In which intrepid young music journalist Ned Hepburn interviews indie rock legend Lou Barlow, to high comedic effect.
In this ‘profile’ (some might call it) of indie rock legend Lou Barlow, it should be duly noted that I am a huge fan. Not unlike the infamous Chris Farley / Paul McCartney SNL sketch in which Chris interviews one of his most favorite people ever, I was somewhat of a nervous wreck. Please enjoy the somewhat hilarious proceedings.
Lou Barlow is a guitarist, is a songwriter, is a genuinely nice person. He’s the type of person who would be an ideal candidate, should it be in any way legalized or made logistically and humanely possible, for an indie rocker to be put into a time capsule to be preserved for future generations.
Barlow started as the bassist for majorly influential proto-indie band Dinosaur Jr in the mid 1980s before moving onto solo projects Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion. But whereas most musicians solo projects err on the side of “really shit” and “seven shades of awful,” both Sebadoh and Folk Implosion were brilliant. And I mean, truly, brilliant.
However, Lou himself has a tendency to come off in interviews as a—what’s a gentle way to put this?—a bit of a bastard. Where most musicians are more than happy to explain and expound upon their Creative Process (capital C, capital P) and personal lives, Lou tends to be a bit more guarded. Going into the interview I was unsure whether this is a process of genuine self deprecation or simply an undercutting of the circle jerk mentality that is the music journalism machine at large. I was supposed to interview Lou to promote his upcoming Sebadoh tour in support of the reissue of “Bakesale”—hardly the profile piece I had lined up in my head.
Then there was the matter of the interview getting postponed.
It was Day Two of getting Lou Barlow on the phone and I was getting quite tired. Most things that last two days—such as cricket matches or meth binges—are generally considered fun, and this wasn’t. I sat at my kitchen table eating a chicken sandwich with the same kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for death row inmates. Finally, the allotted time came about. I picked up the phone, and called Lou Barlow.
“Yeah, um, hi. This is…”
“Can you hold on a second?”
I preceded to hold on for several minutes, being put in what sounded like Lou’s pocket as he walked around.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“Ned. From Death and Taxes.”
“Oh! Oh. Oh, cool,” said Lou, “Cool.”
“Ive got to ask,” I said, “Why are you doing the tour?”
It was an odd question to lead off on, admittedly.
“Well,” said Lou, with the same intonation of a geography teacher asked where the Atlantic Ocean is located, “Its in support of ‘Bakesale.’”
Let’s go back a little bit. Given the two additional days I’d had to prepare for the interview I’d had ample opportunity to prepare; to Barlow-up, if you will. I’d gone back and listened to Dinosaur JR’s “Bug”, a landmark album in its own right, to Sebadoh’s “Bakesale” and equally amazing successor “Harmacy”, and rediscovered my love for Lou’s only soundtrack work in the movie “Kids.” I’d watched videos of Lou and Elliott Smith joking around on MTV. It had dawned on me, at risk of sounding like a complete and total indie fanboy, that Lou had been involved in not just several landmark bands but was—in some aspect—a landmark himself; a cultural barometer of indie music as a whole. I was nervous. Clammy.
“OK, this British record company is reissuing the album. And they kept asking us and asking us. It seemed like a good gesture, right? So we’re going to go on a tour” he said.
“Are you guys gonna go on a full tour?” I said, blurting out the next question.
“We’ve already been on a West Coast tour,” he answered, “Probably over to Japan, Europe, Australia, you know”.
“I read that when you toured for your solo record Emoh that you toured the Iberian Peninsula,” I said.
“Yeah. I did,” he said.
“Awesome,” I said.
“… Yeah,” he said.
I racked my brain trying to think of a question that was not in the generic “Meet The Beatles” questions I had in front of me (“What are your vocal influences?” “Any pre show rituals?”, etc). I remembered an interview with Lou from early 2001 that I’d found during my research, where Lou explicitly stated that he’d never go on a reunion tour with any of his bands. Yet, some ten years later, he had already reunited with Dinosaur JR and was touring now with Sebadoh. I’d felt like Sherlock Fucking Holmes reading that.
“I read an interview,” I said chirpily perhaps as Jay Leno might have during his opening monologue “That you were never going to reunite with Sebadoh again, that if you did, you’d call it the Uncles Of Rock tour.”
“Ha! I’d forgotten all about that,” he said. “Yeah, we probably should call it that. It doesn’t really have a name. Sounds better than the Sebadoh Bakesale Reunion Tour.”
Crisis averted. I’d made Lou laugh and could finally ask him the tough questions, the Edward R. Murrow type shit, the real hardball music journalism. Listening back to the tape, however, I bleated out the following:
“Do you think that Indie rock has gotten more sardonic in recent years? Like, listening to your records, you know, I mean, there’s just so much… honesty, man.”
“I mean, your music is just so full of honesty.”
“And you mean to say that,” he said, clearing his throat before continuing, “That indie has gotten less honest? I don’t think that’s true at all.”
I was completely devastated, making a mental list of who I would leave my possessions to before jumping off of the Brooklyn Bridge with my headphones on listening to the final chords of ‘Shady Lane‘.
