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    holding back the years with) Lou Barlow

    by: John Wenzel

    It would take a stylistic reversal of Rod Stewart proportions for Lou Barlow to shake the lo-fi, indie rock tag he’s earned over the years. As a founding member of some of the most influential underground acts of the past two decades (Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Folk Implosion, etc.), Barlow has practically cornered the market on intelligent, vaguely self-loathing, melodic rock that toes the blurry line between revelatory and self-indulgent.

    Now that Barlow’s a new father and solo artist, his often-manic approach to recording and performance has settled down a bit. Fortunately, the songwriting on his latest release, Emoh, is stronger than anything he’s done in years, helped greatly by crisp production and tight, measured performances. SPONIC’s Vernal Equinox issue seemed like the perfect time to catch up with Mr. Barlow; I’d heard that Dinosaur Jr. were getting back together for a tour, that Merge is re-releasing several Dinosaur albums, and that Barlow is in talks with former Sebadoh multi-instrumentalist Eric Gaffney to re-release classic Sebadoh discs.

    In the process, I got Barlow to open up about the motivation behind his insanely prolific early 4-track home recordings, his infamous animosity towards J. Mascis, and the joys of shunning a day job in favor of a much shakier – and creatively fulfilling – life as a touring musician. When I called him at home he was putting his baby to sleep, talkative, thoughtful and open to some fairly needling questions from a rabid, sleep-deprived, Sebadoh fanboy-turned-music writer.


    SPONIC: Was it easy for you to create an album like Emoh that sounds so wide-open and airy, or did you have to repress the tendency to layer and add lots of elements?

    No… I guess I started out thinking it was going to be more minimal. When I listen to it I hear a lot of things that I added to it. I really thought at first I’d get away with recording these spare, just like guitar and voice kinda things. When I did that I was like, “That’s not enough.� So I went about coloring it in. From what people have been telling me, and what I’ve heard, I think the stuff I added is so subtle it doesn’t really overwhelm anything. Most of the songs at their core were just these acoustic songs I had. Sometimes when I’ve been in a situation where I layer stuff a lot it’s usually if I recorded the song before it’s finished, or I wrote it while I was recording it. Or if you add an instrumental bed first. There’s only one song on the record that’s like that. Some of these songs I’ve been carrying for a while.

    In his zine Erasing Clouds, longtime SPONIC contributor Dave Heaton said, “It’s actually quite weird to me how much Emoh feels both like a typical Lou Barlow album and like an especially coherent and accomplished one.� What do you think of that comment?

    Yeah, um, I don’t know. Because I did it alone I just wasn’t using too many people as filters. Almost everything I’ve worked on – at least in the last five years or so, maybe more than that, maybe even since Bakesale – I’ve been really collaborative with people. All the way through the recording process, a lot of times I would kind of… What was the question again? (I repeat the question). Oh yeah, I guess I really focused, you know? I was very sure about the songs I had chosen for the record and because I had been carrying them around with me it was pretty easy for me to figure out what a good version of the songs was. Because I was the only one deciding what a good version of the song was, if I wasn’t totally happy with something I would just totally bag it altogether.

    Whereas before when you involve other people in the process, people sometimes get pissed off when you want to redo the song. People are like, “No man, it’s great the way it is! You’ve gotta get outside yourself and hear it!� But left to my own devices, it was like, “No, it’s not done.� And there was nobody there to argue with me. So I was able to make all the radical decisions I wanted to until I arrived at something I was happy with. Not so much arriving at the “perfect� song, but just getting the feeling right. If I get the feeling right I can deal with little inconsistencies and flubs. I guess I’m the only one who really knows what that feeling is. I’m the only one that knows what my voice should sound like. Sometimes I’ll listen to something from a few years ago and think, “Who thought my voice sounded good that way? Why wasn’t the EQ tweaked?� I pretty much know what the best, most natural sound of my voice is. In the past I often defaulted to other people simply because they were twiddling the knobs.

