Lou Barlow is one of underground music’s most enigmatic heroes. Emerging in the early '80s with legendary hardcore group Deep Wound, Barlow and band mate J. Mascis went on to form Dinsoaur, later Dinosaur Jr., and were soon crisscrossing the country opening for Sonic Youth. The relationship famously went bad, leaving Mascis to seek major label success in the alternative boom of the '90s and Barlow free to explore his side project Sebadoh. The band helped to create the lo-fi indie rock sound and released a string of classic albums, including Sebadoh III, Bubble and Scrape, Harmacy, and Bakesale. Before all of this, however, there was Sentridoh, essentially a young Barlow recording songs in his home with whatever equipment was available. The result, Weed Forestin’, is a document of Barlow’s youthful energy as a songwriter, and an important historical part of the beginnings of lo-fi. Barlow recently released a remastered version of Weed Forestin’ that for the first time presents his original vision of the album.
Do you consider Weed Forestin’ to be your juvenilia?
Why would I think that?
It is the earliest stuff that you put out, and you were very young.
Do you think it’s juvenile when you listen to it? I don’t. I don’t. I don’t hear it that way. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about that because I’m young and I’m singing about masturbating. Beyond that I don’t know what makes it particularly juvenile as opposed to anything else. Many records that are considered great were done between the ages of nineteen and twenty-seven. People keep saying that it’s this juvenile thing, and I just don’t really hear it. It sounds like I’m 19 or 20. It sounds like I’m moving into adulthood. Juvenile means- is there a lot of potty humor in it? I grew up on a lot of really snotty punk rock. I heard a lot of things that seem juvenile, and I’m not sure that Weed Forestin’ is one of those things. I don’t really hear it.
I obviously didn’t mean to offend you with the question.
I’m sorry I was sort of- I’m sorry. This has nothing to do with you.
What I meant is that you gained skill as a musician and went to a lot of other places. Do you have any earlier material?
You’re right. What it does represent, as it progresses, on Side A, from the first song to the last song on each side is a definite growth. It starts out with songs that are literally two chords, back and forth, singsong, and then by the end of the side the song writing becomes more developed. It does chart the beginning of me figuring out how to write songs that I thought we interesting to something that becomes almost like real pop songs. From my point of view, that’s something that makes the record interesting. It documents a transition in my life. There’s the part of me that was stuck in my room at my parent’s house jerking off and it moves to losing my virginity and moving out of the house. Between the course of the first song and the last song, that’s what happened in my life. They are almost listed chronologically on the first side. The other side is about learning how to have an ego and coming to terms with my spiritual side. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and I was coming to a place where I didn’t really feel guilty any more. I had to face that guilt and see where it came from. The album is set up to show these two things happening- the transition into adulthood and the getting over the Jesus complex. That’s why the record means something to me, it’s why I always came back to it, and why I wanted to do it again. I’ve made so many close friends from that record. So many people related to it, and it noticeably touched people more than almost anything else that I’ve recorded, and in a more intense way.
Do you find it difficult to look back at the teenage you?
No. Not really. It doesn’t embarrass me. Of course there are a few things on the record that embarrass me, but not really. As a music fan, I like those moments of vulnerability from an artist. I like it when people expose themselves in songs. It’s been my experience that when I hear someone taking a risk, it registers as very real to me, and I always thought that was a very good thing. It’s helped me, and I know other people feel the same way. I’ve written plenty of songs that I would find embarrassing; they just aren’t on that record.
I was thinking more about a sense of melancholy when you look back and see yourself writing for the first time. Have you ever had that feeling again?
You mean that I had then?
As I listen to Weed Forestin’, there seems to be a vibrant energy to the songs. There’s only one first time.
The process of writing songs is the most enjoyable thing that I do in my life. Finishing a record- I’m really at my happiest when I’m doing that. But as far as that moment when you take that risk and record those two chords back and forth, and it seems too simple and the words are a little too close to the bone, and then I listen to it and I’m thrilled that I just did that- I don’t know that can ever be recaptured. To be really gross about it, it’s like the first time you…whatever. I can equate it to a sexual thing, or the first time you do anything really. You’re young, it happens, and you’re shocked that this came out of you. The world changes for you at that moment- it will never be the same. It would be hard for that to continually happen in my life.
Who was the first person you ever shared these with?
I started writing very short songs for a childhood friend of mine. He was my classmate in Michigan, and when I moved at the age of twelve we kept in touch by sending each other tapes. He would pick a fight with his mother and record it, and my brother and I would set up these really elaborate prank phone calls. I would also send him tapes of me making up really short songs. At first they were really goofy, but there was also a local radio show that I sent some of these tapes to, but they were really just short and goofy songs. At some point they became serious, and I stopped sharing them with this friend. As for these songs, the ones that became Weed Forestin’, it could have been Eric Gaffney. He was the first person that I really played stuff for; we were having these almost religious discussions at the time, and were experimenting with pot and acid and stuff and having these heart to hearts. He seemed like someone I wanted to share these songs with, and he was playing me things that he had done as well.
