Pre-Weezer Cruise Q&A: Lou Barlow on Weezer Cruise, Working With J Mascis, and New Sebadoh Album

sebadohoh.jpg
photo by Jens Nordström
Sebadoh, with Lou Barlow, center.
Lou Barlow has been to South Florida only once, ever, and previously has had no desire to spend any extended time at sea. This week, though, he's due for an extended dose of both.

The indie-rock icon is slated to perform aboard the Weezer Cruise, departing from the Port of Miami on January 19, both as part of Dinosaur Jr. and at the helm of his own act, Sebadoh. Then, he'll bookend the cruise with land-bound shows at Grand Central on Monday, January 23, with Dinosaur Jr. and tomorrow, January 18, with Sebadoh.
It's the latter performance that is, in some ways, perhaps the more anticipated. Dinosaur Jr. and its notoriously unique frontman, J Mascis, have toured more or less continuously through the years. Sebadoh, however, broke up more or less definitively from 1999 to 2007, when Barlow finally convinced the band's original lineup to undertake a reunion tour.

In the ensuing years, Sebadoh (though now without cofounder Eric Gaffney) has continued to tour behind reissues of its now indie-canonical albums but with no new material in sight. That might soon change.

Though he's currently building up to work in a new Dinosaur Jr. album, Barlow told County Grind during a recent phone interview that he plans to release new Sebadoh material perhaps as early as this year. He also talked about making his children cry with his voice, how working with J Mascis is like working with a cat, and the ups and downs of '90s nostalgia.

Read the full Q&A below, and check the band out Wednesday at Grand Central.

Sebadoh, with Jacuzzi Boys and Plains. 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 18, at Grand Central, 697 M. Miami Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Click here.

County Grind: Do you have any memories of playing in South Florida, ever? Have you played here at all?

Lou Barlow: Sebadoh played in Miami once at a record store. I can't remember the name of the store, but it was a well-known, cool record store in Miami. We played at the store, and that was it -- that's the only time I've ever been there or played there.

What tour was that on?

I think it was the Harmacy tour for Sebadoh.

You were in the studio before I called. What are you working on?

I just kind of sit around and play guitar and see if anything happens. I try to, anyways.

How much time do you spend doing that every day?

When I'm home, I spend a lot of time with my kids, so generally, about four or five hours a day, maybe, if I'm lucky. It's not really enough, because it takes me a while to -- it's hard to be creative on demand. It's just hard to focus, and then I go and pick up the kids starting at about 2 p.m., and then I spend the rest of the day with them.

If it's hard for you to be creative on demand, why work that way?

I always have things to do. I could sit and listen to things. I guess I just try to spend time there, if not actually creating, then just listening to things I've done. There's no other way to work. Having kids changes everything, especially if you want to spend time with them.

Ideally I guess the most creative times, generally, are maybe at night. It would be nice to, at the end of the day, sit down with a guitar and start yelling and see what happens, but it's not really possible.

How old are your kids now?

They're 2 and 6.

Have they had much experience with your music? How do they react?

They hate it. They hate me playing and singing. I was singing in the car the other day with my 2-year-old, and he started crying. It was a cry of deep sorrow, with real tears coming down. They hate it.

What were you singing?

I was just singing. I could have been singing anything. I guess sometimes, if my 2-year-old is with me, I think oh, it's cool, I'll work on songs and sing to myself, and he won't mind. But he totally minds! The minute I start singing anything -- my own song, somebody else's songs -- he's just beside himself. It's funny, but it's kind of sad.

Do you play other children's music for them instead?

They don't mind music from the radio. We listen to music every night off my iPod, and that could be completely noisy hardcore or really nice, acoustic music, and they totally take all of it in one shot.

They like music; they react to it. I never worry that something is too aggressive or loud or noisy for them, because they seem to enjoy that as much as Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, which we also listen to that. But we listen to that because I like it as well! I don't think they're children, so I'll play them children's music. I just play them with music. But for some reason, my voice live, the actual singing, they just fucking hate it.

