Minutes before my recent conversation with Dinosaur Jr. bassist and Sebadoh founder Lou Barlow, I briefly pondered breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism: Be professional.
Though our interview took place the day after St. Patrick’s Day, I wasn’t hungover, and I thought a single beer might do the trick to settle the nervousness I’d gained from the knowledge that I would soon be sitting down for a talk with an indie rock icon.
Roughly half an hour later, beer still full on my desktop and Barlow conversation in the books, I realized I had been worried for no reason at all. Despite the remnants of sleep still audible on the edges of his voice, he couldn’t have been more anti-rockstar. Instead, the conversation felt like a chat with a friend, albeit one with a far cooler record collection.
Since reuniting with alternative legends Dinosaur Jr. in 2005, and in between periodic tours with various incarnations of his influential lo-fi project Sebadoh, Westfield native Barlow has been busier than ever with new albums and tours taking up most of his time and family filling in the gaps.
Now, almost 17 years after the release of perhaps his band’s most accessible and commercially successful record, Bakesale, he’s brought it all back home again, returning to the Pioneer Valley on April 8 as part of his most recent tour to celebrate the release of a deluxe edition of Bakesale as well as its more polished follow-up, Harmacy.
During his time on stage at Pearl Street Nightclub with fellow Sebadoh songwriter Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico, Barlow wasted little time in reminding the crowd that the group was virtually playing a homecoming gig. In between comedic rants on topics such as Led Zeppelin and how the band once came “this close” to contributing a song to the hit television show Friends, he and Loewenstein reminisced about attending various hardcore shows in the area, and buying records in local music stores.
“Westfield isn’t that close,” Barlow even joked in response to a fan’s quip about his once living nearby. “I used to make that trip on my bike all the time—17 miles—while holding a bag with a new record in it in one hand. Does anyone even buy vinyl anymore?”
When the topic turned back to the show, Barlow and company were more than just fun and games. In just shy of two hours, they turned out a set of 30 songs, including many fan favorites as well as most of Bakesale. Thrash-oriented jams like “Junk Bonds,” “Love to Fight” and “Give Up” co-existed nicely alongside more pop-leaning material like “Ocean,” “Rebound” and “On Fire” with little letdown in momentum.
A frantic mosh pit even broke out on the floor late in the night, before the band lingered briefly on stage in preparation for returning for their “non-core” finale, which featured a distorted new take on the song “Willing to Wait” played “the way we should’ve recorded it.”
Following a sufficient bout of rock ‘n’ roll twang by local openers Paper Piano and the inscrutable noise-folk of singer/ songwriter Richard Buckner, Sebadoh sent fans home with smiles on their faces or, at the very least, “the most expensive T-shirt the band has ever made.”
What follows is a highlight reel of sorts from a conversation with Barlow, who checked in with the Advocate from his home in L.A. before going out on the tour that brought him back to Western Mass.
Valley Advocate: So, what led to this most recent Sebadoh reunion?
Lou Barlow: Well, Jason and I have been getting together every couple of years anyway. The band kind of broke up, I guess 2000 would’ve been the last year we played together, and then Jason and I played and I think did a tour in like 2004 as a duo. We played in Western Mass. at this benefit for families with children with autism with Sonic Youth and J played solo. That was kind of like our first reunion thing. And then probably three or four years after that, we got back together with Eric Gaffney and toured the country and toured Europe that way. Now four years after that we’re getting back and touring to support this reissue of Bakesale that should be happening later this year.
What was your first impression of playing on the road with new drummer Bob D’Amico and Jason?
It was awesome. I mean those guys have been playing together for quite awhile, and I think with rhythm sections, at least in my experience, the more time you spend together the better you get.
It would be kind of hard if we were trying out a new drummer for this stuff, like if we played with him for a week and then left on tour with him, I wouldn’t be comfortable with that you know? And Jason and Bob they’re just good friends and anyone who’s a good friend of Jason’s has been a really good friend of mine.
Jason’s just a magnet for interesting people, but also like really awesome people. He just attracts really interesting and great people, so I knew that anybody he’d been attached to for a little while now and played with would be a good thing. And it was immediately, just like bam, okay. And Jason’s playing a lot more guitar and we’re playing a lot more Jason songs. It reasserts the feelings that I had initially when he was writing songs for “Bakesale,” and when he became a main songwriter in the band. His songs were like the best songs we had, or among the best, if not the best that you know, the songs that people really respond to. So it’s been great to see that.
How would you describe the differences between this reunion and that of your other band, Dinosaur Jr?
Sebadoh was fashioned as my band, you know. It was my band with my friends and we had a pretty collaborative thing that we had going on. Dinosaur is not like a particularly collaborative experience, but that’s part of why it’s as great as it is, you know?
As far as playing shows, it’s totally different, because the volume level is so much lower and we can communicate with the audience. Our songs are way shorter. It’s totally different, and when I travel with Sebadoh it’s just three guys in a minivan and that’s it. It’s very broken down. Dinosaur, too, even for what it is, is a pretty stripped-down crew that tours, but it’s on such a greater scale that makes it a bit different.
Do you think that’s because there was a bit more mystique there, or that you had achieved greater success with Dinosaur than perhaps Sebadoh?
I don’t know. I think it has to do with J and how he’s cultivated and preserved his rock ‘n’ roll identity. He’s becoming this enigmatic personality as he gets older, as he starts talking more and as he gets more comfortable. There’s just a lot of star power there. There always has been. J has always been by far the biggest rock star even though he doesn’t act like one. He’s just a really unique person.
What’s it like to resurrect and play material from your youth? Bakesale originally came out in 1994.
