The Original Losing Loser
Catching up with Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow
Photo Courtesy of Dinosaur Jr.
Ask anyone you know: Dinosaur Jr. are one of the most influential American rock bands of the last 25 years. Well, ask anyone except, maybe, Lou Barlow. The band’s original bassist balks at the suggestion that he is in any way an indie-rock godfather. He may be overmodest, but Barlow’s work with the iconic Northampton trio helped lay the groundwork for alt-rock, grunge and, of course, indie rock. And that’s to say nothing of his own prolific canon with seminal lo-fi indie outfits Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Folk Implosion.
In 2005 the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup reunited, marking the first time the group had played together since 1989, when a bitter feud between Barlow and guitarist J. Mascis led to the bassist’s expulsion. Their 2007 album Beyond was a critical success, silencing those who questioned the artistic integrity of the reunion — although Barlow has candidly admitted in interviews that money did play a role in the decision to get back together. This June, Dinosaur Jr. will release Farm, its fifth full-length album featuring Mascis, Barlow and original drummer Murph.
Seven Days recently chatted with Barlow by telephone from Los Angeles about the new record, his forthcoming solo album, being a musical trailblazer and a recent experience with jury duty.
SEVEN DAYS: So, I’ve gotta ask, how was jury duty?
LOU BARLOW: (Chuckling) Uh, yeah. I didn’t actually have to do it. For some reason, I’ve never been asked to do jury duty at all in all the other places I’ve lived. But I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and been asked to do it, I think, four times. And every time it’s, like, a week before a tour and I always kinda freak out, like, “Oh, my God. I’m gonna be on the OJ trial.” I jump right to this crazy conclusion that it’s gonna ruin my life. My wife refuses to let me just throw it away like everybody else does: “You’ve gotta do this. Just go do it. It’s your duty.”
SD: And the judge was really Judge Wapner’s son?
LB: Yeah. He was really cool, too. I had to go in and do the panel … Basically, other times I’ve done it, you just sit in a room, like, all day. And they never called me, personally. Or I got lucky. And that means that you get this piece of paper that says you’ve served and they let you go home. But, his time I was actually called … and they pulled me into the room and asked … well, I could go on all day about this. But it actually seemed really interesting. It’s like, if I didn’t have anything coming up, you know, it would be pretty cool. Otherwise, I was sitting there, like, “What am I gonna do to get out of this? What am I gonna have to say?” And I ended up just being, like, “Look, I really need to be rehearsing for this tour that I’m doing.” And they were, like, “OK. Why don’t you postpone it?” And instead of having me postpone it, they just let me sit there for the rest of the day. And then I was done with it.
SD: Cool. So, you made it out on time and were able to do South by Southwest. Did anybody catch your ear?
LB: I saw a band called TV Ghost. They’re from Lafayette, Ind. They’re 18- or 19-year-old kids, like, this synth-punk band. They were great. Totally out of control. They played in the dirt, like, behind this barbecue restaurant. Me and my friend were doing acoustic shows, while Dinosaur was doing these big shows and big parties and big showcases. So it was, like, an all-ages thing where they had probably 50 bands play that day. It was really kind of a guerrilla setup. And I played acoustic. And then right after this hardcore band from Brooklyn … well, they weren’t really hardcore. A punk band from Brooklyn. And then TV Ghost.
SD: When is it coming out?
LB: I don’t know yet. The label obviously wants me to do it in a way that it’s not releasing a record while I’m working solely on Dinosaur.
SD: Speaking of Dinosaur Jr., you guys are notoriously one of the loudest bands, maybe ever. So … is your hearing still intact?
LB: Um, no. But that’s for, like, a lot of other reasons, too. But from a very early point I wore earplugs with Dinosaur, because otherwise it was actually impossible to hear the music. So I learned very early on, and by J.’s [Mascis] example, that there would be earplugs involved.
SD: It almost seems like volume is sort of a signature element to Dinosaur Jr.’s music. Like, if you’re listening to a Dino Jr. record at normal volume, it’s like you’re doing the record a disservice.
