Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow Learns An Important Lesson About Bad Reviews
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Photo: Bryan Zimmerman

Music is probably one of the most subjective things in the world — right up there with humor, fashion sense and, you know, what’s right and wrong. That’s why if you’re in a band — and you’re already a bit tempestuous in nature — you should likely nix the whole post-album release review rundown thing. At least that’s what Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow found out after the band released Defend Yourself, the trio’s first album since 1999′s The Sebadoh.

Before we get to the drama, a history lesson for the uninitiated: The jaw-dropping wealth of cred Lou Barlow owns in the hardcore, post-punk, lo-fi and indie rock landscapes is the stuff of legend. In the early ’80s, Barlow burned it clean in Massachusetts hardcore destroyers Deep Wound before splintering off with J Mascis to form Dinosaur Jr. An underground-defining trifecta of orgasmic sludge-rock brilliance followed from 1985 to 1988 before Barlow was dumped from the band.

After that, the liberated — yet soured — Barlow teamed with multi-instrumentalist genius and old friend Eric Gaffney along with Jason Loewenstein, thus morphing his lo-fi bedroom project Sebadoh into a full-blown indie rock beast, personifying the decade’s slacker geekiness on a string of classics such as Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale and Harmacy.

Since 2006, when Barlow and Mascis set aside their differences, Dino Jr have enjoyed a renaissance, touring incessantly while unleashing three records of its trademark melodic fuzz-pop. On Dino Jr downtime, Barlow offered up two excellent records under his own name while keeping Sebadoh afloat with erstwhile tours and reissues.

Now, Barlow, Loewenstein and newbie drummer Bob D’Amico are back legit with the long-awaited Defend Yourself, their first record since 1999’s over-baked fiasco The Sebadoh. Defend Yourself is classic Sebadoh: Barlow and longtime cohort Loewenstein not only recorded it DIY-style, but the twosome trade their hook-bathed, heart-tugging testimonials (Barlow) and skuzzy barbed-rock (Loewenstein) like it’s 1993 again.

That isn’t to say Barlow’s emotional train-wreck histrionics are a thing of the past; he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve (hear 1991’s anti-Mascis diatribe, “The Freed Pig” and Defend Yourself ‘s “I Will”). But when some reviewers harshly critiqued Defend Yourself with repeated references to his recent divorce, Barlow experienced a bit of a meltdown before taking to Facebook to do some venting.

Hive caught Barlow at home in L.A. in the midst of the drama.

So, it’s been an eventful day today considering the reviews, huh?

How do you know? What do you mean? (Laughing)

I’m just one of your thousands of friends on Facebook.

I got up and my girlfriend was like, “Oh, Pitchfork reviewed the record” and I was like, “Oh, shit!” (laughing) because I’ve been kinda dreading it. I knew it was going to be bad. My publicist the other day was like, “Pitchfork is asking me these questions” and I was like, “Oh, my god. No.” My first response to him was like “What? They want more personal details so they can eviscerate me personally in the review?” and he was like, “I don’t know.”

So, I was just like, “Look, tell them this. Here are the facts that I haven’t said: I was married to my wife for seventeen years. I’m now living with my girlfriend. Tell them that.” And then, sure enough, the guy fuckin’ took that and just ran with it…. But it just all came down and the only way I’m going to feel better about it if I just do a little…

… venting on Facebook…

…vent, just a little. If people don’t like the record, I can handle that, it’s just fine. But it’s just like, “Fuuuck (laughing)! No one has to like it; it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t have to be everybody’s favorite record. I’m fully aware, I’ve gotten terrible reviews my entire career. It’s not a really big deal; it’s something I can deal with.

Yeah, a lot of reviewers seemed to get very personal, attributing everything on the record to your divorce.

They always do, man. And they’re always people who would really like the band from early on, ya know…. I managed this whole thing so poorly because I haven’t been telling the whole story right away because all this shit is unfolding and I have got to be respectful to my ex-wife. But I’ve mentioned it to a few places and it’s becoming the headline. It’s not surprising. Personally, I take responsibility for letting this happen but it’s been kinda funny. But anyway…

I had no idea until I read it in another interview of yours just recently.

Right. I haven’t really said anything about it but there was a terrible review of it that started with like, “Lou Barlow wants everyone to know that he split up with his wife” and I’m like “Jesus…(laughing).” I mean, today is the first day I mentioned it on my Facebook page and I’m really active on Facebook.

