Published Oct 01, 2009Over the past 20 years, Lou Barlow has been a key member of influential and abrasive underground rock bands like Dinosuar Jr, Sebadoh, and the Folk Implosion. He's also credited with being one of the leading figures responsible for the pervasiveness, from the early '90s onward, of emotional home-rock by men. Though Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh are full and going concerns these days, the California native found the time to release an excellent new solo record entitled Goodnight Unknown on Merge Records, which should please fans of his diverse, creative musical directions.
As a fan I have to say that, even though Goodnight Unknown seems to comprise many of the eclectic moods and musical styles you're well known for, it also sounds super cohesive somehow. How did your approach for Goodnight Unknown differ from other records you've made?
I guess I focused more. I decided in January of last year that I was gonna make a new record and I began recording 14 songs simultaneously. I think that probably helped the cohesiveness a little bit; I recorded them at the same time instead of picking and choosing things that I'd recorded over a period of three or four years, which I'd done with most of my records.
What inspired you to work this way instead?
Because I thought I hadn't really done that. I think maybe I had done that before but, years and years ago ― maybe when I first started. Who knows? I just thought it was something I should do.
You worked with some different people on Goodnight Unknown; who were they and how did they come to affect its overall tone?
Well, there's Imaad Wasif. He added guitar to maybe seven songs or so. Imaad played with me in the final incarnation of the Folk Implosion called the New Folk Implosion. And he played on a few songs on my last solo record, Emoh. He lives close by, is a great guitar player, and a very thoughtful person. Born in Canada.
Oh, well, that's always helpful. Canadians are thoughtful, helpful, and often very close to where other people live…
So, he fits all the criteria. You hit upon a goldmine there.
And who else?
Dale Crover, well known for being, I think, the architect of grunge rock, as we understand it today.
Right, Dale also plays drums in the Melvins.
That's right and he recorded the early demos of Nevermind by Nirvana and grew up in the same town as Kurt Cobain. He's just a really great drummer and a really nice guy. He lives close by, he has a child who's roughly the same age as my kid, and they went to pre-school together. We went to Disneyland once on a family outing, so then I felt like I knew him well enough to ask him to play on my record.
Wow, some real bonding there. That's great.
Yup. I actually have a really difficult time asking people for help. I think I finally just got it through my head that Dale was a really nice guy and would be perfectly happy to play on my record. So I gave him a call and he was psyched and that was it.
Well, that's cool. And you worked with a producer that, for some people, raised some eyebrows.
Yeah. His name is Andrew Murdock, otherwise known as "Mudrock," who produced such nu-metal classics as Godsmack and Avenge Sevenfold.
Right, are you a particular fan of any of those records?
Oh no (laughs). He lives in my neighbourhood and invited me to his studio. I listened to some other things he was working on, most of which sounded nothing like Godsmack or Avenge Sevenfold. In fact, he kinda worked on things that you might even call lo-fi indie. I thought it all sounded good and he just wanted to work together. He didn't have like high, Hollywood prices or anything; it was done kinda cheap and dirty the way I like it. He'd come and pick me up every day. That was great; I had a ride to his studio. He has a young child too so we worked exactly within our "father" schedules, and we were able to finish a record that I began myself. I brought the sessions to him and we finished it together.
It seems to me Lou that, in terms of collaborators, the key components for you to make a record are Canadians, neighbours, and new fathers.
This is a formula for success for you somehow.
(Laughs) I dunno. I guess we'll have to see how successful this record is. Otherwise I may again be seeking out drug-addicted bachelors. (laughs)
I think you should stick with this formula. It's clean living and it's good. You started the skeletons of these songs on your four-track machine, right?
Yes I did.
It's kind of interesting to me that you used different studios and personnel yet, it all sounds like something you might've made all on your own. In the end, does the record strike the right balance of something familiar but new for you?
Yes it does. Of course I can listen to it now and criticize it. Anything that I do, I finish it and feel very happy with it and feel amazed that I did it. What always follows is total depression realizing what I did not do. You have to accept that every record that you're making is not going to be the be all and end all record for everybody who's going to listen to it. Some times, when I'm finishing something, I can actually have that illusion. Like, "This is really good; I can't imagine anyone not liking this record" (laughs). Then the reviews start coming in. I try to avoid them but they find me, and then I realize that I'm not living in some enchanted fairyland where everybody's going to love all of my music.
Right, well, for what it's worth ― gorgeous record. This is one of your strongest records, if I might say, as a fan.
That's great. I love to hear that. That's what I like. (laughs)
You've been playing with Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh again recently. How's that been going for you?
It's been quite good.
There was so much acrimony within those splits; has anything about either of those experiences surprised you in particular?
