Anxiety and Influence
Lou Barlow reflects on decades of personal songwriting
Published: February 5, 2014
After Lou Barlow left the hugely influential indie-rock band Dinosaur Jr. due to creative differences with guitarist J Mascis, he formed another equally important band, Sebadoh, which went on to release several albums before going on hiatus in 1999. Since then, Barlow has become involved in many other projects, including Folk Implosion and a reunion with Dinosaur Jr. Now, Sebadoh has released its first album in 14 years and will play at the Ottobar on Feb. 5. City Paper had a phone conversation with Barlow about lyrics, straight-edge hardcore, and musical therapy.
City Paper: After the album The Sebadoh, you said you stopped playing with the band because people were losing interest and indie music was changing, and you guys sounded different from all the dominant indie bands at the time. So do you think people are ready, now, for Sebadoh?
Lou Barlow: Uh . . . no? I mean, I don’t care, I guess, you know? I know some people are. There’s a handful of people that kind of actually missed the band and want to see us again. That’s who we made the record for. I mean, we just wanted to make a new Sebadoh record. We just wanted to have new songs to play live and kind of keep our thing going. Kind of a personal decision, it wasn’t really based on any market research.
CP: It’s funny that you characterize it like that, that there are only a few people who really missed you. There are people who say that you are indie-music legends.
LB: Yeah, I guess there are probably people who would say that, but indie music is a very underground thing, mostly. It’s a pretty small, closed group of people that we appeal to. And even back in the day, that’s what our deal was. But the point of it is that we can still function, and we can go around and tour, we can get away with that, and . . . exist. So we’re just doing it because we can, basically.
CP: You write lyrics that are incredibly powerful and personal, in straightforward language. What role do lyrics play for you in music?
LB: Well, it depends on what you mean. As far as writing music goes in the songs that I write for myself, they’re really important. I’m not happy with the song unless it in someway speaks the truth to something I’m feeling. As far as a music listener . . . I mean, a lot of times I don’t care what the lyrics are. And in general I have no idea what they’re saying. Like, my favorite band now is Thee Oh Sees and I have no idea what the guy is saying, ever. And I love it! I love the texture of it, I don’t care if it’s particularly personal, I don’t care if I relate to it, I just relate to the overall texture of the music. But when it comes to my own thing, I’m real particular about writing things that speak directly to my experience.
CP: Do you find yourself thinking, while you’re writing songs, about the melody more than the words or the words more than the melody?
LB: Well, I do both, you know. I think of them both in the same way. I mean, the words have to fit my breathing, and they have to fit the phrasing that I hear in my head for the song, so I work the two together until I come up with something that feels really natural to me, something that’ll be easy to sing, easy to remember, and [that’ll] also be part of the whole.
CP: So the stuff you write about, it seems like a lot of very private stuff. How has that affected your relationships with the people you write about?
LB: I don’t know, I guess a lot of times I can write and I just know the person doesn’t care, and they’re not going to listen, so it doesn’t matter. [Laughs] But I have had people in my life very concerned about whether I was writing songs about them. And some people have accused me of writing songs about them when I hadn’t. [Laughs] Just the fact that I do that stuff, that it’s really personal, does create this kind of paranoia that has followed me around a little bit. But mostly when I write, especially when it comes to love lyrics, you kind of want the person you’re writing about to hear it anyway, ultimately. So when I write them, I write them with the idea that I’m trying to be as even-handed as possible. Like in your personal life, if you’re really going to have a productive conversation with somebody, you have to own up to your own mistakes at some point, you have to own up to your own responsibilities for the situation, you have to kind of acknowledge the complexity of it. So when I write lyrics, I try to do the same thing. So in the end, with the lyrics that I have, I can just say, “Well, that’s how I feel,” and I can stand by it, so if it does complicate things, at least I know that I was honest about it.
CP: That strikes me as really courageous.
Lou: Eh . . . yeah, I mean I guess I’ve always done it. The music that really inspired me when I was just beginning was this straight-edge hardcore. You know, it was all really honest. And then stuff like Black Flag, which is obviously not straight-edge hardcore, but it’s also very emotional music. It’s someone articulating their frustration. And when I started to write songs, that’s where I took my inspiration from, as opposed to any kind of classic songwriting. You know what I mean, as opposed to like, the Beatles or pop radio or anything like that, I was really influenced by these young guys who were about my age screaming about their personal problems. That’s where I came from. So in a way, what I do still kind of comes from that same really basic thing, for better or worse.
CP: Does it also have a therapeutic effect?
LB: Well, yeah, I mean, of course. That was something that was clear to me to early on when I was really into hardcore punk rock. . . . You know, there’s the classic thing about rock and roll: You play music to get chicks, and you write these songs about what a great time you’re having, or if you’re really into heavy metal, you talk about graveyards and . . . [Laughs] stuff like that. But the thing about hardcore punk rock in particular, that whole D.C. Minor Threat thing, was that somehow the whole thing was healthy, that speaking your mind and being truthful was a healthy thing. And I really took that to heart, so I kind of still function from that same thing. Like if I’m speaking the truth to myself, or at least just striving to do that, then it’s something that’s going to be a benefit in my life. Like you said, it’s like a therapy, it’s a moving-on, it’s a taking-responsibility.
CP: I like that—taking responsibility as opposed to complaining about your problems.
LB: Yeah. I’ve always tried to do that. I mean, I have plenty of angry songs, but I try to do it in a way that I’m not just this prick screaming.
CP: You’ve had your share of struggles in the music business. And now it seems that, in some ways, being a musician is harder than ever, especially just starting out. What do you have to say to young struggling artists and musicians?
LB: Um. I don’t know, man. [Laughs] I mean, it’s always that cheesy thing, like, “Be true to yourself.” And I think, also, the thing about making music, especially when you’re young, is that by making music and really trying to be original, you know, as opposed to copying something, is that you’re adding to this river of music that’s been happening forever. Like, for me, the thing that kept me motivated was that I just wanted to be a part of it, part of something, and show my respect for what other people had done. The thing that I think shows the most respect for other music, other musicians, and also the creative process, is just find the little thing inside yourself that makes you unique and exploit it. [Laughs] I mean really bring it out. Bring out that little thing that’s going to make what you do unique. Because that’s going to be what will add to other things and that’s what will empower other people when they hear it, and that’s the thing that will maybe, if you’re lucky enough, give you a career in it or make it into something that will be a big part of your life.
Sebadoh plays the ottobar on feb. 5. For more information, visit theottobar.com.
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