“CAUSE CARING IS RUDE” INCENDIARY TALK TO LOU BARLOW
Submitted by Jasper Willems on Wed, 02/20/2013–12:46
Prior to Dinosaur Jr.’s Paradiso gig, Incendiary sought out nineties indie luminary Lou Barlow for a chat.
Navigating through Loobiecore.com, Lou Barlow’s “vast and confusing” website, is quite an entertaining way to spend your typical lazy weekend afternoon. A fragmented, oddball collage of old photographs, homemade videos, rarities and numerous handwritten scribbles (there is even a cat section!). But Loobiecore doesn’t just stockpile zany Barlow-witticisms. Some of the content is genuinely moving. The candid low-budget music videos filmed from Barlow’s LA residence for instance — in particular the one for Take Advantage off his 2009 solo-effort Goodnight Unknown. Another is a touching anecdote on his late friend Elliott Smith (where Barlow conveniently mentions the late singer-songwriters penchant for making delicious blueberry muffins). “(Loobiecore) is meant to be a little world unto its own”, he mumbles at Paradiso’s backstage area while chomping down a piece of baloney sandwich. “When I first went online and went to websites, I liked the idea of not knowing where stuff was. And how you could sort of hide away things and work your way through almost like this little maze. I didn’t have the idea to make it easy to navigate.”
One of the wackier bits is Barlow’s Klassix-page, which includes various audio files and cock-and-bull ramblings of singular early recordings. One briefly documents an alleged run-in with Mark Lanegan in Seattle back in ’91. Apparently, Losercore — a track from Barlows lo-fi pet project Sentridoh — rubbed the former Screaming Trees-singer the wrong way. “No bullshit”, Barlow smirks. “(Lanegan) was really high. He was just really aggressive. That song, in particular, seemed to make some people really angry.” He chuckles. “There are more people that had negative reactions to it. Henry Rollins didn’t like it either.” Barlow reenacts the punk rock icon’s displeasure with the poorest Rollins-impression imaginable.
“At the time — especially when I was releasing that music — I don’t think it was acceptable to be so self-deprecating. Rock music was really macho for a long time. Nirvana had a lot of humility and humor in their songs. Yet it was so forceful…”, Barlow laments. While Dinosaur Jr.’s origins were rooted in hardcore-outfit Deep Wound, Lou Barlow quickly discovered he wasn’t cut out to become an archetypical punk rock aficionado. “The things that I took from music that I love is that you should be yourself. For me to do that is to combine heavier sounds with lyrics — or a vocal approach — that was vulnerable. It’s about expressing myself. To me, music is mostly imitation, which is not a bad thing. I mean, I do love music that imitates other music.”
The reason why Barlow still exerts himself with Dinosaur Jr. has nothing to do with imitation whatsoever. Neither does he intend to rekindle with the past glory of the grand trinity that was Dinosaur (1985), You’re Living All Over Me (1987) and Bug (1988). On the contrary: he simply takes pride in the notion of Dinosaur Jr. still being a unique band among peers. “Obviously, Dinosaur Jr. has a sound that people identify with. It’s an identifiable sound. The way that Murph (Emmett Jefferson “Patrick” Murphy III, IM), myself and J. play together is unique. I understand music well enough to realize that having such a unique sound is rare. Not many bands have such an identifiable sound.” Dinosaur Jr.’s distinctive blend of feral guitar onslaught and brooding songwriting was a far cry from Deep Wound’s puerile, high octane power chord attack. Barlow: “Within the earlier songs I witnessed a lot of the relationships around J. We spent a lot of time together, we had a lot of friends in common. I saw him writing about all these situations, I thought it was brilliant! Nowadays, his lyrical thrust seems a little less vivid. Actually, after I left the band I didn’t see much of that personal touch. I really liked how edgy and angry the earlier songs were.”
Falling out with J. backlashed Barlow into a spree of lo-fi recording sessions with his friend Eric Gaffney: 1987’s Weed Forestin’ and 1988’s The Freed Man. “Yeah with Eric Gaffney…”, Lou recalls.”That was an incredible relationship with him. And an incredibly challenging experience. Because he’s someone who doesn’t find it easy to work with anybody.” These two records foreshadowed Barlows other well-known indie-rock outfit: Sebadoh. Where Dinosaur Jr.’s output was driven by Mascis’s austere, low-key disposition, Sebadoh’s three-pronged songwriting blitz applied an “all-eggs-in-one-basket” kind of hierarchy between Barlow, Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein.
Barlow says he hasn’t spoken to Gaffney since Sebadoh’s reunion tour of 2007. “I think he’s okay, I think he’s making music again. Eric is someone who wants to make all the decisions. And I was someone who also wanted to make all the decisions. I really had a strong belief in him and I collaborating. But ultimately…Eric really doesn’t want to collaborate with me.” (He laughs apologetically). Nonetheless, Barlow still considers the first lo-fi recordings with Gaffney — up until 1993’s Bubble And Scrape — his creative pinnacle. Unfortunately, largely due to Gaffney’s increasing paranoia over finances, Barlow and Loewenstein eventually replaced him with Bob Fay. While Fay didn’t possess Gaffney's aptitude and fancy, he was a more easy-going and manageable personality. Barlow approached his songwriting in a more practical functional way..These circumstances led to the more basic, unambiguous MO of 1994’s Bakesale and 1995’s Harmacy.
