Perhaps best known for his role as co-founder of Dinosaur Jr., Lou Barlow, along with fellow Dino-mate J Mascis, brought back a penchant for driving guitar noise and helped ignite a firestorm in the ’80s American Underground that would continue well into the ’90s. That influence continues this week with the release of I Bet on Sky, the band’s third record since reuniting again in 2005.
In light of the new LP, Consequence of Sound decided to check in with Barlow to discuss his inordinately busy year. The outfit-shifting songwriter discussed Sebadoh’s return, the band’s new tunes and recent catalog reissues, and why he decided to revisit Weed Forestin’. We also digressed on Sebadoh’s influence on the late ’90s lo-fi explosion, Dinosaur Jr.’s early days and its modern-day reformation, and whether or not there will ever be another Folk Implosion album.
You told Backstage Rider.com that you know “this will be a good year for writing.” How so?
For writing? I didn’t really tour much the first half of the year, and Dinosaur Jr. was working on an album. Last year, Sebadoh toured a bunch, and we had a bunch of great tours, and I just knew that we needed to write some new material for Sebadoh, so I took most of the first half of this year off; off in the sense that I spent it just recording and writing.
You released the five-song Secret EP via Bandcamp; you’ve indicated that you have a new album coming out. Recently you told a Canadian broadcast reporter that you’ve already recorded 20 tracks — ten are going on the album, five on the EP, which means five are left over. Are you going to have a second EP?
I was assuming that we’d have a five-song EP and then a 15-song album. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see how it goes. I’ve got to wait a while to release the Sebadoh record so the Dinosaur record could be properly promoted, played, and toured. I guess we were thinking actually a five-song EP and then a 15-song album, but maybe we’ll do two EPs. I don’t know.
There was some indication that the album might be paid for by fan funding. What has come of that?
I’m not positive. Right now, we’re kind of winging it. The one idea that we had was let’s just do something on Bandcamp. It was the one thing I could do that wouldn’t piss off the Dinosaur Jr. mechanism. It wouldn’t really get in the way of Dinosaur Jr.; it would be a self-release, and it would be a way of reminding people that we’re still around. I think when we did the Bandcamp thing, it was like, if it sells well enough, it’ll probably keep us going. Maybe that will help us; maybe we won’t have to go the fan-funding route. We have to talk about it. The only problem with fan funding is that you have to send people something afterwards. [Laughs.] Who the fuck is gonna send that stuff? I can barely… I get like five orders on my website a year, and I can’t fulfill that. When am I going to have time to send all this crazy shit? There’s actually quite a bit of work behind fan funding.
There’s a bit more responsibility with the end game.
It’s weird, man. There’s so many options now, so it’s sort of an open thing. Fan funding was definitely a possibility that we were looking into, but I guess doing this EP on Bandcamp, but, speaking only for myself and not my bandmates, it’s been kind of liberating. Maybe actually giving people music would [starts laughing] help us get the money and actually release a record.
Well, you are kind of giving music with all the reissues.
It just seems that new music is the way to go. The only record that I want to release that we haven’t released is Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. Harmacy I’m not real concerned about whether we reissue it or not, because it’s not like it’s not available. It’s a cutout everywhere; I don’t understand why we would want to reissue a record that’s not hard to get. It’s not like the reissues of any Sebadoh record sold well. It’s not like we’re Guided by Voices and Pavement; let’s put it that way. I think that the value that we really have is just the fact we’re still kind of a vital, functioning unit. My experience with Dinosaur was just really positive in that way. Why look at the past and coast on old stuff? The songs we are writing now are just as good as the songs we were writing circa Harmacy and The Sebadoh. We’re kind of happening right now. There’s a vitality in what’s going on, and we should probably focus on that.
So, would you say that the reunion with Dinosaur maybe spurred the idea to reunite with Sebadoh?
