Lou Barlow is one of the major names in indie rock. Indie rock is a label that categorizes those musicians signed to small, independent music labels. Barlow’s music is further categorized as “lo-fi” indie rock because of its acoustic sound and his notorious four-track cassette recordings.
If indie rock can be compared to baseball’s minor leagues, Lou Barlow can be compared to Crash Davis of the movie Bull Durham— seemingly good enough for “the show,” but too self-aware to ever get there. Also, he’s not interested. “I don’t feel like it’s my job to kick everybody’s ass with how heavy my band is,” he told Billboard. That band is Sebadoh, one of the biggest selling indie rock groups of the 1990s. Barlow is the singer, guitar player, and main songwriter. Sebadoh plays mainly acoustic folk rock with an occasionally jarring punk rock sound. Barlow also belongs to the bands Sentridoh and Folk Implosion, which he initially considered side projects.
Folk Implosion scored a Top 40 hit in 1995 with “Natural One,” a song from the soundtrack of the controversial movie Kids. Barlow knew that the mainstream success of that song horrified his hard-core fans, known as Sebageeks. He empathized with those fans when he told Billboard, “You can’t judge yourself based on national success. You can find hundreds of thousands of people to love your music and never be in People magazine. I mean, there are a lot of people out there, and they’re not all watching MTV.”
With his grungy appearance (his thick hair usually uncombed, T-shirts and corduroys the favorite wardrobe), one might expect another temperamental rock star. Barlow, however, is known as a sensitive, honest person-especially to women. He believes his respect for women came from his family. He has two younger sisters and no brothers. He told a Rolling Stone contributor “I’m lucky I didn’t grow up with brothers or in a neighborhood where I was terrorized by thugs.” He explained, “Guys put each other through a lot of hurdles.” Barlow grew up with his sisters in Jackson, Michigan. The family had to move to Westfield, Massachusetts in the late 1970s when Bendix manufacturing transferred his father.
His parents did not expect Barlow to be performing in front of thousands of people as he does now. Barlow was so quiet in school that his high school counselor thought he had a mental disability. When his parents bought him his first guitar, things changed. He learned quickly and practiced constantly. Barlow’s favorite music came from alternative rock groups like New Order, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. He decided to form his own alternative band. Barlow and a friend, Scott Helland, started the group Deep Wound. J. Mascis later joined as their drummer. When Deep Wound fell apart a year later, Mascis decided to switch to lead guitar. Barlow and Mascis formed Dinosaur Jr. in 1984. They hired Pat Murphy as their drummer and released their first album in 1985. Dinosaur Jr. received popularity and critical acclaim, especially when their second album was released. Even though the future looked bright for Dinosaur Jr., Barlow began to question his own role in the indie music world. He felt the band was not his own—like Mascis was the real musician. He needed to prove to himself that he was a true talent. The events following led to a major indie rock rift.
In 1987 Barlow was still a member of Dinosaur Jr. but recorded a 30 minute acoustic tape with Eric Gaffney on percussion. The tape was recorded on Barlow’s 4-track cassette recorder and sold at local record stores. Barlow and Gaffney called themselves Sentridoh, and they toured around Northampton, Massachusetts. By this time, the relationship between Barlow and Mascis was crumbling. Barlow expressed his respect for Mascis and his total frustration toward him to Rolling Stone. He said, “He’s really talented, even though he’s a total insufferable a——. I was ready to support him, but I also wanted to beat the living s—out of him at any minute.” When Barlow was not touring with Dinosaur Jr. in 1988, he and Eric recorded another tape of acoustic songs written by both. Homestead, the label that released the
For the Record…
Born Louis Barlow July 17, 1966 in Dayton, Ohio; married Kathleen Billus, 1995.
Started playing guitar and writing songs in high school; formed band Deep Wound with Scott Helland and J. Mascis, 1983; formed band Dinosaur Jr. with J. Mascis and Pat Murphy, 1984; recorded three albums with Dinosaur Jr., 1985–88; formed the band Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney, 1987; Sebadoh recorded Freed Man, 1988; Jason Loewestein joined Sebadoh, 1989; Eric Gaffney replaced by Bob Fay, 1993; Loewestein switched to guitar, Fay on drums, 1993; recorded a side project under the name Sentridoh, 1994; formed Folk Implosion as a side project, 1994; wrote and recorded eight songs on the soundtrack from the movie Kids, 1995; “Natural One” from Kids hit top 20 on the pop charts, 1995; Folk Implosion signed with Communion, 1995; Released critically acclaimed Harmacy with Sebadoh, 1996; released Dare to Be Surprised with Folk Implosion, 1997; toured with Folk Implosion then Sebadoh, 1997;recorded seven albums with Sebadoh, 1987–97; recorded three albums with the Folk Implosion, 1994–97.
Addresses: Home —Boston, MA. Record company —Sub Pop World Headquarters, 1932 First Avenue, Suite 1103, Seattle, WA 98101.
first Dinosaur Jr. album, took an interest in the tape and offered to release it. Barlow and Gaffney now called themselves Sebadoh, and the album was revised and released in 1989.
