Sebadoh's Lou Barlow on how experimenting with eight-tracks influenced his early recordings
Sebadoh started as a kind of solo recording project of Lou Barlow toward the end of his tenure with Dinosaur Jr. in the late '80s. Upon his departure from Dino in 1989, Barlow focused on his songwriting with Sebadoh, and his recording aesthetic became synonymous with "lo-fi" of the 1990s, alongside artists like Pavement.
A prolific songwriter, Barlow and his bandmates wrote some of the most emotionally poignant rock music of the '90s, and the sonic quality of his recordings influenced a new generation of musicians striving for recordings that contain the intimacy, immediacy and imperfection of being in the same room with music as its being performed.
Sebadoh's later recordings became more sonically vivid but the raw quality of the songwriting remained undiminished. The band recently released its first new material since 1999's The Sebadoh with the Secret EP and the forthcoming Defend Yourself . Barlow spoke with us recently about Joni Mitchell, his childhood recording experiments and how keeping the lyrics personal makes them memorable.
Westword: There is an interview you did with Tiny Mixtapes wherein you mentioned having listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell back in the early Dinosaur Jr. days. What was it about her work that resonated with you then and even now?
Lou Barlow: The lyrics are amazing. Also, just her style of guitar playing -- she did a lot of alternate tunings with this really rich low. She plays with a low resonance. Then, of course, she sings like an angel. [Her music] is incredibly personal, but there's this superior intelligence that runs through it.
It kind of dwarfs her male counterparts at the time. It's always shocked me that people never [give her her due]. It really highlights the inequalities between male and female musicians. She also caught all kinds of shit back in the day, too. You listen to her work and compare it to most of her male peers, other than possibly Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it's kind of incredible.
Referencing that same interview, why do you think that things in music are more interesting the simpler they are?
I guess it's just more interesting to me because maybe I'm simple. I don't know. Maybe it's just that I need things spelled out clearly. But it's funny, just thinking of Neil Young: He's pretty simple. He's sort of an enduring singer-songwriter for me, and there is just a beautiful simplicity behind his best work. I just like it when I can understand things and the simpler it is the easier it is to understand.
I think a lot of times when things are really clever or obscure, even musically, too, it loses that immediacy for me. There are plenty of exceptions, and there are plenty of things that are complex and multi-layered, lyrically, but when it comes right down to it, the things that I really love are really simple.
At what age did you discover the Ramones? How did you find out about them?
Twelve. End of the Century had just come out. I may have been thirteen. Everything happened so quickly. A guy in my neighborhood had the Rocket to Russia album. He had that, and he had the Buzzcocks, and we would sit in his room, and I think that's when I really first heard it, and it blew my mind. I loved it so much immediately.
Had you been playing music at that point?
Yeah, my parents had kind of forced me into guitar lessons maybe at the age of seven or eight. At nine or ten, I was playing guitar in music class in my elementary school in Jackson, Michigan. They had a guitar class, and I played with ten of my classmates, and we did a little guitar orchestra for a school music.
In sixth grade, I had a teacher who just basically sat down the whole guitar class of kids -- and I was able to take a guitar class instead of having gym, which was amazing -- and I think we were eleven or twelve, and he taught us all to play "Stairway to Heaven" in the slowest way possible. It was so deliberate and slow.
He would basically set aside an entire week and just pound a song into us. There was a Beatles song -- that's how I found out about the Beatles -- and he taught us the song "Girl" from Rubber Soul. He also taught us "Dust in the Wind." We all learned it together. Those are pretty complex songs but doing it as a group of kids like that?
He did it in a really compassionate way that everyone was part of it, and it pounded in some basic rudiments of playing that, by the time I heard the Ramones, I was like, "Oh my god, this is something that matches what I want to play.
At that point, too, my parents had an eight-track. The old eight-tracks with square tapes. It had little mics you could plug into it. I was putting the mic into the guitar and playing it back through the speakers and getting this really amazing, distorted sound from inside the body of the guitar. So I discovered the thrill of distortion.
So when I heard the Ramones I was like, "Oh, hell yeah! There we go!" Something like Jimi Hendrix and all these things were way beyond. You're talking about people like Joni Mitchell, who are operating on this almost alien intelligence, but when [I heard] something like the Ramones, it just brought everything right down to earth for me. In very quick order after the Ramones, it was Black Flag, Circle Jerks, you know? The beginning of hardcore.
When you were putting your guitar through the eight-track, were you able to record, as well, in a kind of unconventional manner?
Yeah, I filled a bucket full of eight-track tapes with the beginnings of writing songs.
Oh, but you obviously weren't multi-tracking that way.
Oh, not multi-tracking. After discovering the Ramones, I discovered really crude ways to multi-track by taking another cassette recorder and plugging that into the eight-track, playing it back, so that as I was recording with the mic in my guitar. I could have another cassette player I had recorded on feeding into the recording. So it was this crude multi-tracking, which is what I started doing when I was in high school.