Indie-rock balladeer Lou Barlow has spent more than a decade gently waving the banner for do-it-yourself self-expression, while being tagged as a sellout (for taking major-label money and making albums more complex than his early home recordings) and a hard-ass (for alienating a string of bandmates, starting with Dinosaur Jr. co-founder J Mascis, and continuing through Barlow's colleagues in Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion). Barlow has dealt with the pressure of being an up-and-coming alternative rock star with a handful of semi-hits, as well as the agony of being a critically panned mope accused of betraying his principles and his friends. Now, while working on his first proper solo album, scheduled for release later this year, Barlow has been mending fences, most notably by reuniting with his Sebadoh collaborator Jason Loewenstein for a mini-tour this spring. Barlow recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his current plans, his artistic tastes, and his theoretical role as the godfather of emo.
The Onion: When you were doing press for the Folk Implosion record last year, you gave the impression that Sebadoh was going to be on hold for a while. What prompted you to regroup and go on tour?
Lou Barlow: I got an offer to play the Domino Records 10th-anniversary show in London, because [Sebadoh's] Bubble & Scrape was the first album ever on Domino. Laurence Bell, who runs the label, asked me if I wanted to come over and play solo. Folk Implosion were on the waning parts of our tour, and I had begun to really miss Jake [Loewenstein] a lot. When I got that offer to play, I just thought we should do it together, as the two enduring members of Sebadoh. I called Jake and he was into it, and around that date, we set up two weeks of shows around Europe. It went real well.
O: You're also going to share a bill with J Mascis soon. Why so sentimental all of a sudden?
LB: The Domino reunion was sort of the beginning. My mother works for a resource center for families with autistic children in Massachusetts, and she and one of her coworkers had come up with this idea of a benefit show. She called me and said, "We're going to get J Mascis to play, and we want you to play." And I went, "Oh…kay." [Laughs.] I couldn't say no to my mom. She went, "And I want Jason to play, too," and I thought, "Well, if that's going to happen, I may as well just book another tour, around that show." So we made it a Sebadoh show, with J Mascis also playing, and Sonic Youth.
O: So you don't have some larger goal in mind, to reconnect with your past?
LB: No, it's all sort of happening that way naturally. I saw J about a year and a half ago, when he and Mike Watt played with The Stooges. Through the years, I did sort of disconnect with J, and I'd been talking a lot of shit about him. But there's a fair amount of people that we know mutually, and it was one of those people who brought me backstage to this show, where I did speak with J, and hang out with him in a very open environment. Very mellow, sort of chilled. We had a nice conversation. I met his wife. So now it just seems like, "Eh… what the hell." [Laughs.]
O: Will there be any recording as a part of this Sebadoh reunion tour?
LB: Not immediately. Jake and I get along really well, but he works as an engineer now, at a studio in Louisville. He actually came down and played on my solo record, on some things I was working on in Nashville.
O: Why Nashville?
LB: To work with Mark Nevers, who's done stuff with Lambchop and Will Oldham. I've also been recording in Massachusetts and at home in L.A. It's about half-finished. I'm sort of limited by funds at this point.
O: It's not going to be a lo-fi record?
LB: Not really. I want it to be produced, but in a way that reflects what I want. The stuff I've done before in big studios, everything gets done by committee, which means everyone in the band and the engineer and the guy who calls himself the producer… That's how the sound is determined. I'm trying to cut down on the voices in my ear. But it's not going to be all me with a Walkman in the bathroom.
O: But some of it will be?
LB: Oh, yeah. I'm going to start recording myself for the last half of the record.
O: Has the process of working with other people in a band changed for you over time? Do you find it easier than you did 10 or 15 years ago?
LB: It depends on the people and the circumstances. When I met [The Folk Implosion's] John Davis and we began working together, we just, for whatever reason, had this incredible chemistry. We communicated so well that we were able to write three or four Folk Implosion records together, all of which were completely different. Then, with Sebadoh, we were such an enforced democracy. When we finally started to make inroads and become popular, there was so much, at least as far as the band was concerned, undue attention being paid to my stuff. It totally tore Eric Gaffney and I apart. We had a great collaboration before the band became popular. Once things got complicated with money issues, and signing with Sub Pop, and outside influences trying to push certain songs forward and push other songs back… It just got very complicated.
O: Is it worth the headache, then, being in a band?
LB: Not right now, no. I think in the past it's totally been worth it, but right now… I'm going solo for a reason. [Laughs.] Sebadoh was on tour with The Flaming Lips years ago, and Robyn Hitchcock was on that tour, and he was like, "You know, at some point, you just get too old to have a band. It just gets too hard." Of course, a year later he was back playing with The Soft Boys. [Laughs.] Things go in cycles, you know? I'm definitely at the part of the cycle right now that he was speaking of. And for me, it's hard to enter any situation with people where we're considering everyone equals, because I bring all of this massive baggage into anything that I do, preconceptions of my work. That's a lot for the people that I might be bringing along with me to bear.
