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Lou Barlow is an indie-rock icon. As a founding member of both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, he is considered one of the most important musicians in American alternative rock. Barlow is credited with pioneering and popularizing the lo-fi music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the album “Sebadoh III” is now considered the defining album of 90s indie rock.
With Sebadoh touring Australia in late March, Brandon Voight sat down with the LA-based, rock legend for a chat.
Dwarf: Lou, your last tour in Australia was in 2011, what are your expectations for the upcoming tour?
Lou Barlow: Expectations? [laughs] I guess I go by a show-by-show basis . . . I guess I’m hoping people come to the show. Generally I don’t put a whole lot of thought into it – I do my best, and think about that show that day, and do my best.
DWARF: Do you have any memories about your last tour here – positive or negative?
LB: The last time we [Sebadoh] were in Sydney was really surprising. We played the same place that Dinosaur Jr. had played and it was almost as full for us as it was for Dinosaur Jr. – which was shocking to me. I don’t know if we’ll be able to repeat that.
DWARF: Yes, I think your Sydney show [at the Factory Theatre] is sold out [Note - A Second Show has just gone on sale]
LB: Yes, well, I remember being really surprised by the amount of people who came to see us last time.
DWARF: With about 30 years of performing do you have standout memories of any of your concerts?
LB: Oh gosh [laughs] . . . We just completed a tour of Southern USA, and we played in a place called Knoxville Tennessee and it was a very small club, but it was packed with people and we had a great night. My expectations are simple and I don’t really have any grand schemes or dreams of what I do – it’s a night-by-night thing. There are highlights of every tour. And the new highlights replace the old ones. I have as lot of really good memories of playing everywhere.
DWARF: As a musician, do you have a preference for recording or performing live?
LB: No – both are very necessary. I’ve had great experiences with both, and terrible experiences with both. I find the older I get the more I enjoy both – recording and playing. I don’t prefer one of the other. They’re two very different things. I love the process of recording - I go into a very focused space – a tunnel vision. When I play rock shows it’s a very social business. On some days there is nothing I want to do but record, but then when I’m on a really good tour, if I had my family with me I could tour for the rest of my life.
DWARF: You are well known for, and strongly associated with the lo-fi and home-recording scene. Is that what you still prefer over the big studio production?
LB: You know if I had a lot of money I might prefer the studio. If I had a studio at my disposal and I could go in every day and spend a thousand dollars a day recording, I’m sure recording in a studio would be wonderful. But as that’s not really the case, I’m always going to come back to recording at home. It’s the most affordable way and the most comfortable way to do it. For me it’s about finding a place I’m comfortable. I’ve been comfortable in studios before and very comfortable at home. But recording at home is where I’m at.
DWARF: What’s your view of the impact of a producer and what they bring to the band and the recording process? I’m thinking, for example, of people like George Martin – who became known as the “fifth Beatle”, which suggests his creativity and efforts were equal to the other four band members.
LB: It depends on the producer. Some producers are incredible people. The best producers are incredibly emotionally talented as they are technically brilliant. They connect to a situation, put at artist at ease, and basically make the recording process almost like a conversation. And some people are amazing so I would never make a blanket statement like “Ah producers – who needs them”, because I don’t believe that. If you look at my favourite records, or if you just take out records in general, you’ll see the same names popping up. You’ll see the guy who recorded the first Velvet Underground record was the same guy who recorded Bob Dylan. And you’ll find the same people. They are gifted and they bring out the best in people, but they’re also very expensive. In a practical sense I think its best to start at home, with someone you’re comfortable with, and work from there.
DWARF: You mentioned earlier that you’ve toured here, both with Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. What is the fundamental difference between those experiences, apart from the set list?
LB: It’s almost as simple as with Sebadoh I sing lead vocals and play guitar on at least half the songs, but both (bands) are similar as they’re three people on stage together – based on old relationships I formed when I was very young. So I have a strong connection with the people I play with (in both bands). But the delivery of Dinosaur Jr. is very different, almost like classic rock, whereas, as you said, Sebadoh comes from that lo-fi tradition of things. We’re a bit more venerable, and stylistically we vary a bit more, so it’s different in that way. But the two of them are remarkably similar – they’re both three guys on stage.
