Active Compassion – An Interview with Lou Barlow of the New Folk Implosion

" Active Compassion – An Interview with Lou Barlow of the New Folk Implosion"


Active Compassion

A discussion with Lou Barlow of The New Folk Implosion

" Active Compassion – An Interview with Lou Barlow of the New Folk Implosion"


Active Compassion

A discussion with Lou Barlow of The New Folk Implosion

Lou Barlow (centre), with the new New Folk Implosion

The interview is scheduled for after sound check, and I’m milling around waiting for the sound check to start. As I sit down and wait, a man wearing thick-rimmed glasses and semi long hair approaches me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume he was just one of those guys that listened to too much of Weezer’s Blue album in college."You must be the journalist. You’re not from around here, are you?" he asks, with a knowing smile. "You caught me," I say, "How’d you know?""You don’t stand like you’re Dutch." That’s my introduction to Lou Barlow. A man so renowned in indie-music circles that when I was doing research for this article, I had been reprimanded for suggesting to ask some questions that would, perhaps, anger him.His band resume reads like a wet dream to any geek-rock fan. Starting Dinosaur (jr.) with J Mascis in 1983. Then, after tensions between the two grew to an unbearable level, focused his energy on, then side-project, Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney.

Releasing a string of critically acclaimed masterpieces, the never creatively content Barlow created the Folk Implosion with singer/songwriter John Davis as yet another side project. After a series of EPs and singles, the band recorded a top 40 hit with ‘Natural One’ off the soundtrack to the controversial film, ‘Kids.’ Following that success, and signing to a major label, The Folk Implosion released One Part Lullaby. Critically acclaimed, but a commercial failure.

Soon after, John Davis left the group, and Lou formed The New Folk Implosion, which are currently touring with Alaska! and Mia Doi Todd (see live reviews section).

I’m now sitting on the floor of the, as yet, empty old hall at the Paradiso, waiting for Lou Barlow and the rest of The Folk Implosion (Alaska!’s Imaad (wozzy) Wasif and Russell (rusty) Pollard) to finish sound checking. As the natural light let in through the half drawn curtains darkens to an extraordinary shade of pale blue and grey, Lou steps up to his two mikes and proceeds to sing out what seems like a hymn. A call to arms about a broken heart and loss of children.

As the levels change, he continues to chant, and chant, and chant. The power behind him seems to grow, and for a moment I forget I’m in the room at all. I close my eyes, and let the soft melody sweep over.

This is then swiftly broken by a loud chorus of "Lou, Shut the fuck up!!" coming from the back of the room. This scene pretty much characterizes the sound and soul of Lou Barlow; a constant struggle between the soft ache and the rock legacy; a lo-fi godfather who’s still more relevant than half the new bands out there.

It is about twenty minutes later and Lou and I are sitting in his dressing room. The lights are down, and the natural light is fading fast. We exchange some formal introductions and discuss Dutch customs. For a moment, we are silent, and then we begin: This tour is obviously to promote the New Folk Implosion album out now on Domino. However, it’s been almost 4 years since the last major release featuring Lou Barlow, with the last Sebadoh and Folk Implosion records out in 1999. How does it feel to be back having an album on the market again?

Barlow: good

Pleased with the record?

Barlow: Yeah, I’m very pleased with it.

Apart from being a convenient opportunity to sell 3 albums with one concert, does it feel much better embarking on the road with friends and musicians you like and respect?

Barlow: Of course, yeah, you know, I always generally do. It always kinda works out that way, but this way is better. Also, because we are this self-contained unit, we don’t have other bands opening for us, and we don’t have a lot of gear to deal it. Logistically, it makes a lot of sense. Musically, it’s very rewarding, ‘cuz I like hearing my friend’s songs every night. And I really like the craft of Mia and Alaska’s songs. It makes me think about music. It gets me in a good creative place, which is where I wanna be. I wanna be in that space when I go home. It just feels healthy, and that’s good. Sometimes it doesn’t feel so healthy, it can be very fun, but it might not be very healthy.

Sebadoh was a band that along with many other lo-fi bands were characterized by a lot of critical acclaim and a small but loyal fanbase. After experiencing this for many years, were you at all surprised by John (Davis)’s departure from the Folk Implosion after the commercial disappointment, but critical/fan acclaim for One Part Lullaby.

