Sebadoh – An Interview with Lou Barlow

Music Interviews

“True hardcore is forever young; true hardcore is left undone.”

Lou Barlow has been in a lot of bands, yet he is self-contained. His first band in Boston was the hardcore outfit Deep Wound. Later, he joined indie legends Dinosaur Jr. only to be kicked out by front man J. Mascis for “lacking social skills.” Lo-fi Sebadoh was his bounce-back band, one that was tremendously influential on myriad bands (but please don’t link him to emo), and evolved over a decade into a rock and roll juggernaut. Meanwhile, he continued to do lo-fi on the side under the moniker of Sentridoh, and came up with a side project called Folk Implosion (you might recognize their hit “Natural One” from the movie “Kids.”). Folk Implosion has since imploded, and Lou is hitting the road with early Sebadoh member Jason Loewenstein. A mid-fi solo record is also soon to be released. I caught up with him at his L.A. home while he was trying to remove kitty litter crystals from the clogged sink drain attached to his washing machine.

SLUG: This is pretty nerve-wracking for me because you’re basically my hero; you’re my rock and roll god, icon …

Lou Barlow: Really … thanks man [laughing] … I guess.

SLUG: I’m glad to be talking to you while the sun is still in Cancer.

Lou Barlow: It is, you know it was my birthday two days ago [July 17]. Jason’s birthday is tomorrow [quick plug:], so Sebadoh in its current incarnation is really Cancer-packed.

SLUG: That’s appropriate because there are two full moons this month, and your birthday was on the new moon. I’m a 7/11 guy myself. So between the astrology and the fact that you recorded your first couple of records on a 4-track, I was so inspired that I got down in the basement and tried to follow in your footsteps as so many others have done. The only thing that really impeded me was a lack of ability.

Lou Barlow: It’s one of those things that you just don’t know, though. You just have to try [sigh].

SLUG: In 1988, when I first heard the Freed Man and Weed Forestin’, you had me at Bridge Was You/Soulmate/I Love Me. It’s interesting with all of the different incarnations that you and your bands have taken over the years that you’ve gotten back to doing the Sebadoh/Sentridoh thing, and doing some home recordings. It’s pretty sweet now because it’s mid-fi instead of lo-fi.

Lou Barlow: Yeah. The technology has improved considerably since I first started. So now, cheap, good-sounding equipment is commercially available. When I started I could only afford a cassette 4-track, and that thing cost me $600-$700. It was expensive to be lo-fi. When you’re working your first job out of high school, still living out of your parents’ house and bagging groceries, that’s pretty expensive.

SLUG: And yet it’s been 15 years since Sebadoh started, and you’ve been making rock-and-roll for nearly 20 years, and you’ve yet to get a day job, I guess.

Lou Barlow: It’s getting kind of scary though. I’ve let things slide to such a degree. Luckily, I have a Sebadoh tour coming up. That’s been my only goal since the beginning is to not have a day job, but it hasn’t been combined with a whole lot of ambition beyond that.

SLUG: I’ve heard your jokes about how you might become a registered nurse.

Lou Barlow: I don’t really know if that’s a joke [laughing]. I guess it seems like it could be funny, but to me it’s not; it’s kind of … I don’t know. I shouldn’t talk about money. I hate talking about money. I say stupid things when I talk about money. I shouldn’t worry about money. Know what I’m saying?

SLUG: Amen to that, brother.

Lou Barlow: Anyway I have a tour coming up and I’m almost done with my first proper mid-fi solo record.

SLUG: Which is Loobiecore, Vol. 2?

Lou Barlow: Well, I don’t think anybody wants me to call it that. I want to call it that, but I think that my tendency to have ironic titles like that has worked against me over the years. That’s the common opinion among people I know, my family, my loved ones. They think that I should maybe step up and call it Lou Barlow. There, it’s my solo record, and I’m not steeping myself in all these self-deprecating, ironic things.

SLUG: Self-deprecation works up to a point …

Lou Barlow: But when you’re 38, let’s say, and your wife is pregnant and you have a really nice house in a very expensive neighborhood in LA. Being self-deprecating and lacking ambition and living in Los Angeles is a really odd combination.

SLUG: Congratulations on the pregnancy. In one of your journal entries on, you mentioned that you wanted to have a little kid.

Lou Barlow: Did I say that in my journal? God, I said that? I guess I really was putting hints out there for awhile.

SLUG: You really plug into your own mortality when you have a child.

Lou Barlow: Yeah, and that can never hurt. I mean it can hurt, but it’s OK. That’s my job to manufacture hurt and confusion into songs. The more hurt and confusion I feel, the more creative I tend to be.

SLUG: That’s right, you have a “License to Confuse.”

Lou Barlow: [laughing] And to be confused as well.

SLUG: What are the logistics of you and Jason on tour?

Lou Barlow: We have prerecorded drums, played by Jason, and he plays bass and I play guitar. We’re doing songs from across the Sebadoh catalog, but heavy on Bakesale, which seems to work really well. What’s interesting is we play a large part of Weed Forestin’ too, but people are like “What?”; I think that everybody knows this stuff. I don’t know why I would think that, but when I put out that record I made a lot of friends and people came to our shows, so I always feel like I’m being really awesome when I play those songs.

SLUG: Are you playing “The Freed Pig”? That has to be the most brilliant song to an ex-bandmate since John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” Speaking of J. Mascis, didn’t you recently hang out with him?

Lou Barlow: He played a benefit show that Sebadoh played at two or three months ago, and I sang on stage with him and Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, and Mike Watt when they were playing Stooges songs in London.

SLUG: Did he pay you back any of the money that he owes you from the Dinosaur Jr. back catalog?

Lou Barlow: After being kicked out of the band, I was angry and couldn’t call him and ask him directly for money, so I sued him and got $10,000. That was the settlement, I guess. After that, I’m just a performer on his records. I’m not mad at J. I have no ax to grind anymore. It’s been ground. We’re just two old guys playing in our respective bands, living off past glories. We’re equals now. There’s no need for bitter infighting.

SLUG: Yeah, but he writes one 6-minute song and you write three 2-minute songs.

Lou Barlow: That’s my style. Yeah. He plays a whole lot of lead guitar, I’ve noticed. He really likes to play lead guitar. It’s pretty incredible. As a guitar player and as a musician, I don’t understand leads that well. I liked it when I played in his band, because his leads were awesome. [Former Sebadoh member] Eric Gaffney had pretty good leads, too. He was kind of a crazy lead player. He was a really interesting guitar player.

SLUG: What’s next for you: Sebadoh vs. Mothra, or my favorite: constant lo-fi Loobiecore like water dripping from a faucet?

Lou Barlow: I don’t know. We live so far apart that if Sebadoh were ever to make a record again, we would have to do it without any influence from anybody, no labels. I would want to do it completely independently before we even looked for a label, which would be difficult at this point because Jason’s working two jobs in Louisville and playing in his band, and I have this solo record coming out and need to tour as much as possible before the baby comes. So I don’t know if we’ll be able to find the time to just “chill out” and spend some quality time together, which is what it takes to make a good record.

SLUG: But so far so good. It’s sort of like “slow food.” Your latest recording cycle has worked out well.

Lou Barlow: Exactly.

An extended version of this interview, along with LouB’s music, will air on Across the Tracks on KRCL 90.9FM on Aug. 14. Radio show begins at 1pm MST.