Progress Report: Lou Barlow talks about recording the first new Sebadoh record in over 12 years.
Lou Barlow is a very busy man. In addition to his touring and recording duties as a part of the classic Dinosaur Jr. lineup (a job that will be made much busier when Dinosaur Jr.’s new record, I Bet On Sky, is released on September 18th), Barlow is currently in the studio recording tracks for what will be the first new Sebadoh record in well over a decade. Barlow, along with longtime Sebadoh compatriots Jason Loewenstein and Bob D’Amico, self-released a new Sebadoh record last week (the aptly named Secret EP, which you can pick up for just a few bucks at their Bandcamp) and will spend much of the remaining year putting the finishing touches on a new full-length to be released sometime in early 2013. I called up Barlow at his studio in L.A. to discuss how it feels to have his two main musical pursuits — which happen to also be two of the most iconic indie-rock bands of the past two decades — back in full force.
STEREOGUM: Hey Lou, where are you right now?
BARLOW: I’m in L.A. where it’s kind of cold. I actually put socks on this morning.
STEREOGUM: I have such a long, storied relationship with your music. It’s nice to actually talk to you in person for the first time.
BARLOW: Oh nice. That’s good to hear.
STEREOGUM: Are you in the middle or recording right now?
BARLOW: Yeah. We’ve recorded about twenty songs. The five that were on the EP we just released were just five songs that we extracted from those in order to release an EP. Right now I have about five songs to finish, Jason has around seven songs to finish, and Bob, our drummer, has one.
STEREOGUM: And these are all songs that will be included on the new Sebadoh full-length that will come out next year?
BARLOW: I think so, yeah.
STEREOGUM: I just downloaded the new EP. The site mentions that proceeds from the EP will go towards funding this new record that you are working on. Is the idea that you will release the new album yourselves?
BARLOW: I’m not really sure. We were toying with the idea of making it a fan-funded thing, but then … I don’t know. There are several things we can do. We’ve had a very long and very fruitful relationship with Domino records in the UK — they always pay us really well and treat us nicely. The very first Domino release was a Sebadoh record, so we have a good relationship with them. In the States it would be possible for us to release it ourselves, but I’d need to find a manufacturing/distribution deal. We could do the fan-funding thing, but now that I’m thinking about it, we’d have to promise people all these things that we would send them for contributing … and how the fuck am I gonna have time to do that when I’m on tour with Dinosaur Jr. all the time? I just want to do something that’s realistic for us, but doing so as independently as possible. It would be like the last record we put out, which was on Sub Pop in 1999. You know, everyone put a lot of money into that record and it was all lost. We still owe them money, actually, to pay back all the money they spent trying to promote us. So I kind of don’t want to get back into that kind of scenario and I also don’t want to just be buried on some label with a huge roster of bands. I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: It’s a complicated thing, no matter which way you approach it. At least with you guys there is already this long history as a band and this existing fanbase, which makes releasing a record on your own a little easier … but then you actually have to do it, which means dealing with all the tedious details yourself.
BARLOW: We could do it, but just the getting it manufactured and actually distributing it … that’s the rub.
STEREOGUM: Your last record — The Sebadoh — came out in 1999. Why the long gap in between? And why was now a good time to revisit that part of your life?
BARLOW: Well, the last record we did was … well, let me just say this: we were really into that record. I don’t want to say the words “no one,” which isn’t exactly true, but basically … well, no one liked it. We did a bunch of touring around it, but we were basically dropped by Sire within two weeks of the record coming out. Then we did a pretty extensive cycle of touring for the record and by the end of it we’d be playing in a room to an audience of about 20 people in a place where just a few years before we’d been playing to an audience of about 400 people. At the same time, I’d just put out a Folk Implosion record on Interscope that had sold about half as many copies as the record we’d put out a couple of years before … so it was just like, “OK? Maybe this is over now?” Also, everything was really changing around that time, there was this big sea change happening within the music scene — bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie and the Strokes and Interpol. Bands started wearing suits while they were playing, everything became way more stylized at that point — and also, in my mind, a lot more interesting as well, to be honest. I thought it was a really amazing, fertile period for music. I also understood as a music fan that we weren’t really a part of that. Our last record was actually a lot more in keeping with that was happening then — the way that people were sort of re-embracing post-punk and stuff like that — but people just weren’t interested in hearing us do that. Also, I think you kind of have your time as a band — by that I mean you have your time being the “cool indie band” or whatever. And if you don’t in some way cross over to a larger audience during that time, people eventually move on. There are always gonna be newer, cooler bands … and that’s just the way it is. You can’t still be new after you’ve already released six records and have been playing shows for ten years. We just … we’re just not the luckiest band ever. I mean, we’re lucky that we’re still around and playing shows, but we just never quite had all the right pieces fall together the way we needed them too. So anyway, The Sebadoh tanked — which is OK, records tank sometimes — but we just decided to take a break. And that’s what we did.