Shortly after, Mascis fired Barlow from Dinosaur Jr. because he thought Barlow had no more interest in the band. Barlow was infuriated-especially about the way Mascis gave him the boot. Mascis told Barlow that the band was breaking up, when in reality, just Barlow was leaving. Later, when asked by a fan if it was O.K. to still like Dinosaur Jr., Barlow responded, “Yes, and you need not apologize for it around me … now that I got another much cooler band I don’t give a piece of cat s—about that big, old hot shot guitar god guy that I had to sue … nope, I’m really mature and pleasantly self-aware now and it’s safe to say that Dinoslug is perfectly mediocre but I’m cool with people liking it.”
According to Barlow, the names Sentridoh and Sebadoh “don’t mean nothin’.” After the first Sebadoh album was released, Barlow and Gaffney sent another tape to Homestead—an expanded version of the first tape they had done together, called Weed Forestin. Sebadoh recruited a new drummer named Jason Loewestein. After much touring and a third album on the Homestead label, the band switched to the Sub Pop label and recorded Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and Bubble and Scrape in 1992. Michele Romero of Entertainment Weekly commented, “If this group were a mental patient, it’d be manic depressive.” In 1993 Gaffney left the band and was replaced by Bob Fay. Fay played drums and Loewestein switched to guitar.
In 1994, the band recorded Bakesale, which included four songs with Gaffney. R. J. Smith of Village Voice suggested that Sebadoh would succeed because it spoke for its generation. Smith wrote, “Sebadoh’s is a culture of stubborn refusal to make choices—choices that taint you.” Smith called Bakesale “far and away the best record they’ve ever made.” In 1996, Sebadoh released Harmacy. A single from the album called “Ocean” reached the top 40 of the Modern Rock Tracks in Billboard, much to Barlow’s surprise. James Rotondi of Guitar Player commented, “Though Barlow’s pure-toned voice and alternate-tuned rhythm parts suggest folk music, his occasional throat-ripping tirades and artnoise guitar bursts bloom from the side of the punk family tree.” Sebadoh still tours the many small, indie rock venues, where they don’t have to charge fans an outrageous amount of money to attend. Pat Riley of Rolling Stone saw them at Irving Plaza in New York City. He remarked, “[T]here was … the band’s folk-punk dichotomy by which to be entertained.”
Lou Barlow’s abundance of songs led him to form side projects like Sentridoh and another more formal band called Folk Implosion. Folk Implosion consists of Barlow and John Davis—a fan of Sebadoh’s who sent Barlow a tape of his own work. In 1994 the two recorded an album called Take a Look Inside. Village Voice labeled it a “stylized 22-minute album of primitive, faux-’60s mod pop songs.” Then in 1995, Folk Implosion wrote and recorded the majority of the soundtrack for the graphic movie Kids. Barlow told Billboard, “It seemed a little strange that we would be asked to score a movie about skate kids, because I’m pretty alienated from that.” They created a hit with the single “Natural One,” which made it to number 4 on the Modern Rock Tracks and the top 20 on the pop charts. Ethan Smith of Entertainment Weeklywrote, “[l]t is as dark, beautiful, and uncommercial as the film it accompanies.” He added, “The eight Folk cuts are fairly new territory, even for fans of Sebadoh’s edgier indie fare.”
After the success of Kids, Sebadoh and Folk Implosion fans wondered if Barlow would finally take the plunge and sign with a major label. Folk Implosion resisted the temptation and signed with Communion, another indie label. Barlow told Billboard, “We just sort of decided early on that it was a total learning experience and that we weren’t going to jump for the carrot immediately.” The first thing Communion did was to release a full-length version of Folk Implosion’s first album Take a Look Inside. The album posted respectable sales. In April 1997 Folk Implosion released a new album called Dare to Be Surprised. Village Voice commented, “Folk Implosion lay down hypnotic studio grooves that flirt with blank affectlessness.” Gary Latham, Communion’s owner, told Billboard, “One thing we wanted to do with this album is that we want everyone to know that this is not a Sebadoh side project. This is a completely separate band with two songwriters.” Somehow Barlow found time to tour with Folk Implosion while staying committed to Sebadoh. His discography is indicative of a very prolific songwriting career that will keep him busy for a long while.
Albums with Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr., Homestead, 1985.
You’re Living All Over Me, SST, 1987.
Bug, SST, 1988.
Albums with Sebadoh
Freed Man, Homestead, 1989.
Weed Forestin, Homestead, 1990.
Sebadoh III, Homestead, 1991.
Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, Sub Pop, 1992.
Bubble and Scrape, Sub Pop, 1992.
Bakesale, Sub Pop, 1994.
Harmacy, Sub Pop, 1996.
Albums with Folk Implosion
Take a Look Inside, Communion, 1994.
Kids (soundtrack including “Natural One”), London, 1995.
Dare To Be Surprised, Communion, 1997.
Acoustic Compilation, SST, 1991.
Winning Losers, Smells Like, 1994.
Lou Barlow and His Sentridoh, City Slang, 1995.
Lou Barlow and Friends, Mint, 1995.
(With the Sixths) Wasps’ Nests, 1995.
(With Les Thugs) Strike, 1996.
Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks, 1996.
Billboard, November 18, 1995; February 10, 1996; September 21, 1996; March 22, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, April 16, 1993.
Guitar Player, November, 1996.
Rolling Stone, October 3, 1996.
Village Voice, October 4, 1994, May 6, 1997.
Additional information provided by the All-Music Guide, A Complete Online Database of Recorded Music.
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