Forward by Mitch Ringenberg, interview by Evan Winiger
Sitting down with Lou Barlow at an Indianapolis restaurant, one who was unfamiliar with Sebadoh would never guess that this man came to be seen as a poster child in the ’90s for melancholy or “sad sack” indie artists. Indeed, songs such as “Truly Great Thing” and “Spoiled,” (from Sebadoh’s 1991 album III, which almost single-handedly brought the term “lo-fi” into the independent music scene) sound like salt being poured on a gaping wound. Sparse, raw and teeming with emotion, early Sebadoh songs create an intensely intimate atmosphere due to both the achingly personal subject matter and the striking simplicity of its production. After III, Sebadoh began to prefer a full-band approach to their sound; however, the emotional ferocity of their early recordings remained, much in part to Barlow’s songwriting and vocal style.
While at dinner, Barlow, 47, constantly jokes and fidgets in his seat like someone who isn’t a seasoned veteran of touring in a rock band. Tonight, they are playing down the street at Radio Radio and Barlow’s enthusiasm is contagious, as everyone on his side of the table seems enthralled by his conversation. Topics range from Lou’s feelings toward Canada (it’s awesome) to his current addiction to the iPhone game Plants vs. Zombies 2. As Barlow orders wine, (“Why did I drink an entire bottle of wine before this show?”) he takes a blank page out of the restaurant’s menu and for the next ten minutes or so, becomes transfixed with creating his own bizarre menu items, one of which included “Human Breast-Milk Cheese (from remarkably healthy and happy expectant mothers from the Indianapolis area)”.
Finally, the show at Radio Radio begins and Sebadoh opens with “I Will,” the first track off of their new record, Defend Yourself. The song is unusually upbeat and victorious for Sebadoh. In a song about losing one love and finding a new one, angst is replaced with a feeling of rebirth. The emotional intensity remains, but there is nothing dispirited about this song. Barlow seems in awe of the songwriting process as he ever was, and the crowd meets his energy with an equal sense of joyful mania. The following interview took place shortly before all of the madness of the night.
What was the hardest part about getting Sebadoh together and putting out another album after all these years and was it hard to get interest from a label?
I had dealt with Joyful Noise a little bit. I guess I made some overtures to Merge, but their release schedule was crammed. They would have done it, I assume, if I had asked them earlier—they were really busy doing the Superchunk record. The whole thing with Joyful Noise is working out great. We had done the Secret EP with them and they have done stuff for Dinosaur Jr. too. I literally spent five minutes trying to debate what to do.
Describe your average song writing process and how it has changed from the early albums of Sebadoh to now. Do you still have an interest to write and record in the style of the early albums?
I still write like that. The Sebadoh III recordings… I fucking crafted those things. I spent days and hours going over every detail. Sebadoh III was different [than the other albums] because I recorded those songs as I wrote them. I could come up with a melody, then lyrics, and then music. It’s a slower process now but it’s the same really.
Looking back on the history of Sebadoh, is there a show that stands out as the most memorable?
There’s a ton. The first thing that pops into my mind for whatever reason is a tour we had done maybe two years ago. I had a friend who lived in Tallahassee who asked us the last minute if we wanted to play a house show. It was great because it was just a vocal PA and a bunch of people crammed into a room. People came from all over the place to see the show. It was funny because Jason’s songs [the other side of Sebadoh] really stood out when we played that house party. My songs were a little lost at the house party but when we played Jason’s stuff it was incredible and galvanizing. It was cool.
Do you guys still play house shows?
House shows are great. It’s probably where we are going. It’s what is going to end up being for us, I think, as the ownership of clubs go to younger people. Right now we are in a good spot for us because a lot of the people that own the clubs are the people who grew up with our music. They are older so they kind of throw Sebadoh a bone. I think when the younger people come in and they don’t really give a shit about Sebadoh so it’ll be about house shows. That might be cool too. I’m looking forward to the future however and how it sort of evolves.
Do you have any old cassettes of unheard material lying around that could be released one day? How much exists in the vault?
I suppose I have tons of improvisational stuff that we used to do. It seemed pretty interesting back then but I don’t know if it is now. We’ve actually released almost everything we’ve recorded. It used to be about jamming in as many songs on a record as you could. Letting people pick through it themselves. I think very early on I understood that people cherry pick things and they take what they like. The more songs you put out, the more there is for people to pick through.