O: Having been at it for so long, are you amused when you see young musicians starting to deal with those questions about how much to court the mainstream?
LB: Yeah. [Laughs.] It really does. If I were to give advice to anybody like that, I would tell them, "Do not sign to Interscope Records right now." [Laughs.] "That is a mistake. You may never sell more than 150,000 copies, and even if you do break into the big time and sell 500,000, you will still be nobody in the big picture of those labels. You will never have a number-one hit. Do not for a minute entertain the idea that you are going to become a household name, because it's not going to happen. Even The Strokes, who are huge, they're not a household name, you know? Only among pockets of hipster kids. It just happens to be a pretty big country, with a lot of pockets of hipster kids. The level that big labels want everybody to reach, very few are going to reach that. And you really don't want to reach it anyway. Why try?"
O: Was there a point where you realized that you were going to have to settle for a Robyn Hitchcock kind of career, where some people will always know who you are and like what you do, but you'll never really break through?
LB: I haven't had that moment yet. [Laughs.] I really don't know what level I'm at. I've managed to alienate most of what would be considered the core audience that I'm supposed to have had. And whoever's left, they're pretty much divided in their loyalties to my material. At this point, I'm trying to figure out a way to make it to where Robyn is, where I have some kind of… I wouldn't say security, necessarily, because I'm sure Robyn would take issue with that, but at this point, I don't feel… I really don't know what's going on.
O: But you are confident that you're going to continue to do music for a living, aren't you? You're not worried about having to get a day job?
LB: Well, if you had talked to me two months ago, I'd have told you that it was getting pretty dire. Right now, I'm living kind of month to month. I haven't done that in a really long time. I have this sort of loose five-year plan, where I'm going to put out this solo record, and then tour for most of the next year, and then throw together another record, and if things keep going the way that they have been, which is downward, then I would have to begin considering some other career. I'd probably consider going into health care or something in about five years, if things continue the way they're going right now.
O: Why health care? Because of your mom?
LB: No, that's just what I did before. I worked in nursing homes as an orderly. It's cool to think about nursing, because a lot of people decide to go into it later in their lives. I could slip into school to be an LPN or an RN as a middle-aged man, and it wouldn't be unusual.
O: Is there anything you could do in the L.A. music industry to make money? Is there a musical equivalent to script doctoring?
LB: Oh, I don't know. [Laughs.] I know exactly what you're talking about. In L.A., there are myriad little niches you can get into, where you get your $10,000 check and move on to your next $10,000 check. But you've got to really talk a whole line of shit, and you've got to present yourself as a pretty fucking confident person. If somebody asks me how things are going, I generally tell them the dark side, but in L.A., with any kind of business, people want to hear, "Yeah, man, things are really happening for me." I don't talk that way. [Laughs.] But there are things I'm looking into. This guy I've been working with for a long time, Wally Gagel, he really took to Hollywood. Loved it. He's got his own studio space, and we have a lot of instrumental things that we've never finished. If I really want to do something equivalent to script doctoring, it would be to go finish those things with Wally and then have him, with his personality, shop them around and find sources of income.
O: Soundtracks, commercials, video games…?
LB: Exactly. That kind of stuff is what saves the lives of indie rockers.
O: Does it bother you that some fans prefer the stuff you cranked out, as you said earlier, "with a Walkman in the bathroom," over your more polished stuff?
LB: No, I understand it. But for me, trying to create "my body of work" or whatever, all that stuff with four-track and my Walkman… I've done plenty of that. There now exists at least four hours of released material of that nature. As a music fan, I completely understand people who say, "I only like the first record." I've never been like, "Man, fuck you! You should listen to One Part Lullaby!" I'm not going to try to convince them. I know exactly why they don't like that stuff, but I've never let it determine the next step I take. I've always tried to make music for someone who's never heard anything I've ever done. With the New Folk Implosion record, I was still imagining that somebody who didn't have any idea who I was might hear the record and enjoy it. That was my target audience. Which just manages to anger or cause great indifference in the broader base of people left who still listen to what I do.
O: Why do you think that people are drawn to that cruder, simpler stuff?
LB: Well, some people aren't and some people are. In my experience, there's just as many people who think One Part Lullaby is a great record as Weed Forestin. But I suppose among people who think like I do, Weed Forestin would probably be the one.
O: What was the quality control like back in the Weed Forestin days? Did you leave anything out?
LB: No, I thought it was all great. The weirder, the better. If it stopped after 10 seconds, great. It was more an album than a body of songs. In terms of the way that people process information today, they go through a CD and go "skip, skip, skip, like it, hate it, like it, hate it." But back then, if you put out a cassette tape, you'd pop it in and you were in for it. We made tapes that would go from really flowing songs to, like, a Walkman being carried through a grocery store. It was meant to be these little journeys. Quality control? I always bristle at that, because who cares? I know for a fact when it comes to the older stuff that people tell me the freakiest shit is as good as the real songs. Everybody has a different idea of what's good. The idea that there's one way that "good things" are supposed to sound? That's fuckin' bullshit.
