record. The second record had a lot of segues in between but they’re all part of the whole rather than something that’s just sitting outside of it. The first record’s just kind of a compilation, whereas the second record is pretty pre-meditated.
Q How did the Losers tape come about?
A I needed a tape to sell at shows, and I had a lot of stuff lying around.
Q Your shows have been leaning towards more of an electric sound.
A We did a lot of experimenting, and some of it worked really well – and some of it didn’t.
Q What incidents in your life are the most influential to your lyrics?
A Bad sex …no sex …breakdown in not relating to people …not being able to live with other people …feeling like an idiot – stuff like that.
Q Do you ever have to defend any of the things that you say in your songs?
A Yeah I do, actually. All the time, especially with the people that I’m closest to.
Q Do they think the songs are about them?
A Yeah. They’re not.
Q What about the Asshole E.P. ? That was certainly about somebody …
A It wasn’t about somebody, it was about the two guys in Dinosaur. Let’s be frank – they’re assholes. That’s how I work things out of my head, by writing songs about them. Those are the most honest songs I could come up with about that situation without being really bitter and sarcastic. That’s the only way I really have of communicating with them, because our communication was broken down. I’m not really good at pretending things don’t bother me. I just decided to leave a message; something that would remind me of what I was thinking about at the time and help me work through it. I didn’t really understand how it happened …that’s what that song’s about to me.
Q This is pretty much what you do then? Do you have any other kind of job or anything?
A This is what I do. If I have to go out and get a day job, I’ll go get a day job.
Q What sorts of directions would you like to try in the future?
A I’d kind of like to be in a rock band; play with drums and stuff.
It seemed like tonight’s show at least was mixed up pretty well. The first part was something very particular, relatively minimal, with guitar and bass. If a blind man had walked into the club towards the latter part, they would have thought there was a real rock band on stage, kinda freakin’ out.
When me and Jason started playin’ these shows we were doing it real mellow – acoustic – and then when we started really getting into what we were doing – kind of experimenting – and Bob met up with us halfway through the tour, we started working even harder the last half of the set.
Q Do you do a lot of writing in between shows?
A We don’t really write, we just play together. We don’t really write songs. I’ve never really been able to write as a songwriter/singer.
Q Where does all the artwork on the records come from?
A That’s Eric’s drawings. Eric did the artwork for the Gimme Indie Rock record. I did all the artwork for Weed Forestin.
Q What’s the origin of the name, by the way?
A I used to repeat it a lot when I started singing songs. I just repeated that one word and I liked the way it sounded. Me and Eric were trying to think of a band name, and I said let’s call ourselves “Sebadoh”, ’cause I had these five words that I always kind of used like “Sebadoh”, “Sentridoh” …some other ones I can’t think of.
Q Did “Freed Man” and “Weed Forestin'” actually start out as independent tapes?
A Yeah, they were. They were actually called Sentridoh, ’cause it was all my stuff. When we started Sebadoh I figured I should change the name, ’cause it was a collaboration. I suggested Sebadoh, and he didn’t seem to mind.
Q Since those first recordings had existed for years prior to the album’s release, was it originally the plan to put them out on a record?
A No, not really. I’m not really a self-promotional person – especially when I was in Dinosaur; I felt really self-conscious about it. Eric was making really good four-track stuff, and I was making some pretty good four-track stuff, and we thought we should do tapes. We’d sell ’em at the local record store for like fifty cents or a dollar or something like that, so people could really buy ’em. Other than that …I mean – I never sent ’em to people, I was just kind of low key about it. I didn’t want it to upset the guys in Dinosaur.
Q Did you ever worry that people would only pay attention because of that connection, rather than take them at face value?
A I didn’t really care.
Jason: I bought mine because it had Eric Gaffney on it. It had a naked woman on the cover.
Lou: I really don’t care about any of that. I know the reason that it exists on record is because it’s good, and everyone else can draw whatever conclusions they want to – that’s what they’re gonna do anyway. I don’t care why they buy these records as long as they buy ’em.
Q You’ve obviously got like a bag of stuff you’ve done. Do you just pull one set of words out and say, “This could be a song”, or do you just sit down and write?
A No, I write a song when I write it. Sometimes I’ll have a line or something, but mostly I write out the lyrics when I write the song.
Q Do most songs come about as a result of a particular thing?
A No, it’s usually when I can understand something. When I can understand what’s happened, and I finally understand what I feel about something. ‘Cause it takes a long time after it’s happened to understand it, but when I do, then I feel like I need to put it down in a way so I won’t remember feeling it, and it will be something that describes it to me.
Q Do you do that a lot? Listen to some of your older songs?
A Yeah, I always listen to my older stuff. I do listen to other stuff… there’s a few things I have heard that made me feel like I was missing something – something that would make me feel blown away.
Q Care to mention any of them?
A Ice Cube, and Slint.
Q So much of what you’ve being doing has been pushing the acoustic element towards its’ limits – is that more of an interest than electric guitar?
A Yeah. I’m finally beginning to feel what the power of rock is – the power of electric music. I’m finally beginning to understand it, where I totally didn’t understand it before at all. I think that Sebadoh could be an electric band, and it wouldn’t just be this treadmill thing.
Q Do you feel Sebadoh is on a treadmill, or are you referring to things you hear?
A Like in every other stupid band …too completely traditional. It’s all totally standard and conventional – an assault from the time it begins to the time it ends, and I just don’t find any meaning in it for me any more; it’s just like this wall of garbage. It’s just nice not to be all that traditional about it. I still think we kind of want to be acoustic – I think acoustic is really fun.
Q Where did you suddenly.get the idea to leave the rock & roll heritage of your youth behind and start doing this for a living? lt doesn’t owe anything to the pop hits of our teens.
A I don’t see there would be any use to do anything if it wasn’t different. My music belongs to me. Everything that’s good is original.
Q There is an extremely personal aspect to your songwriting that a lot of songwriters seem to try and avoid.
A I can’t imagine that other people haven’t felt the same way.
Q Do you think it’s more important to make music to get it out of you, or for you to make music for people to hear?
A Hmmm …to get it out of me.
Q Do you ever give any thought as to how your music might affect people who may or may not think about the same things you do?
A I have no idea how it affects people; I’m not really clear on that. I know that it’s very capable of affecting people in a very negative way. I know that I identify with a lot of things that I like, but it doesn’t rescue me or save me in any way. It’s just a diversion.
Here are some diversions you might care to listen to yourself:
Sonic Life [split 7″ w/ Lunachicks; 1988]
The Freed Man [LP; 1989]
Magic Ribbons [7″ compilation; 1990]
Weed Forestin [LP; 1990]
The Freed Weed [CD; 1990]
Asshole [7″; 1990]
Oven Is My Friend [7″; 1990]
Gimme Indie Rock [7″; 1991]
Losers [cassette; 1991]
III [CD; 1991]
© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1991; 2022
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