So, you really were anticipating bad reviews?

Actually, I thought the number rating was going to be significantly lower. The minute we first started recording Defend Yourself I thought, “Yeah. We’re going to have to deal with a really terrible review from Pitchfork for this record.” It’s just the way it is: With the bigger outlets with the critics that have been around longer, they always—and it definitely happened with my solo records, but those actually got off pretty easy on Pitchfork—but in general, for other things that got just absolutely lambasted by people who are really big fans.

Like which records? I know the last Sebadoh record (1999’s The Sebadoh) wasn’t well-received but you’ve gotten pretty positive reviews over the years.

Yeah, well, we weren’t doing well but the reviews for Harmacy were pretty bad and Bakesale was really good. Bakesale, people like it because it was more streamlined and before that people were always like, “Lou’s songs are okay,” but it’s always people take such issue with there being two songwriters in the band. It’s always been a huge issue.

I’ve always dug Jason’s songs. The contrast has always been what make Sebadoh records great — and when Eric Gaffney was in the band, too. Jason’s solo record on Sub Pop back in the day was great, too.

Yeah. This record [Defend Yourself] in particular, Jason engineered the record and Bob D’Amico, who’s playing drums with us now, has been playing with Jason for 10 years, and in my opinion, what Jason brought to this record was really strong. When I first finished the record and played it for my girlfriend—who doesn’t really know about my musical output at all—and she heard Jason’s songs and was like, “These are great.”

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Photo: Bryan Zimmerman

She liked Jason’s songs better than yours?

She did, actually [laughing]. My songs she was like “Eeesh” because my stuff definitely has that almost creepy personal stuff, too, especially if you’re close to me.

Have you always put that much stock in reviews?

Not always. I did a couple of solo records and at that point I just totally avoided them [reviews] for those records because I knew… But for this record, I think what happened was the other day I got a big sheet like, “Here’s all the reviews that happened” and then I don’t know what the fuck possessed me to do it but I started reading it. I was then like, “Why did I do this. God [laughing]!” It’s like picking at something.

Then losing sleep over reviews.

Noooo. I have to say it hasn’t gone that far. But what’s really good for me personally about social media, and how it pertains to my music, is that I’ve gotten, at the same time, much more of a direct response from fans. Back in the day, that review kind of stuff would be like “if you got two stars in the Rolling Stone” it would suck all the air out. Now, you can get these reviews, but at the same time you’re getting people messaging me spontaneously like, “Lou, this record is great” blah, blah, blah. So, that takes the sting away from it. It’s very super-self-involved. It’s kinda pathetic but it definitely makes me feel better.

I imagine Jason pays no mind to reviews like you do? Some reviewers were not down with his songs on the record.

[One review] said his songs sounded like Incubus and Primus [laughing]? What? He probably doesn’t [pay attention to reviews]. Jason has his bullshit detector way more attuned that my own. He’s just more of a shit-kicker. He’s more like, “Fuck that! People are full of shit. Period.” I put myself out there a little more and just make myself more vulnerable.

Do you think your love life has an effect on your music?

I don’t think so. I don’t know….I like what I do, so…[laughing]. Any record that I make I always think, “There’s always a couple of things on the record that I always feel like is probably the best thing.” I’m a pretty exacting critic of my own work and I’m into it. I love making records and part of really doing that and being happy about it is just that each time I’ve done something I come to terms with what maybe is wrong with it and then I move on to the next thing. I just make my own goals for the next project that I have. I work on something until I feel that it’s done what I wanted it to do.

With this new Sebadoh, I wanted to do it to be a reflection of the way these shows that we’ve been playing — it’s going to be a reflection of the energy that the band has right now and I’m going to write and do what I did with all the other Sebadoh records, which is write pretty much right off the top of my head about a bunch of shit that’s bugging me and that’s gonna be it. And that will be the Sebadoh and that will be the record. I’ll then combine it with Jason’s songs and we’ll see how it hangs together. My impression was, when I put it all together, it does hang together really well and I was very into Jason’s songs.

And you guys did everything on Defend Yourself, right?

Yup, but the final stuff of my songs were mixed here in L.A., actually. I went to this guy Wally Gagel, who had had done a bunch of stuff with me with The Folk Implosion in the late ’90s. He actually did the “Kids” soundtrack with me, too, so I mixed my songs with him at the end. Other than that, Jason recorded it, was the engineer. He mixed all of his songs and mixed over half of the record.

