White Zombie and the
Aftermath of “Natural One”
What happened after the unexpected success of “Natural One”?
Barlow: We were in the middle of working on another record. We had a project we wanted to follow through on in the most organic way, which meant recording in a very small studio in Boston. I was also neck deep in touring with Sebadoh because once “Natural One” became a hit, it completely complicated my Sebadoh shit because they were like, “Oh, the next Sebadoh record is going to have a hit on it because Lou fucking co-wrote a hit,” which completely complicated all of that shit, made it super complicated.
Was that around Harmacy (1996)?
Barlow: Harmacy came right on the heels of “Natural One”. It was a fucking nightmare. I mean, when it’s happening, you’re like, “Well, gee, maybe this doesn’t matter.” But I brought one of my partners from Sebadoh to Boston to record, and he and I are walking through a mall down this long hallway, and there’s a Levi’s store at the other end of this fucking hallway. There’s a huge video screen in the store, just one of these 20 ft-by-20 ft screens, and it’s playing the “Natural One” video. And I had to walk slowly down the hallway with my Sebadoh partner as “Natural One” played out in its entirety. I was like, “Gosh, I hope this doesn’t in any way politically complicate my friendship.” [laughs]
Then, when we were recording some tracks for Harmacy, and of course, we’re just mindlessly watching MTV, and it’s the fucking video popping up on MTV. It fucked everything up. I mean, it’s not that it fucked everything up, right? But it made things more difficult. Everything became a “failure” after that once you have a hit, especially when record labels are involved. I just wanted John and I to organically pursue our musical conversation. I needed to continue doing Sebadoh because that was literally my bread and butter, live performing with my rock band. That’s how I made my money. Even the success John and I had was more or less at that point theoretical.
Davis: We received the money from it like nine months later.
Barlow: Yeah, whatever we would receive from the success we had from that came much later. I was trying to contend and balance, you know, maintaining what I found satisfying about both projects.
To be honest, Lou, you’re like one of the most overcommitted musicians in my mind.
Barlow: Not to me. I thought I could handle it. And I did, more or less.
Just to take that one step further, when you’re thinking of a song or even an album, is there something about it that clicks for you insofar as saying, “This is a Sebadoh album” or “This is a Folk Implosion project”?
Barlow: Well, the thing with John and I is that all our songs came from our collaboration. I would sometimes bring germs of ideas into the situation, or John would, too. But what became the Folk Implosion, the DNA was just so different. I suppose if I sat and wrote a song on an acoustic guitar, yeah, I’d bring it to Sebadoh. But John and I were experimenting. That’s when I got my first synthesizer. We learned how to sample, you know, and a lot of that stuff became really commercial, became available to working musicians at that point.
Davis: Prosumer-level drum machines and stuff.
Barlow: Yeah, that stuff became more available, and you didn’t have to have somebody at a big studio with that technology. It was becoming more available to us. So yeah, I was doing more experimenting.
Davis: I had this really hard-to-get day job situation where I could work like two and a half days a week at Harvard Medical School, and I got health insurance. Then I could spend the other four and a half days a week on music. I was very young and had a lot of roommates, and we could have killed off all these other things that we had in our life and instantly put everything in this basket once “Natural One” hit the top 40.
Barlow: Other people would have absolutely done that. We were offered a tour opening for White Zombie like right when the song hit in Asia. And there are certainly people who would have been like, “Seba- what? Who gives a fuck? John and I are gonna put a band together and go to fucking Southeast Asia and open for White Zombie and really follow through on this hit.” But we didn’t do that.
Davis: The only frustration I feel is it’s just annoying to me when I read the Wikipedia entry for the Folk Implosion, and it just makes us seem like a one-hit wonder/failure. There was a creatively consistent process through these records that sounded very different and had very different levels of creative success. But, like Lou said, all of a sudden, you have this measuring bar put up against you. If you don’t have a Top 40 hit, that’s a failure. That’s just really violent to who we were, you know, and that’s not how we see all this stuff that we did.
I do think there was also another context. I had become very wary of the whole process of the music business because I had a friend who’d been in a band on Sub Pop that got a lot of attention. Steve Albini was like, “Oh, they’re the hottest band in the country.” And my friend had gotten really stimulated by that, and his ego was really pumped. He was like, “Wow, I’m a national figure now.” And then, a year later, he had a drug problem, and he got kicked out, and he died. Seeing that arc with him made me very wary of this big upswing. Seeing that happen, not intellectually but viscerally, made me very afraid. I didn’t want to let that happen to me.
I feel some regret. We could have done more shows. But I think another big factor in the aftermath of “Natural One” to contextualize it historically is Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act in 1996 that made it legal to have these huge media company mergers. Labels became much more conservative about how they’re spending money. I remember Interscope, when we signed with them, got bought by Seagram’s, which is a liquor company. “We’re not a touring band, but we want all this money to record. I don’t know if you really want to do this,” I remember thinking. And they’re like, “Yeah, man, we’re the renegade record label, and we take all these chances and tell people to fuck off.” After they got bought by Seagram’s, you could almost feel the cultural shift where things became more conservative, and I do think Bill Clinton is to blame for that. The media consolidation that happened towards the end of the 1990s killed a lot of things culturally.