Well, yeah, of course. Both things seemed irreparable. Like what happened with Dinosaur…I mean I didn't really let it go lightly. I spent years badmouthing Dinosaur Jr and J. Mascis in particular. I did a lot of interviews for a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life, in which I really detailed every ugly bit of muck I could exorcise. I thought I pretty much buried it. But that turned out not to be the case; J. and I started seeing each other here and there and, one thing led to another, and there were re-issues on Merge Records. J. has a particularly ambitious manager who decided that the only way to accompany a re-release schedule would be a reunion tour. He kinda made that happen.
Has revisiting those bands and hanging out with these people impacted you in your own solo work?
I think it did, yeah. It kinda reminded me of the old fire behind what I did. In a lot of ways, Goodnight Unknown…quite a few of the songs are done on four-string guitar. That's like a real way of bringing back the way I used to work; I used to do most everything on four-string guitars and at least half of these songs do that. So, that's a basic thing. I think, over the years with Sebadoh and maybe my last solo record, I'd made an attempt to be normal or something. I did a lot of work with six-string guitars and worked on my folk-style guitar fingering and then I thought, "I'm not a singer-songwriter in a traditional sense." To me, the things that make my music interesting are the stranger aspects of it ― my strumming style, I like four-string guitars, and I really like short songs. So I decided to really focus on extremely short songs that are more reminiscent of my early solo work.
Well, it is a weird record in terms of amalgamating your abrasive tendencies, in terms of distortion and noise, with the gentler folk side you were just describing. I guess I wonder if playing with Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh has impacted these songs, lyrically or sonically?
Going back to Sebadoh and Dinosaur, those bands are pretty aggressive at their core and I think this solo record is more aggressive. The last solo record I did, I thought, was perfectly placid for the most part. There's a real relaxed vocal presence on that solo record and a lot of it is single vocals. This time, I just thought, "Screw single vocals, screw being the guy sitting with the acoustic guitar singing quietly. Why don't I just layer the hell outta the vocals, start mixing competing sonics, and create the dissonance that, to me, adds character to things?" That's the kinda music that I gravitate towards and I really just wanted to make something that I thought stood next to my early solo work, that I did under the name Sentridoh. That was kinda the point.
I know you've formed a band called Lou Barlow and the Missing Men and you're opening up for Dinosaur Jr for most of October and November. You're a busy guy; what does the future hold for you over the next few months?
The Missing Men are actually one of Mike Watt's backing bands. They play with him every week here in L.A. and they did a tour with Dinosaur Jr. That's kinda where I met them and we forged this plan for them to be my backing band and I'm gonna do that for October into November. And then my wife is pregnant so she's gonna have a baby in late November and early December.
You said "thanks" like I shouldn't have said congratulations.
I don't know why I said it like that…
You were like, (dejectedly) "Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot."
(Laughs) Yeah, I know, I noticed that. I always thought that was like one of those things on TV, if someone ever says, "And now my wife is pregnant with a baby," then everyone starts clapping. I always thought that was really weird.
It is odd but I couldn't help it.
Or when you say you're married, people clap. It's like, "Great!" (laughs)
Yeah, I get that sometimes myself.
But I do appreciate that; thank you very much! I didn't mean to dismiss it. I am proud of it, sure! But it is also a source of anxiety now because my wife is heavily pregnant and I'm touring, which is just a real interesting way to go about it, being away.
But you're gonna take a break in November and December?
Yes. And then next year, start back in with more Dinosaur stuff and hopefully some more solo stuff too.
I spoke to Joe Pernice recently to discuss his new book It Feels So Good When I Stop, in which you appear as a character in the storyline. What do you make of this development in your life?
As a literary character? (laughs) Well, I was pleased that in the book, I was offering the main character drugs I think. Nitrous, I think I was offering him nitrous, which I've actually done before! And the book is set in this student, slummy area of Western Massachusetts, and I know that really well. So the fact that I popped up at a party doing nitrous; I dunno, I thought that was pretty cool.
So you actually offered people some nitrous in the past. Do you remember any of the other events depicted happening to you?
I assume they're all completely fabricated.
Yeah, they are but they're all strangely familiar. I'm halfway through it and there are elements of that period that he did capture really well.
Cool. One last question; what is loobiecore.com?
Loobiecore; that's the kind of music I make. I'm Lou B. And, y'know the music that first really inspired me and got me writing my own songs was really fast, hardcore punk. Y'know ― loobiecore.
So, you're making Lou Barlow music more hardcore than anyone else possibly could?
That's right; it's hardcore Lou Barlow music! (laughs)
And no one can do it any better than you, one would think.
Yeah, y'know. It'd be cool if someone decided to do my sound better than…
"What kind of band are you?" "Well, we're loobiecore."
That's what you ultimately want? You should trademark this.
That'd be amazing; if an entire musical movement was to pop up based upon my music, I'd be pretty pleased. I'm not holding my breath. (laughs)