Lou Barlow : The Thrill of Creating.
Lou Barlow is the bassist for rock band Dinosaur Jr. He is also founder of Sebadoh, the Folk Implosion, as well as a solo artist. Lou wrote in to discuss his love of pop music, his favorite Dinosaur Jr. album, and advice to up-and-coming artists.
What was the first song you learned to play on guitar?
‘Smoke on the Water,’ but only the riff, not the whole song. I took lessons when I was young, didn’t enjoy it until a music class in the 6th grade where the teacher taught the class to play ‘Dust in the Wind,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Girl’ (beatles) in unison. Imagine a large group of 10-11 year olds of various skill levels plowing their way through the intricacies of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ It was awesomely inspiring and taught me everything i needed to know, the group aspect was liberating. Not to mention the fact that i didn’t have to take gym because of my involvement in the class.
Were your parents musical?
Not in the sense that they played instruments or could be considered artists or musicians. They liked music and saw worth in it and passed that along to me. They tolerated my complete obsession with music during my teenage years and didn’t freak out too much when I refused to go to college.
What was the first album you bought?
Elton John’s greatest hits.
Do you remember your first performance with Dinosaur Jr.?
Not really. I was so nervous at the time, I barely noticed my surroundings. We generally played at local colleges, University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, in dining halls, early evening shows for 20 or 30 friends of friends.. all a blur. I was not a natural performer, so i was paralyzed by self consciousness…
Do you have a favorite Dinosaur Jr. album? If yes, which one and why?
‘You’re Living All Over Me’ because it shows the band finding it’s sound, clicking…the drums and bass in particular..catching up to J’s prowess, giving form to these amazing songs he was writing. Plus, the album has ‘Poledo,’ my tape collage/song piece that i obsessed over ..my ‘statement’…
What do you feel are the biggest misunderstandings about Dinosaur Jr.?
I don’t know. The band itself is open to many interpretations. I’m never sure what we are from day to day. My involvement fluctuates, J’s enthusiasm ebs and flows.
How has the touring scene changed from the 1980s to today?
I’m sure it’s the same on some level. For bands starting out, it’s a hard road. Scrapping for money, enduring the trials of setting off across the country with a band. For us, it has changed with success. it is infinitely easier and monetarily rewarding. The club scene has been influenced by the punk scene of the 80’s, and there are many more good clubs with owners sympathetic and supportive of underground music. In the 80’s, it was still very Rock and it was a struggle to find good places to play if you were left of the dial..
What’s been your craziest fan experience?
A girl took off her shirt on stage and stood next to me once. It wasn’t particularly crazy. It was a meditated act, carried out calmly. Not very ‘Rock,’ but very funny…
You’ve been involved in tons of different projects throughout your career. How do you feel your sound has evolved over the years?
The basics are the same. I haven’t progressed very much skill wise. I find myself moving backwards these days, using more alternate tunings, trying to make recording a more direct and unpolished process.
Do you follow a different approach to creating music within your different projects?
I want to find what makes each situation unique and accentuate it. With Dinosaur, I write with the band, so it sounds like Dinosaur Jr., and write lyrics that reflect what I’m thinking about while recording. Pretty basic. My songs aren’t necessarily that different from each project. Similar lyric themes and simple melodies, but it’s important for the people playing on the songs to be comfortable and not necessarily playing what i would. I like the possibilities of collaboration.
What new projects are you working on?
I’m touring with the Missingmen, Tom Watson (gtr) Raul Morales (drums). We’re playing songs form my solo record, ‘Goodnight Unknown,’ and trying some new things too. I’m playing guitar and bass pedals, which is new for me and really difficult..
Do you follow a certain process when creating songs?
I sit down and start singing, playing whatever comes. In the best case scenario, I have a notebook full of words to draw upon, and I sit and hammer some meaning out of it all. I try to be relaxed, but also push myself into new territory. I can be set in my ways, which is annoying.
Do you have a favorite place to write songs?
Anywhere i am totally alone.. that i can raise my voice to screaming levels and repeat myself endlessly.. abandoned stairwells are the best..
What inspires your songwriting?
Singing something that needs to be said to someone I can’t say it to. Basically, talking out frustrating situations to myself, or getting so inspired by other music that just want to do it myself. Get the thrill of creating, playing it back..destroying it, trying again.
What’s the best description of your music you’ve heard by someone else?
‘From a culture of a refusal to make decisions.’ This an inaccurate paraphrase from a NY City rock critic who’s name I’ve forgotten, circa ’91 in the Village Voice, maybe Robert Hilburn?
Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
I don’t feel guilty about liking anything. I love pop music, Lady Gaga on down to Miley Cyrus. I have a 5 year old girl who is starting to embrace music and I have a blast listening to music with her, finding out what she likes. Guilt and music is for young people, teenagers and young adults who define themselves and set themselves apart with their tastes. I just like a good melody and/or an interesting recording and that can take any form.
What inspired Dinosaur Jr. to get back together?
Money..and a desire to settle an old score, to grow up a little bit, face my fears.
What did it feel like to get back together as a band after so much time apart?
It was real natural, fell into it easily, never looked back.. that music, J’s songs are in my bones..
What was the first song Dinosaur Jr. created after reforming?
‘This is All I Came to Do,” if you’re speaking of new songs.
What are the keys to having such a long career in music?
Don’t stop, don’t take rejection personally, be good!
Are there any questions you’re sick of having to answer?
‘The keys to a long career,’ perhaps! There is really no answer. It is all luck and the whims of music-lovers. I’ve been lucky to have met the right people, to attach myself to some talented people, and to maintain my interest in music and it’s possibilities.