Editor's note: This article initially appeared in November. We're bumping it back up to the top of the blogroll, since Sebadoh is appearing this weekend at WARMfest.
Three separate times during my interview with Lou Barlow, of Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr., the bassist broke out in giggles. I'm not sure exactly what was so funny, but it was catching. And so, I found myself cracking up repeatedly with the premier lo-fi bassist of our time on the phone for the better part of a half hour. Wasn't a bad way to spend our 20 or so minutes together, to be honest.
First on my list of questions: how one of our favorite local labels, Joyful Noise Recordings, convinced Sebadoh to release their first full-length in over a decade, Defend Yourself. The album – which came after the stirring, unexpected Secret EP – is a sweet return to the home-recorded Sebadoh of years past; a heartbreaking package of eclectic indie rock.
Sebadoh will perform at Radio Radio tonight.
NUVO: What drew you to Joyful Noise?
Lou Barlow: They did a cassette box set for Dinosaur Jr., and Karl [Hofstetter], he's kind of the main guy (Editor's note: he is.), he thought it would be cool if it included a cassette [Weed Forestin'] that I actually included during the sales of the second Dinosaur Jr. record. [I included it] in a couple of record stores where, if you bought the Dinosaur Jr. record, you'd get the cassette with it. It'd sort of become part of this Dinosaur Jr. lore that it happened. And that cassette was basically the first Sebadoh cassette.
So, Karl suggested that it would be cool if we could re-do the cassette and include it with every tenth copy for this box set. I was flattered by that, that he had even thought of it. Coincidentally, I was working on a reissue of that very album at the same time, so I could make a very, almost perfect production of that cassette. And he did that, so I thought that was very cool.
Then he asked me to do an acoustic song for a flex-disc series. ... And then he started bugging me about doing – we had self-released this EP which was sort of a pre-cursor to the album; it was from the same sessions. It was a 5-song EP called The Secret EP and we just made it on CD to sell on tour. And when Karl found out about that, he started saying, "Hey, I want to put this out on vinyl." And we ended up saying, "Okay, cool!" So we did a 10-inch of that, and he asked us about doing the full-length and it just seemed like ... why not?
I like the care they take with their packaging and everything. I didn't see any real need for Sebadoh to be looking around for a bigger indie label, and, actually the ones we approached weren't interested. We didn't look around that much. It just appealed to me to do everything low-budget, not a lot of money. There wasn't a big advance involved; I also didn't want to get into a situation where we were trying to get a label to include us in their release schedule and then hoping that they paid attention to us. We didn't want to get into that; we've been through all that stuff before. It just seemed really modest. It just seemed to fit our whole deal. And the care that they took with the packaging and the other stuff was cool. It was really personal. All the members of the Sebadoh are involved in the management of the band as well, and having somebody we can talk to really quickly and figure things out has been fun. And easy.
NUVO: We interviewed you back in 2011 about the possibility of a new album and you said, "I'm not afraid of failure since just about every record I've made since Harmacy has been completely ignored. If I can make a record that means something to me and that I enjoy, then it's a success." Following up with 2013 Lou from 2011 Lou – has this release been a success in your eyes according to those terms?
Barlow: Yeah, mostly because we have new songs to play live. As far as whether it's a success or not, I don't really know. I know that when the record came out, I made the mistake of reading the reviews and half of them were devastatingly negative, and I was like, "Oh, god." Shockingly [negative]. I was kind of hoping we would ride this wave of goodwill ... but that wasn't really happening. We got really personal, really nasty reviews from The Onion A.V. Club, Pitchfork, Spin. I kind of read those and gave up –
NUVO: I can't believe you read reviews!
Barlow: It was dumb! I shouldn't have done it. I guess in my experience, with Dinosaur Jr. stuff I was always shocked at how positive it's been for every one of those records. But for Sebadoh, for every record except for maybe Bakesale, we were always like, the reviews were always ... the fact that we have two or three songwriters in the band [is] always a huge point of contention with people, reviewers in particular. My lyrics are a big problem for them. And it's always been that way. But we've managed to do well and survive, despite that.