The Barbie Soundtrack and Recording Today
Were you invited to contribute to the Barbie soundtrack?
Davis: No, I don’t know why, man. I like Greta Gerwig. [laughs]
Gerwig didn’t approach you with a crazy ransom letter of some kind? [laughs]
Davis: I will say this. When we were doing some interviews before in the 1990s, it was sad. I had to quit before I wanted to because I was having a lot of anxiety problems. We were starting to do some interviews, and people were like, “Indie rock’s dead. Don’t you guys know? You should be freaking out because indie rock is over.” We were in New York during this interview, and Lou was like, “Doesn’t everything that dies come back in popular culture?”
Barlow: This brings it back to the beginning when we started the conversation. That the 2000s were amazing because that’s when indie rock fucking came back.
Davis: Yeah. They were like, “It’s all dead.” And then a couple of years later, it’s all right.
Barlow: Merge Records put out the number one fucking record in the country [with Arcade Fire]. Merge, Domino, all of these labels became players. Bands shifted stylistically to more like what we were doing, like cross-pollinating, becoming more new wave-influenced, like Animal Collective and fucking Grizzly Bear and bands that re-embraced true garage rock and true punk, bands like Black Lips and all that other shit. It’s like, what an amazing death. We happened to experience the whole death of indie rock. But then it just fucking came back.
I agree with what you’re saying, Lou. You had labels like Merge, Drag City, or Matador that established themselves in the ’90s, and I credit the label owners and their taste. They actually chose a good roster that had longevity. But maybe it’s a chicken or the egg thing. By virtue of choosing them, they ended up going on to great careers.
Barlow: I think they also started being very pragmatic. Sub Pop flourished because they totally became pragmatic. They’re like, “Okay, we’re not going to give $100,000 to the fucking Supersuckers to make an album.” We’re going to give these bands manageable amounts of money. Also, the wonderful thing that happened was that digital recording made recording manageable. Bands could record themselves.
So, a lot of these bands, like Grizzly Bear, maybe even Death Cab for Cutie, are bands that were making their own records, and they could make incredibly good-sounding records based on commercial equipment that was now available. That combined with the fact that labels – I’ve worked with Merge and Domino – stopped throwing money around. They also fucking pay their bands. They aren’t acting like assholes. Major labels set this whole precedence like, “What you do is act like an asshole and throw money at people.” It’s like, no. You give people the amount of money that you can realistically give them, and then you also pay them for the records that they sell.
Davis: That was a big historical shift. When we made One Part Lullaby, I remember buying a Pro Tools system to do it. It was very, very expensive. We spent like $25,000 on it, and now you can get like Logic Pro for 200 bucks, you know? I wish I could have hung around a little longer, and we could have been in the mix in the 2000s. But it’s great to be back doing what we’re doing now and to be able to be formally ambitious without having to sign to a label like Interscope and have that kind of pressure.
I realize I’ve kept you both for a long time, but it sounds like you both have a positive sense of the music scene now. [laughs]
Barlow: I don’t know about that. [laughs]
Well, it’s not as grim as the late 1990s.
Davis: The tragedy that is happening now is that Spotify and these streaming services aren’t paying artists. It’s major wage theft, and it’s really sad what it’s doing to people. It’s a lot of pressure. If I weren’t working full-time as a teacher, I wouldn’t be able to help. We wouldn’t be able to make this record.
Can I ask a quick factual question? How long have you guys known each other? How did you first meet and get together?
Davis: I was one of those people who wrote Lou a letter early on, and that was 35 years ago. 1988.
Wait. Did you use the same technique as Harmony Korine? So, if I want to start a band with Lou, I just need to write him a letter? [laughs]
Barlow: No, it’s true, actually. For all my friends, my music was my main way of finding like-minded people.
Davis: I think that’s also just like in jazz, you know, you read about that a lot, like Miles Davis learning by showing up in New York. You just go out and see people that you admire and then build relationships. People still do that through Instagram or whatever. There’s a lot of narcissism and using people to get attention that happens in music. But there are also a lot of wonderful relationships that develop and last.
I think that’s one thing I enjoy about being an older musician. There are older indie musicians that I’ve known for a long time, like Simon Joyner or Dennis Callaci of Shrimper. We were talking about this the other day: how we need to kill off this notion of youth culture and live fast, die young. And how anything you do as you’re older is lesser. I remember seeing Cecil Taylor play when I was a freshman in college, and he was probably in his late 50s, and it was fucking incredible. And there were 20 people there. So what? The commitment to be a lifer is important to us. Like Lou was saying the other day, folk or jazz musicians don’t stop. They just keep going.
I have written a series of posts on my blog intermittently called “Top 40 Over 40,” where I’m counting down 40 records made by people over 40 that I think are as good as what they were first known for. For example, I reviewed two of Stephen Malkmus’s records on a post, and though his recent acoustic album and electronica album are really different from Pavement, I really liked them. David Sylvian from the band Japan has also done a lot of really cool, formally strange stuff later in his career. They are willing to look at new combinations.
We have a percussionist on our new record to work with, and we’ve never done that before. We’re also working with a new producer and trying new instruments. So, I just hope people stay curious and keep at it because there are a lot of insights that are available in your 50s that aren’t available to you in your 20s. It’s good as a culture to hear those from people.