Sebadoh's Lou Barlow Faces and Embraces Hard Truths on 'Act Surprised'
By Chris Steffen
May 24, 2019
Lou Barlow really, really likes the new Sebadoh record. In fact, he's caught so off-guard by how much he likes it that he's little nervous. "It’s a precarious position to be in, to release something to the world that you actually feel so good about," he says. "It’s ultimately kind of a heartbreaking process."
Act Surprised is Sebadoh's first album since 2013's Defend Yourself. In the intervening years, Barlow kept busy with a Dinosaur Jr. record and a solo LP, while navigating the end of a long-term marriage and the beginning of a new one. Barlow's seven songs on the new album reflect that sense of upheaval, touching on themes like pride, sobriety, and spirituality.
Barlow spoke with us about writing his songs on a modified ukulele, the unexpected influence he takes from hardcore punk music, and the strange life of his 1995 hit, "Natural One."
AllMusic: With six years between the last record and this one, were you writing songs for it all along?
Lou Barlow: The songs are all pretty fresh. I have a lot of songs kicking around, and for other Sebadoh records there would be songs that were a few years old, but this one was pretty fresh for me. It was cool, I really like the way we worked on this record.
AllMusic: Do you see your songs as coming from a more singular mindset than if you'd written them over a longer period?
Barlow: I do, yeah. It was interesting, Jason and I were both writing songs that were, for lack of a better word, political, or sociological, whatever you want to call it. Calling them political songs isn’t something I like to be totally transparent about, but it’s definitely an intense time. It was also a reflective time for us, and it was cool that he and I were in sync that way, because that doesn’t always happen.
As far as Jason and I go, we both recently came out of really long-term relationships -- marriages -- and we both were remarried within the last three or four years. There were a lot of things that really haunted our songs before, and we’ve changed our circumstances, and I hear that in the record, too.
AllMusic: Are you able to detect that just from hearing his songs?
Barlow: I can. I think there was a very long period when he and I were writing about the same things on every record, just trying to puzzle out these relationships. It’s a cliché for Sebadoh at this point, but his songs are more aggressive, and mine are more melodic, although I think he writes great melodies and his songs are very melodic, but he takes a harder approach. The last record we did, Defend Yourself, I went back and listened to it recently and said, “Oh my god, it sounds like this huge weight has been lifted or just rearranged somehow,” there’s so much more air in the performances now and I don’t hear us grinding our gears on the same issues.
AllMusic: Are these the kinds of issues you'll talk about or does it tend to go unspoken?
Barlow: In bands like Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr., these are bands I formed with guys when we were kids, basically. I wouldn’t say that both bands are anti-intellectual, but we don’t sit around and hypothesize and discuss concepts and theory. I’ve been in collaborations like that, but Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. aren’t like that, we’re pretty basic.
AllMusic: The other end of the spectrum is the Metallica documentary where they're discussing the themes of songs with their therapist.
Barlow: Yeah. Maybe Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. could have used a therapist at some point, but it’s kind of remarkable that we never did anything like that. We’ve had plenty of rough moments, and Sebadoh, the band was basically founded on the concept of being so emotionally raw and bare, we weren’t really hiding behind anything from the very beginning. What’s so satisfying for me about this record is we faced some really difficult times personally, and inter-personally in the band, and of our own accord, without any outside influence, we managed to scale those barriers that could have really kept us from making another good record or kept us from being a band.
AllMusic: Do you welcome input on your songs or can you be territorial?
Barlow: I’m definitely way more open to suggestions. The other guys I work with, whether it’s Jason Lowenstein or J Mascis, these guys are multi-instrumentalists. Jason is a great drummer, a really good bass player, a great guitarist, so when he brings something to the table, it’s really pretty specific. When I bring stuff, I’m way more open. I don’t write drum beats for Bob to play, I might have a general idea, but I want people to bring their own style to it.
In this case, I wanted their style to help shape the basic structure of the song and then have that shape how I’d approach the lyrics. I think it’s important to have the lyrics be reactions to the music in some way. The people I know who are real multi-instrumentalists, they compose things in their head and they’re real specific about it. “No, that’s half a beat off!” and I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” Most of my time spent learning Jason and J’s songs are trying to learn their very, very specific ideas about timing, and that’s not how I hear or compose things.
AllMusic: "Celebrate the Void" had me guessing that the seed for that song was the vocal line. Where did it start?
Barlow: The instrumental and the vocal came almost simultaneously on that one. Almost all of my songs were composed initially on a baritone ukulele. I’ve used baritone ukuleles for 30 years, since I wrote my very first “good” songs. I like that it’s four strings, but I changed the way it’s strung so that it’s much heavier and I tune much lower. In the last year leading up to when we recorded, I brought it with me everywhere, like when I toured with Dinosaur Jr., I’d just sit in stairwells and play riffs, and if I heard something that really piqued my interest, I’d start humming something with it.
“Celebrate the Void” was when I was plucking out this guitar line and trying to push myself more, I wanted these melodies to have longer arcs, I didn't want to do any two-chord songs on this record, I wanted choruses that actually lift instead of go down. That’s something I’d done so much in the past, is my choruses take this downward shift as opposed to upward, which it took me years to realize about my own songwriting. This one, I just wanted to push and reach higher.
