Graham Reid | | 5 min read
As a cruel ploy it was also kind of funny. When guitarist J. Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow in Dinosaur Jr got to the point that they couldn't even talk to each other, the end was inevitable. They'd had a good few years, but in 1989 Mascis told Barlow he was breaking up the band.
The following day he reformed it -- without Barlow.
Barlow was miffed, to put it mildly (his song The Freed Pig two years later was a bitter attack on Mascis), but he also just got on with business. Even during Dinosaur Jr he'd had another band, Sebadoh, so he poured his energies into that and as their star rose noisily - opening for Nirvana, six albums in five years -- he started another, Sentridoh. Then another quieter one called Folk Implosion.
When Sebadoh and Sentridoh faltered a few years ago one of rock's most prolific songwriters - who also releases home recordings through his website - found himself with a backlog of material, another project (the New Folk Implosion without FI's John Davis), and a career as a solo artist singing material from his various bands.
The quietly spoken Barlow -- originally from Massachusetts, now based in Los Angeles -- plays in Auckland just six weeks after Mascis' solo show, which amuses him mightily. Relations between the two have been repaired and, coincidentally, both find themselves out playing solo shows these days, Barlow averaging five nights out of six, which he shrugs off: "It's just what I do".
"Mentally it's great to move around, but the physical side sneaks up on me. That's only because I insist on drinking every night," he laughs. "I've learned to be reasonable about it. I do it for nerves and to loosen myself up a bit. I'm always nervous, it's just part of my personality. I try to convince myself I'm mellow and a really cool guy, but the reality is I'm not. I thrive on anxiety and it's my engine."
Even after 20 years he still fears forgetting the words or not playing well, but says relentless touring means the playing becomes natural and the words automatic.
"I don't write set lists, I just want to have a grasp on a wide variety of songs I can play and surprise people with. I had a set list with Folk Implosion because of the arrangements being in place, and because I was playing bass and singing, which is difficult, I need that consistency for the band's dynamic to blossom.
"But solo it's really about the lyrics and stumbling on moments, and playing songs I wrote 15 or 20 years ago and making them new. The Sebadoh songs are rock songs, and I find rock drumming and the clamour of cymbals destroys things. I sing low mostly, and the point of the songs is really the melody and the words. I bashed out those Sebadoh songs and destroyed the dynamics of them over the years, so it's good to reclaim them in a solo setting."
Barlow admits the past four years haven't been easy as Sebadoh and Sentridoh ceased to exist. The members of the New Folk Implosion have their own band, Alaska, which is their primary focus.
"I'm used to collaborating and they actually had to encourage me to take control, which I did ultimately, but it's difficult for me. I never really consider anything to be a side project, I take them all equally, but it is interesting that somehow Folk Implosion has become a combination of what it used to be and what Sebadoh was."
As a songwriter he has been excited by the possibilities of the internet. He is a lo-fi guy who liked the direct fanzine approach of punk, so the internet, which allows him the same unfettered connection with a select audience, allows him to get other musical ideas out. And as one whose songs have been covered by the likes of the Breeders, Bettie Serveert and Superchunk, he is dismissive of covers in general and those of his songs particularly.
He's only heard two decent stabs at them, one by James McNew of Yo La Tengo, who covered an obscure Sebadoh song, the other from a new metal band, Deadsy. "They covered Brand New Love and got the lyrics wrong and added another chorus. It's on their album, which they spent millions on, so they really worked at it," he laughs.
"People I know think it's horrendous, but I like it because they took it and made it their own. But that rarely happens. I think it's better people stick to karaoke."
Barlow reflects that the best period in his career was in the mid-90s, when Sebadoh were at the height of their popularity, and then coming off tour to work with John Davis in Folk Implosion, who had a chart hit with Natural One from the soundtrack to Larry Clark's feature film Kids.
"Unfortunately when John and I filled out the forms which claimed ownership, we did it incorrectly and gave ourselves publishing rights, when actually it was owned by the film company. As a result I was paid nearly US$100,000 that I was not supposed to get, so I bought a house.
"Of course now I'm paying it back. But [financially] I've survived in music, and because of that gasp of success years ago it gave me the illusion of wealth, which was kinda cool. And that was all the bank needed when I went in for a loan."
Still a prolific songwriter, Barlow tours with cassette recorder and notepad but waits as long as possible before recording.
"I guess initially it would seem like a miracle to record something, but now I want the songs to be coming from a deep and anchored place. One of the things that slowed me down over the last four or five years was becoming disappointed and disillusioned with the recording process.
"Now, when I go back in to record, I want to be confident and not listening to other people and weighing other opinions. I'm easily swayed, very impressionable and take other people's opinions seriously. There was a period when I thought that was a great thing, but now I think it's a hindrance because other people don't know what I want.
"I used to trust that people shared my vision, but that's really not the case, so I have to be totally responsible for what I want to hear. I want to be ... tough," he says, sounding very uncertain and un-tough.
"Well, that's the irony isn't it," he laughs when it is pointed out. "It perfectly fits with my wavering ambition."