DWARF: "Sebadoh III" which was released in 1991 has become known as the defining album of 90s indie rock. How has that affected your view of the band’s legacy?
LB: “Sebadoh III” is a strange record. After that we became a much more streamlined band. We became more of a live band after that record, and our later albums reflected that we were playing to larger crowds. Whereas “Sebadoh III” was almost a studio concoction – a lot of it was recorded at home. The recordings were very idiosyncratic. It really stands between being incredibly quiet and this screaming noise. It reflects our band in a formative state. It makes it an enduring record . . . Its interesting and strange and depending where you’re coming from, it can be very scary or very familiar and calming for you to hear. I like that. I’m very proud of that record. It doesn’t really represent what the band became, when we started [after the album] to travel and tour, but that’s what we had to do to survive, so we did.
DWARF: Obviously the Internet has had a huge impact on the music industry – with music readily available for legal and illegal download, and social media and web sites for bands to easily connect with their fans. In this digital age how will that change lo-fi and indie rock?
LB: I don’t know. It seems like its made things more direct – people in very modest terms at home making music and wanting to share it with people. Back in the day, before the Internet, you had to send your cassettes off to people. And you would trade cassettes. Now that’s still happening but now it’s now more immediate, and doing it for the thrill of sharing and not to make money. That’s not going to change – there will always be a group of people making music and not for money. When I started I never though “oh yeah, this will be a career for me” I was doing it for the thrill of making music and sharing it. The Internet has made it more immediate and what was happening will happen even more, I think for young kids it’s awesome and awesome for people to discover talents, discover creativity - the thrill of discovering something.
DWARF: What do you see as the immediate future for Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr?
LB: I don’t really know. The funny thing about both bands is that even though we’ve had such longevity, our futures are always really fuzzy. I never really know more than a few months into the future. With Dinosaur Jr I know J’s making a solo record, and in some ways I always imagine that J at any moment will decide he doesn’t want to do it any more. And in the same way with Sebadoh, I can see us touring for the immediate future for sure. Were getting offers to play in South America for the first time, so were going to do that after Australia and then go back to Europe again. Were going to put out a new record and do some more travelling following the release of that record, but logistically I don’t know how were going to get together to make that record. I have those kind of realistic concerns – you know I don’t know how were going to make that happen. So it’s fuzzy. It’s interesting that these things that are so long lasting and consistent in my life are also things I’m never sure what the next step is.
DWARF: There must be some element of that which makes it exciting?
LB: Um, I don’t know. Not now I have children [laughs]. I think it’s what everybody deals with who has jobs. It’s a very common thing. I find myself sometimes saying “man you don’t understand I a musician and I don’t know where my next dollar is coming from”. But when I step back a little bit and see what other people are doing and how they feel about their jobs – doing quote-unquote ‘normal jobs’ – they feel the same way – everyone feels the same way especially when they have families and they’re thinking about the future and they’re looking to the future. So in a lot of ways what I do is not that different to other people.
DWARF: I know we’re out of time, but one last question - a lot of your music and lyrics are very personal - are you ever concerned about sharing that and sharing that so publicly – your personal views, thoughts, feelings, and concerns?
(note: some reviewers harshly critiqued "Defend Yourself” with repeated references to Barlow’s recent divorce)
LB: Yeah, I guess so – there are some periods where I’m really concerned about it and it really affects my vision. I guess the latest thing I’ve done, there were a lot of changes in my life and that we done almost concurrently with me being really honest – I have to be really honest in my songs, that’s the only way I can be passionate about what I do – if I feel that in some way I’m accessing a truth, or telling a truth. But yes, it’s sometimes a concern but I also know a lot of the people I’m trying to talk to, or the people I’m writing songs about don’t listen to what I say anyway [laughs].
DWARF: Lou thank you, we’re looking forward to the tour.
Sebadoh National Tour
March 21, Corner Hotel, Melbourne
With Bored Nothing, Pearls and Freak Wave
March 22, Factory Theatre, Sydney (Matinee)
With Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys
March 22, Factory Theatre, Sydney (Evening)
With Fait Accompli
March 23, The Zoo, Brisbane
With Blank Realm and Major Leagues
March 25, Rosemount Hotel, Perth
With Emperors and Red Jezebel
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