I'll ask my daughter, "Why can't I sing?" And she says, "Daddy, just don't, OK? Just don't do it!"

Besides having to shift your work time earlier, has being a dad changed much else about your creative process or the way you approach songwriting?

I guess it's made me more tolerant of taking a long time to do things, you know? I think part of it is like watching a child develop language skills or learn how to walk. It's interesting how to learn things as humans; a lot of it is just very small steps every day. When I think of that in terms of songwriting, it makes me more tolerant and relaxed of letting ideas take a long time to gestate. I don't know if that makes sense.

Are you working on anything specific right now, or rather, working towards anything specific?

The first day of recording I'm doing this year would be for Dinosaur Jr., and it seems my function is to come up with two or three songs every record and try to teach them to Murph and J. I'm trying to figure out something that will hold their attention right now, which is really difficult -- really, really difficult.

They're not really into my stuff, I guess. They're really funny. J's always working on his own stuff, so when I present something to him, it's like, OK, how do I keep his attention? I get about an hour with him, then he's gone.

Then with Murph, Murph is so accustomed to J writing every single drum hit that he plays. But with Murph, because I'm not a drummer, I need him to sit with me and put the drum parts together. But his experience with J has made it so that he doesn't really trust his own drumming.

So this will be the third new record I've worked on with them. The first one was pretty cool -- there was enough momentum going into it that it worked. The second time was a nightmare. Now with this one, I'm like, how am I going to do this?

It's so much like getting to know cats. You can do one thing once that works with them, and they'll come and curl up and sit on your lap. But that doesn't mean that the next time you approach them it's going to work. It's so mental. There's like this strategizing that has go on. Maybe it's a needless strategizing, but that's where I'm at.

Are they aware of all this agonizing? Do they care?

They don't care. They don't really care. That's the thing about it, which is sort of -- it is what it is. They don't care, which is good in a way, because it really is all my problem, basically. It's not their problem; it's mine. It's just another interesting life challenge! It's something else I've got to figure out how to do.

So are you looking forward to being on a boat with them for a few days?

Oh, sure. I mean, we spend all kinds of time together. We've been touring for the last seven years together. I enjoy their company, and I enjoy the band tremendously. It's just the creative process that's evolving and interesting.

With that going on over the last few years, and the stress from that writing, did it feel good to revisit the older Sebadoh material?

Oh yeah. It feels amazing.

Starting around 2007, which was the beginning of the current reunion that's still going, was it hard to convince the other people to get back onboard? Did you have any trepidation about revisiting the older material?

Well, when we did the original reunion in 2007, that was with Eric Gaffney, who's an original member. It took me like, no joke, three years of constant emailing and phone calls -- it took me that long to convince him to do it.

So he did a bunch of touring with us, and he's not really part of it now, because we're playing material that he wasn't really involved in. Now we have a good friend of Jason's named Bob D'Amico playing drums. We've been touring for the last year, and it's been really easy and wonderful, and nobody's got to be convinced of the value of it.

So you were trying to convince him from 2004 to 2007.

Easily that long.

What was his main issue? Did he not want to get back into the dynamic of being in a band with x, y, and z people, or did he not want to play older music again, or what?

It was basically gaining his trust gain and getting him into it and playing again. We had a really great tour and a good time when it actually happened, but that was that.

With the different classic albums you've been playing on tours, start to finish, how did it feel at first? Do you feel that when bands do that, it takes away any of the element of surprise of a live show?

Every time that I've done it, I've kind of enjoyed it. It's not necessarily something I want to see other bands do. I don't really have a strong opinion about it. I think from my point of view, doing it means that we get paid, and we get a little more money to do it, and there's a little more attention paid to the show, and I guess it gets more people to come see us play. So I'm behind it in that way.

I'm like, "OK, if we need to frame it in this way for people to come to the show or consider this special, that's what we'll do." Musically it doesn't bother me because I'm proud of every record I've done, and revisiting stuff has never been a problem for me.

