Interview with Lou Barlow - Oxford - 28 May 2005

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Lou Barlow in Concert On the eve of the unexpected reforming of Dinosaur Jr. for a world tour this summer, Lou Barlow, founding member of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh has put a lot of his wrestling with J. Mascis behind him. He has also spent these last few years working on a solo project. His first solo album 'emoh’ was released in January 2005, hosting some songs that were originally written in 2001 and 2002. Lou has taken his time, meticulously crafting his acoustic riffs and vocals with care and love over the years. Half of 'emoh’ was recorded at home - hence the title 'emoh’ (that’s 'home’ back to front). Home is where he is comfortable allowing his creativity and song writing to be as raw and challenging as he wishes them to be. Home is also where Lou is a husband and father of a baby daughter which have given him a new aim in his life. Home and 'emoh’ mark a new beginning for Lou Barlow… There’s no place like 'emoh’!

Today is your first UK date. Do you know what to expect here in the UK?

Lou Barlow: No I really don’t. Coming to England after being in Europe is always really difficult. I often have an initial depression when I get here, thinking no one is going to come to the shows, no one likes me anymore. You read the English press and you feel the world has passed you by somehow.

You qualified this tour as the best tour ever. That was before or after the European tour?

Lou Barlow: It was before that. But the European tour was a really good tour too. I had a great time. Coming here is like starting all over again. I have a week here, and it’ll probably be fine but I just miss being in Europe.

Any particular good bits you’d like to share?

Lou Barlow: The shows were consistently really good. The audience in Paris was larger than I thought it would be, which was a nice surprise. It’s hard to single one out, because it’s just me, so the performances are consistent. There’s not a lot to worry about. I just play my songs, sing and play the keyboard, and it all comes together pretty well every night and the audience in general has been very receptive.

'Caterpillar Girl’ was originally released as part of a 7’ single for the New Folk Implosion. Could you talk about this project?

Lou Barlow: I had started a band called the Folk Implosion with a very good friend of mine and then my friend retired from music altogether. Then I began a band after that called the New Folk Implosion and we released a record two and a half years ago. We put out one single for the record which was vinyl only and I put Caterpillar girl on the B-side of the single. But because it was only vinyl and no one really liked the New Folk Implosion very much, I thought I’d give this song another chance. I’ve always really liked it. I wanted it to live somewhere else other than just a B-side of a single.

'emoh’ gathers songs that you’ve had for quite a while now. You’ve put demos on your website of 'Legendary’ dated of 2002 and of 'Puzzle’ from 2001. How has 'emoh’ progressed over the years? How has Lou Barlow progressed over the years?

Lou Barlow: I guess I had begun to write songs I was happy with. I would demo them and put them on my website and then I would just feel it wasn’t the right performance. With 'Legendary’ I had a friend of mine come play guitar on it and we developed this whole guitar part to it. I thought it took a lot of shapes so I re-recorded it. I just began to collect recordings I was happy with. 'Caterpillar Girl’ was one I was happy with. It just felt right to me. I just collected songs which felt right and it became the album.

You recorded half of 'emoh’ at home… Would these tracks sound radically different if they’d been recorded in a studio? Do you think you would have had the same freedom?

Lou Barlow: It would be hard, because some of my ideas are raw. They aren’t what people who have studios really want or are comfortable doing. These people who have their own studio feel responsible for the way something sounds. So there are lots of things that would be difficult to convince someone else to do like experiment or take chances with the recording. It’s hard to do that with another person who is controlling everything.

Yes, it’s a little bit of PR for them as well how the record sounds. If you want something more personal that fit best your idiosyncrasies then they may not allow you to do that?

Lou Barlow: Yeah. I think it would be possible to work with somebody, like a producer. It takes a lot of money to really work with somebody for a period of time long enough where you get to know them and they get to know you and your idiosyncrasies and then you can really do something unique together. But it takes so much time to establish that kind of relationship.

And perhaps it gives you more choice over which recording for each song you want to choose?

Lou Barlow: Exactly. That’s true too. I’ve mostly work with other people over the last ten years, and sometimes I would defer to other people. They would say that that performance was better even though I would prefer another one, and I would be like "ok". In the end I’m the one who makes that kind of decision and I’m the one who knows really what’s best, and what does feel right. And it’s a lot easier to do that when I do it by myself.

You say it’s easier, but actually it’s probably more hard work when you are on your own?

Lou Barlow: That’s the other thing too. It’s hard to get other people to work as hard as I want to work, as long as I want to work, as meticulously as I want to work. When I first wrote songs I did it by myself. I really crafted everything by myself on cassettes and as I began to get more money to record, I felt kind of obliged to move up to the studios and to include other people and in the end, I have to say that I have to work by myself in order to be really happy with what I do… to be really satisfied. In the Folk Implosion I had a partner who was like a brother. We worked really well together. We really crafted things together but he is pretty much the only real instance of anyone who would work as hard as I would, and care as deeply as I did about the finished product.

So you’re fully satisfied so far with the way Lou Barlow products are going?

Lou Barlow: I guess so. I haven’t really listened to the record, but I felt very good about it when I took it to have it mastered and when I finished it. After I waited maybe two months I listened to it again and when I listened to it again I really liked it. I thought I was really happy with it. Now when I hear it because I’ve been performing the songs so much I hear different nuances coming out of my voice and I’m thinking of different ways of strumming and different ways of playing my keyboards. I’m starting to think about the future now rather than what I’ve done. So in order to take the next step I have to take the record I did do and I was happy with, and just take it apart and dissect it, find out what’s wrong with it, and it’s really painful. That’s where I’m at.

Are you a perfectionist by any chance?

