Talking "On Fire" with Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow
A 90s indie classic still holds up in the millennial sadboy generation.
Image: Ashley Goodall
This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
“On Fire” – the opening track on Sebadoh's 1996 record, Harmacy – is the apex of pre-millennial self-reproach. This is in no small part due to frontman Lou Barlow, who was very much of this time. His shaggy hair, lo-fi home recordings and scratchy guitar work placed him on equal footing with the Stephen Malkmus’ and Bob Pollards of a flourishing underground scene. Despite fitting snugly in this mid-90s slacker idyll, “On Fire” remains one of Barlow's most enduring listens.
It’s also surprisingly difficult to classify as either a toe-rapper or tear-jerker, despite being lyrically down-in-the-dumps. Rather, “On Fire” is the culmination of Sebadoh’s distinctive shifts between exuberance and apathy; catchy as hell, but also kind of a bummer. It's a throwback to the loose acoustic cuts which marked the band’s debut effort, The Freed Man, as well as later acoustic covers of “Rebound” and “Magnet’s Coil” – which both featured with an acoustic version of “On Fire” on the Sub Pop, Rebound EP.
But for an artist so influential in anthemic power-jams, here Barlow never sings higher than a mutter, even when the instrumentation picks up. The lyrics are also exceptionally harsh. If feelings of post-teenage angst were lyrics, they'd be, “Connections I've made never follow through/And sooner or later disappoint you.” It’s like listening to psycho-therapy in a 4/4 arrangement.
Twenty-years after its release, “On Fire” is still the ideal soundtrack for lonely Friday nights and post-breakup apathy. It also featured on an episode of Scrubs – further proof Zach Braff curated your iPod during the 2000s. Barlow’s gentle guitar strums, catchy hooks and jarringly bummed-out tone make it a timeless listen for both the Gen X slacker with a desk job and the mumpish teen sitting alone in their room, at three in the morning. We spoke to the influential singer/songwriter to get the lowdown on this classic track.
Noisey: Hey Lou. Tell us about the inception of “On Fire”. Was it just something you were strumming around with for a while with and then thought it would be a good fit for Sebadoh?
Lou Barlow: Yeah, it started as a four-string tuned acoustic song. I’d done a four-track version but I don’t know where that is, which is kind of unusual because I know where most of my stuff is. It has such a simple chord progression and I translated it to a standard-tune guitar, so I could play it live with the band.
Do you feel like it’s grown with age or do you think more people have warmed to it as the years have gone on?
Not that I’ve noticed. It’s always been a song people have liked or requested for me to play. The only thing I’ve noticed which spoke about the longevity of the song is when I saw a very young, teenage girl covering it on YouTube. She must have been 15 or 16. I’m not really sure where she was from, but she did a gorgeous cover of it and that was surprising. Other than that, it’s always been a staple for me. I played it for a few years before I even recorded it because it kind of came off well live – at least when I played it acoustically – and then I made it into an electric tune for Sebadoh. I always felt pretty confident with the song and I’ve always liked it.
Did you feel the melody and gentle instrumentation was a step away from the noisy and scratchy indie rock which characterised previous Sebadoh releases, Bakesale and III?
Sebadoh’s first record, The Freed Man, was actually an acoustic record. It’s a mess of a record, with at least 32-songs on it, but there are acoustic songs on it which are definitely precursors to, or more-or-less sound very similar to “On Fire”. I don’t think “On Fire” was a step forward or anything. It was just another song I wrote, and it came very quickly.
"To me, it could’ve been a Minor Threat song or something."
The lyrics are super reflective and self-deprecating. What inspired them?
When I was kid – from 1980 and 81 – I got really into hardcore punk. Minor Threat and Black Flag and a lot of that is very self-reflective and self-critical. Of course, a lot of punk rock is finger-pointing and screaming at people, but there’s also a very introspective streak throughout hardcore and I took inspiration from that. “On Fire” is very much from that lyrical mode. To me, it could’ve been a Minor Threat song or something. I’m sure there’s people who would poo-poo that, but to me that’s what it was. What I took from hardcore is that change comes from inside. You look inside yourself and you change yourself before you can really bring change outside of you. That song is definitely hard on me, but it’s also a pretty good indication of how I look at things and how I approach a lot of my relationships.
When you play the song live do you still vibe with the sentiments? Are you still the same Lou Barlow who penned the track 20-odd years ago?
Yeah. There are some songs I don’t feel that way about at all. I can definitely go back and hear songs I did and think, "Oh boy, I don’t feel that". “On Fire” always resonates with me when I sing it. It always feels true and I never feel creepy playing it. I feel if I play something I wrote when I was really young I feel creepy. It makes me feel old. “On Fire” doesn’t. Melodically, I like the flow of it and every single word of the song still resonates with me.
"It’s very stiff. It’s very white guy, introspective and nerdy."
When Harmacy was released you’d just experienced unexpected success with The Folk Implosion song “Natural One”. What was it like jumping between the songwriting and lyrical process of The Folk Implosion and Sebadoh?
It was drastically different. The songwriting process for Folk Implosion was really loose in comparison. We wrote stuff in the moment and it was very collaborative between me and John Davis. In a lot of ways, The Folk Implosion was a reaction against this formality and stylistic limitations of indie rock. We were purposefully trying to mix new wave and disco and use keyboards.
It was meant to be a more sensual project, not only in the texture of the music but also in the lyrics. It was very different to that inward, introspective and stiff thing that indie rock was, or even that my own music was. “On Fire” is an excellent example, especially in its recorded version. It’s very stiff. It’s very white guy, introspective and nerdy. When I was doing The Folk Implosion, it was liberating because I was able to indulge all these other musical instincts I had. There was a lot of energy between goings from one extreme to the other. To me, “On Fire” represents the best parts of the Sebadoh experience of that particular time. It was a very difficult time, because I did have a very successful side-project that was ultimately more artistically gratifying than Sebadoh, because that band did adhere to this formula that I was chasing at the time.
At the time did you expect it to become one of your most popular tracks?
I don’t know. It wasn’t a hit, so I don’t really see it as being that successful. As a songwriter, I’m definitely proud of it. People do seem to like it but I don’t think it was a defining moment of me.
Do you think it was successful in the sense that people – particularly younger people like the girl who covered it on YouTube – can still relate to it and grasp its meaning more than two decades later?
I just hope that somebody will take it to another level and make it a really good song. I think it’s pretty good but is crippled by my voice and my limitations as a musician. I hope someone can take it to a place where it can blossom; maybe add a chorus, repeat something, or just have their way with it texturally. If someone else were able to bring it to a really beautiful place then that would be great. When I hear it I hear limitations and I hear disappointment. I love playing it and I will always play it at my solo shows because it’s a nice, airtight construction. It’s a very concise piece of songwriting and I’m proud of that.
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