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Through the Past, Snarkily

Lou Barlow talks Sebadoh reunion, musical concision and bad ’90s music

By Jason Gargano · October 26th, 2011 · Music
music1_sebadoh_photo_courtesy_girlie_actionPhoto courtesy of Girly Action
Lou Barlow is a direct guy. The 45-year-old founder and main frontman for lo-fi Indie Rock stalwarts Sebadoh doesn’t mince words or waste time — a fact easily discerned when listening to his band’s concise, emotionally direct songs. 

It makes sense, then, that Barlow would be similarly to the point when discussing Sebadoh’s return via the “Bakesale/Harmacy Remembering Time Tour,” which stops at the Southgate House Thursday. Over the course of a recent 30-minute phone conversation, Barlow doesn’t hesitate to give his unvarnished opinion about everything from Guided by Voices’ reunion (“Didn’t they have a farewell tour?”) to the demise of certain ’zines (“I’m glad that terrible Rock writing is no longer in my face”) to Sebadoh’s glossy, ill-advised video for the Harmacy ballad “Willing to Wait” (“A stunning mistake — oh my god it was horrible, a terrible video”).

In case you’re still caught up on the possibly hypocritical element of that GBV reference, Barlow is quick to point out that, despite long layoffs, neither Sebadoh nor Dinosaur Jr. — the now-iconic band he founded with J. Mascis in 1984 that continues to record and tour — never announced that they were disbanding, let alone had the self-important gall to return after a “farewell tour.”

But let’s get back to Barlow and his songs — specifically the songs he wrote during Sebadoh’s primo Sub Pop period of Bubble and Scrape (1993), Bakesale (1994) and Harmacy (1996), the latter two of which have recently been reissued by discerning London-based label Domino. 

“My songs are pretty plainspoken,” Barlow says. “I remember exactly what I wrote them about. They make sense to me. Most importantly, they’re easy to remember (laughs). I just think of them as some pretty good songs I wrote, so I always feel good about playing them — like, ‘Hey, I didn’t fuck this one up.’ The songs of that era were kind of the best I had to offer.”

Barlow also remembers that time as being the most emotionally fraught of Sebadoh’s 22-year trajectory.

Following the rising post-Nirvana commercial expectations of “Alternative” music, the positive critical reception of Bakesale and the popularity of Barlow’s then-side project The Folk Implosion (whose “Natural One,” from the Kids soundtrack, became an unexpected hit), outside factors started to impact the band for the first time.

“Going into Harmacy it got kind of heavy, because there were a lot of expectations and there was more money involved,” Barlow says. “When we went into the studio the first thing that happened was that the guy who had recorded Bakesale with us said, ‘You have to fire your drummer, and you have to do it now’ (laughs). I knew he was right on a creative level; I knew that Bob (Fay) wasn’t the greatest drummer, but he was a really good friend and he was really fun to hang out with.

“We didn’t fire him, obviously, but it put a really weird spin on the rest of the recording of the record, and it definitely put a shadow over the touring for the record. Eventually we did fire him because he wasn’t that great, but by the time we did that it was too little too late — we’d already blown our chance. The record was OK and people were into it, but it was not the record that Sub Pop wanted and it was not the record that was going to make any real waves for us.” 

On the other hand, mainstream success has never been a priority for Barlow. He’s also apparently not a big fan of the recent surge in ’90s cultural nostalgia.

“There were some bands that (recently) opened for Sebadoh in England, like really young kids, and they had L7 shirts on, and I was like, ‘What the fuck — really, are you serious?’ ” he says, laughing. “To me the ’90s were one of the worst periods in music — easily, hands down. People used to complain about the ’70s being terrible, and I’m like, ‘Nope, the ’90s were the worst — the worst-sounding records.’ The only really good live bands were the ones that hated you, like Jesus Lizard and Pussy Galore, those were the really good bands.”

The topic of really good bands brings Barlow back to those that have influenced his brand of visceral, straightforward songwriting.

“The music that really shaped me, where I said, 'I want to do that,' was The Ramones,” Barlow says. “They took a Pop song and chopped it down to its barest elements. And then there was Hardcore Punk Rock where the songs were on average 40 seconds long, for any self-respecting Hardcore band.”