I’m a whore. I mean, I don’t care. I don’t think anything really matters. If you make a decision to do a commercial or play on a TV show, I just don’t really think it matters as far as your integrity goes.
Was there ever a time when you guys turned down an opportunity because you felt it sacrificed your integrity or went against what you stood for?
I’m a whore. I mean, I don’t care. I don’t think anything really matters. If you make a decision to do a commercial or play on a TV show, I just don’t really think it matters as far as your integrity goes. Just about everyone I’ve been in a band with disagrees with me on that. There’s been many times where it’s like, “ lets do this”, “well what is it?”, “well its just some people that want us to play this session”, “well who are they?”, “what do they stand for?”… I don’t care. We’ll just play and maybe some people will hear us and like it. I defer to the people that I work with. I have worked with people who are way more integrity-minded than myself. I just don’t care. I play wherever. Dinosaur Jr. did a whole series of shows for Camel cigarettes, which is about the worst. They were literally pushing smoking on people. We did these shows with the Black Keyes and Band of Horses. They gave so much money for the shows. They asked, “do you have a problem with this?” I’m thinking, I guess I kind of do… but I don’t give a shit. I don’t care because I don’t really have job security. I don’t have health insurance. I don’t have all these things. If it comes down to a question of integrity it’s like, what the fuck. I don’t know. It’s funny. I just want people to hear the music. Bottom line.
You definitely don’t hear that from a lot of bands.
That band The Faint did the [Camel cigarette] shows and they built a studio based on what they made. If you get the money to do stuff, to me, it’s retribution. Half my relatives have died from lung cancer. If I take this money from Camel its not like I’m buying a motorboat with it. I’m supporting my family and doing my thing. Hopefully the general thing you are working towards is something good.
The great thing about things now is that you can actually listen to the music. You can make up your own mind. Back in the day when I read magazines and reviews you had no idea what it sounded like. If somebody said it sucked you also thought it sucked.
Being a band that has seen the music scene change over time, what are your thoughts on a website like Pitchfork and its place as an authority of sorts over indie music?
There’s always been a Pitchfork. It hasn’t been Pitchfork, but it has been other things. There’s always something that rises to the top and is able to make really incredibly general statements about music and ascribe them numerical or ratings and make/destroy bands careers. That has always happened. From the beginning of when I did stuff, Rolling Stone used to have a lot of power with that. But Pitchfork… yeah it’s a bummer for me personally. But as a music fan, no, not so much. The great thing about Pitchfork is that they put links to the music they talk about, so if you read a review and think “god that sounds amazing” you can click on the thing and hear if it is amazing or not. You can actually listen to it. I like that aspect of it. I don’t hate Pitchfork. As far as the power they have, well they earned it. They earned it by having good writers and whether it’s good for the scene or good for bands, no, nothing like that ever is. Nothing that can destroy or build a band’s career is a great thing. The great thing about things now is that you can actually listen to the music. You can make up your own mind. Back in the day when I read magazines and reviews you had no idea what it sounded like. If somebody said it sucked you also thought it sucked. Maybe it didn’t, but you wouldn’t be able to know unless you bought the record, which you’re not going to do. So now I think that kind of mitigates the power that they have. The fact that people can actually listen to it immediately.
There are always a few bands that are lucky, that for some reason break through and people like them and then there’s a bunch of others bands that are probably just as good or better that don’t do as well and they struggle. If you’re in a band and you’re making music, it’s not going to be easy.
What are your thoughts on being in a band and the current state of indie music/rock?
It seems to be thriving as far as I can tell. It’s always been hard to be a rock band. There are always a few bands that are lucky, that for some reason break through and people like them and then there’s a bunch of others bands that are probably just as good or better that don’t do as well and they struggle. If you’re in a band and you’re making music, it’s not going to be easy. You are choosing a hard path. You’re taking an enormous risk. You’re totally at the mercy of public opinion. The whole idea that it is hard to be a rock band…. When has it not been hard to be a rock band? Just because you play music people are going to embrace what you do? Like it is in some way extraordinary. It is an incredibly risky way to go about doing anything. I’ve been extraordinary lucky. It’s like being a circus performer. Wow, I can swing from a trapeze and fucking do triple summersaults. I hope a circus picks me up. It’s crazy.