Interview: Lou Barlow

words by Mark Huddle | photos by Eric Fermin Perez
| Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

photo by Eric Fermin PerezLou Reed once asked, “What becomes a legend most?” No doubt the unfailingly modest Lou Barlow would blanch at being called a “legend.” And yet when you take the long-view, few artists have been as prolific, productive, and influential over the last 20 years. Barlow burst onto the scene as the bass-player in the seminal Dinosaur Jr. lending, along with drummer Murph, a rock-solid anchor for guitar genius J. Mascis’s soaring, melodic guitar lines. Classic records like You’re Living All Over Me and Bug ensued establishing Dino Jr. as a force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning alternative music scene. Unfortunately, the worsening chemistry within the band — in particular the growing rift between Mascis and Barlow — led to Barlow’s ejection from the group in 1989.

In this case, the end was a new beginning. Freed from the noxious psychological combat with Mascis, Barlow focused his enormous creative energies on his lo-fi Sebadoh projects, releasing a string of home-recorded albums under that moniker, as well as Sentridoh, and also as a member of college radio darlings, Folk Implosion. Barlow has also released a series of solo records, most recently 2005’s Emoh, an album that made many critics’ Top 10 lists for that year. In 2007, he reunited with Dinosaur Jr. to release the critically-acclaimed Beyond, and this year the band followed up with the brilliant Farm. If that’s not enough, this October another Barlow solo record, Goodnight Unknown, will be added to his impressive discography. We were lucky enough to catch up with Lou via email, as he is currently touring Europe with Dinosaur Jr.

First off, let’s start with some of the more personal stuff. I read on your website that you have a new baby on the way. Congratulations! When is the baby due, and is it a boy or girl? Also you had a bit of a health scare in July — how are you feeling?
My wife is six months pregnant and there’s a boy in there. He’s meant to come out December 4th. My touring with Dinosaur, Jr. lasts until November 20th. Initially, the plan was to travel with my family, as we usually do, but my wife was far too uncomfortable too early in the pregnancy for that to be realistic. Realizing that we were going to be separated for nearly three months — which is unprecedented in our relationship — while she was pregnant and caring for a four-year-old was more than my heart could handle.

Though I didn’t have an anxiety attack, in the traditional sense (mental), my heart went haywire and I ended up in the hospital on my 43rd birthday. That was humbling. I went through a battery of tests, all results negative. Now I just do less of what I was already doing less of: drinking alcohol and caffeine, and worrying. Halfway into the European tour things are okay — Skype makes it easier.

And speaking of the tour, where are you now? How is the Dino Jr. part of the Lou Barlow experience going? How is Farm being received on the other side of the pond?
Farm has done well over here, too. We’re playing to more people. We are currently in Italy — Bologna. I’m trying to force the band into playing two of my songs in the set every night. I also forced my way into an opening slot on the US tour with extra bunks on the bus for my band. But, overall, things are going well. I welcome the challenge, but I’m not sure how much “Lou” Dino can handle.

What has the highlight of the tour been thus far? And the lowlight?
The highlight was a sold-out show in Oslo. We played well. The night before, in Trondheim (Norway), was a disaster. We fell apart — which made the Oslo show that much sweeter.

Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, made a pretty convincing argument for Dinosaur Jr.’s inclusion in the underground rock canon. It also painted a not-so-pretty picture of the psychological warfare between you and J. [Mascis]. What do you think about that book? How accurate do you think his rendering is?
I talked to Michael a lot. I unloaded every bit of bile I could muster. So it is accurate in the sense that he printed what I said. After I read the results it just depressed me rather than making me feel vindicated or “right.” It seemed very small-minded and petty. So after that I opened myself up more to the idea of connecting with J. again, and saw the reunion as a way to change the story. I personally like bios that dish serious dirt — I hate tasteful mystery. I want facts. So in that spirit I gave Michael all I had.

And now here we are two albums into the reunited band’s second act. You’ve toured pretty extensively — you’re currently on tour, including the North American dates when you get back from Europe. You’re even piggybacking your solo shows — Lou Barlow and the Missingmen — onto the Dino Jr. US dates. Something has obviously changed! What has made the difference this time around and contributed to a less contentious working relationship (if indeed that is the case)? How do you let go of that old baggage, and how has that affected you artistically?
I’m actually far more contentious and involved than I ever was back in the day. I think communication is necessary, so I push for that. But it’s an ongoing experiment: trying to get what I need without putting too much stress on the situation.

My initial involvement ended 20 years ago. I don’t think anything I felt 20 years ago has much credibility. So it’s easy to drop the baggage and get on with it. But, of course, the basic differences in personalities and chemistry still exist, but there’s nothing quite like your first real band. I hope I can play with J. and Murph for a long, long time. The songs I’ve written for Dinosaur on Beyond and Farm are more or less about the reunion. With my Dino songs I wanted to collaborate with J. and Murph and write from the top of my head about the surrounding circumstances.

On to your forthcoming solo record, Goodnight Unknown. I’d like to hear you describe your influences, but let’s segue in that direction with something Rob Theakston wrote on the Allmusic site about your 2005 album, Emoh:

“After nearly 20 years it’s hard to believe Lou Barlow can’t find something to be happy about, but much to the relief of his fans, that is clearly not the case…It’s a mature, accomplished statement for one of indie rock’s most reliably miserable men.”

