Interview: Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow finds humor in rock band drama

Lou Barlow (middle) has worked out the personality conflicts in his bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh (pictured), and is still making “angsty” music. Lou Barlow (middle) has worked out the personality conflicts in his bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh (pictured), and is still making “angsty” music.

Lou Barlow has been involved in some of the quaintest rock ’n’ roll feuds of all time. In an industry where grudges are common and time seems only to deepen rifts between once-close bandmates, the Dinosaur Jr. bassist and Sebadoh frontman has pretty much made up with everyone he’s ever crossed.

The lo-fi legend was reportedly kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. by lead singer J. Mascis in 1989, just as the band was reaching wide audiences and right before it signed to a major record label. He and Mascis buried the hatchet and got back together in 2005. Ho hum.

Sebadoh, the band Barlow started toward the end of his Dinosaur Jr. tenure, began to fray about six years after the band formed and went on official hiatus in 1999. In 2007, the boys got back together and started touring with little fanfare before releasing their first reunion record in 2012—all in a day’s work for Barlow.

Ahead of Sebadoh’s February 22 show at The Southern Café and Music Hall, Barlow took a moment to share the personality that has such a propensity for breakups and make-ups. He’s prickly, but he’s also quick to laugh off any awkwardness. And, yeah, there’s plenty of awkwardness.

C-VILLE Weekly: So everything seems to work out for you in the end, eh?

Lou Barlow: Everything seems to work out in the end for me? I don’t personally feel that way, but I can see how it would seem like that. To me, the future is never solid.

How did you and Mascis make up so easily?

The music is just really good. That has always been the most important thing for me through all of it. Dinosaur Jr. was a pretty good band, and that’s more important than personal issues and everything else.

How would you describe your relationship with Mascis before the breakup and after the reunion?

I don’t know if there was ever any tension between us musically. We’ve always kind of shared tastes and musical ambitions. It is kind of the same for me personally since we got back together. But like I said, the music is the most important thing. That goes for Sebadoh too. For me, it is always about helping other people realize their musical ambitions.

How have you changed as a musician in the past 20 years? I feel like the new Sebadoh record has less angst.

I don’t really hear that. I think it is still pretty angsty, almost surprisingly so. You’d think it would be a little less. I still hear a lot of tension in what we do. I like to call it emotionally claustrophobic.

How do you keep up that level of angst?

You would maybe see me, a successful musician, and imagine I had mellowed a lot. But man, there are always things to worry about. Addressing anxiety is something I’ve always done with my music. It’s a way of working through it.

Your music has always featured unique, even challenging sounds. What do you think about the way bands use effects these days?

I’ve always loved shoegazing music. But for me, when it comes down to making the music, I try to keep it really basic. I don’t know why. I love extremely atmospheric music, but when I start to add that kind of thing it always feels strangely disingenuous. Texture is extremely important, but for my own music I always find myself stripping things away.

How do you keep moving forward if you’re always stripping away?

It’s not hard for me because I’m just really interested in music and singing. I love making records. There are few exceptions when I‘ve gone into a studio to make a record and didn’t have a great time. I really like playing live, too. Maybe that’s why I don’t rely too much on textural issues. The more simple it is, the more real it is. My idea of whether something I’ve done is great is always changing, and I always feel like my best work is ahead of me.

What is it you like about making records?

With Dinosaur Jr., the amazing thing was how unlikely it seemed. J just works in such an incredibly detached way, and he doesn’t really break from that persona the entire time. When we were making our first reunion record, he seemed to not enjoy any aspect of it, but then we ended up making a record and it was good. Every time I finish a record, it always seems kind of miraculous.

How does Sebadoh sound on the current tour?

This is the fourth tour we’ve done for the record, and we’re almost too tight now. When we ended our last tour, some people were coming up to me after the shows like, “What the hell?”

Can Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. continue to coexist indefinitely?

We’ve been touring for almost the entire duration of Dinosaur Jr. being back together, so it’s been coexisting this long. I like going back and forth between the two, and I hope to continue that.

Can Lou Barlow continue to play indefinitely?

If you’re a career musician and that’s what you do and you don’t have any fallback, you play music until you die. There’s a long tradition of people who have done that, and that is probably what I will do.

What do you want mentioned on your headstone first, Sebadoh or Dinosaur Jr.?

I hope I write a song before that happens that will actually define me more than both those. I hope I’m remembered for songs I wrote rather than bands I was in.