You probably save a shit load of money, too, by not using an outside producer.

Oh, my god, yeah. We made the record before we gave it to the record labels.

What are the differences in doing a Sebadoh record as opposed to a Dinosaur Jr record?

It’s remarkably similar because the Dinosaur Jr records are recorded in J’s house so it’s very casual. There’s a guy that sort of produces J’s records who always comes in at the end and mixes it. When he’s not around during the recording, when we record it’s us and we have this engineer Justin [Pizzoferrato], who’s this really awesome kid. Justin is this incredibly friendly kid who’s been working with J for so long that he knows instinctively how to move in and around J’s life. It’s really casual and we just sit in the room and bang out the songs until they are done, which is very similar to what we did with Sebadoh. The difference with Sebadoh [from Dinosaur Jr] being that…the cliché of J as far as communicating stuff, he’s the worst.

He’s kind of a nightmare. I accept that and I have actually grown to find it…it no longer angers me, put it that way. Now I really understand it and it’s something I expect. But it is very isolating to work with someone who is the leader of the band and who is determining everything and who also will barely be able to tell you the smallest details of what he wants and then definitely not even be able to tell you and never tell you that it’s good…ever. You know what I mean? Ever!

Never anything coming from J like, “That was a good gig” or something?

Yeah. Nothing! I’m not saying I gotta be validated for everything that I do or whatever but just some basic human interaction… it helps. It helps when someone says, “Oh, cool. Thanks.” Shit like that. So with Sebadoh, when we record, it’s a lot of fun. It’s like, “Wow. We really nailed that one. Wooh!” “Really cool. How do you feel about that? I think it’s great! Awesome!” There’s a lot of that [in Sebadoh], a lot of laughing and we then move through stuff a lot quicker because we communicate a lot more about the details of the songs. The actual putting of the music together came a lot quicker [with Sebadoh] than it would with a Dinosaur record.

Do you have a better time playing live with Sebadoh than with Dino Jr?

Well, I don’t know. The Dinosaur experience is like we have these people that work with us, like our sound guy, our tour manager and our roadie who are all awesome. One thing about when I came back into Dinosaur that was really cool was that pretty much anybody that J was working with who had a long-term relationship with J were people I really liked and that I actually may have already known. So, that’s very familiar group of people and when I go out on tour with Dinosaur Jr, it could be incredibly relaxing and fun.

With Sebadoh, I would say we are way more involved in every single day. When we walk into a club, it’s the three of us together and we are the representatives of the band. We’re selling our stuff, we’re talking to the sound engineer and I’m talking to the guy who’s gonna pay us at the end of the night. It’s very social and it’s really interactive, whereas in Dinosaur, J stays in the back of the lounge of the bus and he emerges for the shows then comes right back. There’s an isolation there and it’s more of a classic rock kind of rock star sort of thing, more so than Sebadoh. Dinosaur is more rock star-ish but that’s all. But we play to way more people and make like five times the amount of money.

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Photo: Bryan Zimmerman

You’ve known Jason for almost as long as J, right?

A few years less.

What’s it like dealing with Jason versus J?

Um…I mean…[laughing]. Jason pretty much dropped out of high school to go on the very first Sebadoh tour. I’m exaggerating but he was really that young. I think I pulled him on the road. He and I did the first Sebadoh tour as a duo. Eric Gaffney quit the band like a week before the tour started so the very first Sebadoh tour was Jason and I together and Jason was, I think, 16, maybe 17. I tend to make him younger and younger every time I tell the story. I would say he’s 17 tops when I took him out on the road.

How did you and Jason meet?

Eric Gaffney introduced to him. Jason had this band that sounded like Hüsker Dü and Jason was the drummer and he played barefoot, kind of like Grant Hart and he looked like a little Grant Hart. Eric was like, “Yeah. That kid, man, he wants to rock. We should totally get him.” Eric and I had put out a cassette and Jason actually heard the cassette when he was a kid so when Eric approached him and said, “Come and join our crazy band,” Jason was like “Okay. Sure.” That’s how he got involved.

Any final thoughts on bad reviews?

No, I feel better. I’m just grateful that I have…it feels kind of pathetic in one way that it’s just like, “This hurt me and look at this terrible thing somebody said about me!” and then people write, “Oh, Lou, I can’t believe they did that! Oh, my gosh!” It’s a little ego boost.

I think that the EP and the LP together are like fucking great. I’m perfectly happy with them.

Defend Yourself is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings

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