Q&A: Sebadoh & Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow On '80s Hardcore, Signing With SST Records And How Evil J Mascis Used To Be
via Sub Pop Records
The staggering gamut of cred Lou Barlow boasts in the hardcore, post-punk, lo-fi and indie rock realms toes past the line of the ridiculous and the legendary. In the early '80s, Barlow obliterated his guitar in the cataclysmic Massachusetts hardcore band Deep Wound before breaking off with J Mascis to form the monumental Dinosaur Jr. Three classic and enormously influential Dinosaur LPs of orgasmic sludge-rock brilliance that helped shape underground rock followed before Barlow was acrimoniously dumped by Mascis.
After that, the liberated and bitter Barlow ("The Freed Pig," anyone?), along with multi-instrumentalist and old friend Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein, transformed his lo-fi bedroom project Sebadoh into a full-time killer rock hellion, embodying the slacker geekdom of '90s indie rock with Pavement and Guided by Voices. In recent years, Barlow has returned to the Dinosaur Jr. fold, and Sebadoh has been touring as well.
Sound of the City spoke to Barlow while he was in Los Angeles putting the finishing touches on his self-released reissue of 1990's Weed Forestin, as well as prepping for more gigs with both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh.
Would the Dinosaur Jr. reunion really not have happened if not for Our Band Could Be Your Life?
Possibly... I dunno. In reading the Dinosaur chapter and reading all the shit I said to Michael Azerrad about J just really depressed me. I think it kind of put things in perspective for me and to read it and see what I felt about it in black and white, it just seemed really ugly. When the opportunity to do the reunion came around, I had actually seen J before that and had pretty positive experiences with J before the reunion thing became an issue. I don't know if I would go as far as to say that (the reunion) wouldn't have happened without it (the book) but certainly in my case it sorta pushed it along, yeah.
Going back to when you were originally fired from Dino Jr. in 1989, were you pissed that J and Murph continued using the Dino Jr. moniker? Wasn't it your band just as much as theirs?
No, no. It was totally J's band. Looking back on it (being fired), it certainly wasn't a real shocker. We weren't getting along. I was ready to kill him at that point.
Does present day Dino Jr. fit the dynamic of more of a band situation today than it did in the '80s?
No, it's the same. J is a really unique person; he has a very unique way of having a band. I don't know if there are many people who would really tolerate what actually passes for being in a band like Dinosaur Jr. I grew up with it so they're like my brothers. It's like family; I understand it on a basic level but it's not normal in any stretch.
So J is essentially the same person as he was back then?
He's not as evil as he was. He truly was like... he practically had horns when we were kids. Now he has a lot of people around him who love him and support him. He's got a great wife and a family. He lives in his hometown. He's doing great, ya know? [laughs]. He's doin' real good. But essentially, yeah, of course, he's the same guy; I'm the same guy. There's the cliché: people don't change but also people do change. They change in ways that they adjust and adapt. J, to his credit, knows well enough to know that Murph and I and he could create something that he couldn't create himself or with other people.
Did you enjoy being in Dino Jr. back then or was it something you detested because of the environment between yourself and J?
Enjoying myself was not an issue. There was nothing about being in a band that necessarily meant you had to be enjoying yourself. It wasn't like "Good times! Punk rock!" I grew up on Black Flag and hardcore punk rock was about pain; it was about exercising your demons and grappling with hard truth.
A part of it was not escaping reality but coming face to face with it. The Dinosaur reality was pretty harsh, but that's not the reason I was unhappy. There were plenty of reasons: I was just a young manangry young man [laughs]. Total cliché, but then again I'm not an unhappy person by nature; I love playing musicwith Dinosaur shows and stuff it was fucking great. The music was awesome, J wrote great songs, I learned a lot from it and I love music so I was very happy to be in a band that was playing good music.
Do you feel that in current-day Dino Jr, you are somewhat of a hired gun since it's J's band?