Lou Barlow: No I’m not actually a perfectionist. I’m just easily disappointed in myself. When I started to tour I realised that not a lot of people go to the shows and that the record isn’t doing that well, I started to realise that I have to be better if I want to survive. If I’m going to survive if I’m going to feed my family and do other things I have to be better because what I’m doing now isn’t good enough.

But then you know as well as I know that unfortunately in this industry those who make money are not necessarily the best at music writing or playing…

Lou Barlow: But there are a lot of people that I think are my peers and do a lot better than me. There are people that I know have the same integrity and something more than I have that leads them with each step to a higher place. With me my steps have been on a steady decline for the last five or six years. I’m trying now to just hold on to the idea that I can make a living playing music. My wife had a baby three months ago and I have a lot to do and I could be a lot better.

When you say that, it reminds me of Kurt Cobain and Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon. These two artists killed themselves a few months after they became a father. Being a parent obviously does affect one dramatically, but do you feel more a sense of duty now that you have a family?

Lou Barlow: I like this sensation. It’s not a bad thing. The pressure is not enough to make me feel… I think someone like Kurt Cobain or Shannon; you’re talking about people who were also drug addicts. I mean, I’ve been through addiction myself but not on their level by any means. I’ve been through that and I came out the other side of it, and my desire to see my child grow up if far greater than negative thoughts that I have like not succeeding. I can deal with failure, but I just want to fight it. I don’t want to just accept it. If I’m going to fail, I’m going to have to accept it and at the same time I’m going to have to continue to enjoy playing music and striving to be better.

It’s quite surprising for me to hear you say that, because I really like the album. You were also in Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. These bands are two major bands for me and I can’t think of you as a failure.

Lou Barlow: Not in the big picture of things. Of course not. But that kind of success is something that people from the outside gauge. My success is gauged on literally how much money I’m making now. Unfortunately due to the circumstances of my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of the child, we had medical complications that have put us in a tremendous amount of debts. I’m really lucky that Dinosaur are reforming. Of course if I look back at everything that I’ve done, and the history of what I’ve done, I’m really proud of it. And to say that I’m a failure is absurd. But as far as providing for my family that’s where the failure part comes in. Right now it’s a real toss up. I don’t really know which way it’s going to go. For that reason I feel I have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, I have to do better work than I ever had. I can’t even consider 'I’ve done enough and I’ve done all these great things!’. I’ve already got everything that I was meant to get. Now it’s up to me to create a life beyond that, and to outdo myself in some way. I felt like I did that on this record and with my next record I’ve got to do it again. So I have to be incredibly critical and at the same time embrace what I do and really enjoy it. It’s a strange balance.

The whole 'emoh’ experience on your website has a family feel to it, with the photos of the kids…

Lou Barlow: There are pictures of friends. My friend who thought of the name 'emoh’ plays with me on one song on the record and sings with me as well, so I dedicated a page to him and put a picture of his child on it. The other picture is the daughter of my friend who hosts my website. She loves 'Caterpillar Girl’ so I dedicated it to her.

In a way you created a home feeling to the Lou Barlow experience, because you recorded half of the album at home, there are the picture of the little monkeys, it really feels like home. And on the inner sleeve, there’s a close up picture of your hands with the wedding ring… I think it’s a really nice touch. You seem to put a lot of yourself into what you do which is great for your fan, but it’s a fine balance to achieve here as well.

Lou Barlow: I didn’t really think of doing this thing homey, I just thought I wanted to keep the album artwork very simple so that it would be inexpensive for the record company. By doing that it gave me a great freedom with the website to fill in. Also I wanted to give everybody credit. I do everything on the website. I scan my own hand writing, I make the pages and load them onto the little menu that makes my website.

There’s a personal touch and feel to the website rather than the more commercially and merchandise orientated ones of other bands.

Lou Barlow: Yes, that frustrates me. I’m a huge music fan myself, and it’s something that I miss. I don’t like the way that fans are treated sometimes just like children in a way. Some people talk down to their fans or create personas that they feel are protecting them from whatever. I guess I don’t understand that artifice.

There was a reunion recently with Dinosaur Jr. How did it happen? Did you get a phone call?

Lou Barlow: Yeah, I got a phone call from J. Mascis’ manager. I don’t know what exactly inspired him to think that he could do this and get this reunion happening. But J and I had actually hung out a few times over the last couple of years. It was alright. I apologised for yelling at him a few times, and he didn’t seem too annoyed at this. I thought it’s a good sign. It’s good not carry this kind of negativity because Dinosaur is a very negative experience for me personally. Creatively it was an incredibly positive experience and something that inspired me. So for me the idea of getting back together with the band meant reconnecting with the creative part of it, reconnecting with the songs that J had written. It really appealed to me to do that again. But J and I have friends and family in common. Like through my mother who works in a centre for families with children with autism. They had connection with J’s brother’s family. J’s has two autistic nieces. Both J and I played a benefit for that. The person I’m travelling with now also travelled a lot with J. I met J’s wife and really liked her. All these little things and ultimately money were a big factor behind it. Maybe it was necessary for us to reconnect so that we could put certain things to rest, that I know bothered me a lot, and maybe it will help Murph and J to move along in their life.

Any chance of an album together?

Lou Barlow: I don’t think so. That would really surprise me. I can’t even imagine that happening. At the very end of this tour I’m flying to Amsterdam, and will go to a small town in Holland where I’ll meet up with J and Murph and start practising again. Then we’ll play a show then we’ll go to London to play two shows at the Forum, then we’ll play some hard rock festival, then Germany then around the world playing shows together. The show we played was great. The practicing too, I really enjoyed it, more than I thought I would. It surprised me how smooth it really went, and how when there was just the three of us together, how we worked pretty well together, and got along together pretty well.

For more details, visit… Lou Barlow's website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2005