    Do you think the emo connotation of the title of the album might be a bit misleading to people not familiar with your work? I’m guessing you named it that because it was mostly recorded at home, and Emoh is home spelled backwards…

    I don’t know. I guess calling my album Emoh… when you listen to the record there’s no histrionic vocals on it. It certainly doesn’t sound like “emoâ€? as I understand it. But also, for whatever reason, I’ve been getting the last couple years… like when Sebadoh did a reunion tour, people were mentioning Sebadoh (as) “emo forebears.â€? I never thought we were emo. But as I understood what maybe the influence of Sebadoh on something like emo was, maybe the honesty of the lyrics, like lyrically or philosophically somehow. When my friend Adam thought up the title for Emoh he just thought it was funny. It made sense to me. It served all the requisites of a good title: It’s gotta be kinda funny and it has to have at least three or four meanings to it. Em-oh. “Ohâ€? is obviously like Sebad-“oh,â€? Sentri-“doh.â€? I’ve always kind of carried this “ohâ€? theme through what I’ve done. That really appealed to me. That was a selling point. I really resisted naming the album after myself for a while, so it was good to get the “ohâ€? in there.

    An early version of the Emoh song “Morning’s After Me� was on that Col. Jeffrey Pumpernickle comp with GBV, Quasi, Giant Sand and all those other bands. Is everything on the new record pretty much new, or did you dust off any other old stuff?

    It’s hard to say. I guess I’d have to look at the record to see… (sound of him ruffling through CDs). “Royalty� is a fairly recent one, but if I really think about, I began writing it almost three years ago, but I didn’t finish it until recently. “Imagined Life� is recent, but I thought of the melody for it three years ago. Often if I’d think of a melody and it sticks with me I’ll just wait until it finds lyrics, and I’ll wait as long as it takes. I’ll carry it with me for four or five years.

    You don’t demo it or anything just to get it out there?

    I know (the melodies) are good if they stay in my head. I figure, if it had to record it to remember it then it wasn’t that good. A good melody is something I should be able to live with, without recording it or slavishly trying to document it. It ‘s something that has to prove itself by just floating around, as opposed to being recorded. That’s my criteria for a lot of the songs on the record. Like, these are melodies that just lived in my head and made themselves worthy of me spending the time to find the lyrics to them, and worthy to find the right performance.

    While not unprecedented for you, there are more story-oriented songs on Emoh than anything I’ve heard from you, like “The Ballad of Day Kitty� and “Mary.� Can you see yourself ever doing an entire album like that, even if the individual songs didn’t have much to do with each other thematically?
    Maybe. I mean, I guess those are the kind of songs that my dad really likes. Whenever I do write a song like that, like a narrative song, he’s like, “That’s what you should be writing.� My typical songs are these kind of very personal things that don’t have a whole lot of detail in them. I can’t describe it. But maybe, the first thing I think of when you ask that, maybe now that I have a kid, maybe I’ll do that. I think the reason that I almost resist those kind of songs is like, "Why would I hold the listeners hand all the way through this and set it up like a story? Who do I think I am? I’m not the great storyteller." I want to write songs that people make their own, then terrorize their friends with on mixtapes. Those are the songs I tend toward. I always stay away from songs that are too much like, “Hey! Here I am, a guy with a guitar telling a story.�

    Your cover of Ratt’s “Round and Round� is great, partly because it’s so straight-faced, and it reveals a nice vocal melody that was previously buried under all that hairspray and shitty guitar. Unlike your fairly sarcastic rendition of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You� that you did a few years ago, “Round and Round� is pretty direct. What made you want to cover it in that way?

    I really liked it. I had a real soft spot back in the day for those types of songs. I thought the hair metal period was actually a pretty good period of pop music, with Ratt and Cinderella and Motley Crue. There were some great songs, I thought. I didn’t buy the records… it was like early MTV kinda stuff, and when the video’d come on I’d be like, “All right, crank it up.� I always liked the song though. I thought, “Man, I gotta cover a Ratt song.� I thought their good songs were great. I wanted to try “Lay it Down� but it didn’t work.

