Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow: “I have a complex relationship with weed”
Ahead of Sebadoh’s DOUG WALLEN talks to Lou Barlow about getting divorced, his complex relationship with weed and life on the road.
As scruffy as an alley cat on maybe its sixth or seventh life, 2013’s Defend Yourself was Sebadoh ’s first album in 14 years. It imparts constant hooks and itchy guitars on the way to just about falling apart, hitting on just about every touchstone that has made the US trio such a lasting influence in indie rock: There’s Lou Barlow’s heart-smart yearnings, Jason Loewenstein’s badass brooding and relatively new drummer Bob D’Amico’s galvanising energy. It’s dark, unpolished and often verging on the slapdash, making fine rumpled company for classics like 1993’s Bubble and Scrape and 1994’s Bakesale.
Touring Australia this month – having been here last in 2011 – Sebadoh boast a higher profile now than they have since the late 1990s. FL got Barlow on the phone from Baltimore – a stop on his constant touring as bassist in Dinosaur Jr. – to talk about divorce, weed, country music and decades spent on the road.
Listening to the new record, it’s got that real ramshackle quality. I know you guys recorded it yourself – was that something you were going for?
I guess we just wanted to keep it natural. And keep it simple. And easy. I mean, if we really wanted to make a big production and blow the songs into some other realm, that takes a lot of time. And money. And time [ laughs]. I think our best records that have been just like that: ramshackle. And I like that in music in general.
And you recorded it in New York and L.A.?
Yeah, the bulk of the band recordings were done in Los Angeles. The basic skeleton of the songs: bass, drums, guitar. But then the final flesh of the songs – for Jason, he did that at home in Brooklyn, and I finished my songs off in Los Angeles.
Do you think Bob’s drumming drove the songs in a certain direction? He’s a forceful drummer, and I definitely noticed his presence.
Yeah. The idea that I’ve been repeating lately, that I kind of stumbled upon, is that Bob is really the first drummer for Sebadoh that is really a drummer. Really embraces the drums. He actually wants to be a drummer, whereas I will say without exception that every person that’s played drums for Sebadoh before has not wanted to really be a drummer. That’s been part of their talents, but it’s nothing they want to settle on. That goes for everybody. None of them are right now even playing drums in bands. They’re all writing songs themselves or not playing at all.
So Bob’s the first person who’s like, “I’m a drummer.” When I handed him my basic song things, he really got in there and really tried to figure out ways to make them interesting for himself. He really thought about it. And that was just … that was kind of a revelation. It definitely, definitely propelled the recording process and just kept everything lively and really entertaining.
Some of Jason’s songs have a country or cowpunk quality to them. Do you think that’s something that’s creeping in a bit more?
Not to nit-pick – I think you’re right, in a way – but if you look at his first contribution to a Sebadoh record, on [1991’s] Sebadoh III, was a song called ‘Black-Haired Gurl’, which is pretty country in its way. That’s always crept underneath everything that we’ve ever done as a band. I mean, we’ve never done it really explicitly, for whatever reason, but lately it feels a little more natural when he does it, so we do it.
But it’s definitely something we’ve always listened to; it’s always influenced us. In my way, I always thought that Sebadoh was as much an Americana band as any band who was labelled an Americana band. But that’s just me. I think if you write folk songs, just because you don’t twang in them doesn’t make them less country.
Did you have a hefty backlog of songs leading up to this record?
No. I think we were ready. Obviously we showed up with a bunch of songs ready to go. We knew that we had a certain period of time. We just recorded every day that we had for two weeks, and then they [Jason and Bob] had to fly home. We just had songs. We probably could have done this record seven years ago with a whole different batch of songs.
And you had the EP Secret as well.
Yeah, there’s 13 songs on the record, five songs on the EP and two songs on the bonus 7”. So 20 songs altogether from the sessions.
When I reviewed the record, I described certain songs as “stoner pop.” Do you still smoke weed much?
I smoked weed regularly for a long time. Lately I haven’t. It wasn’t really even a conscious decision – all of a sudden I realised, ‘Oh, I’m not really smoking weed anymore.’ I think weed is wonderful with music – it’s a great combination – but I have a complex relationship with weed. Laughs I can talk about it for a long time. But right now I’m not really much of a regular smoker. I’m not sure how much weed really influenced the record.