No, I don't feel that way. I am a part of it but it's like a family thing, too. You got a group of brothers..it's not equal. It's not an equal proposition but it's not that impersonal like being a hired gun but it's not equal. But certainly going back to Dinosaur Jr. I knew that equality was not really gonna be [laughs]... that's not what I was gonna be in it for. I was gonna be in it for the music.
That said, I assume you enjoy playing in Sebadoh more.
Of course! Dinosaur is awesome because you're part of this amazing... there's moments with Dinosaur where it's so powerful and such a beast and such an iconic rock band. There are moments with Dinosaur that just cannot be replicated and that I can't replicate in any other situation. With Sebadoh, yeah, it's like "fuck." It's a band that I named, it's weird and it's a band that functions with three equal voices. We really work together, we swap instruments and we talk to our audience, ya know? [laughs] We sell our t-shirts. It's more on a real basic level where there's much more communication. There's no mystery involved. We are not hiding behind anything. That's more of my aesthetic; that's more of my natural instincts in things. And playing with Jason Loewenstein and anyone who's seen us live in the last year will know Jason is a fucking fearsome... he's my fearsome equal, man. That guy is incredibleincredible guitar player, incredible vocalist, incredible songwriter and part of the joy with playing with that is being there and supporting him.
Do you feel Jason's songs overpower yours? His are louder, noisier and he screams a lot, too.
If I wanted everything to be about me, I'd play solo. I never wanted to be the leader of a band. I grew up with the Beatles. They are the most idealif not musically then just philosophicallyin the fact that you have four people that all sing and play. With the Beatles, it's like "who wrote the best songs?" You can't fuckin' tell. George Harrison, possibly... or... John Lennon... or Paul McCartney.
That, to me, is the ideal. With Sebadoh, that was always the kind of thing from the beginning: that everyone would have a different opinion about who was the shining member of the band. And that to me was the great strength of Sebadoh and that's something I totally borrowed from, what I understood, the philosophy of the Beatles, even though that was a commercially motivated thing (with the Beatles). But I also saw it as being a really artistically sound and interesting thing.
You've performed entire albums live with Dino Jr, most recently a tour supporting Bug, and with Sebadoh, you played Bubble and Scrape. Some see that as a nostalgia act.
I don't care. Nostalgia, like whatever. Sure, that's fine. I think with Dinosaur Jr, I mean obviously when we started it was total nostalgia. But it evolved into something more than that. With Sebadoh, certainly yeah, there's a nostalgia aspect to it. But I also think when we get around to writing new material and releasing new records, that'll be another facet to of what we're doing. There'll be new songs and there'll be something new to chew on and at the very least, keep it fresh for usjust the way that it did with Dinosaur Jr.
So you got plans to write new Sebadoh stuff?
Yeah, we got plans to do it.
What about your solo stuff under your own name?
I'm not more into it (than Sebadoh and Dinosaur) but it's just another thing to do. I love playing solo, tooI love it. If I'm playing solo acoustic, it's like "great! I love that, too.' It's incredibly gratifying and validating but I can't say whether I prefer one thing over the other, in a real way. With Dinosaur, I was doing that for six years, getting reestablished (in Dinosaur) for J, basically getting J back on track with his career and all what he did. I'm a little more into doing Sebadoh but that's why I'm doing five Sebadoh tours this year and two Dinosaur tours. I'm just trying to rebalance, recalibrate so when I go back into Dinosaur, I could be as present as I need to be.
Do you have any plans to do Sebadoh again with [original member] Eric Gaffney?
No, not really. Eric's not really into me too much. That's a far too honest statement to say but he's not a real collaboratorlet's just say that. [laughs]. Eric is awesome. I spent a lot of time helping Eric and making sure people heard his music. But, Eric's not a real reciprocator [laughs].
But Eric's the guy you started Sebadoh with.
I sorta was imagining that would be a real kickoff point for he and I. But the reality of it was that he was not prepared to share the spotlight too much. We got Eric back for the tours in 2008. I spent, like, years emailing him, just getting him into the idea [of playing in Sebadoh again].
