Guitarist Lou Barlow joined the hardcore punk band Deep Wound in 1982, during high school times in western Massachusetts. They put out a decent 7-inch plus a few songs on one compilation, and then broke up when they tired of the genre's limitations. Not too long after that, Deep Wound's drummer started a new, slower, and noisier band called Dinosaur. The drummer switched to guitar, and Barlow picked up the bass. As an extension of his earliest, acoustic guitar-strummed and intentionally distorted home recordings, Barlow started Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney (and later Jason Loewenstein). Barlow did continue to do solo recordings, under both his own name and as Sentridoh. And in the '90s Barlow broached alt-rock stardom with the loop-based Folk Implosion, who had a song in the movie Kids.
Barlow was kicked out of Dinosaur in the late '80s, but rejoined in 2005. Similarly, Sebadoh took a long break, not releasing any records between 1999 and 2013. These days, Barlow is super busy; everything old is new again. He is newly remarried, moved back to Massachusetts from California to be near his kids, and he's in three bands again — Dinosaur Jr., his solo music as Lou Barlow, and Sebadoh.
Metro Times: In the 1980s, the kind of music that you were playing was very ill-defined in simple terms: First, the way it was allegedly made, and then how it was distributed. These lazy terms had nothing to do with the music itself, and it shouldn't still bother me 30 years later, but it does. I speak, of course, of the alleged "lo-fi" movement, and of the genre known as indie-rock.
Lou Barlow: I totally agree, and I have said more or less the same thing msyelf. That's why we did "Gimme Indie Rock," the song — I thought the term was so stupid. If you're a great music fan the title of the music is usually evocative of the way the music sounds or where it came from. And lo-fi too, that's crazy, it's like if you look at the history of music, so much stuff is "lo-fi," yet no one says "the early lo-fi recordings of George Jones" — they say, "his rockabilly era." I always took it as meaning that the music wasn't that good, and maybe it wasn't.
MT: Another term that you were hit with really early on is "slacker," which I'm curious what you think of. Your lyrics often employ self-deprecating humor, as with that wordplay on the new record, "failure is a state of mine."
Barlow: When Sebadoh was first happening, we had a write-up in the Village Voice, and I forget who the writer was, but he wrote "Sebadoh's is a culture of refusal to make decisions." And you know, that's not wrong. It happened to me in my personal life over and over again, where I was faced with a very definite situation that was like, "I need to get out of this situation; it's not healthy" and I would be, "No, I'm gonna just sit my ass here and see how far it goes." It's this weird refusal, you know. So the slacker thing, on one level it does apply; there is a lot to that I identify with. But as far as not doing anything, that's not the case. For the band to be called "slacker," that's tough because at the same time it's really prolific and I actually did work really hard at what I did. And I worked all the time.
MT: Something I've seen happen a lot with your work is that people conflate your biography and your song to a great degree, from when you were having problems with J Mascis to the dissolution of your marriage.
Barlow: With Sebadoh, the fact is the stuff I put in the songs is really personal. It's not only because that's just how I write a song, but also I know that I'm going to be performing the songs. And when I perform songs, I have to be really in the moment with the song and feel it to remember the words and stuff, so I have to have that kind of reinforcement.
With the new record, unfortunately when we started making that record the songs were written while really hard stuff was happening. And I did write about it. So when it did come out and people asked me, I was like "yeah." But I wish I had really kept my mouth shut, because some of the reviews were kind of mean. It's hard. I write the songs literally about something that has happened to me, you know. And I do that because that's just a thing I decided I was gonna do really early on. I would like to be someone that could put myself in the point of view of a character. Actually I can do that, but it's not as interesting to me that way. I like songs that are very close to the bone.
MT: Your publicist Nathan promoted this interview to me by saying that you have "Michigan roots." I always thought you were a Massachusetts guy, bread and born.
Barlow: I moved to Michigan when I was 3, and lived there until I was 12 — in Jackson.
MT: Was it a good place to be a kid, or a shitty one?
Barlow: It was great. I switched schools a lot because they had a lot of bussing issues in the '70s. I lived in the same house, but almost went to a different school almost every year, in elementary school. But there were a lot of woods, and railroad tracks, behind my house. It was idyllic, you know.
MT: What did you put on the tracks to flatten, aside from coins?
Barlow: Just coins. I saw a dog get hit by a train once. That sucked. We lived so close to the tracks that they were pretty fearsome; it was a big part of my childhood, actually. All the trains had cars on them because they were shipping the cars from Detroit. The daily train would come by a couple times each day, and that was really exciting.
MT: How do you age as a band, without doing the same thing over and over again, without sucking? How does this happen?
Barlow: I thought we were doing the same thing over and over again! [laughs]
MT: How do you do it and keep it interesting to yourself and other people?
Barlow: I guess it's interesting to me because I always feel like things can be better. I always feel like there's more places to go. I always want to find new ways to break through, find an avenue of communication that we haven't found yet.
Sebadoh plays the Loving Touch on Thursday, May 28. The show starts at 8 p.m.; 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; thelovingtouchferndale.com; $15.
Mike McGonigal is music editor of the Detroit Metro Times.