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A Q&A with Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow; see Sebadoh on Saturday

February 7, 2014

The first Sebadoh song I ever heard was “Ocean.” I’m aware now how very lame that is as an introduction, having exhausted the Sebadoh catalog countless times over, but at the time, I was 13, and a total sucker for the lyric, “I wish I had a way to make it better / to rearrange the world with your smile.” I heard it first on the radio, living in range of the Buzz 103.1 FM in South Florida, and I went to Spec’s as soon as I could convince my ma to drive me and carefully examined all the covers. I bought Harmacy, cuz it was the only album that had a song I knew on it, but it didn’t take me long to gather all the CDs. Later, when I was old enough to drive, I’d scratch the shit out of them, leaving them strewn outside of their cases in my car. I don’t even know how many times I re-bought Bakesale.

You can say I’m a fan.

So, when I got the opportunity to interview Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, I had questions. And I couldn’t fit all of the answers from Barlow into the story I was writing for the upcoming Ralphfest, which Sebadoh is headlining on Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Social. I figured, why waste some rad insights other folks who are dummies for Sebadoh might be into?

The last time I saw Sebadoh live was in Athens, Ga., at the 40 Watt in 2011. (Sebadoh shared that link themselves, so don’t feel guilty for downloading.) If you’ve never seen the band, their live show is (acknowledging my bias) pretty killer, with the band members rotating instruments throughout the set, a comprehensive reflection of their albums in the set list (including, of course, the newly released Defend Yourself) and a chaotic energy and good humor that keeps me rapt and reluctantly laughing.

Onto the Q&A:

OW: When was the first time you seriously picked up the bass guitar?
Barlow: When I was a senior in high school, I was playing guitar in a hardcore band with J Mascis called Deep Wound. And the band was kind of coming to an end. Like, hardcore music is that really fast – well, hardcore music just wasn’t really our favorite anymore. At the time, there were two guys that I ate lunch with, pretty much my only friends at school, and one of them played guitar, and he was obsessed with really early Metallica. It was the beginning of that kind of speed metal thing. And my other friend, he was the bass player of Deep Wound and he wanted to play drums, so we just decided to form a band where I would play bass and sing, and Scott, who played bass for Deep Wound, would play drums and our metal friend Wayne – this really funny metal guy – he would be the guitar player. So that was the first time I played bass, and shortly after that, that was when J Mascis decided he wanted me to play bass in what would become Dinosaur Jr. That was when I really started playing bass. I think at that time, shortly after Dinosaur started, I was a senior in high school.

What do you think prompted you to treat the bass guitar like it was a guitar?
We were also really into Motorhead. And Lemmy from Motorhead is another – I think he was a guitar player before he became a bass player – but his bass style is very influenced by the guitar. For Motorhead, obviously (or maybe not so obviously), the bass is pretty much almost the lead instrument, considered equal in the band. So Lemmy was a big deal and a big influence. I always felt like with the bass, you could never hear it. I felt like it was always relegated to the background, for the most part, and definitely with the rise of heavy metal and that stuff, it became even further kind of marginalized as an instrument. So when I got ahold of it, I wanted to just really attack it, I guess, and try to get as much as I could out of it.

You look insane when you play the bass. Is it necessary to be so physical?
I’ve had people tell me straight to my face they don’t believe that I even play notes on the bass. They’re like, “I’ve watched you. You’re not doing anything. It’s all show.” It’s definitely not all for show. Music, to me, it is physical, so I am definitely getting into music by way of hardcore punk rock, and it was a very physical music.

Would you say that J Mascis influenced how you wrote parts for the bass after Dinosaur Jr.?
He and I sort of had the same idea in mind when he wanted me to play bass. And I think both he and I were like, “Yeah, I should play it like the guitar,” and he was like, “Yeahhhh, yeah, that’s what I want you to do.” And he wrote bass lines that way for whatever reason – I mean, I had to make them my own, you know? But there were definitely times when I had to adopt his rhythmic – because he has a pretty idiosyncratic rhythmic sense – so I had to kind of understand that and internalize it. We kind of had the same idea when we set out. It was a pretty organic collaboration, but I definitely was very interested in what J wanted me to do and how he wanted me to play the bass, and the bass parts he wanted me to play. I was into it, you know? I embraced it.

Here’s a video from a recent show in Seattle:

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