Q & A: Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow on why no one cares about his solo records
by John Semley
October 25, 2012
This interview originally appeared in the October issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe on your iPhone and iPad for free in the App Store.
Dinosaur Jr. is back. You already knew that, of course. But what we mean is that Dinosaur Jr. is back back. Like back to stay. Forever. Probably. With I Bet On Sky, the original lineup’s third record since reuniting in 2005, Dino Jr. has now matched their original ‘80s-vintage output. In volume, at least.
Ask bassist/songwriter Lou Barlow and he’ll say that the band will never reach the peaks of their SST-era run of records: 1985’s Dinosaur, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, and 1988’s Bug. We’re prone to agree. But it’s good to have the band—Barlow, guitar shaman/principal songwriter J Mascis, and drummer Murph—back in the mix all the same. During the band’s three-night mini-residency at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, we caught up with Barlow to talk about the new record, how his reunions with Dino Jr. (and his other major vehicle, Sebadoh) have kept a day job at bay, and how nobody cares about his solo records.
AUX: In an interview in 2004, you mentioned that if things don’t pick up for you in the next five years, you’d have to pick up your day job working at an old folks home, which hasn’t happened. Or at least I don’t think has happened…
Lou Barlow: No, it hasn’t. I think I was being dramatic.
Do you think that since then you’ve been able to establish yourself more as a solo artist?
Well, the Dinosaur Jr. record happened. In 2005 Dinosaur Jr. reunited, I put out a solo record, and when I put out the solo record and went on tour for that, it was pretty good. And then the Dinosaur Jr. thing was great. Then in 2008, we did a Sebadoh reunion. So, I dunno. I think when I came to that realization in 2004, I thought I’d work on as many things as possible. The early 2000s were rough for me.
Have the Sebadoh and Dinosaur tours taken away any focus from your solo stuff?
You know what? This is also a very dramatic statement, but nobody cares if I do a solo record. [laughs] The last solo record I did, nobody really responded to it. I’m saying words like “no one” which is so awful and faulty. It’s not true. But it is true that if I went out to play solo shows, I could barely get 30 or 40 people to each show. That’s the reality for me. I did a solo tour in Australia and the ticket sales were so low that I had to convince the promoters to please let me come, and tell them I’d play for half the fee, you know? It just doesn’t seem like doing solo stuff is really practical beyond it being purely a vanity project for me. People care more about Dinosaur and then some people care about Sebadoh. I just do the things that people care about, because that’s the stuff that makes money.
Have you considered other avenues for releasing solo stuff? Sebadoh recently used Bandcamp to release material.
Yeah, that was great. Not great great. But it was enough to pay for the basic recording of our album. It was nice. Doing the last Sebadoh tour was pretty cool. It was really rewarding. There were lots of songs I’ve written for Sebadoh that have become my focus, so I’m psyched about that. And I have a couple of songs on the Dinosaur record.
What’s the understanding with the Dinosaur Jr. records? Do you and J just have an arrangement where you’ll contribute two songs to each new album?
I tried three this time. The third one got relegated to a B-side. But there is an understanding. This time I tried to do a little bit more to let those guys know that I care and that I’ll do as much or as little as is needed. So I did three songs, and made really explicit demos for the songs. I just really tried to rise to the occasion.
How do you approach writing a Lou Barlow Dinosaur Jr. song versus a Lou Barlow Sebadoh song versus a Lou Barlow song that will find its way onto something else?
It’s kind of knowing the tools I’m working with. I guess it seems obvious if a song kind of feels like it could be a Dinosaur song. With the new record, one riff I had kind of thought like, “This sounds it could be a Queens of the Stone Age song, so it might as well be a Dinosaur Jr. song.” I don’t think I’ve actually written a good Dinosaur Jr. song ever.
“Ever” as in ever or “ever” as in since the band reformed?
Ever. As far as a song that we can play every night, and that really comes together. Well, that’s not true. But even “Back To Your Heart,” which was probably the best one of the batch—that’s one where Murph really engaged on the song and wrote his own drum parts. But I’m kind of trying to force…I’m struggling to put my songs in the style of Dinosaur Jr. I think that for the next record I just have to pretend I’m J, and see how that works. Which I’m kind of psyched about. I think it’d be a fun challenge.
Just judging from last night’s setlist, which may or may not be indicative of what you’re playing on the average night on tour, there seems to be a lot of early stuff, especially stuff from the first two albums. Is there an effort to close the gap of that period when you weren’t in the band?
There has been, a little bit. I think we might play “Start Choppin’” tonight.
It also seems like you’d have to play “Feel the Pain” at every show.
Yeah. I’ve liked going into that mid-period Dino stuff more than I would have imagined. I wasn’t really fond of those records when they came out. [laughs] I think J has such a great sense of melody, and hooks, that even songs I wasn’t so into in that mid-period, I can really sink my hooks into them and add something to it. I think we’re progressing, playing more of the Where You Been record. I don’t know about those other later ones. I’m so unfamiliar with them.
What is the dynamic like now that you guys have been working together again for about as long as you were together before, during the SST era?
Oh, longer. I think the first three records are, to me, incredible. Just in terms of J’s evolution as a songwriter, and the evolution of a band. The first record is J throwing all these varied ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. And a lot of sticks. And with the second record we found this sound and made, what I consider to be just a great, great hard rock record. That fucking second record is so cool. It’s just a great psychedelic rock record. And Bug is a really solid. J’s songs on that record are so great, and the sound of the band is so unique.
The stuff we’re doing now is not so ambitious. I mean, I think it’s incredibly ambitious for us as old men to make a record. And putting out new material that will be held up against old material is, to me, it’s sort of a courageous thing to do. But nothing can recreate the ambition of a bunch of 19, 20, 21 year-old kids. There’s nothing like that. Some people say to me, “I think the new stuff is better than the old records.” It’s like, what’s wrong with you? What are you doing to tell me that Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is as good as Master of Reality. I don’t think so, friend! [laughs]
Speaking of 19 and 20 year olds: Chuck Klosterman had a thing once about Led Zeppelin, where he said that every generation will have 19 and 20 year old kids in Led Zeppelin shirts, like that same-looking fan in the same shirt will just keep being reborn through every generation. Dinosaur Jr. kind of seems like that.
I think we do have that. Not to the extent of Led Zeppelin. But we’re like this junior classic rock band. We’re Dinosaur Jr.! We’ll never be, well I assume we’ll never be, respected in the way that Led Zeppelin was.
There aren’t even really hard rock bands like they’re used to be, in that same way. Who is there, the Foo Fighters?
Well, Queens of the Stone Age.
But they don’t pack stadiums.
The sound that you have, though, does have that classic rock element: it’s loud and heavy, psychedelic, kind of weedy. It gets people who are into rock, metal, punk, all kinds of stuff.
The sound that J concocted for the band was really unique. It’s great to see these kids at the shows. I mean, it’s really great. It’s the basic thing: bass, drums, guitar. Then all you need is some amplifiers.
“Some amplifiers”? You mean “all the amplifiers in the world”?
Well, Dinosaur Jr. could do what we do with a tenth of what we have. There are gimmicks involved. But the basic thing is that we’d be the band we are with J playing through one amp and it’d be just as unique. I just love the simplicity of it. That was the thing that really excited me about rock, was how simple it was: get a job, buy a guitar, get a reasonably good amp. Then if you really focus on things with your friends, you can forge something unique with the three of you—or four of you, or five of you. There’s nothing like a power trio. I like the idea of kids coming to show and thinking, “Wow, there are no laptops on stage. No keyboards.” I like that we’re part of this continuum, this perfect little equation: the power trio. I don’t think it’ll ever really go away.