Sebadoh's Lou Barlow on how experimenting with eight-tracks influenced his early recordings
Sebadoh started as a kind of solo recording project of Lou Barlow toward the end of his tenure with Dinosaur Jr. in the late '80s. Upon his departure from Dino in 1989, Barlow focused on his songwriting with Sebadoh, and his recording aesthetic became synonymous with "lo-fi" of the 1990s, alongside artists like Pavement.
A prolific songwriter, Barlow and his bandmates wrote some of the most emotionally poignant rock music of the '90s, and the sonic quality of his recordings influenced a new generation of musicians striving for recordings that contain the intimacy, immediacy and imperfection of being in the same room with music as its being performed.
Sebadoh's later recordings became more sonically vivid but the raw quality of the songwriting remained undiminished. The band recently released its first new material since 1999's The Sebadoh with the Secret EP and the forthcoming Defend Yourself . Barlow spoke with us recently about Joni Mitchell, his childhood recording experiments and how keeping the lyrics personal makes them memorable.
Westword: There is an interview you did with Tiny Mixtapes wherein you mentioned having listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell back in the early Dinosaur Jr. days. What was it about her work that resonated with you then and even now?
Lou Barlow: The lyrics are amazing. Also, just her style of guitar playing -- she did a lot of alternate tunings with this really rich low. She plays with a low resonance. Then, of course, she sings like an angel. [Her music] is incredibly personal, but there's this superior intelligence that runs through it.
It kind of dwarfs her male counterparts at the time. It's always shocked me that people never [give her her due]. It really highlights the inequalities between male and female musicians. She also caught all kinds of shit back in the day, too. You listen to her work and compare it to most of her male peers, other than possibly Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it's kind of incredible.
Referencing that same interview, why do you think that things in music are more interesting the simpler they are?
I guess it's just more interesting to me because maybe I'm simple. I don't know. Maybe it's just that I need things spelled out clearly. But it's funny, just thinking of Neil Young: He's pretty simple. He's sort of an enduring singer-songwriter for me, and there is just a beautiful simplicity behind his best work. I just like it when I can understand things and the simpler it is the easier it is to understand.
I think a lot of times when things are really clever or obscure, even musically, too, it loses that immediacy for me. There are plenty of exceptions, and there are plenty of things that are complex and multi-layered, lyrically, but when it comes right down to it, the things that I really love are really simple.
At what age did you discover the Ramones? How did you find out about them?
Twelve. End of the Century had just come out. I may have been thirteen. Everything happened so quickly. A guy in my neighborhood had the Rocket to Russia album. He had that, and he had the Buzzcocks, and we would sit in his room, and I think that's when I really first heard it, and it blew my mind. I loved it so much immediately.
Had you been playing music at that point?
Yeah, my parents had kind of forced me into guitar lessons maybe at the age of seven or eight. At nine or ten, I was playing guitar in music class in my elementary school in Jackson, Michigan. They had a guitar class, and I played with ten of my classmates, and we did a little guitar orchestra for a school music.
In sixth grade, I had a teacher who just basically sat down the whole guitar class of kids -- and I was able to take a guitar class instead of having gym, which was amazing -- and I think we were eleven or twelve, and he taught us all to play "Stairway to Heaven" in the slowest way possible. It was so deliberate and slow.
He would basically set aside an entire week and just pound a song into us. There was a Beatles song -- that's how I found out about the Beatles -- and he taught us the song "Girl" from Rubber Soul. He also taught us "Dust in the Wind." We all learned it together. Those are pretty complex songs but doing it as a group of kids like that?
He did it in a really compassionate way that everyone was part of it, and it pounded in some basic rudiments of playing that, by the time I heard the Ramones, I was like, "Oh my god, this is something that matches what I want to play.
At that point, too, my parents had an eight-track. The old eight-tracks with square tapes. It had little mics you could plug into it. I was putting the mic into the guitar and playing it back through the speakers and getting this really amazing, distorted sound from inside the body of the guitar. So I discovered the thrill of distortion.
So when I heard the Ramones I was like, "Oh, hell yeah! There we go!" Something like Jimi Hendrix and all these things were way beyond. You're talking about people like Joni Mitchell, who are operating on this almost alien intelligence, but when [I heard] something like the Ramones, it just brought everything right down to earth for me. In very quick order after the Ramones, it was Black Flag, Circle Jerks, you know? The beginning of hardcore.
When you were putting your guitar through the eight-track, were you able to record, as well, in a kind of unconventional manner?
Yeah, I filled a bucket full of eight-track tapes with the beginnings of writing songs.
Oh, but you obviously weren't multi-tracking that way.
Oh, not multi-tracking. After discovering the Ramones, I discovered really crude ways to multi-track by taking another cassette recorder and plugging that into the eight-track, playing it back, so that as I was recording with the mic in my guitar. I could have another cassette player I had recorded on feeding into the recording. So it was this crude multi-tracking, which is what I started doing when I was in high school.