LB: I think when we play live it’s just kind of the feel of it, really. I mean, I don’t know if we have to be as loud as we are. But I think we would have to be loud anyway. If you stand next to a drum kit that’s not going through a PA, it’s loud. And you’re going to get tinnitis just standing next to it. You know what I mean?
There is an aspect of J.’s stacks and stuff that … I mean, personally, I would never play through that much stuff. I don’t think it’s necessary. But it looks cool, you know? (Chuckling)
We played a show recently in Northampton where we played through this other band’s amps. I think J. played through two combo amps and I played through one … It was like a vocal PA and amps. And it sounded awesome. We were totally, like, “Wow.” So I believe that we can go either way. But we were still loud.
But I don’t really think we’re, like, the loudest band ever. I mean, honestly, there are other bands that are way louder. Like The Flaming Lips. I toured with them and it was, like, punishing.
SD: I obviously haven’t heard the new record yet, since it’s not coming out until June. So what can you tell me about Farm?
LB: We did it pretty quickly, compared to the last record we did. I don’t know. I like the feel of it. I think instrumentally it’s got a really cool feel to it. I think J.’s melodies are awesome. I kinda had to throw my stuff together, so it didn’t come out as well as I personally wanted it to come out. But you work with what you’ve got. It is what it is. But I think the spirit of the record is pretty … I think it’s cool.
SD: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you were somewhat disappointed in Beyond. What didn’t you like about that record?
LB: I just don’t think we were really in our groove yet. I think it was so bizarre … I mean, it was so strange to even be doing another record. Like, we’d had a couple of great years as, you know, a “revival act.” But I was not altogether convinced that we were going to be able to pull it off. I mean, Dinosaur has a very unique energy level. So there’s not a lot of overt excitement or positivity (chuckles) that goes into what we do. So everything is sort of, to us, in the way that it always was. It’s always, like, a struggle that has to be done. And that’s the way we started with Beyond.
And to me, I can hear that instrumentally on that record. It’s kind of like trying to find our way into new territory. You know what I mean? Whereas I think the new record, we’re fully into it. It’s taking the elements that were the beginning of something cool from Beyond and going a little further with them. So, to me, the music breathes and swings a lot better on the new one. And I guess when I hear Beyond, I hear myself personally … I didn’t even feel like I lived into those songs until we played them for a month on the road, you know? It felt like a month after we put it out and we were out touring, I was, like, “God dammit! Why didn’t I play it this way on the record?”
I thought the songs on Beyond, the ones we really took to, sounded great and I was very pleased with it. And I was so psyched that we did the record, because it really did revitalize us. And, like I’ve said before, I think with this new record that energy is there. I felt like, when we were recording the songs, we’d actually kind of lived into them already. And that was kind of unusual.
SD: You seem to bristle at the suggestion that you are a pioneer of “insert genre here,” alt, indie, whatever. But there are so many people who do cite you as an influence — ironically, many of whom have gone on to bigger commercial success. Have you begun to come to terms with, for lack of a better phrase, your place in music history?
LB: Ugh. I don’t know. In “music history” there are so many fucking bands. For every era of music, they still haven’t even discovered all of them. Like, all of the amazing bands of the ’60s haven’t been discovered yet, bands from the ’70s.
So, I mean, it’s great to be a part of something. It’s great to be cited. But I don’t know what to do with that information. I mean, what do I do? Does that make me walk straighter? Do I stand up and look people in the eye? Does it give me more money?
I think Dinosaur, we had a pretty cool run as a live band and all that. But it almost seems like, the more I realize how much influence the band might have had, the harder I’ve got to work. So I don’t know.
I mean, it’s great to be working. But that kind of stuff, it’s, like, “What, do I get a medal?” What does that mean? Does it make me better than anything else? I still think bands that I like are better than what I do. So that’s the way I feel about it. But I’m glad other people don’t feel that way. If Dinosaur is a great band, that’s awesome. I’m just looking forward to getting better.