Lou Barlow has never been averse to opening old wounds. In fact, the very thing that’s allowed his work with Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion — as well as the songs he contributed to Dinosaur Jr. — to get such a firm grip on listeners is his unflinching dissection of love, jealousy and obsession.
So, it’s no surprise that when Barlow sat down with Robert Ham in the kitchen of Portland’s Bunk Bar recently to go over a handful of songs from his career, the 47-year-old musician didn’t shy away from addressing the tougher aspects of his life — including the subject that dominates Defend Yourself, the first Sebadoh album in more than a decade: the end of his 25-year marriage.
This is really strong stuff for a band in high school.
Yeah? Really? Huh…I wrote it myself!
Was it weird for your classmates to know someone in a band?
No one knew I was in a band. The only other guy who knew was in the band with me, Scott Helland. Literally, in a school of 500 kids in my class, no one in my graduating class. I could be exaggerating, but I think they had no idea.
There weren’t any other punk kids in school?
I’d say two of us. The other ones really weren’t punk. They dabbled. We were the only ones that were really into it.
You got together to do a one-song reunion back in 2004. How was that experience?
That was pretty special. It was a benefit show that my mother had helped set up. J played a solo set, Sonic Youth played. Sebadoh — Jason and I as a duo. Jay was playing solo came off the stage, and the other three members of Deep Wound came out. We said, “Hey J, get up here and play drums.” So we picked up Sonic Youth’s gear and did “Video Prick,” the slowest song on the record.
Dinosaur Jr., “Poledo”
Was it hard to get the rest of the band to accept the idea of what that song was?
It really wasn’t. I invested a lot of anxiety into it. I went up to J and said, “I really want to put a piece, a tape thing at the end of the record. Are you cool with that?” He said he was. That was that.
When you did the All Tomorrow’s Parties shows where you were playing all of You’re Living All Over Me, how did you present this song?
Just playing ukulele, doing the songs that were in there. I didn’t bring my laptop and blast everybody out.
What came to mind when I was listening to this recently is that you can almost track the entire arc of your relationship with Kath through your Sebadoh albums.
Yeah. All of my really major relationships. For sure. Definitely my relationship with Kathleen, my relationship with J, my relationship with Eric Gaffney, John Davis.
Is it a version of therapy?
I think it is. My girlfriend now doesn’t really understand this concept. If I wrote songs about difficult times and sing about them continuously, it’s a way of overcoming those. Where she says, “Aren’t you just living through that every time?” I’m not because there’s a logic that goes through those songs. I don’t think that my songs are rooted in self-pity or negativity really.
The sense that I get is that it is very matter-of-fact or a kind of reportage.
I’m kind of explaining it to myself. That’s what it comes down to.
Sebadoh III was your first record with Jason Lowenstein. Why did you decide to add that extra element to the band?
To be a band, to play live. Eric and I experimented as a duo and that was cool but it’s hard for two guys to shut a whole room up or at least be loud enough to go over the talking. Especially with what we were. We weren’t a folk act. If we were punk, we weren’t loud enough. I really liked the concept behind the ukulele and two drums, but it just wasn’t practical for playing live shows. We weren’t self-conscious and arty enough to go, “That’s it. This is our thing.” We weren’t that precious about it. In the end, we just wanted to rock.
How was it going through all that material that you had that ended up on the Sebadoh III reissue?
It was a battle between me and Eric. Eric initially wanted to remix every one of his songs. The worst idea ever. You can’t do that. We fought and we fought about it, then I just said, “Go do it.” I got him the original tapes, sent him to the studio, came up with this mixes, and I said, “Eric, I’ve listened to the mixes. They’re fine. But we cannot under any circumstance replace the original versions on the record. And I will not allow this reissue to happen with those.” I let the conversation happen for a while but then just shut it down.
Was that before or after you did those reunion shows?
It was before. It was at least a two-year e-mail war. He had all of these accusations and ways that I’d fucked him over — I was hell bent on making these reissues happen, I was hell bent on getting him back into the band. We went point by point-by-point for, I swear, two years. And it drove my wife Kathleen crazy. “Why are you doing this? This is insanity!” I said, “No, I’ve gotta do it, and it’s gotta happen. We have to do it in a way where he’s really involved.” And we did and it culminated in the Sebadoh III reissue. It was a considerable amount of negotiations.
Did you foresee that there was going to be an endpoint to it? That Eric would be part of this and then that was going to be the end?
I don’t know what I was hoping for. I just wanted him back. Jason and I had done a bunch of shows as a duo and that was great. But we were missing the element of the drums so we brought Eric back. And by that time, Eric was much more concerned about playing guitar and being the frontman of the band. Which is fine, but his drumming to me was so crucial, his spirited drumming. When he came back, he would barely hit the drums. He’d get up on stage with a polyester jacket and complain about how hot he was. He was not going to throw himself into playing the drums. I needed to know it could never happen again. And I found out. He would never put as much of himself into it ever again. I had to come to terms with that.
This was your only album on a major label.
Well, The Sebadoh was half Sire, half Sub Pop, but Sire dropped us one week after the record came out.
What was that experience like?
They were cool and totally hands off. I signed with Interscope because John Davis really wanted to sign with them. It was just bizarre. They cared so little about music that it was shocking to me. They had the golden ears, apparently. They were living on that idea. They didn’t give a shit about anything else. There was no love there. They funded us to make a record and we did it, and it ended up selling half as many copies as our last record on Communion did. So, they dropped me when I tried to make another record.
What was it about John that made your creative relationship work so well?
