Lou Barlow: Bringing It All Back Emoh
The unlikely reformation of the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. for a U.S. tour brings Lou Barlow's career full-circle.
Sunday, April 17, 2005.
Originally published by Stop Smiling Magazine)
By Chad Radford
After being relieved of his duties as bassist for Dinosaur Jr. circa 1989, Lou Barlow led the way for a home recording revolution that changed the face of independent rock in the ‘90s. The infighting that led to his ousting from Dinosaur Jr. is the stuff of legends. Tensions between Barlow, vocalist/guitarist J. Mascis, and drummer Patrick “Murph” Murphy crystallized in a rift between Mascis and Barlow that resulted in Barlow’s departure. For a decade afterward his post-Dinosaur outfit Sebadoh became the poster child for indie rock’s homespun rattle. The frazzled tape loop and feedback experimentations that took root in such dividing Dinosaur songs as “Lose” and “Poledo” from You’re Living All Over Me, blossomed into a ramshackle DIY pop guiding light.
Inspiring a generation of shut-ins to spend their alone time hunched over 4-Track recorders, working out their social and sexual demons, Barlow’s influence continually stretched, changing shape as recording technology allowed. Taking Sebadoh from the bedroom to the studio carried the band through much less jagged terrain while other projects Sentridoh and the Folk Implosion polarized at opposite ends of his output. Sentridoh dwelled on the brash and laconic side, harnessing bits and pieces of home recordings while the Folk Implosion moved into the realms of increasingly polished production.
Over time internal strife and waning public interest suggested that Barlow’s bands had run their course. Now after relocating from his home in Massachusetts to Los Angeles Barlow has bounced back with Emoh (Merge), a solo acoustic debut that breaths new life into the indie rock luminary’s legacy.
Bound by folkish strumming and crooning, Emoh balances wistful and reflective sentiments that bring closure to various chapters of Barlow’s career while opening doors for entirely new ones. As he gets a foothold on his next step forward, the unlikely reformation of the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. for a US tour brings his career full-circle. As the subtleties of settling into his new home explored throughout Emoh take shape, the title is bestowed with an entirely new significance as he looks backward to where it all started.
Stop Smiling: What prompted you to release a solo record?
Lou Barlow: The audience for my music has fractured because I haven't made it easy for them. There's no direct line between each project I've done. When I did the New Folk Implosion it was radically different from the original Folk Implosion. I was collaborating with new people and it wasn't my vision, it was something that came out of collaboration. Sebadoh, too. The records have a lot of different songwriters and they jump around a lot stylistically. Over the years it's fractured my audience and made me feel that people had lost faith in me, which was reflected in record sales. It was time for a new approach.
SS: Did you have an aversion to putting out a record under your name?
LB: Yes. A lot of people were telling me I should put my name on this record, but I didn't want to. I was holding out on these grounds of integrity or something totally ridiculous. I thought it was tacky. The real problem I had with it was that it seemed like an admissions of getting old. But now that I've done it I think it was a pretty good move. If I had done it under another name or made it a Folk Implosion record it probably would have been much more difficult to gain interest in the record and get people to listen to it.
SS: Why is that?
LB: With The Sebadoh and One part Lullaby, two records I was really proud of and thought were very strong, there was a lot of ambivalence amongst fans. They both got awful reviews and were unfavorably compared to each other and sold dramatically less than the records that came before them.
SS: How did you approach this record differently from any of your previous endeavors?
LB: I didn't pay anybody. The big difference between this and the last few records I've done is that there was no money involved. I just called people and said, “Hey, do you want to show up and do this?' It was a lot cooler that way. I did most of the record without having signed a deal for it. I funded it and began the process of putting it together on my own. It wasn't that I didn't have a label, but I didn't approach the people I had been working with before and say, “I'm making a record, give me money.” I wanted to really get everything totally underway and be almost finished before I started looking for handouts.
SS: How long did you work on it?
LB: “Caterpillar Girl” was recorded before I did the New Folk Implosion record, so since 2001. I didn't kick into the bulk of the record until the beginning of 2003. I did the Sebadoh “Turbo Acoustic” tour, which really inspired me, gave me money and a nice kick in the ass to do it.
SS: Do you think of Emoh as a concept album?
LB: I didn't while I was making it. After I was almost finished I listened to all of the songs together I realized they were all addressing events that have occurred since I moved to L.A., or the process of making my house here my home.
SS: How has living in L.A. affected your songwriting?
LB: It was catastrophic. When I first got here I was putting together two records in a year and everything just sort of fell apart. I found myself living here with no direction. I was trying to put together a new Folk Implosion record in the style of One-Part Lullaby - cut and paste samples and build the songs in the computer, which I thought worked out great. But when we started the project, my partner John Davis completely disappeared. I was left holding the bag. I was also still on Interscope, so there was money involved and I was going to meetings there and I just got a fucking face full of Hollywood record label stuff. There are thousands of bands here all trying to sell the same thing, and there's so much pressure to do it. There's not just a feeling of “Okay, we're all friends, let's get a practice space and do it.” People here are like, “There's a showcase coming up over here, and a residency over there!” And that's from the ground up: from indie bands to the big fucking dumb bands. As far as any change in my songwriting goes, to me it's all still the same. Coping with changes and loss in my life is what I've always written about.
SS: Now that the dust has settled from releasing Emoh, Dinosaur has coming knocking on your door for a reunion tour. When you parted ways with that group, did you ever think you'd go back?
LB: No! They kicked me out and I held a grudge against J. for years. It was horrible. I didn't even think I'd play on stage again after that. Fate had other plans for me.
SS: But over the years the two of you have been able to patch things up?
LB: I was the one who carried the grudge. J. at least made an effort. He came out to shows. One time, about five years ago. he came to a show and I just yelled at him, calling him a fucking dick, and he didn't do anything. A few years later I apologized for it and he just said, “It's okay.”
SS: It sounds like it was a very loud and traumatic experience for you.
LB: We were good, but our shows were way too loud. Jay didn't give a fuck about the audience. He wore ear protection all the time. We would be practicing and he would put earplugs in and the blast cups over the top of them - like a construction worker - and he would have both of his amps pointed directly at us. His whole thing was he wanted to feel the music. We were just so myopic, not able to see outside ourselves and our little gnarled energy.
SS: Will there be another Dinosaur Jr. record with J., Lou and Murph?
LB: I don't see how there could be. I don't think we could make anything as majestic as we did when we were in our early-20s.
SS: What's the best thing that could possibly come from this reunion?
LB: Enjoying playing the music and giving Dinosaur Jr. a sense of closure. Every group I've been in ever since, from Sebadoh to the Folk Implosion, and even with Emoh, it's all a celebration of the music, and we never had that with Dinosaur. It was such a tense and emotional time that we never got to enjoy the music.