So you had to really do some convincing to persuade Eric to come back and play again?
Oh, my god. It was like fuckin' full-on... it was intense. I had to really work him to get back into it. In the end, it worked and was great and we were able to do a couple of really cool reissues and do a couple of great tours. But once those tours were over, I didn't really hear from him. I knew well enough, just from the touring we did and teaching him songs he didn't play on, it wasn't gonna work.
When you and Eric first started Sebadoh, recording lo-fi songs in your bedrooms or wherever, was it a reaction against the hardcore you were into at the time?
I don't think it was a reaction against hardcore; it was more like what we felt to be the continuation of it. What we took away from hardcore was the honesty, the purity of the expression. At some point, there's only so much you can say playing really fast chords and screaming your head off. Basically, at that point, hardcore was becoming a form of heavy metal. Our original experience with hardcore was this incredibly vast array of bands that didn't necessarily all sound like; in fact, I think they all sound really different. We weren't trying to say, like, "Hardcore sucked" [laughs]. For us, we were trying to keep things interesting.
You mentioned Black Flag before. When you were a hardcore kid did you seem them live?
Yeah. It was later. I saw The Decline of Western Civilization (Part 1) in a movie theater when I was 13 or 14 and that was intensekinda like seeing Black Flag (live). When I saw them (Black Flag) it was Henry and Kira playing bass. I saw it with J. We watched like five songs and J just was like "Let's leave." So we left. That was it.
How old were you?
I was probably 17.
Did you tell J you were staying?
No, we drove together. He and I went to the show together. We saw Saint Vitus. We pretty much came to see Saint Vitus. They opened and they were awesome.
Was the show in Massachusetts?
It was actually in Connecticut at a roller rink. We watched likeya know, whateverfive, six songs into the show. They sounded awesome. I don't know if I would've left if J wasn't like "Let's go." [laughs].
Did Murph go?
Murph didn't come down with us [laughs].
Was Murph into hardcore and Black Flag?
Oh yeah, he was into Black Flag; everybody was into Black Flag. I had a friend's brother who was in a Motorhead cover band when I was in high school. And this Motorhead cover band was probably the first rock band that I ever saw play. And when Black Flag came around... yeah, they were into Black Flag [laughs].
So when you guys signed with Black Flag's label SST, needless to say, that must have been huge.
It was monumental, man. It was like the end. That was it [laughs]. When you think about it now, you think about like American Idol [laughs]... "If I only can reach the top five of American Idol." And that's their dream. Like our dream, that was if you could take that dream, with all of its intensity and everything you know and to then be on SST was like 'Where the fuck do you go from there?" Nowhere else.
Did J muster excitement about signing to SST?
He was totally excited; it was great, it was awesome. When we got signed to SST, that was when he and I were actually... close. That's when we were happy together. That was when it was okay to be excited about things. It was this awesome, brief, shining moment in Dinosaur history where J's mood just broke into this... it was just amazing! [laughs]. It was beautiful.
Did signing with Homestead for your first record compare? That must have been a big deal, too.
Yeah, but Homestead was run by Gerard Cosloy, who was like J's buddy at UMass. That was different. That was great, of course, to have a record out and have it happen so easily. Gerard was an early admirer of J's. He totally figured out that Dinosaur was a cool band and J was an incredibly neat person. [Gerard] wrote about him in his fanzine and J submitted and wrote a short story for Gerard's fanzine early on when they were in college together. [Being on Homestead] was great, but it wasn't the same.
When Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] gave our early demos for the songs that became You're Living All Over Me to SST and they asked us (to sign), we were like "Yup. Bye. Bye Homestead. See ya, Gerard."
Lou Barlow, "Take Advantage"
Besides Black Flag and Saint Vitus, was there a particular SST band who were huge for you?
