Lou Barlow keeps spirit alive returning to band that kicked him out (Part 2 of 2 of Indie Ethos exclusive)
January 17, 2012
Before labels like “alternative,” “emo,” “lo-fi” and “grunge” became easy go-to words for lazy rock writers, somewhere in the northeast of the United States, a trio of teenagers began making indescribable music they liked. It was 1984, and these were the top 10 singles of the year:
1. “When Doves Cry”…..Prince
2. “What’s Love Got To Do With It”…..Tina Turner
3. “Jump”…..Van Halen
4. “Karma Chameleon”…..Culture Club
5. “Like A Virgin”…..Madonna
7. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”…..Yes
8. “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)”…..Phil Collins
9. “Footloose”…..Kenny Loggins
10. “Ghostbusters”…..Ray Parker, Jr.
(check out the bottom 90 here)
Was a revolution in popular music ever due (like today’s pop music scene). It was among these hits that Lou Barlow, J Mascis and Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III created a little band called Dinosaur Jr. while attending college in Amherst, Massachusetts. After an odd debut album in 1985 that went nowhere and may have just been ahead of its time with its mix of shoegaze, goth, hardcore, country, folk and classic rock, soon enough Dinosaur Jr. would become an iconic group of the nineties-era alternative rock scene.
Nowadays, Dinosaur Jr. is one of a handful of bands referred to as touchstones of an era that also produced Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Pixies. Dinosaur has found a resurgence recently, as the original line-up has not only returned (that was already two new albums ago) but has maintained itself for an up-coming third album, so despite Barlow’s strong language below (pardon the “F” bombs and read the entire Q&A before drawing conclusions, cyber people), he and his mates have certainly found a way to maintain a creative spark among any so-called artistic differences. It must also be a good thing that Barlow stays busy with his own solo music, other collaborations, including a resurrected Sebadoh, the band Barlow created practically alongside his gig in Dinosaur Jr. Now, it too will record a new album (read the scoop at Backstagerider.com).
If you read Part 1 of this interview with Dinosaur Jr.’s bassist/part-time vocalist Barlow (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ [soon to be reissued on LP]: an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]), you will have noticed I have already touched on the relevance of the band during the popular years of alternative rock, as well as the slightly lesser known Sebadoh. Barlow was with Dinosaur Jr. for its first three, and arguably most acclaimed, albums. He was then kicked out, the circumstances of which, Barlow is refreshingly candid about in the Q&A below. Likewise, Barlow also offers his feelings about working with Eric Gaffney, the other half of the original Sebadoh, the band Barlow started after Dinosaur Jr. Finally, Barlow shares his regret of having Sub Pop reissue Sebadoh’s Bakesale on vinyl (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon … you’ll also be supporting Barlow and Sub Pop). Why would he regret having reissued the record often referred to as the definitive Sebadoh record? Read on…
Part 1 of this interview ended with Barlow, noting “the power of Dinosaur Jr.,” which takes us right into part 2…
Hans Morgenstern: You guys are getting along good right now, right?
Lou Barlow: I don’t know… whatever. (laughter)
I heard you were “kicked out of the band” when they signed to a major label. Can you explain what happened there?
That’s not why I was kicked out. J was just like, ‘I’m sick of this. I can’t deal with this anymore.’
Just me hating him. Me just making him feel weird (laughs), so he kicked me out of the band, and they put out a single on Sub Pop and they signed to a major label.
You guys got back together in 2005. Did you ever think, 10 years ago, that the original Dinosaur would ever get back together, tour and record new material?
No, but when it happened I thought it was a good time. It made sense to me when it happened, but I certainly didn’t think that … maybe two years before, that I would have been like, ‘No, never!’ But I would go to J’s solo shows, and we did a show together at a benefit, and we sort of reunited our hardcore band for one song at a show, and I thought, maybe J’s kinda open and into things, and he can deal with this.
You even recorded together.
Yeah, we’ve done two records together.
Is a third record coming?
Yep! J, he’s totally on fire. He’s writing new songs.
But you also wrote Dinosaur Jr. songs, right?
