Q&A: Sebadoh & Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow On '80s Hardcore, Signing With SST Records And How Evil J Mascis Used To Be
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.
via Sub Pop Records Sebadoh.
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.