Barlow: well he left for totally personal reasons, it didn’t have anything to do with (One Part Lullaby). It’s interesting, because I’ve read reviews and they said, "oh, John Davis left because of the commercial failure of…" and I do appreciate the opportunity to say no, this a personal decision that he made. It was very amicable between us, and it was very sad for me to see my friend leave and to end what was a very fruitful, interesting and very personal collaboration that we had. I’ve spent some of the best times of my with him. But he left for totally personal reasons. He was not into the music business, and he didn’t like traveling, and if you don’t like traveling then…

Are you mad at the assumptions made by reports about John’s departure?

Barlow: That’s the whole point; if people review records then people are free to say what ever they want, and make whatever assumptions they want to make. That’s their freedom. I bristle a little bit when I hear stuff like that so I use whatever opportunity I do have to explain it.

Do you feel that most indie rock bands are doomed when they sign with a major (in the sense that most of them usually are unwilling to give up creative control and therefore they will never really progress commercially far beyond the fanbase that they built on indie labels)

Barlow: Well ye…

[At this point, a huge storm hits outside, and everyone outside the makeshift Paradiso dressing room runs toward the window. I apologize for the bad weather. "Are you kidding?" Lou asks, "We live in California, we never get clouds!!"]

We sit there and watch as the trees around us swing violently, and it suddenly becomes apparent this interview isn’t going anywhere for a while. "We’ll continue this later." Lou says and runs toward the window.]

Thirty minutes later Lou and I are sitting outside the dressing room, in the small corner at the end of the hall. Lou asks me to turn off the light and the relaxed evening mood sweeps over and we resume:

Last year included the 4 tenors tour of Europe including a date in Haarlem, here in the Netherlands.

Barlow: The last date of the tour was in Haarlem.

Was it good?

Barlow: it was great, I was really drunk [laughs] and it just felt really cool.

There wasn’t really a record to promote, nor a set structure to the concerts. Were the concerts just a good way to travel around Europe and play music with your friends? Who came up with the idea?

Barlow: Steve Westfield (Pajama Slave Dancers, The Slow Band) came up with the idea. I’ve known Steve for ages. He was one of the first punkers in the town I grew up in, so I always looked up to him. He’s a very charismatic individual. He writes good songs, and he knows good people, and I thought it would be fun. Sounds like fun, if you can remember it!

Barlow: I can remember it. The only time you could say I probably [rolls eyes] blacked out was when Sofie and I took our cello and acoustic guitars and played a four-hour show in Paris. We were all sharing a bottle of really good whiskey on stage, and by the end of the night we decided we want to keep playing, and we walked around the venue trying to find a place to play, but we just couldn’t.

Over the past 4 years, you have mainly distributed free music and demos on your loobiecore website. Was it a good break to have to be able to give away 4 track demos to your fans without the pressure of having to please record labels or worry about sales?

Barlow: oh hell yeah! I mean, listen to the record. To me the record sounds like I had a good time making it.

Do you think that the new album is easy to identify as Folk Implosion or do you think it leans more towards the solo loobiecore stuff?

Barlow: I think it leans more toward Sebadoh. I think it sounds like The Folk Implosion actually, but I also think it sounds like Sebadoh. I have a tendency to rock. I like bass, strings, and guitar and I’m not into adapting electronic percussion live. I don’t like playing to metronomes and I don’t like the machines. I love the way they sound texturally on records, and I love hearing it at home. But when it comes to just playing live, I really rely on having this human rhythm to it. I like things that come together that are true collaborations. Where everyone’s personality comes out of it, and working with people who are comfortable with each other, and that just takes time.

You say on "easy" "What I thought was fun isn’t fun anymore." What were you thinking of when you wrote that? does it still apply?

Barlow: I can’t even tell you what I was referring to.

Or you’d have to kill me?

Barlow: No, I wouldn’t have to kill you [laughs]. It’s a completely general statement. All of my lyrics, especially the ones on the new record, for the most part, they are extremely general. It’s all right there, I wrote them as anthems. To me, it’s like Def Leppard; it provokes that kind of like, "YEAH!" because I mean, Def Leppard were a great band, great music that people loved.

So is this type of lyric what you were aiming for?