AllMusic: That's something I think about a lot, how I gravitate towards choruses that rise.
Barlow: Well, everybody does. When I was beginning to write songs, I was interested in subverting it, I guess, what I thought was normal. I was more self-consciously experimental, I always liked it, and scratchy shit and aggression, and as a songwriter, I resisted even calling myself a songwriter for ages, I didn’t want to equate myself with that. But being as old as I am and with as much music as I listen to, fuck it, it doesn’t have to be cheeseball when you go higher, it’s just a matter of keeping a listener engaged, and the primary listener is me, and it’s what I needed to do to keep myself interested this time around.
AllMusic: How literal were you being with the lyrics on "Medicate"? ["No, I don't want your hangover/How will I learn to be sober?"]
Barlow: It’s incredibly literal. Through the years, I've been trying to gain some kind of method to a peace of mind, or just peace, and drugs and alcohol seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to achieve peace for a huge chunk of my life, and then as you get older, people talk a lot about meditating, they have gurus, and the gurus give them prayers to say, and that’s the new way, and I was trying to write this song to mention all those particular things.
The first verse is about drugs, the second is about spirituality. In the end, I’m talking about how I have to go find my own rituals that aren’t physically damaging and also aren’t unrealistic, aren’t me having to pay somebody. We’re in a period historically where we really are more alone than we’ve ever been, and you have to figure out how to navigate yourself.
AllMusic: Have you always been comfortable expressing yourself in such an earnest way?
Barlow: I started that way, primarily because the first music that inspired me to really write my own music was hardcore punk rock. The reputation of it is that it’s extremely aggressive, screaming music, but I always found it to be incredibly honest. Like Negative Approach, “I can’t take this pressure, pressure!” If you take that out of the context of someone screaming at you, it’s a very honest, vulnerable thing to say. I found the same thing with Minor Threat and Black Flag, a lot of it was extremely personal and extremely honest, and a lot of it was like, “I can’t do this, this is a lot.” So it wasn’t all hatred, and what I took away from hardcore punk rock was this vulnerability, ironically.
AllMusic: "Fool" struck me as your most emphatic and pointed song on the album.
Barlow: The song is basically like standing up for myself 30 years later. I would say out of all the songs on this album, it’s the most old-school Sebadoh song of all of them, and it’s the only one that’s about the same relationship I spent all of Sebadoh writing about. I was negotiating all of this disappointment and heartbreak; my songs were always about talking myself through those things and going, “Maybe you were wrong, maybe you need to look at it from a different point of view.”
I was doing these solo acoustic shows, and I was soundchecking at this coffee shop, and I started playing the ukulele and singing almost verbatim what the song became. It just came out, and I’d already been divorced for four years from a 25-year relationship, and somehow, that day, just sitting there, I picked up the ukulele, and it articulated the whole crux of why I had to change my life. It was like, “Wait a minute, I don’t want to be a fool, I can’t be with somebody who thinks it’s OK to call you a fool, you just can’t.” It was difficult for me to even admit that to myself, because I don’t want to even admit that I have pride, I don’t want to say, “That hurts my feelings,” so I was always avoiding that. That song just came out in this rush.
AllMusic: I recall hearing "Natural One" as a kid at a church dance in Texas, which seemed like a bizarre setting for that song. Are you ever confronted by your own music in unexpected places?
Barlow: Yeah, “Natural One” was a prime example. Just hearing it publicly was batshit for me. The first time I heard it was at a liquor store in my hometown, and it was on one of those “home of the rock” radio stations, the kind of station that I despised as a young punk rocker, “Fuck classic rock 102, screw them!” I don’t really watch sports, but it was played as fade-out music, halftime music, into commercials. When you hear it blasting out over an arena, that’s fucked up.
The best one, I think, was Tony Robbins, that guy would do those half-hour infomercials, and they showed him jogging out onto a stage in front of this adoring crowd, there’s a voiceover introducing him, and then behind it was this unmistakable Muzak version of “Natural One,” and I was like, “Fuck yeah.”
I never had any particular aspirations as musician other than the basic punk rock ones, like “I want to put out a record on SST,” which seemed like an insanely tall order, but since all of my basic dreams came true, I’m not like, “I want to play the Super Bowl,” but hearing that was like, “I don’t know where to go from there, where do I go?” I can never say, “I never did as much as I wanted to” without feeling like an asshole, because people worked their whole lives and made all this incredible music that just never clicked on any level, ever. So I had a few things that clicked and showed up on a stupid inspirational speaker infomercial. It’s hard to know where to go from there.
AllMusic: At this point, how would you feel if some huge corporation wanted to use "Natural One" in an ad?
Barlow: I would totally let them use it, I don’t care. I’ve had partners who will say, “Well, who are they? What do they represent?” And I appreciate that in some ways, integrity is a wonderful thing, but I don’t equate that with integrity, I guess. I don’t equate not taking a paycheck from a corporation to maintaining my integrity, for whatever reason. For me, it’s retribution. Hey man, my life has been burdened with your corporate bullshit, you want to give me a couple of thousand dollars to use my song? Great. Fuck you. I’ll use it to feed my kids and live my life. I live off those scraps, that’s my whole life, it’s all about finding scraps and getting people to give me money after I play shows. Who the fuck do I think I am?