Yeah. On the second record, I did two songs on that record. On the reunion records, I did two songs on each record.
But nothing on the first album [Dinosaur]?
He masterminded that record. It was amazing. Amazing songs. Fuckin’ amazing. But he really wanted me to sing. He didn’t really want to sing, so he sort of assigned songs for me. But I wasn’t really at the same spot, songwriting-wise. I was only starting to write songs, but he was amazing when he was 19 years old, freshman in college. He was on fire. He fuckin’ did all these amazing songs and said, ‘sing this,’ and I’m like, OK! (laughs). It was amazing. He was really into it, really inspired.
How has these past few years felt with the old guys in Dino? Is it more comfortable than it was back then?
Oh, yeah, definitely. But it’s the same (laughs). J’s not really into it. He’s not into anything really. He’s not into the way I play, he’s not into my songs, he’s not into Murph playing drums, but he deals with it, you know? (laughs) He’s like, ‘I guess other people like what’s going on here.’ He came to a point in his life where he understood that other people liked things that he didn’t really like, and then he would tolerate the things that other people liked that he didn’t really like (laughs), which is an amazing thing for someone to go like, ‘Hey, wait, I don’t like this but other people do, so I’ll guess I’ll do this because other people like it’ (laughter). He actually did that, which is, for him, an amazing, incredible leap.
How did the restart of Sebadoh come about?
We never really stopped playing, so I think there was a reissue of Bakesale, and Domino Records in England were like, ‘You’ve got to do this. We’ve got to reissue this record, we’ve got to reissue this record. We’ve got to.’ Then, finally, I’m like, OK, let’s do it. Let’s reissue the record. Then Sub Pop in the US wanted the record, but they didn’t want to release it. They wanted to do it digitally, then I had to tell them they had to do it physically. It was horrible, and of course it didn’t sell for them at all, and they lost a ton of money on it again (laughs). It’s kind of sort of tragic. It was awful. It was awful trying to convince Sub Pop to do a record that they would [lose money on]. I was like, come on, do this for me. I know you’re going to do a lot of money on it, so please do it, and they did it and then we toured. But we’ve been touring like every three or four years since we broke up, actually. We never broke up, actually, let’s put it that way. I think the interest in the band has never really been that great, so whatever. We do it when we can do it. Like when our schedules allow.
How would you describe Eric Gaffney’s role in the band? He was your first member of Sebadoh and co-wrote many songs on the first album. He even rejoined in a resurrected Sebadoh that toured in 2007 and 2008. Why is he no longer a member?
He doesn’t really like to play drums at all (laughs), which is really what I like him to do … to be inspired and play drums like he really likes it. We did a reunion tour like a few years ago, and he played drums, but he wouldn’t play the drums, you know? We would try to teach him songs that he didn’t know, and he wouldn’t learn them. It was kinda like being with J and Murph. They’re really just not into learning… They’re not into me. They’re not into my stuff, so it was hard to like really get Eric to play songs that he didn’t actually play, on the original recordings, so it’s very difficult. He wants to be the leader of a band and play guitar, which is awesome, which is great. I’d love to be in a band with Eric Gaffney, but I would need him to give as much effort as I give to him. I need something reciprocal from him, and he’s really not into that.
Is he doing anything right now?
Eric is awesome. He’s a great musician, and he writes really interesting songs, but he’s just not into collaborating, and that’s my thing. With Sebadoh it’s really about collaboration. It’s about people working together, and Eric’s not really into working together. … If I want Eric Gaffney to learn a bunch of Bakesale songs, and he won’t learn them, where am I at? What do we do with that? Like we would literally, on the tours that we did, we would say, ‘Eric, here’s a song,’ and we gave him like a few songs, like ‘Love is Stronger Than the Truth,’ from a record that he didn’t play on. ‘Here’s the song, I would like to play it, and people would like to hear it.’ He fuckin’ wouldn’t learn it (laughs). We’d be halfway through the tour, and he’d still be stumbling through the fuckin’ breaks. What do you do with that? What do you fuckin’ do with that? In the meantime, he’s showing us new songs, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, man, bring it on. Fuck yeah!’ We’re like fuckin’ into anything that he brings, but then you try to bring something that he doesn’t know, and he’s just like, ‘I don’t know…’”
Where does this rock star attitude come from?