    So I just kinda defaulted to their first single. I did it pretty much because I knew that it would just kinda lighten my live shows a little bit – it would add some levity or breathing space when I was playing. When I began to play solo acoustic shows more regularly, I almost had this feeling that during the show I’d be digging this huge hole, (playing) songs I dearly love, but everything would have this cumulative effect of like, “Ugggghhhh.…. thanks, Lou.� I wanted something to break that up and prove to people I had a sense of humor. I was just noticing how people were reacting (in a live setting) and I wanted to give them some breathing space. That’s song’s awesome, because people generally don’t know what it is until the chorus kicks in. That’s really satisfying, ‘cause you hear people bursting out laughing…

    This may seem like a weird question, but I’m from Dayton, which is where Rob Heater and I started really getting SPONIC together. I recently found that you were originally born in Dayton, which, along with Bob Pollard, now makes it the birthplace of two insanely prolific, lo-fi pioneering indie rock institutions. How did you later end up in Amherst, Mass. from Dayton?
    I was born at Good Samaritan Hospital and so was Bob Pollard, and maybe even Kim Deal. I lived in Dayton for like, two years… the first two years my life. Both sides of my family live there. My dad’s side is particularly entrenched. My great grandfather that I’m named after was mayor of Dayton in the ‘50s. But my dad moved to Jackson, Michigan after that. And we lived there until I was 12, then moved Westfield, Mass. Not Amherst! That’s where all the rich people are. Westfield is more of a blue-collar town.

    The last time you played Denver with Jason Lowenstein on your acoustic tour, you introduced “The Freed Pig� as a mean song you wrote about someone a long time ago. Have you dismissed your well-publicized bitterness towards J. Mascis and getting kicked out of Dinosaur back in the day?

    I was just sorta fucking around. I don’t still feel bad about it. The thing that I’m most sheepish about is that I even told anybody who the song was about. I regret doing that, because it stands on its own as a good song. When I first started, I tended to reveal the sources of the song and I think that had a way of diminishing the song, because if I didn’t, people had to deal with the fact that it was a really precise, really good song about a breakup. People could personalize it and make it their own. Because when I added the J. Mascis element to the song, it became that, when really it’s just a good break up song. I defaulted to that sensationalistic, reality TV kind of approach when I should have just let people figure it out for themselves. That’s probably the only thing I regret, is that I didn’t let songs speak for themselves and let people figure them out for themselves. People should really just be like, “Wow, that’s a cool song, I wonder what that’s about?� I just played too much into that cult of personality.

    I recently heard Eric Gaffney’s Fields of Gaffney 7� and I thought it was pretty crappy, leading me to think that everything good about Weed Forestin, The Freed Man and III was you and, later, Jason Lowenstein. Gaffney sounds like he just crawled out of a hibernation chamber. More of the same simple screechy stoner rock… Anyway, do you ever wonder if and how your songwriting has matured over the years?

    Sometimes there’s things you do… things I did when first wrote songs, that I listen to now and I’m like, “Oh my god, how did I do that?� Certain things on Sebadoh III I listen to and I’m like, “Wow.� I released so much of that four-track stuff in that period that it had the effect of sorta obscuring the good stuff at the time. But I had an attitude that people should just sort through everything, that that’s fun. Why craft the perfect record when you can release a CD with like 50 songs on it? (laughs) But there are certain things that I did back then that I’m like, “That’s great. How did I do that?� But then at the same time I’d say, yeah, my songwriting certainly has matured. Emoh is a pretty good example of taking the same themes I’ve been working with since day one – the same strumming style, same types of lyrics – but articulating it even more, sparking it out, making it more textural. Just opening up my style considerably.