But no one impacted him more than ’80s Post Punk trio Minutemen.

“They were obviously very musically accomplished, but they also had this thing like, “We’re the Minutemen, our songs are short and to the point,’ ” Barlow says, his voice turning slightly to convey his reverence. “Their whole thing was, ‘We jam econo,’ and that made a huge impression on me. When I saw the Minutemen, they played like 30 or 40 songs, and when Mike Watt broke a bass string he would change the string during the song. They had taken everything and distilled it down to its barest elements. That really appealed to me and it was something I carried with me when I started making music on my own outside of Dinosaur Jr.”

It’s been a dozen years since the band recorded a new album, which brings us to one final question: Will Sebadoh record new music?

“Probably,” Barlow says, delivering his first wishy-washy answer of the conversation. 

A moment later he corrects himself: “Yes, I’m going to say, ‘Yes.’ ”

SEBADOH's "The Bakesale/Harmacy Remembering Tour" comes to the Southgate House Thursday with guest Mazes. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



10.26.2011 at 04:07 Reply

90s were the worst? Minus 50 respect points for Barlow :( The 90s were great. The rock music was great, but the pop music? The 90s easily produced the best pop music. Society was in decay, and the music was just great. All thoughout history, there has always been great rock music. But when you look at pop music, it all pales when compared to the 90s. There was just an explosion of great music.


10.27.2011 at 08:10

Agreed- and yes, I will engage in this most futile debate.  90s, and 70s for that matter, produced the bulk of the greatest pop music.  You wanna talk about the volume of watered down, sophmoric crap then we can talk the 80s.  Those records, pound for pound, sound and were produced with so much homogeneity.  He must be protecting the Minutemen(who are def an exception to my former 80s comment, but most SST stuff is kind of an 80s anomaly, along with some other great sounding stuff like Sarah records artists and certainly not exhausted by those 2 labels).  Maybe I'm just a little tweaked because those are my favorite eras....


10.27.2011 at 12:31 Reply

I would agree that some bands in the 90s hated their audiences. Sebadoh was certainly one. I saw them once, and only once. The disdain coming from the stage was so thick you could cut it with a knife. They purposely put on a sloppy, shitty show, as if to actually try and entertain the paying audience was beneath their dignity. About 10 songs in I said "Fuck this," walked out, and never gave them much thought again until just now.


10.27.2011 at 09:50

never, ever , had disdain for an audience..  all  anger was self-directed ..which doesn't make it any better,  i understand..but it had nothing to do with the audience and everything to do with being totally up my own ass..


10.27.2011 at 12:06 Reply

lou, if that is really you, thanks for recording III. I like it.


10.27.2011 at 07:09 Reply

Lou Barlow, no other singer can send horrible shivers up one's spine like Lou Barlow.  Where does Lou really sit in the greater span of musical history?  The tape you bought off some overly eager record shop stoners recommendation, went home and turned the tape off after 3-4 songs, hoping to maybe "get it" one day?  When I think Dinosaur Jr., I think about the passion of J. Mascis, not Lou.  I wouldn't have said sh*t untill I read the diss towards GBV/Bob Pollard.  GBV is a special project that happens to be taking place under almost everyone's nose.  How can anyone comment on something that isn't their brainchild?  The musical picture Pollard is painting is an ocean compared to Barlow's dried creek of p*ss, and to hear him compare his music career to GBV, one can only chuckle at this point.  Barlow's music is whiny, the interview - whiny.


05.07.2013 at 04:55 Reply

Lou Barlow you are one of the greats but you are wrong, or at least half wrong on this. The first half of the 90's were in my opinion the greatest time in music followed by the late 80's. The latter half of the 90's however WERE pretty lame and the beginning of the horrible era we've been in for the last 18 years. Certainly the 00's were no better than the late 90's, in fact they were worse. And now music and pretty much everything in culture is a joke. But really what I think happened that killed everything is digital recording replacing analog. Digital recording sucks by itself. It's cool to transfer tape or film to because they balance each other out but it's lousy on it's own. I wish people would realize that, that purely digital recordings are just not that pleasant to listen to/watch.