Lou Barlow has been labeled “The People’s Champ of Lo-Fi” (a crown whose expectations he begrudgingly accepts), building his Alternative Nation royalty status with tenures in Dinosaur Jr., Folk Implosion, and his main squeeze, Sebadoh. After 14 years of licking their wounds from a fan revolt against their previous album (a crowd that doesn’t even smoke analog cigarettes anymore), The Sebadoh, Barlow returned with writing partner Jason Loewenstein (guitar, bass and vocals) and drummer Bob D’Amico to release The Secret EP and Defend Yourself in 2013. These records have laid to rest Barlow’s longtime relationship with his ex-wife—a relationship whose crests and crashes have been crooned out in 25 years of beautiful harmonies. Just before Sebadoh set off for tour, I was able to chat with Barlow about managing expectations and relationships.
It’s really unique that a band with your pedigree and profile still does self-recording. Even the DIY poster children, Fugazi, worked with Don Zientara. Did the reaction to The Sebadoh factor into a return to the “traditional” Sebadoh sound and recording techniques, or is that just your comfort zone?
Lou Barlow: Well it’s really out of necessity. It wouldn’t be realistic for us to go to a studio. We wouldn’t be able to be funded in a studio. To actually make a record in a studio where you could just sit down and relax and make a record, that would take $50,000. Studios are really expensive. We have to [record] in a way that is realistic. You can’t spend a lot of money making a record; that just doesn’t even out. Even for us, who have some sort of pedigree or whatever, the financial reality of it is that we don’t generate that much money. We make our money by touring. That luxury of having a big budget recording—that disappeared ages ago. Even with Dinosaur Jr., we work at home. We work out of J’s [Mascis] house and Dinosaur Jr. definitely has a lot more money at their disposal when it comes to making a record.
Looking back now after the early years of and departure from Dinosaur Jr. and the end of Folk Implosion, has Sebadoh been the most fulfilling “rebound” you could ever imagine?
Jason and I have always played together. The longest break we took was for maybe two years, from 2000 to 2002. Even during that break we were still talking. We were both touring, doing our own things and hooking up at certain times. Sebadoh has been my constant. It’s always been satisfying, especially since we put out our last record [The Sebadoh] and it went over terribly. People weren’t into us anymore. It’s been great since we took that break. Every show has been really fun. I no longer feel any sense of expectation. No pressure.
I’m actually one of your fans that really liked The Sebadoh. “Flame” is a solid jam. It made its way onto many mixtapes.
Yeah, I really liked that record myself. I thought it was really strong, instrumentally. I thought it sounded good. We really worked on getting that sound. It’s so funny: now I read about it and people are like, “Oh, it’s totally overproduced!” I’m like, “Are you shitting me?” [laughs] No, we fucking worked on making it sound powerful for sure. But overproduced? It’s like, I don’t know… overproduced? Compared to what?
Compared to a tape recorder at a live show I guess.
[laughs] Totally. I thought the records before were [more overproduced]. I thought Harmacy was definitely overproduced. I think it’s just perception. The perception is that [Harmacy] was a lo-fi record. The other perception was that The Sebadoh was a major label deal and so it is thus overproduced, but I don’t know… whatever.
Do you ever feel trapped by that lo-fi royalty status?
It’s just like an easy thing for people. It’s sort of a bummer because it means that people haven’t actually listened to the records. That’s all. It’s like, “Really?!” I don’t know if that personally makes me feel trapped; it’s just the fact of the matter. It’s just the way that the band was marketed… People always say really stupid simplistic things about everything. [laughs] I do it everyday. I make all of those crazy kind of asshole- ish generalizations about [things] constantly. That’s just how we’ve come to process things. There’s just so much shit to process in the world that we generally have to label things with some sort of simplistic name or symbol to make it easier to move on and process all of the other stuff we are being bombarded with.
How hard did you laugh when Defend Yourself debuted at number 1 on the “New Alternative Artists” Billboard chart?
I didn’t know that that had actually happened [at the time]. I guess I heard about it. I was psyched, I guess. [laughs] I mean, even though that’s ridiculous… I don’t know… I guess it is better to be considered new than old, otherwise it wouldn’t have been noted at all I suppose.
Will the current tour’s set list contain hits from your whole catalog, or are you guys focusing mainly on Defend Yourself and The Secret EP?
What we are doing now is an extension of the Bakesale/Harmacy tour. That’s the heart of the set. The new stuff sits really well with it, too. We touch on every record. Saying we touch on them I guess doesn’t really mean much when there are like 23 songs on some records, but we play songs from all periods of the band.
I have to ask about the Weezer cruise. What were the logistics of that? How did that work?
Sebadoh was asked to do it. We flew to Miami and got on a boat and there was a bunch of rental gear there that we had requested. The company that runs the Weezer cruise also runs a lot of other cruises, so they are set up to do these rock cruises. It’s an incredibly well-oiled machine. They set up gigs at a bunch of spots around the boat, like the lounge and the main deck. They run it like a festival. Then there’s a bunch of people that come, and some just get completely wasted all day or they enjoy the buffet and walk around the cruise ship. It has that festival thing mixed with that strange cruise ship lifestyle, and we get to play around it. I enjoyed it. I liked the captive audience aspect of it. It’s weird for sure; it’s very strange. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but while some people really hated it, I liked it.
It’s pretty interesting that they are just stuck there and can’t get away.
Yeah, I mean, I played to a bunch of people that I would have never played to otherwise. So it was cool.
Now that you’ve toured all over the world and played all types of venues, what has been your most surreal tour experience?
