Lou Barlow - Biography
Often cited as a pioneer of the lo-fi sound, Lou Barlow is the founder of two of the most influential indie rock bands of the 1980s and ‘90s. He has gone on to produce many side projects with other notable musicians and finally, with the dawn of the new millennium, he has begun releasing solo projects under his own name.
Louis Knox Barlow was born in Dayton, Ohio on July 17, 1966. His family moved to Jackson, Michigan and then later to Westfield, Massachusetts where Barlow attended high school. While still in high school, Barlow discovered the hardcore punk bands that were coming out of Washington, DC and New York at the time. He and fellow classmate Scott Helland both played guitar and the two hatched the idea to start their own hardcore band called Deep Wound. When the band placed an ad looking for a drummer “to play really fast,” a gangly youth from nearby Amherst named J Mascis appeared and the trio played shows around the Western Massachusetts area until they broke up in 1984. Both Mascis and Barlow had grown bored with the stylistic limitations of hardcore punk music, and wanted to try a band that mixed the urgency of punk along with the power of metal and the tunefulness of some of the classic rock artists the two admired. Mascis switched over to guitar and Barlow played bass. The two recruited former Deep Wound member Charlie Nakajima to sing and also added local drummer Emmett Patrick Murphy (otherwise known as Murph). Originally calling themselves Mogo, the group played one gig, during which Nakajima went into an anti-police rant that appalled Mascis. The next day, Mascis broke up the band. A few days later, he contacted Barlow and Murph about continuing on without Nakajima. With Mascis as the main singer, the group continued as Dinosaur (named after their loud and heavy sound) and soon started playing shows.
Gerard Cosloy, a friend of the band, was just starting up his own record label named Homestead Records and released Dinosaur’s first album, Dinosaur, in 1985. Dinosaur was mostly ignored but through playing up and down the East Coast, the band started to gain recognition — especially from the members of Sonic Youth, who championed the young band and had Dinosaur open for them on their tours for the next few years. As the band gained popularity, they heeded the suggestions of Sonic Youth and jumped ship from Homestead to SST. They recorded and released their next album, You’re Living All Over Me (SST), in 1987 to rave reviews, but tensions were already starting to reach a breaking point within the band.
After a lawsuit was filed against the band by another group called The Dinosaurs, they amended their name to Dinosaur Jr. Barlow had always been intimidated by Mascis’ songwriting ability and in the few years the band was together, Mascis had pretty much taken control of most aspects of the band. As an outlet for his creativity, Barlow started recording a series of songs and sonic experiments at home, sometimes with his friend Eric Gaffney. By 1987, the two had recorded enough material for an album and chose the nonsense name Sebadoh for their project. Barlow’s songs tended towards the quietly confessional, while Gaffney tended towards psychedelic noise-heavy freakouts. Homestead Records released the cassette-only album Weed Forestin’ in 1987, followed by another cassette-only release, The Freed Man (Homestead), in 1988. The two releases were later combined on the double album The Freed Weed (Homestead) in 1990.
Meanwhile, Barlow recorded one more album with Dinosaur Jr., 1988’s Bug (SST), before being kicked out of the band by Mascis. With Barlow no longer in Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh became his main musical focus. The duo of Barlow and Gaffney expanded to a trio with the addition of drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Lowenstein in 1989. The group performed a series of ten shows during the next couple of years in Massachusetts and New York before recording and releasing the third Sebadoh album, Sebadoh III (Homestead), in 1991. As if all of that wasn’t enough for the prolific Barlow, he also started to make solo lo-fi recordings under the name Sentridoh and released a series of cassette-only releases on the Southern California-based indie label Shrimper including Losers (1990), Most of the Worst and Some of the Best (1992), and Wasted Pieces (1994). In 1994, some of this material was compiled and re-released on the collections Winning Losers: A Collection of Home Recordings 89-93 (Smells Like Records) and Lou Barlow and His Sentridoh (City Slang).
After the success of Sebadoh III, Sebadoh signed with Sub Pop Records in the US, Domino in the UK, and City Slang in Europe. The group issued two EPs in Europe, Rocking the Forest (City Slang) and Sebadoh vs. Helmet (City Slang), both in 1992. The two EPs were combined for the group’s Sub Pop debut, 1992’s Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. The group followed in 1993 with Bubble and Scrape (Sub Pop), which further established them as one of the most popular indie rock bands of that time. Following Bubble and Scrape, Gaffney left the band and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Bob Fay. Jason Lowenstein started to emerge as another talented songwriter in Sebadoh, made evident on the group’s next release, Bakesale (1994 Sub Pop). The group continued to tour and followed up Bakesale with the 1996 release Harmacy (Sub Pop).
In 1993, during time away from Sebadoh, Barlow started to collaborate with fellow singer/songwriter John Davis on the Folk Implosion project (named as a backlash dig at the then-popular Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). The duo released the albums Walk Through This World With the Folk Implosion (Chocolate Monk Records) in 1993 and Take a Look Inside (Communion) in 1994, before contributing to the soundtrack of the 1995 Larry Clark film Kids. The group scored a surprise hit with their song “Natural One” from the soundtrack, a song that climbed as high as number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. Davis and Barlow continued working together in between Sebadoh and Davis’ solo career demands, and released two more albums — Dare to Be Surprised (Communion) in 1997 and One Part Lullaby (Interscope) in 1999 — before Davis quit the band in 2000. Barlow completed one more album with Sebadoh, 1999’s The Sebadoh (Sub Pop), with new drummer Russ Pollard before the band went on indefinite hiatus.
In 1998, Barlow and his wife Kathleen left Massachusetts and moved to Silverlake, California, a thriving artistic area just east of Hollywood, with the intention of Barlow having greater access to Southern California’s music and movie industries. When both the Folk Implosion and Sebadoh folded in 2000, Barlow recorded an album with Belgian musician Rudy Trouvé called Subsonic 6 (2000 Sub Rosa), and then collaborated with former Sebadoh drummer Russ Pollard and his bandmate in the band Alaska!, Imaad Wasif, on a new project dubbed The New Folk Implosion. The new group released The New Folk Implosion in 2003 on the iMusic label to mixed reviews. They stopped working together soon after. Before they broke up, all three members of The New Folk Implosion appeared as the backing band in the 2003 movie Laurel Canyon. Barlow also released another collection of Sentridoh recordings, titled Free Sentridoh: Songs From Loobiecore on his own Loobiecore label in 2002. In 2004, Barlow reunited with Jason Lowenstein for a joint tour together dubbed the Turbo Acoustic tour. During the tour, Barlow also reunited with Mascis and original Deep Wound vocalist Nakajima for a performance of the old Deep Wound song “Video Prick.”
Time seemed to heal the wounds that existed between Barlow and Mascis, and they considered playing again as Dinosaur Jr. With drummer Murph on board, Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005 and toured extensively through North America, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia through 2006. At around the same time, the group’s first three albums were remastered and reissued on the Merge label with added extra tracks. The group returned to the studio and released the album Beyond (2007 Fat Possum) to rave reviews and strong sales. Before the reunion with Dinosaur Jr., Barlow finally released a solo album under his own name, 2005’s folk-inflected Emoh (Merge), which features contributions from some of Barlow’s old bandmates in Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion. Barlow continued the cycle of reunions when he reunited with Jason Lowenstein and Eric Gaffney to tour as Sebadoh Classic in the early part of 2007, the first time the three had played all together in over 14 years. Lou Barlow returned to work again with Dinosaur Jr. on Farm (Jagjaguwar), released in 2009.