Do you worry that it comes off as too much of a nostalgia thing?

I mean, I don't care. I've always made new music and put out new records, and to make a sweeping generalization, people don't give a shit if I make a new record. I mean I've done lots of new solo records, and people don't care.

So if people care that Sebadoh is together again and there's some nostalgia involved in that, that's fine with me. There's only so much complaining I can do about that before I sound like a jerk, like, "I wish people cared about my new stuff!" I hate that, when I hear other musicians complain about that or refuse to play old stuff or scoff nostalgia.

It is what it is. If people have attachments to stuff you've done in the past, then great. It means they have an attachment to something you've done, period. So many musicians and people have poured their hearts and souls into music that people don't have any connection to, for totally unfair reasons.

I'm lucky in that people care about any music I've done, ever. So I really can't be too picky about it. And like I said, I totally stand behind what I've recorded. I also know that I can continue to make new music, and it's just going to become part of what I've done, and there are people who care about that. I can say that nobody cares that I've done a new record, but that's not really true. Maybe not as many people care, and that's unfortunate, but whatever.

I've been around long enough, I guess, that I just want to roll with stuff. I don't want to fight what's going on. I don't want to fight the inevitable, you know what I mean?

Well, do you think the perceived lack of interest from your perspective is more of a function of less music-buying in general?

Maybe, but I also think that there are always new bands that do well. Someone is always striving, and there are always crazy new bands making groundbreaking music, and they're doing well. That will always be the case.

So to me, about, "Oh, it's the music industry," I have to say no, it's because I'm old. I had my fucking moment in the sun, and it was awesome! The '90s were a great time. I sold some records, did a lot of amazing tours, and put out five or six records that people really cared about and wrote about.

I had that moment, and in reality, especially with Dinosaur Jr. and even just touring with Sebadoh, we've done OK even in the wake of that. We're still functioning bands, and we're still making music, and there are still people that care. So I can't get too carried away. I think, yeah, it's true that people don't buy as much music.

But the thing that kept me going back in the day was never record sales. I had maybe, no joke, less than a year where I actually made money selling records in order to support me or even pay my rent. Only at the very peak moment of popularity was I selling enough records to actually pay for what it took to make the record. Most of the money that I've made in my life has been from going on tour and playing music for people in a live situation, and that's it.

You mentioned the '90s as being your time, but there's a renewed wave of nostalgia for the '90s, both for people who lived it and kids who were too young to remember. For instance, you're playing with Yuck, who you're playing with on the Weezer cruise, and they're going for a really specifically '90s sound while being too young to have experienced it. What do you think of them and similar bands?

I don't know, it's kind of cute. It's sweet. They're smart kids, and you talk to them, and you're like, "Wow, they're actually smart and they like this music, and they hear something genuine in it." That's great. I've played with a few other bands from England who are kind of contemporaries of Yuck, and what I really like about it is how unpretentious the bands actually seem. One of the things that they like about the music and seem to be picking up on is the lack of pretense. To me, that's cool.

What was your reaction to the whole Weezer Cruise idea when you first got invited?

I was into it. I know people have been doing things like this for quite a while, and it's not just big bands. The first time I heard about it was that band from Canada, the Barenaked Ladies, a few years ago when I read an article about it. It was from the point of view of a journalist who kind of grudgingly went into it and by the end, he was absolutely worn down by the whole experience but into it. Exhausted but totally drawn into the insanity of it.

There's been this series of festivals called All Tomorrow's Parties, and they've been doing these unique things where they take over this crappy English holiday camp. They bring the bands over and everyone's basically trapped in this horrible English holiday camp for three or four days. The cool thing is that all the bands and fans are there all together. I really like the atmosphere of those; I just think it's kind of funny.

In this situation with Weezer, Weezer's a band that's got a pretty good sense of humor. They're one of these rare bands that's been able to thrive on a really large level but also have this really cool vibe about them. So you know that if Weezer's going to do it, it's probably going to be OK. I kind of trust them.

