Lo-fi legend Lou Barlow has played in three of the most influential indie bands of the last quarter century: Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion. And while he’s still recording and touring with the reunited Dinosaur (whose Farm was released this summer), his main concern these days is his solo career. Goodnight Unknown (Merge), Barlow’s second album under his own name and the follow-up to 2005’s Emoh, is his best collection of songs in a decade and features guests including Dale Crover (Melvins) and Lisa Germano. Barlow also recently joined Lara Meyerratken in Ben Lee‘s new incarnation of Noise Addict, which released It Was Never About The Audience for free last month. MAGNET caught up with the 43-year-old Barlow on the eve of his current tour; Barlow (backed by the Missingmen) is opening for Dinosaur throughout October and part of November. As if that double duty wasn’t enough, Barlow will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: You have albums with three different projects this year. Who do you think you are, Robert Pollard?
Barlow: Well, I think we determined that I was born in the same hospital as the guy. But that doesn’t answer the question, does it? Of course not. He’s far more prolific, isn’t he? This is my first record in four years other than my minor contributions to Dino records. I’m nowhere near Pollardian. What’s the third album? I thought there was just the two: Farm and Goodnight Unknown. Don’t worry, I won’t be releasing anything for a while after this.
The third is the Noise Addict album.
Oh yeah. I guess that does sort of count.
How did you end up in the reunited version of Noise Addict?
Ben asked me. I met him back in the early ’90s in Australia when Noise Addict was active. We sat on the beach and made up a song about Pavement. He lives in L.A. now. I went for a visit, he played me the songs, I took ’em home and put bass on them. Easy, fun. I like the off-the-cuff feel of the songs on that record.
Was it tough to plan releasing a solo record around Dinosaur-related commitments?
No. I just did it. I delayed it several months, but did so of my own accord. The real balancing hasn’t begun yet.
Your album features Dale Crover and Lisa Germano. How do you know them?
The Folk Implosion opened for the Melvins back in 2001, and Dale and I had mutual friends in L.A. Then we both had kids around the same time, and our wives consulted each other about pre-schools and whatnot. We go to Disneyland sometimes, too. Lisa knows Mudrock (Andrew Murdock), who co-produced the record with me. I wanted female vocals on the song “Too Much Freedom,” and after shooting down all suggestions for a week or two, Mud mentioned, almost accidentally, that he knew Lisa Germano and could call her. I was dumfounded. She came in for an hour or so with Sebastian Steinberg (who played stand-up bass on two songs). She sat on the floor when she sang.
Your solo band is opening for Dinosaur. At your advanced age (heh heh), how do you think you will hold up playing two sets a night for more than a month?
Don’t all the old men play more than 200 shows a year? And three-hour sets? Dino sets are an hour and a half. I’ll play for 45 minutes. No biggie.
What’s the status of Sebadoh right now? Any plans for a new album?
Jason Loewenstein is very busy with the Fiery Furnaces as their recording engineer, bass player, jack of all trades. It seems impossible to find time to do anything together at the moment. But we may do the reissue/tour thing again for Bakesale. I’ll probably have to wait until J (Mascis) kicks me out of Dino again before I find time to do another Sebadoh record.
You are coming up on 30 years in the music biz. At what point did you realize that music would be your career? Do you think the radical changes in the music industry over the past decade or so make it harder or easier for people like you to have life-long careers?
I don’t know if I ever had a point where I realized it would be a career. I just kept playing and touring. It is the only thing I know how to do and the only thing I want to do. I think the Internet makes it easier to communicate with people, which, in turn, can make it easier to keep in touch and keep working. Without email, I would be very isolated. I owe any progress I’ve made in the last seven years to my computer: its recording software, Photoshop, website ware and net connection. I don’t have much nostalgia for the old days. And I don’t think I’m anywhere near the 30-year mark, by the way.
Your daughter Hannelore is four now, right? What’s your favorite part of being a father? Does she ever go on the road with you?
She toured with me from the age of two months. Less now, as my wife is pregnant and soon Hanne will be in kindergarten. I like having a little person to hang out with. To see her mind growing, making connections, learning to communicate—it’s fascinating.
What ’80s indie band do you think should reunite? Who should stay apart?
Ah, man. I’d like to see the original Neats reform. They were a Boston band that were contemporaries of R.E.M. Played Gretsch guitars with a big open strummed sound, almost like a precursor to the Walkmen. I really loved that band. They turned into a much blander hard-rock band later on, which mystified me. I’d be afraid a reunion for that reason, unfortunately. I don’t really want to stir up any shit suggesting that a band like, say, the Afghan Whigs don’t reform. So I’ll shut up.
Back in the ’90s, you had some pretty rough times at Sebadoh shows in Philly. What about our City Of Brotherly Love brought out the worst in Lou?
I don’t know. I remember some good shows at the Khyber Pass and elsewhere. I assume you are referring to the mid-’90s shows when we were playing bigger places. I think I struggled when Sebadoh got bigger. I never thought I got it together in a way worthy of the attention we received. And I let it show. Big mistake—there must be a show-business rule about that. I had rough shows everywhere. Nothing about Philly made this worse. I just sucked.
The Philly incident I most remember was in 1993, with you taking off mid-set through the door behind the stage at the Khyber and not coming back. I also remember a show from the same year you did at Swarthmore that got shut down by the police, but that wasn’t your fault.
Did I really not return to the stage? Wow. I don’t remember that at all. What a jerk I was. I remember Swarthmore, but not getting shut down, but that’s not surprising.
I interviewed Sebadoh, in your van, for the first issue of MAGNET before the Swarthmore show. Eric Gaffney was really mean to me.
That I remember. I think Eric’s early exposure to John Lydon and John Lennon prevented him from ever being nice to an interviewer.
Do you have any forthcoming projects or whatever?
I did a few cover songs for various projects. One for a Franklin Bruno-related thing. One for a Merge compilation curated by Alex Ross. And one for a Chris Knox benefit album. And I have a self-released CD I’ll be selling on tour of album outtakes and various odds and ends I’ve been posting on my website.
—Eric T. Miller