Did you use that sort of method to record early Sebadoh material?
Definitely. I mean, I have what I consider the best of what I had done that's represented on the very first Sebadoh record called The Freed Man. There's definitely a few things that I recorded that way that are crude multi-tracking ideas.
That's really interesting because when you're a kid, you do what you have to do with what you have; that seems weird to people who have a more trained and formal understanding of what they're doing, but which seems obvious to you, at the time, because it was a necessity..
Yeah, it was just a way of being able to play over the top of myself and layering that noise, too. My parents and I moved to Massachusetts, and we were living in a bigger house. My parents were both working, so I would come home from school and make a fucking racket. Then I was also doing a lot of prank phone calls, at the time, too, so I was incorporating that into prank phone calls. It all took shape at once.
Like Longmont Potion Castle, or something.
The first Sebadoh track I ever heard was on a Lollapalooza compilation that sounded like a weird advertisement of some kind that could also have been a prank phone call.
Yup. I had developed my fake commercial voice for just calling people up, "Hello, you've just won...." A really good friend of mine, Mark Harris, was amazing at doing voices; he actually lives in Denver now. But we both lived in Michigan, and when I moved to Massachusetts, we swapped tapes back and forth. He would tape these amazing prank phone calls he was doing in Michigan, and I would tape weird songs and prank phone calls I was doing in Massachusetts.
Your sense of humor seems to come through more with Sebadoh than it seems to with Dinosaur Jr. You have that humor in the music, but you also sing about very serious subjects. What do you feel that dichotomy brings to your songwriting?
I guess the way that I would put records together from the very beginning is you have something serious then you have something that is totally different. I really like the idea of every song being different. The records that really kind of blew my mind after discovering the Ramones was these compilations you could get from say Rough Trade Records.
One of those came out in '80, but for some reason, it was available for, like, three dollars at almost every single record store. It had, like, Swell Maps, Young Marble Giants and Stiff Little Fingers -- amazing punk rock. Just all of this post-punk, punk. So you'd have a compilation record, where every single track is a different band and a totally different, vibe and that really thrilled me, too.
And I loved the radio. In the late '70s and the early '80s, the radio was pretty chaotic. There was a lot of New Wave, disco, soft rock -- just one after each other. It would be like Little River Band, Devo -- that thrilled me and it was a big part of my initiation into music. It thrilled me that things could be so different from each other but still so appealing.
There were a lot of novelty hits around that time too. In the '70s, it was like "Convoy" and "Kung Fu Fighting." "The Streak" was a really big hit. Then you had completely left field hard rock stuff like the early Queen records charting on the radio like "Killer Queen," "Love is Like Oxygen," like Sweet. Then there was incredible country rock, like Pure Prairie League or whatever. It was equal to me.
You played bass in Dinosaur Jr and mostly guitar in Sebadoh, it seems. Does your style in one inform your style in the other?
It's weird to say, but Sebadoh is kind of Dinosaur Jr Jr. My two bandmates in the early Sebadoh era, Jason Lowenstein and Jeff Gaffney, were huge Dinosaur fans. They were very influenced by Dinosaur. So when Jake and I play bass in Sebadoh, stylistically, it's very related to the way that I play in Dinosaur.
On the very early Dinosaur records, the bass is very prominent. It's pretty loud, and it functions as a rhythm guitar, and it's in the mix and you can hear it. When I started Sebadoh, it was kind of this unspoken then like, "Let's maintain the idea of the bass being equal to the guitar." Jason is a great player. So he and I, as bass players, we swap off a lot, maintain that kind of energy and the idea of the bass as an equal instrument.
Everybody just buries the bass -- even in Dinosaur. I don't know if J. Mascis himself, who was the one mixing those early Dinosaur records, knew he was bringing the bass to the forefront. I don't know if he realizes now what he did then. Now he's just so about the guitar and always says really withering shit about the bass like, "Who cares about the bass?" Dude, you care about the bass. That was part of the thrill of those early Dinosaur records -- that you could hear the interaction.
The naked honesty and almost confessional quality of your lyrics can be startling to some people. What makes it easier for you to expose kinds of thoughts and feelings to total strangers?
Honestly, if I try to hide anything, it requires a use of metaphor that is beyond me. If I do try to hide things, I find it much harder to remember the lyrics. Unless I'm singing something that's actually almost exactly what I'm feeling and the words are following each other in a logical way, I can't remember stuff. I have a really hard time remembering. That's a big part of it.
When I play my songs, I want those lyrics to be right there for me. I don't want to try to remember some really clever shit that I came up with when I was stoned -- or not so clever. Or something where I decide I don't care what the lyrics are. Nobody really cares.
People generally don't care what you're singing. But for me, when I am playing and singing, it has to be coming from a place where those words are etched into my brain and supported by experience.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.