He and I just had this really great connection. He was a bit younger than me. That might have had something to do with it. He came to me as a fan of my early work. But we just had these long conversations. We talked all the times. And our conversations became musical. He was easily the most satisfying [musical partner].
There’s a real sense of playfulness to all of your work with him.
It really mirrored our conversations. He was better educated than I. He went to Brown and read a lot. I was just loved him. I thought he was the funniest and sweetest guy I ever met.
But there was another Folk Implosion record that he wasn’t a part of.
Yeah, he quit pretty much to the day that One Part Lullaby was released. He’s an incredibly sensitive person. And I’m…not. What I realize, in comparison to him, he’s really fragile. And I barely made it out of high school, and have been living on my wits for a long time. I’ve been through so much shit that I’ve let a lot of stuff roll off my back. Even though it doesn’t seem this way, I don’t dwell on things. I just move forward. We were in a really intense situation with Interscope. I was a mess personally. My personal life was on fire at that time. He bailed. I never heard from him again. No fight or falling out. He just said, “I’m out.”
Is it a surprise to you that you are still going forward with Dinosaur Jr.?
It’s been eight years [so it's] hard to be a surprise. When we got back together initially it just worked so well. And I’d been through so much weird shit by the time I got back to J Mascis, it was like this is nothing. “At least this guy knows what he wants.” It was a relief — I’m actually working with someone who knows what he wants. With all due respect to everybody I’ve worked with. J is a fucking train on his track, and to come back to that, I’ll just ride. It’s not this emotional thing. It’s pretty easy to handle. Dinosaur’s the only band that I can play with that I can walk on to a festival stage and go, “Fuck yeah. There’s 30,000 people here and who cares?” Because if it’s me just playing a guitar, it’s a nightmare.
On all the three newer records, you only have two songs on them. Is that normal?
I tried three on this last record. J is so funny. He still has his dickish tendencies. He’ll do interviews with people, and say, “I don’t know. Lou really won’t write any more songs for the record.” He has the patience for about two songs on any record. This one, I was like, “I’m doing three songs.” The best of them is not on the record. I got J to improvise guitar on this pretty strong backbone that I’d come up with. And he fucking canned it from the record. Fuck you! I did my three songs. [Laughs.] He is very protective. He does want to keep a grip on that. And I respect that, actually.
When you’re writing Dinosaur stuff, are you specific about what you want from Murph and J?
I wasn’t at first, and then on the second record that we did, it was a nightmare. Both of them just sat there, like, “I don’t know what to do.” “You’re supposed to play the guitar! You’re supposed to play the drums!” They just wouldn’t do anything. I don’t think J’s used to collaborating, really. Murph needs someone to tell him exactly what to do. For one song on the second record, we worked on it for a week and he wrote all these drum parts. But then when we went to record it, he refused to play them. We played it for two days straight, and he refused to play it the way he wrote it. “I don’t know, I’m not really feeling it.” “What does that have to do with anything? We’re professional musicians, my friend. Whether you’re feeling it or not is immaterial.” It went right down to the wire. “I’m literally leaving in two hours I’m going back to L.A. with no songs if you don’t do this.” And he did it. So the last record, I had a whole different game plan. I had a really vivid dream where I walked up to [Melvins drummer] Dale [Crover] and asked him to write songs with Dinosaur. It took him two hours to write drum parts for three songs. “Oh, wow. Dale played on them?” Then they listened to my ideas.
You said this wasn’t an issue playing the songs night after night, but: Was it difficult to write these songs, considering what was happening to you? Or did you just feel like this is what had to be said?
I had made a huge radical change in my life. I left my wife. Up to that point, I couldn’t speak honestly. I didn’t know how to finish those songs. I was dealing with years of repressing so much stuff. Once I made that actual break, all the words just wrote themselves. I don’t think they’re the greatest lyrics I’ve ever written, but they’re all true. I’ve been singing songs about jerking off for ages, so I set the bar pretty fucking low from the very beginning. There’s a part of me that’s so exhibitionist and so self-involved on that level. I don’t think that it’s that unusual or shocking or anything. I cut my teeth on punk rock, and these are people that were saying whatever. It was the truth. They were just laying it out there. That’s the inspiration I took. There were no boundaries. And the more real and uncomfortable it is, the better it is.
Has Kathleen heard the record?
Is that something that you worry about at all?
It’s not really a concern. I put her through hell already while we were together. [Pauses.] Hopefully I’m not too mean in the songs. I would worry about that, if I was really calling her out on specific things. But I haven’t thought about it. I just can’t. Even my girlfriend now, she didn’t know anything about Sebadoh at all. She had no idea. She’s really into Ryan Adams, who is someone who writes beautifully poetic songs, my stuff is like, “Whoa…my god, do you really have to put that out?” Well, as a matter of fact, I do. I do need to put that out.
Do you feel like your approach to writing songs has changed?
I don’t know. Now I just have so much other shit going on in my life. Used to be every day I would just do whatever I felt like. Now it’s considerably more complicated. Because I’ve got kids and I’m supporting like five other people right now. My life is so fucked, but in a great way.
How are you kids holding up with everything?
My daughter is rip shit. She’s really mad. My daughter saw a lot of shit going on. She wasn’t spared anything. We had these heartbreaking moments where she would be between us going, “Mommy and daddy, don’t fight.” Fuck…never wanted that to happen! But she loves my girlfriend and is fascinated by this life I’m living. But she’s also rip shit at me. My son’s three years old and he’s just fucking crazy so it doesn’t matter. But it’s funny; he’ll say, “You’ll be nice to momma?” “Yeah, I’ll be nice to momma.”