I think it’s only happened once or twice, but Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. played a show together in Portland. They wanted us to do a show that encompassed all of Dinosaur Jr. and its surrounding music. J played solo, then Sebadoh played a set and then Dinosaur Jr. all in one night; and that was pretty awesome and surreal, for me. Then the cruise, obviously: I played with Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr. and solo. Every day I was playing with both bands [and/ or] solo, so it was really amazing.
“I Will” (the opening track on Defend Yourself) is a song about divorcing your wife of 25 years because someone else has come along. Was accepting the blame perhaps easier, after having to swallow some crow in repairing any strained relationships during the refocusing of Sebadoh and your return to Dinosaur Jr.?
Yeah, maybe. I guess that’s been suggested, or I’ve talked about that before. You have to find situations that work. You can’t get stuck in stuff, and a lot of stuff that I [made public] with the Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. situations was me kind of saying what I needed out of a situation. Just getting down to business or getting past emotional stuff. All of it is part of a bigger personal issue in my life, just taking responsibility for things and trying to make things work. Although I don’t know if leaving my wife was really employed by everything I learned in Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. If that was the case I guess I’d never leave her. A lot of being in a band is like, “Oh that’s never going to change,” but it’s fine because that’s just a dude you are in a band with. You’re in a band; you make music. You sit and you make music with them and have intense times making music, creating and going on tour, but you still get your whole personal life. I just decided that it’s something that people do, it’s very common… you hit middle-age, which I have [laughs] …admittedly, totally. I’m firmly in middle age. In that time, people make decisions about how they are going to live their life, and maybe that means making a huge change. That’s what happened to me.
Is it harder to be civil with ex- bandmates or ex-wives?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I have a problem with either. I used to drive my ex-wife crazy because I could run into and talk to somebody who I had a very rich history of disappointment and hatred with, and I could be absolutely happy to see them. It would be like seeing a long lost brother. [laughs] No matter what happened between myself and somebody else, I’m never going to sit there and glare at them. Definitely when it comes to getting a divorce —I mean I have children, I see my ex-wife practically every other day. It’s another stage of our relationship. It evolves, and the one thing that helps with all of that when you see people, you remember the good times more than the bad times. Even the bad situations that they were involved in, even with the people who have caused me the most emotional stress or people that I’ve had the biggest fights with, the fact is that the good stuff always outweighs the bad stuff. When I look at everything I’ve done with these incredibly important people in my life, all of the really amazing stuff that happened with us far outweighs the bad stuff. Unfortunately, it’s the bad stuff that always sticks with you and that you struggle with, but it is really easy for me to see the good things when I see these people.
Has all of this made you a big Louis CK fan?
Awww shoot yeah! He used to do all of these routines about his wife and how terrible their relationship was and it would be so, “Oh god!” That hit so close to the bone. Then when I heard that he separated or divorced his wife and then his show was all about that— that all happened before those same situations in my life happened. I had just related to him so much already anyway, and then when he got divorced I was like, “Really? He made that move? Holy fuck!” [laughs] I couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to be complaining about his wife in his act for the rest of his life.
Much like Louis CK and his act, the whole cycle of your relationship and eventual marriage was played out through your records.
Oh yeah. Even when I was in the midst of really breaking up with my wife she would be like, “Goddamn it! Fuck you, I’m still hearing your old songs in my head!”
Were any of your song lyrics used against you in divorce court?
Oh, no, no, no. I’m not going to divorce court. I’m having a very long, very amicable protracted separation/ divorce. That’s what I’m in for. There’s not any of that nonsense going on.
In “State of Mine” you talk about the fears of adulthood and watching your children growing up. How difficult is it to miss some of your children’s formative years and milestones because of your art? What missed moment weighs heaviest on you?
When I’m home I spend so much time with my kids now, because I have made this change in my life. It’s changed my relationship with my children. I experience a much more intense level than I did when I was living with them and their mother. As far as regretting stuff, I can’t even think about that. It’s just the way it is. If I sit and torture myself about all of the things I’m going to miss, it creates so much anxiety and sadness that I can’t even focus on what I do have. I just have to concentrate on the times that I see them. Also, even if I hadn’t divorced their mother I’d still miss [them] just as much. That’s been a fact of my life for a long time. Traveling is such a big part of what I do that I’m not going to be there for every milestone. Right now my children are young and those milestones are things that are more slow transformations than they are experiencing, so I do get to experience a lot of stages of that. As far as missing their graduation and stuff, that’s a huge difference. [laughs] I don’t know how I’ll deal with something like that. All those big things, you know? Those are later disappointments. Those are waiting for me.
Do you think your kids think you are cool? Do you think they have any understanding of your place in music history?
Mine are too little. If I play music around them— if I actually sit and sing with them, it brings them to tears in like ten seconds. They can’t even stand it. They have such an ambivalent relationship to what I do, when the fact is that it does take me away from them. But I can imagine it from their point of view, to see your parent transform into this act of singing. When they see me singing, they see their father transform into this other creature. It must be kind of intense for them.
Do fans ever approach you when you are out running errands with them?
Rarely. It’s kind of cool when it happens. It happened the other day. We went through security at the airport and the security guy knew who I was. My daughter was really impressed. She was like, “He knew who you are.” I was like, “Yeah, you know…” [laughs] It was kind of funny because it was probably the first time she was like, “Huh? Interesting.” It happens so rarely, so when it does happen it’s kind of neat. It’s like seeing a friend. For me, it’s like, “Oh great, you saw me play some show. Great. Awesome.” It makes me feel like there is something I have in common with someone.
Sebadoh will be performing at Gasa Gasa on Tuesday February 11th. Octagrape and HiGH will open. They will also be playing at The Boxer and The Barrel in Houma on Wednesday, February 12th. For more info, check out sebadoh.com