Ohio-born Lou Barlow’s musically formative years were spent not only avoiding the synthetic sounds of the first new wave, but rather languishing in the potential of low-fi analogue recording before it became the must-have sound of a whole scene. His grasp of what would one day be known as the ‘slacker sound’ and love of chunky, distorted bass was eventually put to good use in indie monsters, Dinosaur Jr. – the band he formed with high school mate Joe (later sheered down to simply ‘J’) Mascis in 1984. But it was Barlow’s home recordings side-project Sebadoh which has reigned consistently in the artist’s life. Now with sackings, bickering and ego-clashes behind him, Lou is back working with both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh; the latter of whom are currently celebrating the reissue of 1994 breakthrough album Bakesale.
Giving his side of the story of two bands that never really split up, Lou Barlow begins from the rarely known comfort of his home. “I’ve been home in LA for almost two months, which is so weird. I haven’t been at home for this long… ever in my life!” Barlow’s chosen path – two active bands and a solo career – has of course meant that the road is always calling. Although a self-confessed DIY junkie preferring to work alone, Barlow couldn’t be more removed from loner-dom, but not as begrudgingly as one might expect. The re-formed ‘classic line-up’ of Dinosaur Jr. have been regularly touring since 2005, while Sebadoh continue to have reunion tours every couple of years. But for Barlow, this duality is just the card he’s been dealt.
“The two bands occupy different parts of my brain; they both have their own very distinct musical identities. I play different songs with different people in the two bands and that separation has ruled my existence for most of my life now, so it’s not something I really think about anymore.” He continues, “Dinosaur are touring the US in about a week before I bring Sebadoh out to Australia, so the two are almost overlapping at this stage.” Most fans are in agreement (and Lou himself), that Dinosaur Jr. produced their best work with Barlow in the line-up. Their first three albums, Your Living All Over Me, Dinosaur and Bug – for the most part – defined the growing, underground indie scene in America which culminated in the grunge explosion. Now that the original line-up are touring and recording again after many ‘lost years’ – during which time Dinosaur Jr. produced albums Lou is only too happy to offer his opinion on – Barlow concedes it was an inevitable reunion.
“In hindsight I think, how could Dinosaur not get back together.” He shrugs, “In Sebadoh, we never had the kinds of problems that I did working in Dinosaur, I mean, I’ve never felt the need to split Sebadoh up. We never had a falling out or anything, it was more of sigh if than a shout,” he explains of their regular hiatuses, “We were like, ah, this isn’t going so well at the moment let’s just go do something else for a while. But Dinosaur felt like a very definite end… for me at least.” Lou laughs, recalling his unceremonious booting out by Mascis in 1988, “I really didn’t know if it would be possible for us to work together again until J was actually right there asking me, you know. It was wonderfully natural when it did happen and I didn’t even have to think about how I was going to respond. The bottom line is, I love the music we made together way more than I disliked anyone in the band or any of the personal bullshit that went down between us.” At the start, Lou and J Mascis bonded well as both were singers, writers and fans of weird, musical cross-pollination, but Mascis was soon began throwing his weight around as leader in Dinosaur Jr. Lou’s contributions to the albums became lesser as Mascis’s in-band domination grew until there was no room left for anybody else.
Lou continues, “Music makes it all better for me, but looking back I am really glad I was kicked out of Dinosaur. It was an amazing gift awarded to my mental health.” Lou laughs, “Murph [Emmett Murphy – drummer] and I talked about this – he stayed on longer in Dinosaur than me – but we were both having these panic attacks and neither one knew at the time about the other. When I got kicked out of the band, my panic attacks stopped and the same happened to Murph.” He adds, “When we both rejoined the band [in 2005], thankfully they didn’t return, but the difference was I knew what I was getting myself into rejoining that band [Dinosaur Jr.]. I wasn’t like ‘Yay, it’s gonna be all different now’, it was more like I felt I could take it.”