I never really stopped playing most of those songs. I consider them amongst the best songs I’ve written. And, they’re songs that I’ve played acoustically, and the response that I get has always been, consistently, “Wow, thank you.” People always request them. I kind of go off what people request when I play live and when I play acoustic shows, and the Sebadoh songs are always what people kind of really want to hear. I get a lot back from it. I’ve always done that. Never really given up on the songs and never forgotten them. So now, to play them with Jason in a lineup that’s pretty true to the original recording is a little more dynamic, more lived in.
Are there any plans in the works for Sebadoh to record new material?
There are no plans, but we certainly could do it you know? We have the means. Jason’s a recording engineer, and I’ve got a spot out here in Los Angeles that’s really awesome. If ever there was a time that we could do it now’s the time. In the next couple of years maybe if we’re able to do something like that we just might do it.
What would it take to tip the scales and get you back in the studio?
Money, probably, because we live far apart. Just bullshit money stuff. It costs money to do stuff, that’s all. The older you get the more money it costs, unfortunately. The more you have families and lives and stuff, the more you have to be very pragmatic about everything. And I think if the time comes, maybe I can get some help moneywise and maybe we could do it.
What do think of Bakesale and Harmacy now?
I think Bakesale is a really cool, kind of scrappy little record. Like when you’re talking scale and scope between Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, Dinosaur’s records were always pretty huge-sounding. And Sebadoh never really kind of attained that sort of instrumental power, but on a record like Bakesale, we captured it all pretty consistently for the first time.
It’s still kind of ramshackle. The songs are so concise and come one right after another. I just think it was a really good time for Jason and I songwriting-wise. And I think we were feeling just a real surge of energy after Eric left the band, because he was always very ambivalent about the band’s success and ambivalent about touring, so when Eric left it kind of freed us up to tour constantly.
Seems like you just sort of had your moment right then and you took advantage of it.
Yeah, we kind of seized it because I had already been through the whole Dinosaur thing and I was like “Fuck, let’s go. We got to go on tour again, we got to keep touring because people care.” I could just sense that people cared about what we were doing, and it’s so rare that people care about the music you’re playing. I knew that enough then, and I know it even more know. If you have people’s ear for a little while, and you’re young and you can do it, you should just get in a fucking car and get on the road, get on a plane to go to Europe and just exploit any fucking interest that anyone has in your band before it goes away you know? That was I guess the only real ruthlessness that I’ve displayed in my career, deciding after Eric quit the band to really go for it, tour as much as possible, just because we could.
What did you notice during the remastering process for the deluxe editions? Did you try to include anything different?
We kind of subtly beefed up the low end on the record. Very subtly. I don’t even know if you could A/B it and really hear it. I was always kind of concerned that the record was very thin, and it is thin, but when I’m talking about the scope of the music and the scale of it, we weren’t really going for it [that]. It was more about the spirit of the performances and the kind of fresh and raw feel of the lyrics. When I listened to it again, it was kind of a relief because if I heard this today on the radio—and I listen to the radio all the time and I like new bands—if I heard something that sounded like this I would be really into it. That was kind of a cool thing to realize. If I heard this on the radio, I would think it was kind of unusual and sort of special. That was a relief.
How would you describe your songwriting process? Do you actually have to parcel up the songs you would contribute to Dinosaur and to your other projects?
What I do first is just play it the way I play it on acoustic guitar, or depending on what I wrote it on. It’s kind of easy because there are certain things that I write in alternate tunings on four-string guitar. So when I do that, I’m like ‘Well that’s Sebadoh,’ because that’s what I do in Sebadoh. A lot of my Sebadoh material was written on four-string guitar with alternate tunings, so when I play that sort of an instrument it sounds like a Sebadoh song and when I play stuff in traditional tuning then it becomes more, ‘Wow, this could be a Dinosaur song,’ because J plays in traditional tuning and he always has, and also that gives me things like chords and stuff to show him. So that’s the way it will probably come down this time as far as splitting up songs, but I don’t know. I’ve only just begun to start getting ideas out and on to, you can’t even say on to tape anymore, into a hardrive. Just burn it. I’ve just started burning song ideas, and hopefully by the end of next month I’ll have so many to choose from and figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of the year recording wise.
Do you plan to record another solo album? It’s been a couple of years since Goodnight Unknown.
I’m writing now. After I do this tour, I have almost a month at home by myself before I start doing some Dinosaur stuff. So, I think I’m just going to start writing, see what happens, and just write as much as I possibly can.
Right now, I think my most pressing concern for songs is another Dinosaur record, because I know I have to be very, very specific about what I want from J and Murph. If I’m not defining everything I do—like very, very explicitly—they just are kind of lost. So, I have to do a lot of preparation this time.
What do you think about returning to Western Massachusetts for a show?
I love it. It’s where I’m from. I feel really privileged to have grown up in that area. I hope I’ve never wavered on that. I think it’s a pretty extraordinary place. I mean, I grew up in Westfield, which is not exactly one of the greatest shining jewels of Western Mass by any means. But having a place like Northampton, which was such an oasis when I was a kid, and also all the college radio in the area, just really changed my life. There was also music fans out there and there were shows, and it’s still that way and it will always be that way out there because it’s just a good place. There are a few pockets around the country that are like that, and Northampton is definitely one of those special places.
What’s your advice for novice musicians out there who are trying to make a career out of music?
Be weird. Make weird music. Be extreme, in some way or another, not necessarily like Marilyn Manson—it doesn’t necessarily have to pertain to looks—but in your artistic way you look at things. If you just think, “Okay, I don’t have to write this song on a six-string guitar. I don’t have to do that. I can write it on something else.” That helps right away. That’s always good.
Don’t drink too much. Don’t drink and listen to your own music and loudly proclaim how great you are while playing. Stay away from vanity. Don’t get too carried away with yourself at any point.”