Lou Barlow’s tendency to entangle himself creatively with likewise brainy rare bird-types was once again evident in The Folk Implosion, the band he formed with songsmith John Davis. With The Folk Implosion, Barlow gained perhaps his biggest commercial success contributing to the soundtrack of the Larry Clark-film Kids. Its lead single, Natural One, peaked at №20 in the American Mainstream Rock Charts. The collaboration between Barlow and Davis remained a fruitful one until the latter became increasingly spooked with being recognized publicly outside of the shows. The Folk Implosion — eventually fizzling to obscurity in 2004 — was yet another case of two different individuals becoming creatively compatible within a gradually defunct environment.
By the time Barlow moved to Los Angeles with his family, he began to mellow out significantly. Yet curiously enough, he feels family life hasn’t changed his career perspective all that much…if at all. “Which is almost…a BAD thing”, a somewhat dumbstruck Barlow remarks. “Because in a lot of ways I should probably be more…business-oriented? I’m still kind of driven by the same things, and I work at the same pace.” In his makeshift home studio, Barlow allows himself to be as prolific as ever. He tends to gravitate towards musicians close to him, like The Melvins’ skinsman Dale Crover (who helped Barlow demo his Dinosaur Jr.-songs) and multi-instrumentalist Imaad Wasif, with whom Barlow briefly played in The Folk Implosion after John Davis quit the band.
The mini-documentary for his 2009 solo-album Goodnight Unknown shows an off-the-wall glimpse into Lou’s musical conscience. Thirty minutes of tumultuous, artistic soul searching, almost like a full-motioned version of the many odd snippets of idiosyncratic randomness found on Loobiecore. It suggests that up until now, Barlow has never embraced music as something to carve a career out of. His wistful singing voice and bittersweet lyrical drifts are the means that help him come to grips with his own personal demons. Whether this could eventually become detrimental to paying the mortgage or providing scholarships for his three children, Barlow expresses concern. “Kids are expensive. And to make a future for them (ponders)…I’m not really making a future for them. Which makes me wonder why I have to do things exactly the same way”, he chuckles sardonically. “Hopefully things will work out.”
Barlow believes that finally coming to (relatively healthy) terms with both Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. will set things in motion. He confirms that the new Sebadoh-album is being mixed as we speak. “We did an EP last year, The Secret EP, from the same session. I was very happy with it. I pretty excited about the album, I know it’s going to be a very strong record…but that doesn’t mean much, you know?”, he playfully quips. “In my opinion Sebadoh-records are always really passionate statements. Looking back at it now. It’s hard to identify with the band, it’s hard to figure out where our center is.” One would argue that the bands’ noted elusiveness is more asset than deficiency. “It’s something we are definitely still pursuing”, Barlow admits.
Rude, one of two Barlow-penned songs off Dinosaur Jr.’s latest LP I Bet On Sky (Recognition being the other), aptly documents the adjustments he made as a band member. “When you’re being passionate about something or voicing your concerns, you are trying to pour energy into a situation. And hopefully, draw a reaction out of it. It’s not specifically about J., but something I find in general with the people I’m closest to. Sometimes they just don’t want any care, so you just lay off and let them be themselves.” With the release of I Bet On Sky, Dinosaur Jr. has matched the output the band had accomplished before Mascis kicked Barlow out of the band.
Is it conceivable that J. has acknowledged Barlow’s importance to Dinosaur Jr. by now? Barlow shakes his head. “I think having the band together is enough of an acknowledgment. We’ve been holding it together for a while. And we’re in our eighth year after the reunion. That’s all the acknowledgment, all the proof I need.”, Lou affirms. “Over the years you learn what to expect from certain people. Some people are very demonstrative: they tell you they want you, they need you, or they shake your hand. Then there are people who aren’t like that.. And there are people sort of in-between — I’m kind of an in-between person. There are parts of myself where I identify with J.’s lack of expression in a way. I can be like that myself, you know.”
Around the time of Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion, Barlow realized it was he who had to make some compromises to safeguard these fragile, tenuous musical ecosystems. Treading unpredictable waters and poking at beehives could potentially turn awry. Barlow nods. “I have to accept that some people don’t want to be okay. They feel vulnerable. And they need to be in control. And for me to let go and allow people to be like that, I have to weigh in my own wants and needs and say, “maybe this IS asking too much. Maybe I shouldn’t continue pursuing something the other person is resisting against. Maybe I should listen.” I think for a long time I pursued things that drew resistance. In Dinosaur Jr. it’s definitely an interesting balance for me to care so deeply about it and to let it go at the same time. To let it be what it is, to trust J.’s creative instincts. Just let him be who he is without applying any pressure.”
As a result, Dinosaur Jr. may still be little more than perfect strangers off stage; but on it they form a more tightly knit unit than ever before. At Paradiso’s main hall, the band revisits one from the old days: an emphatic cover of Deep Wounds’ Training Ground. “School sucks!”, a worked-up Barlow yells, while casually discharging some rogue blasts from his bass amp. “But…it’s necessary!”, he immediately backpedals, wearily catching his breath.
Or you could just become a rock star instead.