Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ (soon to be reissued on LP): an Indie Ethos Exclusive (Part 1 of 2)
January 16, 2012
Ahead of his many appearances as part of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and as a solo artist on the Carnival Cruise ship Destiny during the Weezer Cruise singer/guitarist Lou Barlow spoke about the misnomer “prince of lo-fi,” the up-coming vinyl reissue of Weed Forestin and Sebadoh’s debut Miami show ahead of the cruise. He spoke with me from his Los Angeles home, a few days before a tour with Dinosaur Jr., in early December. I was expecting to have just about 15 minutes. We ended up speaking for nearly an hour and covering many more subjects. Barlow even offered some candid insight into the dynamics between he and his longtime bandmates in Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. (wait for part 2 of this interview).
Founded by Barlow in the late eighties, Sebadoh has long existed in the shadows of many more popular acts of the nineties alternative rock scene. Their height of exposure came while on the Seattle-based label Sub Pop, probably the most famous independent label during the rise of the so-called grunge rock scene. The band signed a deal with the label in the early nineties, just as the label’s most famous product, Nirvana, had flown the coop to ride high on MTV buzz while crossing over to a major label, DGC, an off-shoot of Geffen Records, distributed by Warner Bros. Meanwhile, Barlow’s former band, Dinosaur Jr., also enjoyed MTV popularity in support of albums on the major label Reprise, also distributed by Warner Bros.
Sebadoh carried on as a curious but well-respected band fronted by the man cast out as bassist and sometime singer of Dinosaur Jr. just before Dino signed its major label deal. Sebadoh’s “size” fit Barlow just fine, as he prefers the inherent low profile approach of an indie label. He even enjoys being his own roadie and piling into the van with just his two other bandmates, currently longtime bassist Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico (who are both also key to The Fiery Furnaces). Still, Sebadoh were no less influential or important to revitalizing rock. Even before Sebadoh signed to Sub Pop, and only had its second album out on the even smaller Homestead Records, Superchunk took three songs from Sebadoh’s all Barlow-composed collection of home-recordings, Weed Forestin, to fill the majority of an EP called “the Freed Seed” in 1991. Weed Forestin had only arrived on the scene a year earlier, but there it was, celebrated by another band that was also important to the indie rock scene of the early nineties (Superchunk’s frontman, Mac McCaughan, still owns and operates Merge Records, which most famously became the first indie label to earn the Album of the Year Grammy in 2010 with Arcade Fire’s the Suburbs).
The humble start of Sebadoh was just an alternative venue for Barlow to give life to his songs, which were often rejected by Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman J Mascis. He recorded them at home on a 4-track cassette recorder with Eric Gaffney providing percussion. Homestead Records would compile the works, first released as cassettes, on a 1990 CD entitled the Freed Weed. The first 23 tracks on the 40-track disc, covers Weed Forestin and the last 17 tracks are the Freed Man, Sebadoh’s first official album, which saw commercial release in 1989. According to the Freed Weed‘s credits, the songs were recorded in 1986-88. Sometime this year, Barlow says he promises to officially reissue Weed Forestin on vinyl. In recent years, earlier Sebadoh reissues have been released by Sub Pop Records in the US and Domino Records in the UK, but Barlow says he plans to release Weed Forestin as a very limited run on vinyl, independently. “Five hundred,” he says with a laugh. “Get ‘em while they’re hot.”
OK, so there is a hint of sarcasm to that last statement, but I offer my surprise at such a low pressing. “That’s all we need,” Barlow insists. “No more than 500 people want that record.” During our conversation, Barlow notices how serious I am about this album, and he tells me he cannot believe I am as interested as I say I am in this record, an obscure introduction to Sebadoh if there ever was one.
We argue back and forth a bit. I plead my honest curiosity, sharing a story of how a dear friend of mine from my early college years, who happened to have abused enough LSD to turn schizophrenic, turned me on to the album. “The first generation of the people that really found it and felt that it was speaking to them, those people are real sensitive people,” Barlow says. “They really found something. It was not just, ‘Hey, man, this sounds pretty good, you should check this out.’ It was more like, ‘No!’” he says with a laugh and continues in a raspy voice, ‘This is amazing. You should hear it.’”
There is a purity to Weed Forestin, as it presents Sebadoh at its most raw and intimate. It is also on of the more obscure and probably most rough-around-the edges Sebadoh record in the band’s catalog. It can even be seen as a genuine goof with heartfelt intention, filled with experimental tangents and sincere, soul-stirring songwriting.
