In the realm of US alt-indie, there are few more compelling characters than Lou Barlow. The past five years have been extremely successful for him, as he reunited with the now thriving original line up of Dinosaur Jr for three acclaimed albums. It’s his latest venture though that perhaps gives the garrulous bassist and songwriter most satisfaction. ‘Defend Yourself’ is Barlow’s band Sebadoh’s first album in fourteen years and it is in many ways a quintessentially perfect Sebadoh record. Once again reuniting with co-songwriter Jason Lowenstein, Barlow has offered a timely reminder of just how exciting one of indie rock’s most loved bands can be. Excitingly he promises there is much more to come.
How exciting is it to be back in full operational mode with Sebadoh?
It’s pretty great I have to say. We did a short tour that ended a week ago and it just got me really excited about playing more shows and learning more new songs. It’s hard for me to always feel totally confident about something that I’ve done. I love the process and once it’s actually done, once it’s ready to be released I always go through this period where I have to accept that a lot of people aren’t going to like it and people are going to say nasty stuff about it. I have to gear myself up for criticism. This time I kind of don’t care. I really like the record. I feel pretty good about my songs and Jason’s songs are great. I’m just looking forward to spending a year just playing it doing our best and hoping for the best.
This is your first Sebadoh record for fourteen years. At what point did you begin to think about writing and recording?
Well, I mean we always talked about it. I think the thing that changed was we started saying we were going to do it. We just started speaking in very definite terms. Maybe about two years ago we sat down and said, “When we get together to record our new record!” There was no, “gee, we should.” We stopped saying we should and started saying we will and then it happened. There was a point when I realised that we can’t just say it would be really great we just should just start talking as if it’s going to happen. I chose a time when I knew Dinosaur Jr wouldn’t be recording and I’ve got two months of nothing. I can fill that with Sebadoh stuff.
Do you think there was a certain inevitability that you would one day release a new Sebadoh album?
Yeah, I always thought it would happen eventually. I never doubted it. Jason and I have stayed in touch. Even the last record we did [1999’s ‘The Sebadoh’], we really like that record. I mean, it didn’t do that great in the States, we lost a lot of fans around that time.
In terms of your own songwriting process, is there a specific mindset you have to be in to write a Sebadoh song?
I guess the difference between the songs is kind of superficial. With Dinosaur I think in terms of it would be good to have a guitar lead in this song. Lyrically, with Dinosaur I come up with concepts like I would like a Dinosaur song of mine to say this… I get these concepts about what I think it should be about. With Sebadoh, it’s the stuff that’s closest to the bone for me. I would be a little self-conscious about taking those songs to Dinosaur because they are so personal. With Dinosaur I don’t want my songs to come up on the record for people to go, [affects a weary voice] “ok, here’s Lou”. With Sebadoh, that’s always been the concept of the band. Me being a little too honest, a little too earnest and a little too uncool.
How would you describe ‘Defend Yourself‘? It’s everything great about Sebadoh distilled on one album.
It’s kind of the same thing I’m always after. It’s just honesty about everything that’s going on in my life. I have to have that kind of honesty in the songs just to remember them. I can’t get too abstract or too clever. It’s got to be straight up what’s happening in my life. My life’s been dramatic over the last year so it’s reflected in the songs.
You’ve been recording and writing songs for over 25 years now. Does that process get easier over the years? What differences are there since you were making the first Dinosaur recordings in the late 80s?
I dunno, that’s an interesting question. When I think about it, it’s kind of still the same. I know that I’m more comfortable now in certain situations. Like, I’m doing a benefit single and I had to form a band and do a couple of songs where we recorded in the Foo Fighters studio, which is just this massive place. There’s tons of people around and the whole idea was they were going to film the entire process. It was myself, my friend Imaad Wasif and Dale Crover from the Melvins. They filmed everything we did, it was like a reality thing, “Here’s these guys coming up with a couple of songs!” That could have been the worst thing in the world! Y’know, the most excruciatingly self-conscious that I could be. It was really easy though. I attribute that to being just a bit older and taking things a little easier. If I think about though I had amazing experiences in the studio with Sebadoh when we did ‘Bakesale’. We had some moments when we were really inspired. So it’s not exclusive to now but I think generally I’m more comfortable. I’m way more adaptable.
