Sebadoh's Lou Barlow
Published Aug 12, 2012Lou Barlow has worn many hats over his 25-year-plus career as a musician. But no project has been as pervasive as Sebadoh, the lo-fi outfit he formed as a creative outlet while still bass player of a dictatorial Dinosaur Jr. Despite touring sporadically over the last decade the trio ― which includes guitarist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob D'Amico ― have just recorded their first new material in 13 years, dropping an EP via Bandcamp with a full length to follow in 2013.
The band have been playing together live on and off pretty steadily for the past few years. Why did you want to start recording new material now?
It seemed like the thing to do. We played old songs all last year. It went really well. We spent that time kind of bonding instrumentally and bringing Bob in more. Bob's been playing with Jason for over ten years so it was me playing with Bob and us becoming a unit. We coalesced around these old songs. And playing new songs seems like a good idea. I've never stopped making music and my experience with Dinosaur Jr., we introduced new songs into the mix and it just made everything kind of better. It gave everything a longer shelf life. And since Sebadoh, like Dinosaur Jr., we forged the sound of that band when we were very young. So going back to it was like going back to the source.
With both bands, when you've recorded new songs, the sound is unbelievably similar to that original source. What stops you from wanting to update or expand on it somehow?
That's just my experience as a music fan. If a band comes back after being away for 25 years, as a fan, I want to hear the sound of the band again. Like a Ramones record, you want to here the fucking grinding of the guitar or a Motörhead record, you want to hear Lemmy's voice blasting. You want to hear what attracted you to the band in the first place. I've spent plenty of time doing my own solo stuff, expanding on my ideas of acoustic music; we had the Folk Implosion and stuff like that. I guess going back to Sebadoh, we got to keep it simple for one thing. It's got to be drums, bass and guitar, because that's what fits in a mini van. When we play those shows, I'd like for us to be able to recreate what we played on a record.
Is that how you deal with creative impulses that don't fit Sebadoh? Shuffle it into different projects?
I don't know. I guess right now I feel really focused. We spent a pretty good chunk of time this summer laying down these instrumental tracks. So now it's like, I'm kind of focused on putting lyrics overtop of them and maybe working out some leads. It's just a really all-consuming process. I don't know. I can do other shit later. It's Sebadoh time. I've been kind of preparing for this time for a while. That's when I'm going to make a couple of rock records. I'm going to play my four string electric and I'm going to do some things that I always wanted to do with Sebadoh. I always wanted to make new songs where we tuned really low, like using alternative tunings. And I also wanted Jason to play guitar overtop of my songs, cause I've always wanted him to play guitar on my songs. He's got a really unique style. He's a really dynamic guitarist. I've had all these wishes for Sebadoh that I've been harbouring for 13 years. Now's the time that I can exercise some of that stuff that I've been thinking about. And also applying my experience with Dinosaur Jr. and how positive that experience, like a totally unlikely… just getting back with Dinosaur it was amazing how it was just focusing on the music and focusing on the sound of the band and you get a record. You just have to put the work in.
Both of those Dinosaur records were great.
Yeah, people were really into them. That was a really nice surprise. That emboldened me to think that if I went back to basics with Sebadoh it would probably be okay.
When did you record the tracks on the EP?
Well we were finishing it up until last week. We lay down like 20 songs. I think I wrote ten, Jason wrote nine and Bob wrote one. We can't really do anything until I'm done touring with Dinosaur Jr. and all that shit, so we were brainstorming. Like "What can we do to make this process exciting?" We can't do anything until next year. So we came up with the idea, let's just do five songs. Choose five out of the 20, finish them now and put them out on Bandcamp. Go totally label-less, it won't be any threat to Dinosaur Jr. and it will just be a way for us to pay for plane tickets to get Jason and Bob out here and buying recording equipment. We can use this new material to remind people that we're for real, this is really happening. And also to just do this for ourselves.
You've said these songs won't be on the album. How did you choose those five? Were they the five best or just the five closest to being done?
I kind of chose the ones that I thought were the worst. That doesn't mean anything. I've noticed over the years, that if I think something is bad, it doesn't mean that it's bad. In some cases it's just a cliché. I always remember that one hit-wonder "na-na-na-na/Hey-ey-ey/Goodbye." [Recorded by American studio band Steam, released in 1969.] I read this hilarious interview with the guy, who was like "That song was shit. It was a B-side. My best stuff was on the A-side. Nobody cares about the stuff I really put effort into."
You've been doing a lot of reissue work over the past few years. Are you pretty intimately involved in that process?
Oh yeah. We sequence it and get all the artwork. I do really crude mock-ups based on what little I know about Photoshop. We work with the label too, but pretty hands on.
Listening back to the stuff that was left off, or released on EPs, do you feel your decision making at the time was pretty sound?
Absolutely. Our B-sides for Sebadoh were always pretty clearly the bottom of the barrel. We put a lot of songs on our albums. The whole idea being that was what I liked when I was a kid. I liked a lot of choice. That always impressed me. I always thought that was a generous thing to do.
You'd stand in a record shop and look at two albums and buy the one with the most songs?
Possibly, yeah actually. Dealing with my hard earned money as a kid in the record store, "Well, this album has 25 songs and this one has nine. I think I'll buy the one with 25 songs." I sort of grew up with hardcore, so there would be a crazy number of songs on a seven-inch. Still, that's nine ideas. More ideas!