The subtleties that many take for granted are testament to the album’s character. The album opens with what sounds like a split second of orchestra, then four notes of a swinging guitar line with a muffled, tapped beat before the song “Temporary Dream” begins. Made up of some meandering whistling and a steady snare beat, where Barlow sings varied versions of “On my way to temporary dream,” before voices start screaming “Dreams! Dreams! Dreams!” the song picks up, stumbles and stops. It’s a defiant statement against whatever may have existed on the tape first and hinted by the album’s blink-and-you-might-miss-it opening. The track provides the perfect set-up for the album, with a beginning that alludes to the patch-work quality of leftover music recorded over on tape. The past and the present are experienced as one.
“New Worship,” a true, guitar-oriented song, follows with a distinct, seesaw rhythm. Barlow sings in his typically earnest, hushed voice, as the song drives on. After he sings “All my friends are killing me,” a higher-pitched, almost gnome-like voice repeats the statement, adding, “They think I’m a genius,” before dissolving into a whir of reverb. The song picks up the driving beat, and the melody comes to life with exuberant strums before grinding to a halt. No song on the album lasts longer than three and a half minutes and most are just under two minutes. They may be sketches but breath with amazing life, pulling back the curtain of the catchy, dynamic, punchy music of later-era Sebadoh.
With “Subtle Holy Gift” the distortion around the music makes the song sound like it’s coming from the inside of a big, old, wooden boat, drifting on a still ocean. Barlow offers two tracks of vocals, one in his regular tone, the other a falsetto, that harmonize with every other line, until the chorus, when they overlap. The sound is so distorted, the guitar strings sound as though they are being scratched instead of strummed.
“Whitey Peach” opens with nothing but tape hiss, Barlow states “5:20″ (it’s a subtle enigma that probably means nothing, but an enigma nonetheless) and then some disjointed guitar playing begins, sounding as if recorded from a distance, and once it catches a groove, the first word from the softly sung “Hey, girl, do you see the thing I see?” is also used as an accompaniment by a second vocal track, just a whiny, soft quavering “heeeeeey,” which reappears with each line, as the song rambles along like something from a hundred years ago. It’s not because the music’s style sounds dated, but the tape these songs were recorded on sounds like it is on the verge of disintegrating, and these are the voices of ghosts. The acoustic guitar rumbles and reverbs but also glistens and chimes. A variety of taps and beats appear here and there to spice things up.
Most songs on Weed Forestin are sung hushedly, as if not to disturb anyone outside of the bedroom. The songs have a vibrant, varied quality, defined by the earnestness of youth (Barlow says he recorded the tracks between the ages of 19 and 21). It’s a contrast to Sebadoh’s later studio-work, which garnered more notoriety on the college music radio charts and from other musicians, at least. With proper studio equipment and regular members who contributed to the songwriting, Sebadoh became a more polished, though still grungy project, which even took rare but notable hard, abrasive turns into screaming hardcore, a genre that defined the punk sound that first brought Barlow and Mascis together in high school. Their group with two other band mates and Mascis on drums, Deep Wound, only recorded a self-titled EP on an indie label. Then there was Folk Implosion, which gave Barlow his biggest hit, “Natural One,” released on the Kids soundtrack, peaking at 29 on the Billboard singles chart in 1995, higher than anything Sebadoh ever released. Here’s the video for that as a refresher:
But before Folk Implosion went on to release four albums and Sebadoh broke out on its own, there were the homemade recordings later released as Weed Forestin, and that is what I am most curious about (no better time for that seeing as the vinyl reissue is on its way this year). When I first met Barlow, back in 1997, in North Miami Beach, during an in-store at the long gone Blue Note Records, I expressed my deep affection for the Freed Weed. As he signed the CD booklet for that, he suggested I go check out Smog. When I remind him of that meeting, he laughs. “See, look at me, selfless, even back then: ‘You like the lo-fi? Go get a Smog record.’”
On with the Q&A…
Hans Morgenstern: You remember that in-store at the record shop Blue Note?
Lou Barlow: That was amazing. That was a really cool record store.
Otherwise, you’ve never, ever toured down to Miami.
Not really, no. I did that one show at the record store and that’s it … It’s so weird. Miami is this weirdly ignored place. It’s like Miami and Montana, it’s like the two places that nobody plays, although I don’t really understand why. I don’t get it. Miami I think is just like a whole other culture unto itself. There’s something about it that is so unique. It’s almost like touring South America or Mexico or something … I’m excited to be back there actually.
No challenges really. The problem with it was that when it was mastered originally they put way more hiss on it than was on the original recordings. I think people really like the hiss. They will probably really hate the reissue because the reissue actually sounds like what I recorded, so people won’t like it at all, which is sad, and that’s why we probably won’t even sell 500. We will only sell like 250 or 300 coz people won’t like it (laughs). I’m kidding. I’m sorry.
You’re right, though. It’s true that the hiss is a very important part of it.
The hiss is a big part of it, but a lot of the hiss was really added by other people and not me.
So when you first heard it, you were like, ‘What the hell? Did it really sound this crappy?”