I don’t know, man. Everyone I know is a fuckin’ rock star… but not like Jason Loewenstein. Jason Loewenstein’s fuckin’ awesome. He’s into it. He does his best. The other people that I know like J and Eric and Murph, like those guys are like, ‘Hey, I’m not into this, so I’m not doin’ it.’ (laughs).
It’s going to be fun socializing with them on the cruise ship.
No, no, no. They’re awesome. They’re awesome people. I’m just sayin’ on a creative level … In my opinion, if you’re a musician, you fuckin’ play music, and if someone says you play a song, you fuckin’ learn the song, and you play it. No matter what your opinion was. If someone shows you a song, and you say, ‘I don’t think that song is very good,’ you don’t say that (laughs). You play it. You take it as a challenge. You say, OK, I’m going to try to add to this song in a way that might make it better or more interesting for myself. You don’t shut down and not give to it. You take it as a challenge. If you were given something that you don’t respond to, that’s a challenge to make it interesting for yourself. Not to make the fuckin’ person that handed a piece of your soul to you… every song that someone hands to you is a piece of their soul, and you make the fuckin’ best of that. You’re making a huge risk by handing something creative to someone else. If you were a friend, and also if you were a fuckin’ good person, you say, ‘OK, thank you, I will do my best.’ You don’t just say (in dumb voice): ‘I don’t know man, I’m not feeling it.’
Are you thinking about Eric when you are saying all this?
I’m thinking about J, I’m thinking about Eric… uhhhh (he sighs) it drives me fuckin’ nuts about some people.
What happened recently that has caused this to bubble up?
No, whatever, it’s happened my whole experience. Every record that I’ve ever made, except when I worked with Jason Loewenstein. He’s fuckin’ awesome. Jason Loewenstein, Bob [D'Amico], [Imaad] Wasif, the people that I worked with in the Folk Implosion, great. Although that’s different. Eric Gaffney, J Mascis, Murph, those, those guys are (dumb voice) ‘I don’t know man.’ (laughs) You’re, really? Really? (Cracks up).
It sounds like it’s going to be a long tour…
No, no, dude. It’s all good (laughs). I’m just explaining to you. This doesn’t bum me out to the point that I’m not going to do what I do. I’ve just discovered with musicians that I’ve worked with, you’ve got the guys that synch, you’ve got the guys that go, ‘I don’t know, man. I don’t like this. I don’t feel like playin’ it’ or you’ve got the guys that go, ‘Hey, I don’t like this. I don’t care. I’m going to fuckin’ play it coz I’m a fuckin’ musician’ (laughs). ‘I’m going to focus and do it, and I’m going to do my best, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to try to do something that I do like on it.’ There’s collaborators and there’s fuckin’ people that are not collaborators, and I’ve dealt with both and I deal with both, and I will continue to deal with both (laughs).
In the Freed Man [Sebadoh's debut album, when Sebadoh was just Barlow and Gaffney], you can tell there is a clash going on there.
Yeah, cause he played his own songs, and I was trying to involve him. I desperately wanted to be in a band with him, and I was just trying to involve him in the process and think, naively, that I would gain his trust (laughs). I was trying to gain his trust basically. Just looking back at it, it was amazing I just spent so much time trying to gain his trust … and then make him a collaborator. But I think when people are not collaborators, they’re not collaborators, unfortunately. You can’t make someone collaborate (laughs). As he collaborated with me, I thought that then I could collaborate with him, and that’s not really the case. That’s a big lesson that I learned.
I then ask Barlow whether this conversation is going on too long for him since I only requested 15 minutes. Then, he reveals, indeed he can cope fine with artistic differences while continuing to work with Dinosaur Jr. A member of Dinosaur was at his home all along during the interview, watching the two children Barlow has with his longtime wife. “Murph, the drummer of Dinosaur Jr., is watching our kids right now,” Barlow says. “He’s awesome.”
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.