Barlow: No, I’m making this observation just when I think about it. [Looks to the wall, then back at me] This is the first time I’ve really thought about it, so I don’t have a set explanation for anything, so my explanations will change all the time. The one thing I can say that I noticed about the record was that it is very anthemic, and that’s the way I wrote it. Anyone could basically walk into the song and make it their own, if they wanted to. I wanted to make the song very available to people, lyrically, because that was the only way that I’d be happy with it. I didn’t want to get really specific. I wrote them as anthems for myself, to get out of a situation and rise above. All the lyrics are about that. They’re songs which I personally benefit from singing over and over again, because they remind me where I need to go in my life and where I’m going. It’s very simple. It’s rock but it’s not rock, it’s funky but it’s not funky, it’s just a pretty straight forward statement, and I’m into that. I don’t know how I would feel if I was 15 or even if I was 21. What I’m doing now is very different then [my past] records. Those were the songs I needed to sing then, and they were done in the way I needed to do them, and I love them for that.

What does the future hold when touring for the folk implosion record ends?

Barlow: I’m gonna go home and finish, about 25 songs that I’ve got. I have 25 songs that are unfinished.

No song-a-day format?

Barlow: I’ve already done that. That’s great, but I don’t have the energy for that. I’m talking about finishing the ongoing thoughts I have in my head. I’m talking about tying up all these loose ends and making conclusions out of them. I tend to let all these songs float without any resolution. That’s what I do now because I’m older, and I can. I’ve written hundreds of songs, in hundreds of ways, and this is a new way to do it. It’s fresh but in the most relaxed way. I’m developing a very relaxed approach to my songs and what I need to say.

Do you feel you have a lot more freedom now then when you started out?

Barlow: I don’t know, songs are a magical thing. It’s the one thing in my life that I approach with any type of mysticism. The world, to me, is a very harsh place. Generally people are very greedy and they don’t look out for each other, but somehow everything stays together and moves along. I don’t really trust any philosophies or politics. I trust people and I trust in love. I don’t think there are many truly evil, single-minded bastards out there. I think people just make bad decisions because people feel a lot of pressure and fear. My way of coping with my fear is singing songs. I don’t know how this ties into anything, but I do what I have to calm myself down, if that means just tearing everything apart…


Yeah, a lot of angst. My self-awareness only began to sit in recently. It’s calming somehow. I used to cope with it through angst, and now, I still have the angst, but it’s all spread out. It’s become a warm buzz. It’s just slower, I do everything slower. For me to play a punk song now would be dumb, or even to do something self-consciously experimental. But for now, when I’m done with stuff, I want it to be impossibly heavy. I want it to be plain. Not whole lots of art, or planning, or cleaver stuff, or not really dress it up or anything.

Do you think you need to go through the soundscape and the punk to get to where you are now?

O fuck yeah! My favourite records are the stuff that I did when I was 23 and idealistic and angry as hell, and heart broken, and high. I love that stuff. It does more for me then I hear it then the stuff that I’m doing now, but the stuff that I’m doing now makes more sense for me when I’m playing it live. It’s better then anything I was doing [previously] in a live context. I didn’t know how to be comfortable playing my own songs, or even enjoying playing music. It was really frustrating. I was thinking about that today, now I can just approach situations, like shows, calmly and really enjoy myself and really get a lot out of it musically. It just makes me think a lot, it’s good.

The sebadoh website reads "not dead, just asleep…" has there been talk about a new record over the next couple of years or is it further in the distance?

Lou: Nothing specific, I’ll have to talk to Jason about it. I think it’d be really funny if we got Eric Gaffney back in the band, and if we didn’t rehearse at all and just show up in shows in different cars and just give each other guidelines. Then show up at the next gig, and maybe somebody would not show up. Eric would not show up, and we’d do sound check without Eric. That’d be funny. [laughs] The more I think about it the more I think it’d be funny if we did a re-issue of Sebadoh III with all the singles and then just go out and play the whole record. Some of those songs are so fucking weird, if we played the whole record it’d be really bizarre. If we did it really well, and we really fucked with the textures, and did them the way they were recorded, that’d be really funny. End the night with Eric doing, oh god, As The World Dies The Eyes of God Grow Bigger [bursts out into laugher] You know who would love it? The fans!

Jonathan Dekel