A great review, I think. Do you think your work is that unrelentingly bleak? You’ve got a lot of wonderful things happening in your life — including those babies — so where does this melancholy that infuses many of your songs come from? And do you personally find hopefulness in your words? I know I do, but I am curious about how you respond to those who find the negative more compelling.
I don’t think my work is bleak at all. A lot of it is about reconciling and adjusting to difficult changes — losing friends, negotiating a long-term relationship. Very few of my songs are bleak from start to finish. For me there are threads of hope through [them all]. There has to be. I can’t tolerate negativity, believe it or not. The songs are ways to talk myself through transitions — mantras that I repeat to reassure myself. But, admittedly, my sensibilities may lean to the dark side. But it seems to be that way with everyone I know, so…

Are there other singer/songwriters exploring similar themes that inspire you, or is this simply your own preferred area of exploration?
I just write. The songs are puzzles — I start with a phrase and a melody and find my way to the end. I’d like to be more influenced by writers and other musicians, thematically, but I’m not. I’m inspired by the energy other people have: the mountain of amazing music that has been made and will be made, the power of language. But I’ve been in my little corner for awhile, sorting things out in a simple, familiar way, creating a body of work that will, hopefully, hang together in the end.

Your early work with Sebadoh, Sentridoh, and Folk Implosion cemented your reputation as one of the godfathers of the lo-fi “movement,” if it can be called that. Just about every article I was able to dig up about you mentions that. But I’d love to know if that moniker has any meaning to you. Many of your records sound anything but lo-fi — certainly Emoh and now Goodnight Unknown have a really interesting pallet of sounds and effects. Songs like “Sharing,” the title-track “Goodnight Unknown,” and “The Right” on the new album are awash in swirling guitars that betray a certain confidence in the studio. Can you talk about your creative process and the way that you worked on the new record? Did it differ significantly from what you were doing in 2005 on Emoh?
I grew up listening to the Young Marble Giants, the Swell Maps, and a plethora of DIY post-punk. I heard these bands before I began recording myself. I’m just a part of that flow: home recorded punk-influenced music — the urge to capture something at an early, minimal stage in an environment that is comfortable.

But like the “miserable” thing, lo-fi is a brand that can be attached to what I do without much thought. I don’t think it’s an accurate description for most of the records I’ve done either. But I do love lo-fi.

For Goodnight Unknown I recorded most of the tracks myself before taking it to a studio to finish. In my opinion the tracks on Emoh that I recorded myself were the most successful so I wanted to follow through on that and make a more textured record, incorporating more lo-fi elements. But I didn’t want to limit the appeal of the record either, so I found help to provide clarity when I wanted it.

That said, many of the songs are quiet and introspective. But you seem to draw from a pool of musicians who are known for their work in bands that are heavy and rockin.’ Dale Crover’s [of the Melvins] sledgehammer drumming on a few of the new songs is really distinctive. And you’ve plucked Tom Watson and Raul Morales from Mike Watt’s band for your US solo dates. How do you choose your band mates when you’re playing the solo stuff?
It’s all fate, really — proximity, necessity. I met Dale when the Folk Implosion opened for the Melvins. I found he and his band mates to be very open-minded and peers in that they discovered punk rock at about the same time I did. He’s a great drummer, very inventive and totally unassuming. Aggressive music is where I cut my teeth. The acoustic element is something I’ve cultivated simultaneously. Dale seemed an obvious choice: our daughters are roughly the same age and we see each other regularly on the pre-school circuit.

Tom and Raul were playing with Mike Watt when they opened for Dino Jr. last spring. Tom was in a punk band called Toxic Shock, who contributed a great song to one of my favorite punk compilations Keats Rides a Harley. Later, he was in Slovenly, a great lost SST band. When I mentioned I wanted to form a band to support my record he offered his services. He lives close by so that sealed it.

Another thing that I noticed is the extensive work that you’ve done with filmmaker Adam Harding for the new material. I think there are already videos for six of the songs. And there is a really cool 30-minute “making of” documentary up and running on YouTube. What is your connection to Adam?
Adam was an Australian Sebadoh fan who had an email correspondence with my wife starting in ’94 or so. Fate led him to LA. Eventually he needed a place to stay, so we helped him out. During his time as our houseguest he was working for various studios and video companies as an editor. I suggested he begin working on videos for my album as a way to earn his keep. That began an organic process by which he conceived video ideas through our conversations and used his studio contacts to procure expensive equipment at no cost.

How active were you in the video-making process?
Very. Adam edited the videos, sometimes, on the dining room table with my daughter running around. He poured himself into the work and I did whatever I could to help, from editing ideas to doing voiceovers for the documentary. It was a special time.

Have you experimented with video to this extent before? What is the connection, in your mind, between music and film?
I was very involved in the making of a few Sebadoh videos (“Skull” and “Ocean”), and shot one myself (“Flame”). I think videos are important if only because I enjoy watching them myself. It’s nice when a band or artist involves themselves and their personalities come out in the work. It’s a very effective way to draw people into the songs. I’ve had some amazing days shooting videos, most recently the Dino Jr. video for “Over It.”

Any future plans to continue that sort of experimentation?
I hope so. I’d like to start filming the early stages of recording so the videos reflect the whole process.

And speaking of the future, what are you thinking about? There is a lot going on your life, at least over the short term: new album, the tour, new baby. But what’s down the line? Is there something you’ve wanted to do but never had the opportunity?
I’m thinking about my next batch of songs. I want to write more — words, journals, etc. Sharpen my language skills. Also maybe take guitar and/or piano lessons. I need more dexterity in my playing and a broader scope in my writing. So if I do some basic skill-building exercises, maybe that can happen.

Of course that’s all a very convoluted way of asking you, what’s next?
I’d like to collaborate more with J. If Dino Jr. makes another record, I’d like my songs not to suck. I’ve barely tapped his skills! He has incredible compositional abilities, he’s a monster of rhythm.

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