Catching Up With Lou Barlow

Lou Barlow has turned the last decade into something of a renaissance period. After the successful (and really good) reunion of the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup, Barlow also reignited the long dormant Sebadoh in 2013. Now the trio is back with their second album since reuniting, Act Surprised. It’s an extremely strong album that finds Barlow and fellow songwriter Jason Loewenstein at the peak of their powers. Aquarium Drunkard recently caught up with Barlow to discuss the new album’s title, unconsciously channeling oldies, yearning for resolutions, and learning to care less.

Aquarium Drunkard: You recorded this record after you had moved back east from being out in California for 20+ years at that point. Was some of this record written before you moved, or was it all afterwards? How did that move play into your writing on this record?

Lou Barlow: Not quite that long, but yeah. I wrote it after I moved for sure. It’s all pretty recent stuff. Sometimes I’ll carry around songs for a really long time before I put ’em on record, but this particular batch is pretty fresh. Within the last year, from the inception of the melody to finishing it, they’re all pretty young.

AD: As recently as 2015, you put out a record under your name. What made you decide to make it a Sebadoh record? Do you approach writing for those things differently, or is just collaboration with other members of the band?

Lou Barlow: I guess with the timeline, I wanted to make an electric record for sure. I had done two acoustic records. It’s all about timing really. When does it all sync up? When does it sync up that Bob, Jason, and I can be together at the same time? That’s kind of the underlying determining factor for making a record for Sebadoh is our availability. Our desire to do it, too, I guess. When that all comes together, we make a Sebadoh record.

AD: The title of the new one is Act Surprised, which is the name of one of the tracks as well. When you choose an album title for something like this, does it tend to hold a larger meaning or do you just pick one of the song titles you like, or is it like “Hey, act surprised! We’ve got a new record!”?

Lou Barlow: The funny thing is that if it means more than one thing to people, I like it. We throw ideas together really quickly at this point, we don’t really get in spades about it. The one before this, Jason had a song called “Defend Yourself,” so I’m like “That’s great, that’s a great title, it totally works with the record, let’s use that,” and they’re like “Okay!” Well this time, “Act Surprised,” it’s like yeah, “Act surprised! Sebadoh made a really good record! Act surprised, we did it again!” I just thought it was a funny title. I thought it fit, trying to set the spirit of the group. I found it kind of surprising the way that it came together with us personally. Collaborating and kind of moving in and out of each other trying to get these new songs together. We did it surprisingly quickly, and harmoniously, so that also kind of a big surprise for me.

AD: I guess at my age, I don’t always hear a lot of records that just kind of rock. It’s got this great energy to it, but there’s this depth to what it feels like is going on, but it also feels sort of of the moment, and that kind of speaks to what you’re saying. It doesn’t feel studied, it feels like you’re in the room listening to these people play.

Lou Barlow: Yeah, you know, I think we kind of know where our strengths are as players right now. So we kind of know when we bring something to each other, we have a pretty good idea of what each person is gonna add to the mix. We kind of honed that after a long period of playing, and we kind of didn’t even have it last time we made a record. Now we have it, we have this really good band chemistry that we’ve been putting together for over ten years now. To me, to so confidently bring just basic outlines of songs and you’re like, “I think this is gonna work out, I think Bob and Jason are going to intuitively know what to do.” To see that play out so well and so quickly, I was like, “Oh, I’m afraid.” It feels we’re entering this era of us with just the three of us as players, where we’re really communicating well musically, and we can lock-in and really help each other out. It’s a cool power trio. I’ve been in a few power trios, and when it’s really working and firing, it’s pretty cool.

AD: A couple of specific questions about songs on the record, I had to listen to it a couple times before I could remember what song or what I think it is, but the song “Fool,” your singing line interpolates the main melody of “Beautiful Dreamer,” right? 