O: With today's technology, a lot of people are making homemade records that sound as good as a polished record would've been in your lo-fi days. If you'd had that technology back then, would you have still tried to make those records sound the way they did?
LB: No, I would've made fucking huge, sprawling masterpieces. [Laughs.] I believe that. Because it was all about the energy. Certain Sentridoh stuff I did, or even Weed Forestin… I really worked on those things, but when I was working on them, I realized that in the end, because it was on four-track cassette, a large group of people weren't going to take it seriously. But that was all I had, you know? If we'd had Pro Tools when I was 21? With that kind of energy, and those kind of ideas just fuckin' rushing at me? I could've made something that didn't have tape hiss on it, so people would think it was "legitimate."
O: Do you have any godfatherly feelings for DIY genres like laptop pop?
LB: There's a lot of pop right now, and pop always sounds the same to me no matter who does it, because it always follows the same trajectory of "Melody, lift to the chorus, here's the bridge…" And no matter how much crap people throw over the top of it, "found sounds" or whatever, it all sounds the same to me. I'm working through some reactionary feelings.
O: Does your anti-pop feeling affect the way you write songs? Are you trying to move away from those formulas?
LB: No. [Laughs.] When I write songs, I don't really have that kind of control, where I think, "Oh, yes, I can hear a kind of Pet Sounds-y bridge on this." When I start to write a song, I have the words and I have the melody, and then it's just a matter of making it to the end. I think if I have something that I could identify as a talent, it would be that I can finish a song. I kind of know intuitively where the melody should go. But that's something that comes not from listening to other records, but from something that's just in me. So I could very well sit here and talk shit about how much I hate Belle & Sebastian-influenced pop, and how it just makes me want to claw my face off… but at the same time, tomorrow I could finish a song that sounded just like it and not even get the irony. [Laughs.] When I think about this stuff, it's very fractured, and when I'm making my own songs, it's very separate from me trying to put it in context of how other things sound. Because I think indie-pop and indie-rock in general is a very political thing, and people are always searching for the context. "Is this really a step beyond the last release? Where does it fit?" To me, it's all just songs. There's some here and some there, and if you collect them all, you could make a pretty amazing compilation tape of what's going on right now. But when I can discern a trend… Ugh! It's like, Pavement influenced so many bands that wanted to sound just like Pavement, and now there's this huge fucking Belle & Sebastian, Apples In Stereo thing going on with like The Decemberists and all this other stuff I've heard. The Hidden Cameras are pretty good, but the rest of that stuff… Ugh!
O: Does it bother you because it's a trend, or because of the sound?
LB: The sound. The lyrics. That bouncy beat. With The Hidden Cameras, they put such bizarre, profane lyrics on it that it makes it entertaining, and they also layer things in an interesting way, but mostly, when I hear that beat, I'm ready to smash stuff. And when I hear that high, adenoidal voice that sounds like 50 other kids who have that same adenoidal voice, going… [Sings.] "And I saw her at the store today, blah blah blah." Clever literary lyrics? To a bouncy pop beat? Ugh.
O: What do you think about emo? You're often considered as a progenitor.
LB: So many things have been presented to me as emo that I don't know what it is. Is Death Cab For Cutie emo? See, I like them. I think [Ben Gibbard]'s a brilliant lyricist. But I've never done anything as ornate or well constructed as they do.
O: Well, the genre is mostly defined by its subject matter, by the idea of people spilling their diaries into simple songs.
LB: I find that stuff all very wordy, and specific. When I was making Weed Forestin, I was writing in incredibly general, broad terms. And I still feel like that's the best way I write. People are like, "Ooh, it's so personal," and, yeah, it is. But it's not personal like the guy from Death Cab For Cutie or Bright Eyes, where they're specifically mentioning like… [Sings.] "I lived with a couple, and I was upstairs, and I brought down the paper." That's a diary. I always felt that I was going to write like Hank Williams: simple things. I have a hard time thinking of myself as emo. Even though I know that all of that shit has been put on me, that I recorded whatever I felt like doing and that it was all diary entries, to this day, I don't think that's what I was doing.
O: Does it give you any sense of pride, or responsibility, when people cite you as an influence?
LB: It's always nice to hear my name mentioned, because I'm a musician and I'm trying to survive. When I hear my name, I can say, "Okay, I've done something. I mean something." That's good, but I don't really have any attitude about it. When I talk about emo, people seem to be pushing me into taking credit for it, but… No. [Laughs.] That stuff is very much on its own merits, and in some ways, it's giant steps beyond what I was doing.