Oh, god. Meat Puppets are the singularly most influential band on both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. I kick myself for not ever emphasizing this enough. They were the craziest hardcore band. You heard the first 7-inchout of fucking control hardcore, like as fast as anything and totally crazy. And then these bizarre little instrumentals. Their first album was just whatever, just nuts, totally off the cuff shit. Then they did Meat Puppets II, which was practically acoustic [laughs]... just beautiful, folky... they were just such an incredibly homemade, self-crafted band, ya know? Unbelievable. Mike Watt told me the first time he heard Dinosaur Jr. (or Dinosaur), it was the first (Dinosaur) record where D Boon said "Hey dude, ya gotta hear this. They're like the East coast Puppets!" Eric, in particular, was a huge Meat Puppets fan. For he and I, it was Flipper and the Meat Puppets. It was the absolute Holy Grail.
Did you know one day you'd take Sebadoh to an "electric" level?
No, not really. I was kinda was thinking it'd stay acoustic. I imagined it being like I'd play ukulele and have this really minimal two-drum setup, play weird songs and hang weird cymbals behind myself and just do that. But Eric was writing songs of his own that I really likedvery Meat Puppets, actually. He had these electric songs and actually the beginning of the band (Sebadoh) was playing Eric's songs. Well, the very beginning of the band was Eric playing two drums and me playing ukulele then as I started to learn Eric's songs it became this crazy, actually very Meat Puppets-influenced band with Eric at the helm. It was just feeling really good so I'm like "Fuck, it. Let's try this electric." Eric totally led the way, as far as it being an electric band and once we started playing a couple of shows that way, I was like "Yup, great. Let's do this then." I got psyched to figure it out and it became, more or less, an electric band.
I saw you posted on Facebook that you were sifting through old cassettes in order to reissue Weed Forestin. I imagine you have a shit-ton of old tapes from the '80s and '90s.
Yeah, I got a lot [laughs]. The cool thing is over the years and early on I kept a real good record on what I liked and what was good. I saved all the really pertinent tapes with all my final mixes and all the things that were really interesting. I kept them in one little case. I have one little case with all the really important ones, a bigger case with the secondary ones and a third thing of like a barrel of them [laughs]. I still really know where everything actually is so it's not as daunting as it might seem.
Who's reissuing Weed Forestin?
I'm going to do it myself. I have a friend Max, this young guy who had some sort of pivotal musical experience to the Weed Forestin record when he was a teenager. He loved it and we got to be really good friends. The weird thing about Weed Forestin is that record, or just even putting out that tape, and even just the songs, are what led me to Eric Gaffney, kind of. That's what drew him into my realm. It's weird because the dissemination of the cassette brought people to me who are now my best friends. There's something about that cassette that I regard as... I just think it's important to me in a really personal way. So this guy Max, who's helping me put it out, he's a kid who found it ten years ago when he was fifteen or something [laughs]. But he's really into it and he and I became really good friends. There's something about the record that if someone likes it and comes to me, we're almost like friends already [laughs]. Then all of a sudden, we're talking about the most intimate details of our lives to each other. It's an amazing thing and Max is like, "Lou, it's really important that you do this and do it right." He and I have been working together to do this. I had it mastered with this really great guy in L.A. He's got the things that burn the lacquers in his studio and we're going to make the re-mastered, perfected Weed Forestin record and put it onto vinyl.
I imagine Eric Gaffney wasn't involved in the reissue?
No, he has nothing to do with it and I think he actually threatened to somehow halt the process [laughs]. He played drums on maybe like a third of it and he's like "Oh! You can never put it out!" [laughs]. I don't care.
Why is he so against it?
I don't know. Eric thinks that anything he's done is his! [laughs]. I was trying to explain that to Eric: "Do you think Dinosaur Jr. asked me if they wanted to fuckin' reissue any records?" What are you fuckin' talk about? Do you think I can actually stop the reissue process of Dinosaur Jr if I wanted to? Eric just thinks by playing drums on a few of the songs on Weed Forestin that he has ownership over his performance. No, he has nothing to do with it (the reissue).
Does Eric still live in San Francisco?