Well, Sebadoh… we were always reunited. Jason and I would play every couple of years. We did the first kind of reunion tour together as a duo in 2004. He and I got together and just played as a duo, and we actually played a show with J Mascis. When we played the show with J, that was where the reunion for Dinosaur took shape or began as an idea… when Sebadoh played with Dinosaur or played with J when he was playing solo. That kind of put the idea that J and I could share a stage together. We both weren’t carrying much of a grudge anymore, so we could probably function. That was kind of the result of a Sebadoh reunion, and after Dinosaur reunited, there was yet another Sebadoh reunion. Sebadoh never really broke up; we just went away because no one really, honestly, no one cared whether we were together or not. We never broke up, so it’s hard to say “reunited.”
Well, then why did it take so long to record new music?
I think we were just waiting for a drummer. We were waiting for the right situation with a drummer, and like I said, the first reunions were just as a duo where we made prepared tracks. That was great, but at the end of that, we were like, “We need a drummer.” So, the next reunion tour we did we got Eric Gaffney, who was the original drummer of Sebadoh, back in the fold. It was just that making another record with him would be almost impossible for a variety of reasons. [Laughs.] And then when we decided to do the Bakesale record again and go out and tour that, we knew that Eric Gaffney wouldn’t do that. We couldn’t really get Eric to play material he didn’t record with us, so we worked with Bob D’Amico [Circle of Buzzards, Fiery Furnaces], who Jason has been playing with for well over a decade. He’s been playing with him for over 10 years at least, so we got Bob to do the Bakesale,and it just worked. He and Jason have a real rapport; they’ve played together a long time. We toured as that trio extensively last year, and it was like this is it, we’ve arrived at a functional unit that could record new material, so let’s do that. We just set aside time this year to do that.
With Sebadoh’s last album, The Sebadoh, it was said that the record was a work by the entire band rather than a collection of songwriters. While working on some of your new material, Jason mentioned a “very hands-on approach to the release of the recordings,” so would this new album be all three of you working on it? Did Bob actually have a hand in making this album?
Did Bob have a hand in it?
Yeah, or was it just you and Jason, and then you brought him in afterward?
Yeah. I mean in a way. When we put the EP together and I listened to the whole thing all together, I was like, I never heard a Sebadoh record, except maybe Bakesale, that sounds so united. Even Jason’s and mine, our songs aren’t even that different. It sounds even more like a band now than it did… I mean, The Sebadoh, I thought, was a pretty good band record. I really liked that record; Jason and I both liked it. That was a pretty good band record. But this is the most… we’ve worked so close; it was just the three of us working on it. Bob’ll have a song on the album. He brought in an awesome instrumental that we put together pretty quickly, and it was, “Whoa! This sounds great.” So, we’ve kind of got the classic Sebadoh formula of everybody in the band has at least one song, but Jason and I will be pretty evenly matched song for song. And our styles seem to be much more meshed than they were on almost any Sebadoh record I could think of.
Yeah, on earlier Sebadoh albums, you guys were pretty distinct.
Yeah, exactly. There’s some exceptions to that, but in general, the records were pretty schizophrenic from track to track, which I was into. I’ve always been into that. But right now, I think we’re working as a unit. We’re working on every aspect of what we’re doing together, so it’s not like we have somebody coming in and recording us and then somebody else, you know. It’s extremely hands on. The energy that we all put into it… there’s no fourth party; there’s no outside influence, and it’s working. We’re in a good spot right now where that’s something we can do. We can just really work together. We’re in an interesting spot right now.
I saw some comments online saying how it was ironic that you have a song called “Can’t Live Without My Drugs”, and it’s the first sober Sebadoh record that you guys have done…
But I guess what I find interesting is that before you started Dinosaur, weren’t you kind of straight edge?