So when it first came up, I think Sebadoh were the first ones asked, and I said yes, right away. It wasn't even, "How much are we making?" It was just like, "Yes. We'll go on the boat, even though I have no desire to be on a cruise ship, and I don't know how I feel about it." It actually scares me a little bit to be on a ship in the ocean. I've never wanted to do it, but I'm doing it.

Then Dinosaur signed on as well, and I thought, this is great. I'm going to be a performer on a ship, playing two or three shows a day. It's fucking hilarious.

It almost sounds like it's kind of an ironic thing for you, but when people go on things like the Barenaked Ladies cruise, it's maybe more earnest.

Yeah. I earnestly am into performing, you know what I mean? I guess to go on a cruise ship, there's a level of irony there. But with Weezer too, there's sort of an ironic edge. Maybe I'm wrong. Is ironic even the right way to talk about it? I guess I sort of chafe at the idea of being ironic; it was such a thing in the '90s that I always fought against.

But the cruise seems like fun to me. My wife's going, and we're getting away from the kids for like four days, which is monumental for us. My wife has not been away from her children for seven years, at all -- maybe for one night, but she was heavily pregnant. For her, this could actually preserve her sanity. This could be a very important thing for me.

Back to Sebadoh itself -- last year you toured in support of a forthcoming Harmacy reissue. It still hasn't come out. What's going on with that?

Oh yeah. Nothing. Harmacy is sort of the one album I've done that I don't really love. Consequently, I have been dragging about putting it together. I have been stubbornly refusing to finish it, not cooperating in any way to make it happen. That's it.

Why don't you love it?

I just don't think it's necessary [to reissue it]. The record is still available. There are thousands of copies sitting in warehouses across the world and in used bins. It was considered a huge failure for the record label, Sub Pop. I have so many negative associations with the record.

We had to really battle them to even put out a physical copy of the Bake Sale reissue. They didn't want to do it. Forcing Sub Pop to put any sort of energy behind the Bake Sale reissue was so emotionally draining and needlessly humbling for me. It was so depressing, like, "Please? Can you please just put out a CD and maybe a vinyl copy of it?" And they were like, "Oh, OK."

So to be put in that position again -- trying to convince somebody to lose more money on the record -- I just have a really hard time doing that. It's not so hard with Domino, our U.K. label, because they're great. Not that Sub Pop isn't also great, but Domino seems to have more of a positive attitude about the history of Sebadoh and Sebadoh as part of the history of their record label.

Harmacy was just really, with Sub Pop Records, a really awful experience. I don't want to make them relive it and try to tell them, "Oh, it's a really important record" when I don't necessarily believe that.

Will the reissue definitely happen? Or you're not even sure?

It's a matter of when somebody says, "Lou, do the fucking reissue!" Somebody has to express to me that it actually matters to somebody, I guess. I don't know how we can expand on it in any way that isn't readily available in the world out there. That's my whole thing with it, is that it isn't an unavailable record.

To wrap up, you are doing this cruise with Sebadoh, and you are playing the next All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead, England, in March. After that, do you have any other plans for Sebadoh? Will you record again under this name? If not, what else is coming up besides the Dinosaur Jr. record?

I'm pretty much focusing on the Dinosaur Jr. record, because as soon as we get back from the cruise, we've pretty much got to start recording. But after that, I want to record with Sebadoh! We've been writing songs, and we are very into doing another record, so hopefully in March and April, we'll be taking steps to doing that. I think we're kind of looking into the idea of fan-funding the record. But yeah, we're definitely doing another record.

Any time goal for when to hope you might get it out?

Assume, probably, later in the year, maybe more like wintertime. But we'll see. It could be that I get involved in the Dinosaur record and that'll keep me busy for a long time, and then maybe a Sebadoh record is something we'll start working on this year and really nail down at this time next year. I don't know. I have no idea, but I just know that we need to do it, we will do it, and that's it.

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