No, he's back in Massachusetts.
And you're in Los Angeles. Are you an L.A. person?
Sebadoh, "Gimme Indie Rock"
How long have you lived out there?
Thirteen years. Yeah, I fuckin' love it, man. I bought a really cool house thirteen years ago. It was totally affordable and it's really nice. I visited a lot of places [laughs]. It's awesome because you can say "L.A." to any assembled group of people and people think it's okay to scream at you and tell you how much where you live sucks. Tom Watson (Slovenly/Mike Watt & the Missingmen) is funny because he's like, "Good. Let people think that. Less of them will come here." L.A. is an incredibly livable place. But no one needs to know that [laughs]. People can totally continue to believe, or associate it with whatever clichés they want to but it's actually an incredibly livable city.
So you don't miss the East Coast at all?
(Clears throat and deadpan) No. I love the East Coast. New York is awesome, but it honestly doesn't have the livability of Los Angeles. All the shit that people say about L.A. is uninformed. You can't even talk about L.A. and San Franciscopeople just go fuckin' crazy. People are so strange about [L.A.] and I just don't understand. Like "L.A. is full of fake people." Tell that to the fuckin' people that grew up here and who were born here [laughs]. Tell that to the 80% of the people who live here that are normal people of an incredibly vast array of cultures and races. Tell that to them. Tell that to... whatever. Fuckin' bullshit.
Yeah, tell that to Mike Watt.
No, Watt's all about Pedro. He's totally like "You can't even live even in another neighborhood." He gives Tom Watson shit for being from Manhattan Beach. He's micro-regional [laughs].
Whose idea was it to have Henry Rollins interview Dinosaur Jr at gigs?
I think it was the manager of Dinosaur Jr. Henry fucking loves J. Henry thinks J is like the fucking greatest. J is a modern classic rock star to Henry because Henry is a huge music fan. His whole history is like he's so into classic rock. Henry has taken it upon himself to preserve the entire history of rock and roll in underground music. He's incredible, has incredible energy and he's just totally fucking sold on J Mascis in the most amazing way [laughs].
It also must be a thrill to have Henry conducting the interviews, considering his own history and influence.
Yeah... I'm totally into Henry's history. I love the fact, that getting to know him and then realizing he loves all this classic rock. To me, the fact that he was involved in the early formation of Dischord Records, that's really exciting for me because that's my ground zero. He talks so freely about that stuff, and anything in general. Yeah, he's fun.
Was Dischord more important to you than SST stuff?
Uhhh... no, not more but equal in a totally different way. The SST thing was so all over the map that it was actually scary [laughs]. There was no defining sound of it whereas the Dischord stuff, there was definitely like a defining sound, more or less. There was also that philosophy they had. With SST, you didn't necessarily know where they were coming from. The Dischord thing was more like positivity. Even in the most negative sounding music they had, it was strung through this "We're keeping it together! Woo hoo! Brotherhood!" With SST, you wouldn't be surprised if you found out that one of them killed somebody [laughs]. SST represented the older and darker side and it was just awesome and probably musically more influential.
To me, I loved the positivity of the Dischord thing. I loved the "We're doing it! Great! Only five dollars! And Ian is packing it himself!" You'd get this order of seven-inches and you'd get this little thing like "Thanks. Ian." Oh yeah! Fuck, yeah! That positivity and the energy behind it was so amazing.
Since you grew up in Massachusetts, was Boston punk instrumental in your upbringing, like Mission of Burma?
Mission of Burma, yeah, sure. But they were like this really wayward new wave band that somehow got associated with the hardcore scene because they were fuckin' good and powerful. They were kinda like a new wave dance band at first; from the club tradition of Boston of these really awesome new wave-influenced guitar bands. There were a few other bands in that scene.
Boston hardcore was cool but it was dumb. When they came down, you were just like "Whoa." They were just really violent at the shows and you couldn't be anywhere near the pit because they'd fuckin' destroy you [laughs].
Any parting words?
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