I never was. J’s never been into drugs. I fell in love with pot when I was a 20-year-old, and it’s always been in and out of my life. Lately, it’s been less just because I’m older. I’m not as compulsive. I’m not a compulsive smoker like I used to as a kid. And on this record, you just know. When you’re working on something intensely, you’ve learned after years of using, marijuana in particular, there are things it can do, ways that it can help you and ways it can hinder you. Where something like alcohol can just hinder you. Once you hit a certain level, it’s just bad, all bad. Any other drug, too. But marijuana is sort of this interesting drug. I don’t know what my point is. [Laughs.] My point is no, I was never straight edge. Once I was out of high school and once I actually got high, I was, “Fuck that.” [Laughs.]
I was reading Azzarad’s book [Our Band Could Be Your Life], and there was a comment about when Deep Wound was formed, and it was a four-piece; it was you and J versus Murph and, I can’t remember the other guy’s name [Charlie Nakajima]. They smoked the weed, and you guys didn’t.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was in high school. I was 16 when Deep Wound formed, 17 when our EP came out. I smoked pot for the first time when I was 20.
Was it the stress associated with Dinosaur in your early days?
No, no, no. I never took drugs to get out of stress. That’s why pot is an amazing drug. It actually pulls me into my stress and helps me understand it. It doesn’t help me escape my problems; it helps me face my problems. And when it becomes an escape, that’s when I stop doing it. Because then it gets in the way of me getting to the core of what I need to get to like writing-wise. But back then, no, I didn’t. I smoked pot to bring the fear, to bring the fear right to my face and examine it. I think with Dinosaur, that was just the intensity at the time. The music scene we were a part of was an extremely overwrought, fucking heavy scene. Pussy Galore. My favorite band was the Swans. Sonic Youth were extremely aggressive at that time. There was a lot of aggressive music, and smoking pot brought me further into that; it never was a way out. [Laughs.]
It’s been interesting listening to the Weed Forestin’ reissue. Why did you feel the need to remaster and reissue it?
It always sounded shitty, and it was never done right, and I always really liked it. The original tapes, the way that it was mixed and mastered originally, it added shit loads of hiss to it that was not on the original recording. There were even dropouts. When they delivered the final CD to me, there’s was actually dropouts in songs there were no dropouts in. There was like three times more hiss. Back then, if you brought in a cassette into a situation like that, they’d be like, “Are you fucking joking?” To anyone I was presenting that record to, it was like I was not trying. I always wanted to present it in its original direct form. It’s actually really about the songs and my vocals. It was always kind of obscured by stuff that I wasn’t in control of, and I’ve always wanted to do that.
There are a few people out there that that record is really important to, and I’ve met most of those people. [Laughs.] One of those people, Max Wood, who I worked on the reissue with… when we met each other, we realized we both had a common goal of wanting to reissue that record and do it properly. It was kind of amazing. We came together as friends, but also we were brought together by that album. Those songs are what brought Sebadoh together as a band. Those songs brought me to Eric Gaffney. Getting those songs to Eric Gaffney and playing them for him were what made Sebadoh originally a band. To me, it’s a real formative piece, and it’s complete. It was just my own vanity, purely a vanity thing. I just wanted it to be preserved in a way that I could be, “Ok, it’s done.” Purely total self-interest. [Laughs.] I wanted it to be there. I was able to split the cost of the production with Max, so we did it.
It’s amazing listening to it now with hindsight and then imagining 10 years later in the late ’90s when lo-fi artists like Elliott Smith and Iron & Wine became huge and how almost prophetic your music was.
Yeah. What I was doing was just a part of… I grew up listening to Young Marble Giants and Rough Trade Records and D.I.Y. punk rock, so in my mind, I wasn’t doing anything in any way. I think maybe at the time the only thing that I thought set it aside was the fact that I was willing to go quieter and more confessional. Hardcore punk rock to me was very confessional music, but [I aimed] to strip away all the noise and the screaming and lay out the same kind of confessional tones but in a very bare way. I got a lot of flak for that, but it’s just folk music really. It’s just another expression of the same flow of everything.