Lou Barlow: Oh, really?! Oh, yeah, I guess it does! (Laughs) I dunno, can I get sued for that? I guess I can! What’s funny is that I’ve been listening to it like this last year, like hardcore 50’s and 60’s music, my kids kind of like it. It’s kind of the first time that my son and I and my daughter, we all just seem to really like some aspect of old pop music. So I’ve been listening to it constantly for a year, just AM radio. I really love how when you listen to that early era coming out of the 40’s, this vocal music and this rock and roll, the songwriting is amazing. It’s just beautiful, and amazing how all these very simple melodies have been passed and slightly altered from one to the next. When I was a kid, I used to really weather I was emulating something, I was like, “It’s gotta be original!” I would hear a Pavement song and go, “This song sucks because it sounds just like Jim Croce! The melody is taken from this!” I used to get so indignant about people borrowing melodies or something being derivative, and now I don’t care! It doesn’t matter, just open up and sing, and just get it out. Don’t spite it if you just lightly altered a fucking Beatles or a classic Stephen Foster melody! (Laughs)

AD: Well, I mean I loved it! I asked the question because I assumed it was on purpose. Even if it wasn’t, which makes it even better I think. It’s kind of awesome, where you’re talking about how it’s gotten into your head, the stuff you’ve been listening to.

Lou Barlow: I listen to so much random shit now. My musical diet is so all over the place all the time, and I rarely listen to something more than once. Which is really funny. I’m definitely just picking shit up along the way, I’m doing it more than ever. I really enjoy it.

AD: I really love “Raging River.” That’s one of my favorite songs on the album, right after “Fool.” The part of the song, “Oh raging river, flow on down,” that line had me thinking, “That almost sounds like a classic sort of phrasing.” In my head at least, it almost sounds like the center of a CCR song in that one moment. 

Lou Barlow: Totally, when Jason introduced that song, I was like, “So familiar and so comforting.” Starting as an indie band in the 90’s, there was that kind of post-ironic self-consciousness about the purity of things. I had these kinds of ideas and concepts of what the music I made needed to be, what kind of integrity it had to have. Those two songs in particular, “Raging River” is Jason’s and “Fool” is mine, we’re both going for these very simple motifs, and we’re both doing it really unashamedly and enjoying it. There’s no irony there, we’re feeling it and tapping into that river, you know?

AD: When I was listening to the lyrics of “Raging River,” I think about tin foil hats, and all these particular things. In the climate of 2019, I start reading all these political things into it, they’re not explicit, but I don’t know if that’s me projecting 2019 onto to everything.

Lou Barlow: No, that’s not just you, the record is extremely political. (Laughs) It’s so political. I’ve never done an album in my ten years so overtly socially conscious. I don’t mean in the typical sense, I just mean that this is very eyes are open lyrically for us. Jason and I both, when we got together and songs started coming together, I’m like, “Holy crap.” We’re actually both getting through these kind of political and social things with just an eye towards what’s the moment and what’s unfolding in front of us here. That was cool, another surprising moment I guess.

AD: One of the first singles, “Celebrate the Void,” you talked in one of the promotional things about it being a sort of composite character of people you couldn’t crack over the years. I liked your explanation. Is that about learning to let people go, or about actually celebrating the nature of not being able to understand someone?

Lou Barlow: Both. I dunno, that was probably the most quickly written song on the record. Instrumentally it came together at the last minute, and lyrically it was kind of the same. I guess when I was finishing the song, I was like, “I could sit and deliberate on these things over and over and over again.” Things have to resolve, and it’s funny how I’d considered that I didn’t for so much until very recently. I’m like, “I don’t think anythings gonna get resolved, I don’t know how I’m gonna resolve these issues in front of me.” I’ve got kids, and they’re changing and growing in ways that challenge me. I actually have to say, “I have no resolution for this, I have to allow these things to unfold.” So yeah, you’ve gotta kind of celebrate the void, as you’re truly helpless in some ways, in a lot of ways. It’s kind of a void of explanation, you’ve gotta let go. Both the things you said seem to work for me.

AD: Do you think we’re spoiled by art and films and books and everything? A lot of them sort of teach us to expect resolution of some variety. 

Lou Barlow: It’s funny, I don’t know why I’ve never sat down and really questioned that before. That’s so funny to think, I’m like 52. The recording of this record was actually really mentally amazing. I guess I am spoiled in some ways in my adult life, because I do have resolutions to things, and often these resolutions are albums. It’s like, “Here it is, this is what happened! It can’t be changed, it’s a full statement, there’s the resolution. You did what you set off to do.” words / j neas

Previously: Lou Barlow :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview