Dinosaur Jr: On The Couch With Lou Barlow

In the second of three interviews celebrating the release of proto-grungers Dinosaur Jr’s newest album Farm on June 22, prodigal bassist Lou Barlow analyses his return to the fold with typical honesty.

Feature by Gillian Watson | 19 Jun 2009
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Did you have any idea in 2005 that the Dinosaur Jr reunion would produce 2 new albums?

No. (laughs)

How does the post-reunion working pattern differ from how it was first time round?

It’s not a whole lot different. We still have the same dynamic between us, which is weird, but now we know that it works so we all just get on with it… Touring is pretty satisfying because we do well and the music is good, and for each of us, there’s enough that we get out of just playing live shows that makes it worthwhile.

Do you think the essence of Dinosaur Jr comes out in live performance more than on record?

I do. The records are all a lot of overdubs, 3 lead guitars at once, but when you play live, when J plays a lead, it breaks down to just drums and bass, which is a really important part of the band’s sound, and that’s something which is never on the record.

What’s the extent of your input into J’s songs?

He writes the guitar and drum parts, and [then] I come in. He doesn’t write specific basslines. When I get the songs, I get them in a raw form … I work in the dark a little bit. I don’t know what his overall plan of the song is and either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t really outline what he’s going to do later. So I have to keep things really simple, and at the same time keep them interesting, which is difficult, but it all works out in the end.

Does he ever challenge a bassline you write?

He’s like “That doesn’t work”. And I say “how about this?” and he says “No, that doesn’t work”. And we work on it a little bit. As he gets a better idea of what he wants, then he can help me fine-tune the song to fit his final ideas for it.

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How do you approach writing songs for Dinosaur Jr?

I start with just sitting in a room and playing with Murph, because the way I play bass with him is really the skeletal sound of Dinosaur. I build from that. In the end I guess when I pile my own vocals on top and I bring my lyrical sensibilities to it, it’s gonna be a Lou Barlow song. But at the root of it, the real basic instrumental part, for me it has to resemble a Dinosaur song, otherwise it’s not gonna sound good in the midst of a Dinosaur record. It’s not gonna sit live if I try to make folky songs that I’ve written on guitar into Dinosaur songs, so I really try to work with the sound of the band.

Is it good to have different creative outlets?

[It’s] great... I always like having a couple of things that I’m working on. It’s cool to have something as monumental-sounding as Dinosaur as an outlet [while] I’m sitting around at home doing stuff that’s more acoustic… To go back and forth between these things is healthy, I think.

Are you always working on stuff at home?

More or less. I’m not the most ambitious person or the busiest person, but I finished a solo record recently. That’s gonna come out a few months after the Dinosaur record, but I finished it pretty much at the same time.

Does it have a more acoustic sound?

Yeah, but a lot of the way I did this new solo record [is] like Dinosaur, because it’s more forceful and layered.

As J is the driving force of Dinosaur Jr, can you look at the records more objectively, almost with a critic’s eye, or is it difficult to judge?

I definitely view it as an outsider. It makes it easier for me [but] I become more of a pain in the ass, I guess. When we were finishing this record, I felt very strongly that we could have spent more time on it. I sort of said as much and it was very controversial. I had to step back so I could be like “well, you know, guys, we could use a little more time working on this or that” but nobody really wanted to hear that.

Does that create some tension like you used to have, or is it easier to defuse those situations now?

That was never really part of the tensions before - I never criticised Dinosaur when I was in the band back then, when I was a kid... Now it’s just because I’ve made a lot of music, been in a lot of different bands, I have an ego now - at least, one that has a voice. As far as the tension that creates, I don’t know. I’m just used to being in situations where people talk about what they want to do. It’s a little different with Dinosaur, but I like Dinosaur for what it is.

What’s your appraisal of the first three records?

I think they’re all really special [and] unique…There was a lot of movement creatively.

Was it too raw for you to look at J’s music objectively post- breakup?

Absolutely. Way too raw. He started making music that was more traditionally “rock”, and having grown up as a hardcore, post-punk kid, I was very judgemental. If I thought things were becoming commercial that was terrible, but of course now my views on that are a little more…

Relaxed?

A little more relaxed, a little more textured, a little more tolerant, and, I think, just more realistic.

Are you able to hear a Dinosaur Jr influence on other bands?

I don’t really hear anything specifically right now. The shoegazer thing… and there were some bands in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s that bore a direct influence of Dinosaur, but that was years ago.

The make-up of the audience at Dinosaur Jr shows is quite young. Do you have any thoughts on why the band has such a timeless appeal?

It amazes me. I just have no explanation for it… I live near a high school here in Los Angeles and I see kids walking down the street with Doors T-shirts on. I understand it, because classic rock is a timeless thing. It’s funny how the kids still pick up on the same things, they hear the same things in Pink Floyd and Doors as my peers did… Dinosaur Jr is approaching that kind of classic rock, there’s something in the sound that keeps young people interested in it, or makes them go “hey that’s cool” – that’s a really good thing. I think the first three Dinosaur records, in their way, slot in there next to the Black Sabbaths of the world as good hard rock… People just really love to see a guy with long hair playing guitar, it’s an archetype, and J taps into that…

Do you prefer to play the older songs live or do you enjoy learning to get to grips with the new songs?

I like the new songs, it’s obviously just new things to chew on. When we started the reunion, we played all the old songs for close to three years before we really started to introduce the new songs, so by the time that started to happen, I was more than ready, just like “Wow! Let’s do this!”... I know that when we play new songs, often the energy level off the three of us will just leap. As much as I might like the new records, I always have a gripe about something, but as we begin to incorporate those songs into our live set, I’m just so grateful that we have new records.

Does the fact that there’s still a live energy, especially when you play songs, suggest to you that there’s still some mileage left in the reunion?

The common way that we communicate in the band is a shrug. Everything is “I don’t know, maybe”, that’s just the way it is. So I take it one day at a time... I just try to be realistic. When we did the first reunion record… all told, it was much more difficult to do than the new one, but it really bore fruit. So it seems like we’re on a bit of a roll right now, but we’ll have to see how this next round of touring goes. I always just go from cycle to cycle. You make a record, that’s a certain cycle of work, and then you do touring, which is another, and [each cycle is] like a circle that you have to make. You come back to where you began and either you’re stronger or you’re weaker. Generally now we’ve managed to end these cycles stronger than we were before, but if we happen to do the next and we’re not feeling quite as strong, it might affect whether we make another record or not.

Does touring start to wear you down for a while? I know you have a wife and child, how does that affect your enjoyment of being away?

My wife and I met when I was in Dinosaur Jr. Within two weeks of us meeting and falling in love, I was on tour for seven weeks, so it’s part of our relationship. Having children makes the time away more difficult again, and my wife’s pregnant now, she’s gonna be pregnant while I’m doing the bulk of this touring. That’s a new challenge, haven’t really done that one before.

If the reunion was to implode tomorrow, how do you think you’d look back at the reunion period as a period in your life, and Dinosaur Jr in general?

The very first shows we played together as Dinosaur were about when my first child was three months old, so both the reunion and becoming a father for the first time are totally linked. It’s been amazing. I had a real burst of energy and I felt more creative… Having a family, then reconnecting with Murph and J and rediscovering the sound - it’s all been really positive.

Does it make up for the unpleasantness the first time?

It’s amazing how it actually makes the past seem like just one of those things… When I look back at it, I see it [as] I was a kid, just growing up. It was all part of the path. I used to maybe regret things, but now the thought of regretting anything is gone. We’ve managed to turn a negative thing into something really positive.

Your reunion seems one of the more worthwhile ones - it genuinely seems not to have come purely from a money-spinning point of view.

Money has a lot to do with it, I’m not gonna lie about that. But the other stuff seems definitely equally as important, if not more so.

You’ve been in two pivotal alternative bands. But what would you say is the moment – perhaps the piece of music, the album or the phase in your musical career – that you’re most proud of?

I really like You’re Living All Over Me from Dinosaur, and the early ‘90s period of Sebadoh… [With] Sebadoh’s III and Bubble and Scrape, I thought we were really onto something. I had a period where I was doing a band called the Folk Implosion, and that was incredible… I guess when I was kicked out of Dinosaur I left with a real mission: I was going to make sure that the music I made meant something to me and that the people I played music with were gonna be people that I talked to and I cared about, and all that kind of came to pass. Some of that feeling is reflected in the work that I did. But one thing I definitely learned is that you have to keep looking forward, you can’t spend a whole lot of time looking back. There’s not much of a choice, I have to keep moving forward and making new music, and if I’m gonna do that, I have to make sure that it’s as vital to me as anything I’ve ever done.

In a way the tense initial period with Dinosaur Jr might have been necessary for the rest of your life to kick off.

As negative as my early experience with Dinosaur was, the music was extremely powerful, and I think getting kicked out of Dinosaur was the greatest thing that happened to me. If we had stuck it out, I don’t see it having as far-reaching positive effects it has now.

Does it annoy you to have to keep answering questions on the tension in Dinosaur Jr, for example in the Michael Azerrad book Our Band Could Be Your Life?

A lot of the negativity in [the Dinosaur Jr chapter in the book] is directly from me. I spent a lot of time talking to Michael Azerrad and presenting my point of view in a very passionate way, and when the book came out and I read our chapter, it was just totally depressing. I was very disappointed in myself. I had to look at it like “Look Lou, you’ve had your say, and there it is, and it doesn’t mean shit”. It just comes off [as] kinda gross and yucky. Actually [having read] that book, when the opportunity to do Dinosaur again came up, I kind of jumped at it…

From the reader’s point of view, though, your honesty is refreshing.

When I spoke to him, I was doing it from not only my exact point of view, but also “What would I want to read as a fan?” When I read things about bands… I don’t want anybody to soft-pedal it. When they say drugs, I want to know exactly what drugs they did; when they say fighting, I want to know who landed what punch. I have that craving of those details. Music is my passion, I love bands, and I think those personal things are important to know. That’s what led me to being so honest with Michael Azerrad... I said all that stuff not only to exorcise it, but also because I just wanted to make it an interesting read.

I think it also contributes to the listener’s enjoyment of the music.

I like the dirt. Rather than demystifying something and making it less powerful, I think it makes it more powerful.

Farm is released via Jagjaguwar on 22 June.

http://www.dinosaurjr.com