    But I’ll hear things from back in the day and it’s that same thing I do with my favorite band, where there are certain things about their very early recordings that are so incredible, that no matter how much they mature, you still gotta refer back to them and be like, “Man…â€? Like Neil Young; I can’t say he did anything quite like "Expecting to Fly" from Buffalo Springfield, which is this incredible piece of music that he could never quite recreate, given that he went onto to incredible things. It’s weird… I think about that a lot. Like, how I have spent all this time maturing and becoming a “better songwriterâ€? and “more consistentâ€?? But there are certain things I did when I was in the first full of blush of writing songs and discovering sounds that resonate to me as the most mature things I’ve recorded, in a weird way. You can’t get too hung up on it, and you can’t spend time trying to convince people, “Man, my new stuff’s way better than my old stuff.â€? But the recordings speak for themselves.

    I once read this hilarious interview with you in this skate magazine Big Brother that was totally confrontational and asshole-ish. It mocked you for having a bloody nose and being stoned and all kinds of stuff on your tour bus. It’s the same magazine that sent one of Britt Daniel’s old college flings to interview him about Spoon, and she like confronted him about a date rape in college and he got all pissed off and left. Anyway, do things like that make you wary of interviewers, or do you just kind of take that stuff as it comes?

    Oh, I take it as it comes. You know what I mean? I sort of feel like I’ve seen people try to control interviews on the artist side. Eric Gaffney’s like that…you can’t control the world outside of you. If you’re putting yourself into the public, you pretty much have no control at all. The only thing you can control is the content of your record, and even after that it’s totally up to other people. The more you get pissed off and try to control it, and the more you protest it, the more of an asshole you look like. I remember that Big Brother thing and I thought it was funny. I mean, I don’t remember being pissed off about it. I know I’m going to sound like dipshit regardless of what I say. Seriously. I can give long interviews when I just come out sounding like an idiot and there’s just nothing I can do about it. So I don’t care… maybe a little bit, but there’s nothing you can do. I’m just lucky people even wanna talk to me, seriously. I’m lucky I get interviewed.
    I hope this question isn’t too personal, but do you mind me asking if have a day job? For some reason I just can’t picture you sitting at a computer in an office somewhere, and with your kid how do you support your family?

    I wish I had a day job right now. But no, I don’t have a day job. I haven’t had one since… I had one briefly after I was kicked out of Dinosaur as an orderly at a VA hospital. (I’ve wanted one) the last couple years living in L.A., cause it’s so fucking expensive, and because I really took my time after Sebadoh sort of broke up and Folk Implosion collapsed. I really took my sweet time trying to get my shit back together. In that interim I’ve just been hemorrhaging money. My wife worked for a while in education and of course, there’s no money for education, so she lost her job, got pregnant and didn’t go back to work. We’re kind of one-income family, but my income is pretty chaotic. It’s not like I don’t want to get a job, but there are moments at like 4 o’clock in the morning where I’m just like, “Hmm… it would be kinda cool to get like $500 a week. That would be a lot better than liquidating our IRAs.� I’ve been holding out hope that I’ll do this record, I’ll get back on the road and everything’ll get back into shape. I have a lot of faith in that but there are moments when I kind of freak out.

    And finally, the standard SPONIC question: what’s your favorite mixed drink?

    I kind of stay away from mixed drinks. I put ice cubes in wine… that’s kind of a mixed drink, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s great in the summer because also it has a way of diluting it. I buy the cheapest like, $2 Trader Joe’s wine I can get my hands on, so ice cubes seem like a really good idea. Mixed drinks, that’s just asking for trouble… serious hangovers. I can’t even manage that shit anymore. If I’m going to drink hard alcohol I have to stick to one type of whiskey or scotch and not deviate at any moment. Don’t even think about drinking a beer or switching liquor, cause if I do the next day it’s like fucking suicide!

    Alright, Lou, well thanks a lot for your time. Good luck with that baby…

    You bet, take care, man.

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