Yeah, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
But now, you’re fixing that. You’re doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars.
No! No, absolutely not. He ruined it. He went back and changed things. No, I’m not changing anything. I’m just taking the original recordings, and I took them to an amazing mastering studio, and we just made them sound like they sounded. We don’t change anything. It was presenting what I listened to and what I know as Weed Forestin, what I know the songs to sound like.
What did you record it on?
A Fostex 4-track.
What is that orchestral sample that keeps appearing throughout the album?
I don’t know. I listened to the radio a lot, and I still do. One day I was listening to a classical radio show, and I just hit record and play… and I hit stop. I had no idea what it was, and it was so beautiful, and I took that little piece and I just went crazy with it. It’s possibly from something well-known.
It sounds like Wagner.
Really? (laughs) If it’s Wagner that will be really heavy … I don’t know if I could deal with that … Someone knows, but the people that listen to my music don’t know. Only people that really like real music know (laughs).
As I researched what you’ve been up to lately, I noticed you being called the unofficial prince of lo-fi music, but it wasn’t like you set out to create a new genre with your music.
I didn’t create anything, no. There was already lo-fi before me (laughs).
It’s not bitter … It’s very wary, cautious… um, maybe bitter. It’s a little bitter, but I’ve heard much more bitter in my life by other bands that people don’t call bitter. I don’t know. I mean, that’s fair, I guess, yes.
But there’s also some wisdom.
I was trying to talk myself through my life. I was trying to understand what I was experiencing, but I don’t think … but, there’s some bitterness.
But then there is some hopefulness, like “I Believe in Fate.”
Yeah, well, there you go. “Anyone can be your brand new love” (a lyric from another Weed Forestin song, “Brand New Love”).
But in “I Believe in Fate,” you sing, “Some girl I don’t know is waiting to marry me.” Now you’re a married man. How long have you been married?
26 years or something (he laughs).
Are you kidding?
We’ve been married since… ’95? We were married since the day we met. I met her because of the music. When I wrote out the original lyric sheet, I wrote out, ‘A personal plea to a special someone.’ I was writing those songs for a girl I didn’t know. Someone that would hear that and understand me and that would want to be with me. It was for a girl (he laughs). On one side there was these love songs and on the other side it was meant to be what I was thinking about philosophically and what I was struggling with on a sort of spiritual level. Originally, on the record or the cassette, one side was the relationship songs, the songs about love, and the other side was meant to be the philosophical side where I was struggling with philosophical issues and almost, like, political issues, struggling with the power of charisma. How you get one asshole male with an incredible amount of charisma who changes the world, who can change the way people think, who can sway people. I was just very torn between these things.
So your wife is one of the original Weed Forestin fans?
The thing is, on the Dinosaur Jr. record You’re Living All Over Me, the song I put on there, “Poledo,” in that sort of noise collage, that song was the genesis, and Weed Forestin was the outgrowth of that. “Poledo,” that was the beginning of it and then, when I elaborated on it, that was Weed Forestin.
Are you playing some of these songs on the cruise?
I could do it…
Oh, come on.
Yeah, fuck, why not. I’ll bring my ukulele (laughs). Absolutely.
No better place for a uke than a cruise ship.
There you go. Perfect (laughs).
How does it feel to be part of the entertainment on a Carnival cruise ship?
It’s fucking awesome.
How did you wind up booked on a cruise?
Rivers Cuomo [Weezer's frontman] really liked Sebadoh. He really liked the Bakesale record, and I met him a few times, and we hung out a little bit. We’re kind of from the same area of the country. He’s from the middle part of Connecticut. We’re from southern-western Massachusetts. Sebadoh got asked to do it pretty early on, and then Dinosaur was asked to do it. With Sebadoh, we were like, yeah, we’ll do it, and Dinosaur weren’t getting enough money, so Dinosaur asked for more money, and then J didn’t really want to do it. I think J is getting paid for his solo shows as well. I’m playing solo shows for nothing (laughter). It’s just amazing, man, the power of Dinosaur Jr.
Up-date: you can stream the entirety of the brilliant Weed Forestin album, now credited to “Sentridoh,” by visiting Sentridoh’s Bandcamp by clicking through the image of the new album’s cover art here:
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Part 2 of this interview is available here:
Barlow shares much about working with Mascis in Dinosaur Jr. and Gaffney in Sebadoh, as well as the perils of reissuing vinyl.
Sebadoh performs in Miami on Wednesday, Jan. 18, with Jacuzzi Boys and Plains supporting. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, on sale here, or $20 at the door. All ages are welcome. After a long weekend at sea on the Weezer Cruise (Edit: You can now read a 4-part recap of the event here), Lou Barlow returns to the same venue as bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Yuck will support at that show, also all ages, on Monday, Jan. 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance, on sale here, or $30 at the door.