Do you think it’s perhaps easier for an indie rock group like Sebadoh to exist now than in the 80s and 90s?
I think being in a band is incredibly difficult and always has been. I was fortunate from the beginning because I was in Dinosaur Jr and that gave Sebadoh a little bit of a bump. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I can’t really comment. Sebadoh are a band who does well but we don’t do too well. We’re respected but we’re not that well respected!
Are you happy with that position?
I’m kind of happy about it. I like it because it means maybe our time is still coming. I don’t feel like we’re total has-beens. Maybe the best is waiting for us. We haven’t really ever had that time. We’ve never done even as well as Guided By Voices or Pavement. Maybe that time is still out there for us. Maybe one day we’ll be asked to do lots of festivals. I do like the fact that we’ve just been under the radar but basically surviving. I would love it if the band did better though. It would be awesome if it were like Dinosaur Jr, like really established. It’s still a struggle to make all the ends meet at the end of the year. That doesn’t change. It’s always “wow! Are we going to make it next year?” “Where are my kids going to be living next year?”
Are you conscious of your position as sort of legendary indie rock elder statesmen? Is there a pressure to live up to people’s nostalgic ideals?
Back In the day it seems like most people thought I was an asshole! If I look back on it, I turned a lot of people off just by being sarcastic. Our whole thing was on one hand we wrote really honest love songs and on the other, we were a sarcastic noise band. We switched it up so much we alienated a lot of people. I still get that from people, it’s like “No way, Sebadoh? F**k those guys.” Even back then, something like Pavement really took the pressure off people. Sebadoh made people feel weird. I don’t know what people think of me or expect from me. I can’t possibly take that seriously! The world is loaded with elder statesmen. I’m just a musician. I can talk about music all day long, it’s practically my religion. It’s all about the music. The music is about all sorts of other things. It’s not about me. It’s about the incredible vast history of music.
It must be really exciting that ‘Defend Yourself’ could be the first Sebadoh album that people have heard. A 16-year-old kid could now be getting their first exposure to the band through your new album.
Yeah, I really hope that happens. I would love it if some kid just grabbed me. It’s like with the Dinosaur Jr records now. There’s a lot of young kids that listen to it. It would be nice for some kids to go, “wait a minute, this is cool!”
You’ve always been a prolific musician but do you feel you are enjoying a creative career peak right now?
I think I’m doing ok. I guess to me I still feel like I’ve still got a lot to do. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job over the last few years with these records. I’m pleased with the songs I brought to the Dinosaur record and I’m really pleased with the Sebadoh record. For me though, what I feel I could do I’m not there yet. I tease myself with the notion that the best music that I’m going to make is ahead of me. My best stuff is in the future. It’s going to be a mind-blowing combination of stuff. I have those fantasies.
Do you have an affinity with any new bands who might cite Sebadoh as an influence?
I don’t really know who. I know kids know about it. There’s a band in Australia called Royal Headache and a couple of those kids sound like they know Sebadoh. That’s cool. I think people now have a lot of music in their lives so Sebadoh is probably part of all that stuff. I perceive our biggest influence was philosophical as opposed to musical. Here’s this band with all the members working together and they record whenever the f**k they feel like it. I think the concept has been the most inspirational thing.
What excites you most about Sebadoh moving forward?
Just playing live. I really like playing live. It’s definitely the one thing that I can say has definitely gotten better over the years. The new songs feel better than the old songs. They feel like our songs. We really own it. We’re not doing a version of Sebadoh, we’re actually doing it.
Sebadoh’s new album ‘Defend Yourself’ is out now via Domino.
Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.