In 1984, Lou Barlow started an indie-rock crew called Dinosaur Jr. with J Mascis and a drummer nicknamed Murph. Four years later, after incessant tension, a trio of amazing albums, and a ton of alt-guy fights, Barlow got kicked out of his own band.
That's when he became almost synonymous with Sebadoh, his bedroomy, low-fi side project that suddenly blossomed into a full-blown band, signed with Sub Pop alongside Nirvana, and invented the template for emo that doesn't suck.
These days, Barlow is back with Dino Jr., still shredding with Sebadoh, and getting set to hit the high seas aboard the first Weezer Cruise. Last week, we called him at home to talk about indie cruising, bickering bands, and being an indie-rock dad.
New Times: Is Lou Barlow an avid cruiser? Or will the Weezer Cruise be your maiden voyage?
Lou Barlow: Yes, it will be my maiden voyage.
Why haven't you gone cruisin' the high seas in the past? Too busy with writing, recording, touring?
I basically never, ever found any reason to go on a cruise. Or any real interest in it. Or anything, you know.
Yeah. This surge in indie-rock cruises is strange. What do you think of the whole music-cruising mania? Is it ironic? Is it earnest? Is it interesting? Is it lame?
It's fine by me. You know, ATP [All Tomorrow's Parties] started doing festivals in these English holiday camps, which were just really bizarre locations. People would vacation there during the '60s and '70s, and they were very grungy, totally cheeseball places. But ATP started doing these fests, and it was really fun. So cool music in that kind of context can work — perhaps ironically.
Like always, it's about whether the music sucks. If the tunes are good, they can transcend and transform that goofy cruise-ship setting.
Yeah. Plus I think it's kinda cool that people are half-captive. It's like, "You're gonna watch bands for the next four days! You're trapped! You can't go home!" [Laughs.] You know, it forces you into the situation. And I think some people really dig it. Like me, playing in bands, I really enjoy these types of things. So I'm fully anticipating it being a fun experience.
Your Sebadoh bandmates Jason and Bob are hosting the Weezer Cruise's Cannonball Contest. But you're not taking part. Are your pool skills subpar?
I'm playing solo, I'm playing with Dino, and I'm playing with Sebadoh. I just don't have time for the pool.
Your Dinosaur Jr. bud J Mascis recently told an interviewer: "I'm scared about [the cruise]. I'm bringing a lot of friends to try and buffer myself. So hopefully I have a good time." But you don't have any precruise anxiety, right?
No, man. I think it's gonna be fine.
On the topic of Dinosaur Jr., you mentioned on Twitter your recording plans for this year. Is the Dino crew hitting the studio?
Yeah, that's definitely happening. It kinda starts February 1. We'll see how it goes. We'll just motor through. And Sebadoh is gonna record too. We're hoping to record for the first half of the year and then spend the second half starting to tour again.
The original run of Dino Jr. had a reputation for being really volatile. Now that you're all a little older and presumably mellower, how has the Dino dynamic changed, either in the studio, up onstage, out on the road, or ridin' a cruise ship?
You know, J was kind of an angry person when he was younger. And he's just not as evil as he used to be. [Laughs.] So it's a lot easier. But otherwise, it's pretty much the same.
How about Lou Barlow? Did you change at all in the years between the breakup and reunion?
Umm... No. All the good and bad, it's still pretty much the same ratio. [Laughs.]
What are Sebadoh's 2012 recording plans? Are they concrete or kinda freeform?
Well, it's a little freeform right now. There's definitely no record label that's gonna want to put us out. We're gonna have to wing it on our own and figure out how to fund it.
It's sorta shocking to hear you say, "There's definitely no record label that's gonna want to put us out."
Honestly, it's not that true. I'm sure there are record labels that would be happy to release our stuff. But they're not gonna fund the project. There's not really money available for a band like Sebadoh.
So is heavy touring absolutely necessary for Sebadoh?
Oh, absolutely. And for Dinosaur too. Touring is pretty much our fix, you know. [Laughs.] The records are cool to touch, and they might periodically renew interest in the band. Maybe they'll get our name out there. But it's all in the name of touring. There's no money to be made from selling records.
Do you relish the road work? Or is it drudgery?
I love it. You know, I've done it my whole life. And the only difficult part is being away from my family. That's it. Just having kids and not being home for a big chunk of the year is a real bummer. But the actual touring part is great.
Ever since I got kicked out of Dinosaur, I've loved it. With Dino, we managed to make something that was really amazing become really torturous. But once I started Sebadoh and toured myself, I've always had a good time. Always.
Compared with the original Dinosaur Jr. tours being torturous, what made the Sebadoh road atmosphere so much better?
With Sebadoh, we just had a better attitude. [Laughs.] We hit the road, we took what we got, and we made the best of it. But with Dinosaur, early in the band's history, you're just talking about people who were fundamentally not happy, together or separately.
After I got kicked out of Dinosaur, it became a "big rock band" that toured on buses and stuff. And that's pretty much how it has stayed. And that's how it'll always be. But from the beginning, Sebadoh has been about maintaining the minimum. And now we tour without a road crew. We drive ourselves. It's just three of us, and it's real basic.
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You know, the Dinosaur thing is awesome too. But Sebadoh is an amazing contrast. And they work together to keep me really balanced.
Juggling three separate projects like Dino, Sebadoh, and your solo stuff, do you ever just get sick of music?
I like being busy. It's the best. Working on stuff all the time is great. But right now, I'm off and I'm a father. Ultimately, my family takes precedence over everything. So I think my biggest struggle is staying totally close to my family and totally hands-on with my kids while also trying to spend enough time with my music. That's the real struggle.
But playing music and making records is awesome. The more I do it, the happier I am.