So with this one, I read that initial burst of bad reviews and then [stopped] and said, "I'm just going to hope for the best." It's been good. We just did a really nice tour of Europe that was better than I expected it to be. We'll see how the next tour goes. We did a tour of the West Coast earlier this year that was pretty bad, just in terms of attendance. But maybe it will be better this time around.
NUVO: On the topic of reading reviews: this album has been characterized a lot in the press as a "breakup album." I know you were going through a breakup during the time that you were writing this, but do you consider this a breakup album? What constitutes a breakup album?
Barlow: No. Well I guess one thing that would constitute a breakup album is more than two songs actually written about the breakup itself. And I would say there's two songs on it that are specifically about the breakup and everything else has nothing to do with it. I made the mistake of, when someone asked, "Did anything influence these songs?" of saying, "Well, you know, I'm actually going through a divorce." And that's it. Because I said that ... You know, I wrote half the record. Jason Loewenstein wrote six songs. I wrote six. Bob [D'Amico] wrote one. Two or three of my songs being colored directly by the breakup, that's it. Everything else is Jason's songs or songs I completed before anything happened. But you know, I opened my big .. I was just honest. I said, "Yes, I'm in the middle of a divorce." So it became the divorce record.
But it makes sense that people would make that [jump] because my relationships have always been ... You know, when I was kicked out of Dinosaur Jr., I wrote a few songs about being kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. So then all of my songs were about the breakup of Dinosaur Jr.; it didn't matter if they were or not. Because I was honest about where those songs came from. You know, people don't have the time to sit down specifically and listen, especially people reviewing records. They don't say, "Oh yeah, maybe this song isn't about J. Mascis."
And then the first time I went through a breakup with my now-ex-wife. The first time she left me, years ago, I wrote a bunch of songs about that. And I told people that's what I wrote them about. And we got back together – the Bakesale record, that's the one where we got back together – and I wrote songs about that. So, these Sebadoh records did chart my relationships, especially with my ex-wife. I understand that people [read] all that stuff [into them], but it's unfortunate that this record would be described as a breakup record, because very few of the songs actually refer directly to that at all. And Jason Loewenstein contributes as many songs as I do to the record.
...If I was smart about it, I should never have [mentioned it] in the first place. I just wouldn't have said anything about it, from the beginning. But I don't have that presence of mind. If someone asks, I'm like, [insert goofy voice here] "Oh, yeah, well actually ..." It's just the way I am about stuff. I'm pretty transparent. That's part of the way I think things should be, or the way that I want it to be. But it has it's drawbacks, one of them being that people do latch onto things and over-emphasize them in the big picture. But that's their right, you know.
NUVO: Over what period of time did these songs come together? What's the oldest, what's the newest song on the record?
Barlow: The oldest song for me is a song called "Let It Out." That's one that I actually completed, where I actually had the recording, the song itself was completed before we started the recording process. The rest of it, we started recording in May of 2012; that's when we did the initial two weeks of sessions that became the instrumental backbone of the record, which became the EP that we did and also the LP. And then I completed the rest of my songs in that time between May and when I toured with Dinosaur Jr., which I did for months after that. When I had time to finish the record, in December and into 2013 when I finished them, that's what those songs were finished.
NUVO: How do you balance your time these days between touring with Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh and any other solo stuff? I know you dropped in in Bloomington at least a couple times when I was living down there.
Barlow: I did one instore at Landlocked at the same day that Dinosaur Jr. played there. What's that club there?
NUVO: The Bluebird.
Barlow: Yes, The Bluebird. Oh, maybe Dinosaur Jr. played there twice, I guess, actually. But only one time did I do an instore there. It was great! ... I'm doing Dinosaur Jr. after the end of this tour with Sebadoh, I go and do three or four shows in Europe with Dinosaur Jr. And then we go to Asia with Sebadoh. And then when I come back from that I do an East Coast tour with Dinosaur Jr. It's really just one to the other. I have a really -- my relationship with Dinosaur Jr and to that band is solid. I'm into it. I love the band; it's definitely something that's become a part of my life, and something that I really enjoy doing as well. When I'm not doing Sebadoh ... Dinosaur Jr. has a really good manager who is just all about keeping everything going. I have very good communication with him, and when I'm not doing Sebadoh, I'm doing Dinosaur.