So what do you mostly do in L.A., day-to-day?
I have my kids. [Since] the new Dinosaur Jr. record [2012’s I Bet on Sky, I’ve worked constantly. It was recording first and then just constant touring. I’m still just doing Sebadoh shows, Dinosaur shows, Sebadoh shows, Dinosaur shows. Then, when I do go home, I’m all about hanging out with my kids as much as possible. I’ve had some transitions in my personal life too, so I’m kind of working on a new domestic life.
Are you comfortable talking about your divorce?
You were with your partner a long time, and that became part of the Sebadoh mythology for some people, so it’s really interesting to finally have a new album and have that relationship end.
Yeah, because I was always very public about that relationship and how it influenced my songs. So, now, to be more mysterious about it doesn’t make sense to me. Laughs I mean, there’s parts of it that probably would have been best left private, but I threw that out the window years ago.
I think that’s part of why people have connected with the songs over the years – not having that filter.
‘State of Mine’ talks about Massachusetts [Barlow’s longtime state of residence] and California and kids – it definitely seems like a big song in that regard.
That one’s not so much about a breakup. I guess it’s more about – I don’t know whether I can say this without sounding cheesy, but just taking some ownership. Basically, the concept of the song is just holding my head up and taking responsibility for my actions. Y’know, rather than hiding, it’s about standing up. In some ways that process of taking responsibility for my life and being more honest with myself about what I want to do with my life definitely led me to the decision that I made, and that was probably the beginning of [the divorce].
Do you write on the road, with all that touring?
I used to. I did a lot. Now, because I’ve been touring so much and also because I’m just trying to stay connected to home, I’ve just become an iPhone person. I’m always IMing and FaceTime-ing. And then sitting there on the phone to just null my brain altogether [laughs]. So I’ve been lazy about writing in this particular cycle, just because it’s been so intense personally. I know there’ll be a time when I come down the stretch and start working on a body of new songs, but right now the horizon is just touring. That’s all I can see for the next nine months. I really do like writing on tour, and I know it’s coming. When I can actually afford to start taking the guitar along on tour, then I’ll probably start doing that.
“There was probably a brief moment in 1997 where I made more money selling records”
Is all that touring what you want to be doing, or is it just a necessity because that’s where you make money?
Well, it’s always been the way that I make more money. Always. There was probably a brief moment in 1997 where I made more money selling records or royalties [thanks to both Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion]. I’ve been touring and playing in bands for well over 25 years, and touring is it. That’s my job. There’s nothing else that really generates income that can actually help me support a family or really have a life. Or an adult life, I suppose.
Yeah, touring is a necessity. I really like it – I love touring – but there’s a part of me that would love nothing more than to be at home with my children and watching them grow up. I would love that.
Certain songs on the record remind of Sentridoh [Barlow’s older solo work], like ‘Let It Out’ and ‘Listen’. Did you think about keeping those as solo songs?
Maybe I might have, if I wasn’t doing a Sebadoh record. I think in both cases, and especially with ‘Listen’, I might have really worked on that one for a month and really made it into something really elaborate. I think the Sebadoh version is pretty simple. I can see what you’re saying, for sure. Those do have more of a … I guess they’re more private-sounding. ‘Let It Out’ for sure, the strumming pattern is way more like a solo song for me. But Bob and Jason play on it.
Did someone take the leadership when you were self-recording the album?
It was literally the three of us. Jason recorded the record. I mean, we’re three grown dudes, y’know [laughs]. We have a limited time together, we have things we want to do – actually playing and recording is more fun than sitting around. There was a really good energy for the recording of these songs. Definitely we created the momentum between the three of us and went with it.
There were things in each song for me that pointed to different eras of the band. It was almost like a retrospective, with all these Sebadoh identifiers popping up.
That’s cool. I like that idea.
Sebadoh Australia tour dates:
Friday, March 21 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Saturday, March 22 – Annandale Hotel, Sydney
Sunday, March 23 – Zoo, Brisbane
Tuesday, March 25 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Tickets on sale now from handsometours.com