Smile Politely

Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. reflects on Pygmalion

It’s not often that we get to discuss Pygmalion Music Festival with many nationally touring artists after the festival is over, especially headlining acts. Touring is hectic, and most of the time, it’s extremely difficult to get an interview with them leading up to the festival. So getting an interview afterwards is even more unlikely. So what did we try to do? Exactly that: get in touch with Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr., because of this gem he posted on Pitchfork’s Guest List feature, which recaps some of their favorite artists’ “bests” of 2012. Here’s what Barlow had to say (excellent punctuation and all):

#3 a festival in Champaign Illinois that featured almost every newish band i wanted to see, one after the other.. Willis Earl Beal , Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Lower Dens .. Grizzly Bear  .. Willis was as odd as i could have expected, UMO was as fucked up and soulful as i could have desired and Lower Dens were.. sublime.. sounding nothing like Sublime , of course but, y’know..spare and beautiful..i love how younger kids these days sound like the older guys from my day.. the late 70’s early 80’s new wave/post-punkers from new york that wore big framed glasses and captured my teenage imagination..   i also saw Cloud Nothings that day which was interesting because they sounded like all the bands sebadoh played with in the mid-90’s -combined- .. in conclusion , a great festival i can’t remember the name of …another musical highlight..

Regardless of whether or not he knew what the hell the name of the festival is, he noticed something. Something interesting. Something unique about this festival that happens in this town. And coming from someone who has been around for decades and played basically every festival on the map, it’s significant.

Well, we tracked him down, and were rewarded 10 minutes of phone time to gather his thoughts about the festival. Here’s what he had to say.

Smile Politely: We saw you mentioned Champaign-Urbana’s own Pygmalion Music Festival in Pitchfork’s Guest List feature back at the beginning of January. You play all these festivals all around the world, so what made this particular festival stick out to you this year outside of the ones you mentioned?

Lou Barlow: I just though the lineup was really good, you know. I really liked the layout. It was very small, and the way there were just two little stages facing each other. Very intimate for a festival. That, and I thought the lineup was really well put together. The day that we played, and plus the other days, it looked like it was great, too.

SP: The festival founder is the publisher for this magazine as well. He mentioned in his post-script after Pygmalion that you were blown away by the festival, saying it was one of the best music festivals you’ve ever played. What makes you say something like that?

Barlow: There are tons of festivals in Europe that are comparable for sure. It reminded me of some little festivals in Europe. There are amazing festivals over there, but as far as the states go, I haven’t played that many in the states in particular where it’s so intimate, with a lineup that was so well curated. I guess when you talk about Europe, they are amazing over there. I just think in the U.S. how festivals are recent developments, it seems like, fairly recent. There just aren’t that many that are comparable to the ones in Europe. This one seems comparable to that.

SP: Was this your first time coming to Champaign?

Barlow: No, I think I played there once in the nineties. Once or twice with Sebadoh.

SP: As I was reading through your Guest List feature, you talked about how you really enjoyed some of the younger bands that sound a lot like older bands. You mention Cloud Nothings and Lower Dens. What makes you compare those bands to older bands?

Barlow: It’s just what I hear in the music. I think that they are very reminiscent of some older bands. In Lower Dens, I hear a lot of early New Wave, you know. The music that was happening in the late seventies and early eighties, elements of that. That’s the music that I grew up on. I was fourteen or fifteen in 1980, so I enjoy that. I enjoy how everything sort of comes around again. It’s really amazing when people make it their own and it’s not just people copying something. They actually take something and digest it and it comes out in these really interesting forms. It always amazes me how many people just say “music these days just isn’t as good as it used to be” and all this other shit. I’m like, you know, it’s not true. [laughs] It’s not true, it’s just not true. I think actually now is better than even the nineties. People really talk the nineties up, but I really never felt that. I always felt that the nineties were overrated.

SP: In what ways? A lot of what you did was in the nineties…

Barlow: I just didn’t think that it was that diverse. I don’t think people were really drawing from very many things. The grunge thing was very stale. It wasn’t really drawing on any influences, you know. In my opinion, things didn’t really get interesting until the very late 90s and the early 2000s, when bands like The Strokes and Interpol and Modest Mouse were really coming into their own. Bands were actually incorporating New Wave influences. The nineties had such a big thing about … you know, the bands that I was a part of, like, grunge was just like in their street clothes and it was “unpretentious.”

I just preferred the late 90s and early 2000s, when people started drawing on much more diverse influences. In the nineties, you have rap music and trip hop and things like that, but in my opinion there just weren’t that many bands that were really drawing from a deep well of influences. I thought it was very shallow. To me, when I hear bands like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, bands are just drawing from such a wealth of influences. It’s just really well put together and thoughtful.

SP: We know that J. [Mascis, guitarist for Dinosaur Jr.] caught the end of the festival right after Grizzly Bear played, seeing Big Freedia‘s set. It’s an interesting group of acts to mesh together, all three of you at one festival. Did you get a chance to see a bunch of the set?

Barlow: Yes. Totally. [laughs] It was crazy. It was pretty funny. I happened to walk in on their soundcheck, like, earlier in the day, and I had no idea what it was. I was sitting in the room by myself while they were soundchecking. The soundcheck was amazing. Freedia wasn’t really rapping over beats, just sort of rapping a cappella. They were practicing their dance moves and looking in the mirror while it was Freedia doing a cappella, and then the girls practicing. That was amazing, too. It was just a great night. The night really went on and then I met a bunch of people. I met a lot of the bands, too. I got to talk to Unknown Mortal Orchestra and just grill them with questions about how they recorded their record. Stuff like that was really fun. I had a great night and a really good day.

SP: Anything else you take away from being in Champaign and being at Pygmalion? This is the second year that the outdoor shows have been done like that. What else could you add about Champaign and how all of that comes together?

Barlow: I really just was stuck in that little area. I was just drilled and everything was moving so quickly. I was able to bounce around, though. A lot of festivals you get that sense of fatigue, especially now that I’m older. I don’t want to stand anywhere then walk a half a mile to another stage. [laughs] That’s really exhausting. That’s one thing, it was totally geared to be low impact. It was just great for me. The bigger festivals in Europe like that have like many, many different stages. They could cumulatively have this amazing lineup, but you would literally end up walking ten miles a day to see everything. For me, when I’m touring, I try to save up all my energy for when I play. Pygmalion was awesome because I didn’t have to do anything. I just stayed within that little area and I loved it.

SP: What would we have to do to get Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh or something like that back in Champaign?

Barlow: Sebadoh will do anything. [laughs] Dinosaur, I don’t know. I have no idea.

Executive Editor

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