STEREOGUM: Did you always sort of assume that eventually you’d get back together and play again?
BARLOW: I didn’t really think about it too much, to be honest. Jason and myself — I guess you could call us the two main surviving members of a three-member unit — we were still friends and still together. The very first Sebadoh tour was just the two of us and in 2004 he and I got back together to do another tour as a duo, which was great. During the course of that tour we played a show with J Mascis and it was clear that J and I could be in the same room in close proximity to each other and it would be all right, so that kind of provided the first tinglings of possibility that he and I could play together again at some point. That was our first “reunion” tour which we did again a few years after Dinosaur had gotten back together, that time with Eric Gaffney, our original drummer. It was cool, but I wasn’t sure if we could have made a record as that particular trio.
STEREOGUM: That was around the same time they reissued the first two or three Sebadoh records, right?
BARLOW: When they reissued Bakesale we got together with Bob D’Amico, whose drumming really matched the vibe of Bakesale and Harmacy. So he played with us and we had this great run of touring last year with him, which made it seem like it might work for us to record together — and that it would be nice to have some new songs to chew on. My experience with Dinosaur was that you kind of throw any reticence in regards to new material to the wind, you just have to let go of the idea that you’re gonna make a record that’s gonna be even better than anything you’ve ever done before. You just have to do it and not get bogged down with thinking that you can’t compete with your own history. You can’t relive your past glories, you just have to fucking do it and get on with it. So, Jason and Bob and myself just wanted to keep Sebadoh going since the tour was really fun and the three of us communicate really well … plus, we have all the means to make a record and fashion some kind of realistic, pragmatic way of being in control of ourselves as a band and really learn from our past mistakes.
STEREOGUM: For those of us who never thought we’d see the original line up of Dinosaur Jr. play together again, it’s really heartening to witness that and now to see Sebadoh play again as well. It must be very satisfying for you to see these two projects continue to have a life after it seemed like they both might not.
BARLOW: Oh yeah. Plus, I’ve always been someone who needs to be doing several things at once, so it’s good for me. As great as Dinosaur has been, during those months when we were just touring and touring and I really didn’t have anything else going on — and nothing was happening with Sebadoh — I’d get really down. I have to be engaged on multiple levels in my life to be really happy.
STEREOGUM: Are you working out of your own studio right now?
BARLOW: Yep. Here in L.A.
STEREOGUM: Have you always lived in L.A.?
BARLOW: Not always. But I’ve been here for about 14 years now, pretty much since the last Sebadoh record was released.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know why it strikes me as so odd that you live in L.A.
BARLOW: It’s true, there is a kind of weird stigma attached to it.
STEREOGUM: So what will the rest of this year be like for you? How are you going to juggle doing double duty in both bands?
BARLOW: Well, I’ll be touring with Sebadoh starting next week and we’ll be out for three weeks or so. Then I’ll come home and try and finish this Sebadoh record and then starts this epic succession of Dinosaur Jr. touring. And the new Dinosaur record comes out in September.
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard it. Sounds amazing.
BARLOW: I think it’s good. We had a good time making it and I got a couple of songs on there. All of the reunion records have been pretty good experiences, but this one was the most relaxed so far. Each one of these new Dinosaur Jr. records that we’ve done always feels like a surprise. It’s like, whoa, so we did that! It’s always a challenge for me to bring songs to the band and get them played, so each time I strategize a different way to actually make that happen. This time it worked out better than last time. Not to say these songs are better than the ones I wrote for Farm, but the process was better. Murph is currently living at my house here in L.A., so I’m pretty immersed in both bands at all times. I try to stay fully engaged in all of my projects simultaneously, even though the people in my life don’t always believe me that I can keep up with it. I just keep trying to wear them all down and prove that I can really sort of do it all.