Did you show your parents, or were they in a totally different world from your music?
I don’t know that they were in a different world, but they wouldn’t have heard until I’d finished a tape. Even though I lived under their roof, I wasn’t like “Mom, you’ve got to hear this!” I found a lot of the songs funny, but they were also really perverse. They made me really happy, but I wanted them to be something that if somebody heard it they would immediately think: “What the fuck is going on? Who would say this in a song?” I was making things that were so close to the bone that I wanted to make someone immediately uncomfortable or have them realize right off that they got it and understood where I was coming from. They weren’t “Hey Mom, I wrote a song!” songs; that wasn’t really what I was going to do.
How do you properly present an album whose main characteristic is its homemade quality? The recordings I have are almost too beautiful; there’s all kinds of noise and hiss missing.
This is the truth- the God’s honest truth- from the tapes that I had and transferring them now, I didn’t take any of the hiss off of those tapes. The hiss was added. When I went into a studio and handed them my tapes, they were like “What the fuck is this?” They didn’t care, so in the process of mastering it, they added a ton of hiss. It was so much that when I got the finished vinyl of the record, I was so disappointed that I didn’t even know what to say. There was nothing I could do about it. I was powerless. At that point, lo-fi meant you didn’t give a fuck about it. If you recorded on a four track, it wasn’t legitimate. The way that it was mastered by other people, there were storms of hiss added to it in the mastering process. It was my own fault because I didn’t step into the studio and take control of the process because I didn’t know how. I was just saying okay to lots of things.
You’re also working with guys that are a lot older than you.
There’s a big difference. I’m 20. These guys are in their thirties. When you’re talking ten years of difference with a guy who is my age now, you’re talking about guys who are fifty-five and sixty now. That’s a whole other musical generation. These guys weren’t even punks. I didn’t know how to use the process to help people take a few steps toward the direction I was coming from. The final product suffered greatly because of that. My original tapes didn’t sound like the album. Of course there was a lot of positive feedback from it, but initially the reviews in places like Flipside were like “Who does this guy think he is? Does he think that anything you shit onto a tape is worth releasing?” I didn’t know how to take it, because I didn’t feel like I did that. I sat down with my four track and made what I considered to be some pretty direct sounding recordings. I didn’t know how to preserve that through the original mastering process, so when we went back and did that for the reissue, I’m doing it with a totally sympathetic engineer and taking all of the music from the basic cassettes. That hiss isn’t there on the original recordings. I did no process of trying to restore or tamp down the hiss or anything.
I’m glad you’re getting that out there. You might have had an issue with people saying you made the record sound too pretty.
I know. I’m kind of damned no matter what, but I didn’t try to restore it. It’s just direct, and I cared enough about the tapes that I did take care of them. That’s the one thing I did do- I always kept them in a little case and made sure they were up off the ground. I knew that one day I would be able to make the record sound the way I wanted.
What are some connections to other Sebadoh / Dinosaur recordings that a listener could make? How do these songs prefigure your later work?
I guess the most obvious thing is that there are songs on it that I still play. After Sebadoh became an electric band, we would play a lot of the Weed Forestin’ songs as part of our set. Those songs really became the basis for electric Sebadoh. The idea of Bubble and Scrape, the four string guitar, basically, comes directly from Weed Forestin’. That’s an idea that I’ve kept through all the albums, except maybe the last one. When we play live now, there’s a good part of the set where I pull out a four-string guitar, and we elaborate on the basic theme of those original recordings.
You’ve been asked this question a million times; here’s the million and first. Why Sentridoh and Sebadoh? What about those syllables is so appealing to you?
When I was first putting those short songs onto cassette for my friend, I sometimes made up words for them. One song I made up, the chorus was “Sen-tri-doh” and that was the chorus. There was another tape collage that I made where I yelled “Sebadoh” over and over again. This was well before I was smoking pot or anything, so it really wasn’t drug influenced. It has more to do with when I was younger and would make up different words for things. My daughter is doing this now. It wasn’t in a really elaborate way- I didn’t make up my own language or anything- certain nonsense words, like Sentridoh, always resonated with me. It sounded like something knightly, or medieval. Sebadoh is more like anything goes. It’s sort of ugly, but the “-oh” at the end is like Play-doh, which gives it a power evocative of my childhood. This is the last thing- I’m fucking going on about this- my senior year of high school, my favorite band was the Cocteau Twins, who was this great proto-shoe gazer band, and all of their words were made up. This woman with this beautiful voice just sang these made up words. It meant so much without really meaning anything in the traditional sense. I was freed up by that; I was like, nonsense words are cool.