“Well I mean,” I said, scrambling for the rapidly evaporating shreds of decorum and decency like water dissipates into sand, “Look, I mean, MGMT, right? They’re just so polished. They suck”.
“I don’t think they suck,” he said, “That’s a heavily funded debut from a major label.”
“Ok… well, a lot of the indie that was coming out when you were putting out records in 1996 or what have you was more genuine,” I stated.
Lou audibly furrowed his brow. “Well, I don’t know, I mean, I don’t have too many complaints,” he said, “I think it’s pretty good right now. I think it’s better, in general, better than what was going on in the ’90s. Man, I dunno. Hold on for a second”.
He was gone for what seemed like an eternity, but I can tell you by way of my dictaphone was only fourteen seconds. I gathered my thoughts. He returned.
“Look, what I meant was, it seems that indie these days is a much different beast, that you can basically get any Urban Outfitters assistant manager to put on a pair of skinny jeans, do a photoshoot and teach them how to play,” I said, lobbing the volley of words towards him, “Like, look, man. I was introduced to you via Folk Implosion, via the Kids soundtrack. And listening to that, say, rather than the Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist soundtrack, I mean, it’s just so much different.”
“Heh,” Lou laughed, “Maybe Sebadoh stood out because there was there was plenty of awful shit going on back then. People had much less imagination musically. It was, you know, very white. It wasn’t drawing from a very broad spectrum like it is today. There’s so much more going on now. It may seem less genuine and less inclusive contextually, but if you step back there’s so much more.”
I punched the air with my fist. Ned, you’ve done it again, you fucking wizard, I thought. Why not just pick a question off the list, maaaaan? You’ve won. Enjoy your winnings.
“That brings me to my next question,” I said, “Do you think Social Media has been good for indie bands?”
“Ha!”, exclaimed Lou, sounding like a cough on the recording.
Damn it, Ned, you fool.
“Uh, yeah,” he continued, “It’s really taken the power away from, I mean, Sub Pop spent a tremendous amount of money promoting us, you know? All the money really comes in from touring. Now with Twitter and Facebook you have more of a chance of getting your music out there. Back then if you didn’t know the right people and weren’t on the right label you were fucked. The power has shifted in the artists favor. You can’t be in a band and complain anymore than nobody is listening to your band anymore. You have all the power at your disposal.”
“Are you in Los Angeles or Brooklyn?” I said.
“Uh, Los Angeles.”
“I… uh… I saw the tweet that you were in Brooklyn”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Which do I prefer?”
“God, I don’t know. LA has a pretty good underground right now. I go to The Smell and listen to KXLU. Brooklyn now, is, well, Brooklyn’s a little more pretentious, I guess. Heh heh”.
“That’s totally true,” I said.
“LA is a weirdly unpretentious place. I spend a lot of time on tour, but when I go home it’s more about spending time with my family. I’m in bed at 9, you know, that sort of thing.”
I thought back to the summer of 1997 when I’d bought the soundtrack to the Larry Clark magnum opus “Kids” on a whim, on which Barlow’s Folk Implosion had featured prominently, and how I’d played it, literally, until the imprint on the CD had chapped and fallen off and I’d had to replace it with a new copy.
“Would you ever do more soundtrack work? I loved the “Kids” soundtrack,” I said gushingly, as if on a bed with a bowl of popcorn in front of me gabbing about boys and cheerleading.
“Y’know, I’d love to. I’d really loved to. I’ve never been asked since then, man. It was a lot of fun. We just got asked to do it, and never have again! That’s something I’d do again in a heartbeat,” he said.
“It was FUCKING BRILLIANT,” I said, “I bought it on vinyl on eBay! Those bastards!”
“They’re not…” he said, stopping before saying bastards.
“Well, I’ll put a thing in the article saying that I think you should do more soundtrack work. Because I really liked it. And I think you should do more,” I stated.
“Great,” he said.
“I mean, at one point, all I’ll able to do will eventually be solo albums. Sebadoh… we’ve been incredibly lucky with this, and the tour’s going great, but you can only hold the momentum for so long.”
I decided to ask the only other question I had in my notes, a barely formed non-sentence that read simply ‘Four track?’.
“Do you still record on four-tracks?” I asked.
Lou heaved a heavy sigh.
“I’m not very good at anything. I’m not technically minded… I’m not really…” he paused, and sighed again, “I mean, I have ProTools, but I just record on that the same way I did on four track.”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE NOT GOOD AT ANYTHING,” I jumped in, “THAT’S WHAT MAKES YOUR STUFF WORK.”
“Yeah! I know! I feel the same way!” he laughed “All I’m saying is that I really like being by myself and trying to figure something out. That’s all it is. And in a lot of ways, I’m going back to that”.
You can audibly hear me gasp at this point in the tape. We were alike: two people who preferred to solve creatively and alone. It. Was. Awesome. To hear that from Lou Barlow.
“Well I think that’s all my questions,” I said, stifling a yelp of glee from his answer to the previous question.
“Well it was fun talking to you, Ned”, he said, “I – ”
“Can I just say, though,” I said, not hearing him and cutting him off, “That it’s been so cool talking to you? A total honor, man. Really.”
“Oh, cool,” he said.
Lou Barlow thought I was cool. That was enough for me. We exchanged goodbyes, and I hung up.