STEREOGUM: Well, you’ve always been a crazy multi-tasker with lots of different recording projects happening at the same time. You’d think everyone would just be used to that by now.
BARLOW: I think there’s just something untrustworthy about me at some basic level. I’ve spent most of my adult like trying to convince people I know what I’m doing.
STEREOGUM: It’s nice to see the Sebadoh back catalog get the reissue treatment. The band was so influential to so many other bands. For dudes of a certain age — people in their mid-30s, like myself — those records were a really huge part of my musical coming of age.
BARLOW: Ha! Dudes of a certain age! That’s our fanbase.
STEREOGUM: Sebadoh gets referenced by a lot of young bands that I talk to as well.
BARLOW: Really? That’s nice to hear.
STEREOGUM: There’s a guy here in NYC who throws a party where he shows old VHS copies of 120 Minutes episodes and music videos from the early 90’s. He had a copy of the infamous MTV “Sex In The 90s” special about breaking up. There is a crazy intense interview with you talking about the pain of break-ups.
BARLOW: Oh God.
STEREOGUM: Does that come up in conversation often?
BARLOW: Not too often, thankfully. But yes … that happened. It was something I did.
STEREOGUM: You are so intense in the interview! It’s almost uncomfortable to watch.
BARLOW: Yes. Too intense. Too much. I was an intense guy back then.
STEREOGUM: Why haven’t you ever done a reissue of Harmacy? That seems to be the only record that hasn’t been given a proper once-over.
BARLOW: Well, I really dragged my feet on that one because I really don’t like that record.
BARLOW: That one was a real heartbreaker. It was meant to be the triumphant follow-up to Bakesale, but in reality Sub Pop put an enormous amount of money into that record and they put us in a studio and immediately the guy we were working with was like, “You’ve got to fire your drummer.” And I was just like, “Oh fuck.” He was telling us that the songs would never really explode unless we got a different drummer, which put us in the position of making this really difficult decision which, of course, we didn’t make. The drummer stayed. And sure enough, the record just really didn’t take off the way it should have and then Sub Pop pretty much completely shit itself not too long afterwards. The label just kind of melted down after that. Of course, the label has really reconstituted itself in a pretty fantastic way, but we were really there for the bloody metamorphosis. You had these two really maverick guys running the label and we were right in the middle when they had their huge falling out. They were trying to behave like a major label around that time, hiring tons of major label people and spending shit tons of money on records like Harmacy and whatever Supersuckers were doing at the time. They just hemorrhaged money and then we kind of ended up being responsible for it. And now when I listen to that record I just hear the voice of our fucking producer saying “These songs will never take off.” There are some songs on that record that I love and I really did do my best, but I listen to it and I think, “Yep, those songs really never took off they way they could have.” Oh well.
STEREOGUM: Has your way of working — your approach to writing and recording — changed much over the years?
BARLOW: No. It’s pretty much exactly the same. I don’t know much more than I did back when I started. With Sebadoh — particularly with Harmacy — the more we tried to do things in a more traditional way, the more we tried to involve other people or record in a fancy studio, the worse the results were. The best things are the things when I kept it very simple and it was just us — or me — doing pretty much everything. I listen to those records and the sound of them and I think, “Oh yeah, we did that.” I can remember having my hand on the fader when the guitar sounds come up. Shit like that. Things that were very personal — when I was involved in every step of the process — I think those were our best records.
STEREOGUM: You said The Sebadoh was considered a flop in 1999, but how do you feel about it now?
BARLOW: I really like it. I think it’s got a lot of depth to it. I think it’s a very dark record, but I think it’s a good thing. I’ve found that unless you are dressed in black and have an overtly dark personality, people don’t really want you to play “dark” music. My primary loves have always been dark things — dark music. Goth music, heavy metal — that’s kind of where I’m at. At the same time I’m a total believer in pop music and I have a tendency to want to also try and write pop songs. On top of all that I’m not very image conscious. So, all together, it’s kind of a bad combination.
The Secret EP is out now at Bandcamp.