Listening back to the old records has your opinion of them changed at all?
I like Bakesale when we did it, I was thrilled, it was a fun time. But when the record came out I thought it was weak overall, sound wise. The charm of the record was lost on me because I was like, "Well next time I've got to sing better, there needs to be more this… just trying to fine tune the band's sound. When we did the reissue, listening to it, it just struck me that it's a charming record. What I had imagined to be the shortcomings of the record were secondary to the vibe of the record, which was what was going on when we made it. So it was nice to come back to that full circle after all these years of relegating it to my hall of failure.
You put out The Sebadoh in 1999 and that was it as far as recorded material until now. What caused you to put the band on hold?
Total lack of interest from our audience and record label. It was one of those things where we start to tour and there's less people at the shows and there's even less people when we return to the same cities. It was like, "Whoa. Okay. Message received." That kind of happened with both Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, we put out our first major label records and they both fucking tanked. We got dropped by both labels. Sire dropped Sebadoh within two weeks of the record being released. We felt and I still think, that for Sebadoh it was a return to form as far as being a really dynamic and challenging band and kind of dark. I've always liked the dark side of the band. I thought that record, we did a good job. But we ended off the cycle of touring and people were like, "Yeah, well you're wrong. No one likes it." All kinds of other stuff happened, it wasn't just that people didn't like our record, boo-hoo. It felt like the end of an era. There was obviously like a sea change all of a sudden, bands like the Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie and Guided By Voices, who had totally taken over this mantle of being the lo-fi pop band, and it was kind of like we never existed. Okay, we'll go away for a while.
Was there a point where you saw that attitude turnaround in the band's favour?
The thought process that made me stop making records… Jason and I went out on tour again as a duo within three or four years. We played these cool shows where I played acoustic/electric guitars, he played bass and we made these funny rhythm tracks and we did, like, Sebadoh's greatest hits. And that was great. The shows did really well and we had a great time. It was just the two of us in a car, selling lots of T-shirts and meeting all the people who still liked us. We did that again with Eric Gaffney probably three years after that. And then this last cycle with Bob last year. So we never really stopped. I swear to God, we're always playing to the same amount of people, there was just that dip at the end of the Sebadoh touring. Other than that it's been modest but consistent throughout the years.
You mentioned wanting to keep everything really indie with the EP. Is that the plan for the LP as well?
I was thinking that, like we could do it ourselves. But I don't know if I want to deal with getting it manufactured and distributed. I've met some great people over the years that are really good at that, so maybe I'll do it on our own label but through people that I trust in North America. Maybe overseas we might stick with Domino Records because they've been really great to us over the years.
You've also got the new Dinosaur Jr. record coming out in the fall. Can you tell us anything about it?
The vibe of the album was really good. I think J's songs sound great. I've got a couple on there. Murph played really well on it and it sounds like a Dinosaur Jr. record. Maybe a little more varied than the ones before it. It's got songs that are very punk rock and more aggressive and then it's got songs that are maybe influenced by J's last year of doing acoustic shows and the solo record. There's a little bit of that going on too, which is cool.
You've put out your own solo records, including 2009's Goodnight Unknown. Do you have any plans to follow that up?
Not anytime soon. Those were all vanity projects ultimately. I just did them because I had songs kicking around. I did two solo records, and each one was a concept. One record was all these acoustic songs that I had perfected over a long time. I wanted to make a record that was really accessible and mom-friendly. I did what I thought was a pretty sweet, straightforward record with Emoh and then when I did the last one, Goodnight Unknown, I wanted it to be a lot darker, simpler, shorter songs. But I think now, if I were to do another solo record I might make it really minimal just do like acoustic songs. These acoustic songs are collecting now.
You're not interested in mixing those in with the Sebadoh stuff?
Maybe one. That's kind of a Sebadoh formula to throw an acoustic tune on the record; it's a good way to round out a record. But I have other acoustic songs that are brewing. I have enough. Seven songs for the new Sebadoh record is pretty good.
You mentioned Guided By Voices earlier. A lot of people mention them, Sebadoh and Pavement in the same breath when they talk about the lo-fi aesthetic. Do you see yourself or Sebadoh as a pioneering band in any way?
No. I grew up listening to DIY punk, and bands that made records for themselves, lo-fi records for sure: Swell Maps, Young Marble Giants, the Fall and any kind of creative punk rock. The very early '80s, before hardcore became really streamlined and heavy metal influenced, before there was such a thing as college rock, the pop was mixed in. To me, I'm just adding to something else, what's going on. I'm not pioneering anything.
It's interesting now there are hip-hop acts and producers using hazy, lo-fi sounding beats.
It's cause it sounds good. People say it's such a trend, but it's because it sounds good. That's the whole point. In the '80s, people were making really awful sounding rock records. New wave is cool, the idiosyncratic production of new wave and dance records is okay with me, but rock records were always poorly produced. It didn't get interesting until the means of recording became cheaper and then people were able to make their own records. Fucking Death Cab for Cutie, they make their own records and they sound great. Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, they forged their own sounds because they were able to record themselves. Back in the day, back in the '90s, with Wu-Tang Clan, those records sounded fucking great and they were doing them on cassette. Lo-fi to me is adding a texture to the music that really is the way the music sounds, instead of that clinical way that took over rock recordings in the '80s and '90s that's very ultra compressed and a cold way of recording. Lo-fi becoming an influence just makes more interesting sounding records.