Risen from the dust of an early Dinosaur Jr, Lou Barlow, with Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein became Sebadoh in 1986. Not seeking approval and unwilling to withhold, they let loose their simultaneously furious/disinterested lo-fi rock with a series of wonderfully weed-induced records: The Freed Man, Weed Forestin’, The Freed Weed, and Sebadoh III. We listened gratefully, exorcising the last of our hormonal teenage anger, and moved (begrudgingly) toward our early adulthood.
Into the 90s, Sebadoh loudly fumbled one record to another, and we gracelessly faltered through our twenties in turn. Their songs penetrated our oft-broken (Soul and Fire) but occasionally optimistic hearts (Happily Divided) and we collected copies of Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale, Harmacy and The Sebadoh much like curators of fine works of art. We were older now, admittedly more preoccupied, and in a moment when our heads were turned, Sebadoh disbanded with uncharacteristic quiet, leaving us with ringing ears and an unsettling feeling of coming down.
Fourteen years passed while our intermittent Lou formed new bands, dabbled in solo records, even reunited with Dinosaur Jr. Then — boom! — in July 2012 (where had the time gone?), Sebadoh’s Secret EP containing five new songs hit with the same lack of ceremony with which they had left. Our hearts leaped at the tweets announcing the news — oh, how will thrilled — but oddly, we felt guarded too: Would the best years of our musical lives be honored, or were Sebadoh back with too little, too late?
On the road between shows in Chapel Hill and Atlanta, Lou Barlow takes us through the band’s many chapters marked by wild swings then quiet lulls, and describes how he finally found his way back — here where we need him — to make music once again as Sebadoh.
How’s the tour been going thus far?
It’s been really fun.
Oh yeah. We’re functioning as our own opening band, so Jason and Bob open the show with bass and drums, then I play ukulele for about half an hour, and then we all convene on the stage and play together.
Have you always considered Sebadoh to be a live band or recording artists?
Uh…I guess a live band, but…hmmm… Both? (laughs) I don’t know. Live shows are where we make our money to support ourselves and keep going. Certainly just making records is not an ends at all.
Some people start bands to avoid the 9-5; some start to spread a message and to create, and others start with the hopes of becoming famous. Do you remember what your intentions were when you started?
I had been in Dinosaur Jr since the age of 17 and they kicked me out when I was 22. I’d been to Europe and toured extensively through the States with them, so it was working, you know? I went back to a ‘real’ job and I just remember thinking, ‘You know what? I gotta get back on the road. If that worked, I can do this.’ I sort of had an acoustic Sebadoh going even before I left Dinosaur Jr so it was just a matter of fashioning it into an electric band and hitting the road.
And did things take off right away?
People didn’t really know what to make of us, but I had some good contacts from being in Dinosaur Jr and people kind of knew who I was, so I was able to put out records almost right away. I started the whole cycle all over again. I took what I’d seen with Dinosaur Jr and tried to do it differently to see what would happen.
No specific goals then? Was it throwing spaghetti at the wall?
The only goal was to be on the road and pay rent and that’s it. I’d be hard pressed to say I hoped for anything else beyond that.
When we read up on the history of Sebadoh and its earliest days, many articles would have us believe you came away from Dinosaur Jr very jilted and bitter and that you were a very angry man when you founded Sebadoh. Is that the case, or is that spin?
I didn’t form the band because of anger, no (laughs). We started it because we loved music and wanted to be a part of it. Certainly, I was writing songs that weren’t veiled…not even thinly (laughs). I was working out a lot of my personal problems in my lyrics and I did it pretty unashamedly. You mentioned bands starting because they have a message – and I guess my message was honesty; I think it’s a really valuable thing. When I was a kid and I heard a band sing something unusually honest or soul-baring, it spoke to me and helped me — more so than big-time rock n roll about, ‘Oh baby, baby,’ and all of that. When we started Sebadoh, I had it in mind that we’d be speaking honestly and really let it all hang out. I knew we had to just go out there and do it…and it wasn’t going to be about impressing anybody (laughs). At the same time, we wanted to present something very human, and something that for better or worse would express what was going on with us — and when I say for better or for worse, it was often for worse; it was really shambolic. I would all of sudden — and still do it to this day — bang stuff out off the top of my head and not really know where it’s leading. The songs reflect the really uncomfortable moments in my life and that was sort of always the mission (laughs).
Well, it’s apparent that Sebadoh is a band that fans stay very sentimentally attached to regardless of how much time has passed — and it’s for the very reasons you just talked about: honesty and letting it all hang out.
Absolutely – or at least I hope so. (laughs). Yeah, it’s probably that. I mean, technically, we play pretty well but technical proficiency is never what it was about. We had a very naturalistic approach when we played live and that carried over into our records, too. We made pretty raw-sounding records and that was part of the appeal for some people.
Do you feel as though you ever truly hit your stride?
Never. We had moments where it felt like things were aligning for us but…every record was a transition record and felt transitional, as opposed to a band that puts out a record and is like, ‘This is great; it’s perfect.’ When Pavement came around they put out records that were…definable. They had a very definable sound, the vibe of the band was very obvious, and you could figure out where they were coming from even though their lyrics were sort of obtuse. With Sebadoh though, we just wildly swung between “Hey, it’s cool and everything’s all right!’ to ‘Blahhh! Everything’s terrible!” (laughs) It was the same with the shows, too. We’d have some where we really brought the audience with us; people would end up with us on stage and there was this wonderful feeling. The next night, we could play a show where I would basically alienate the entire audience within 10 minutes and chase everyone out. Consistency was never our strong point, let’s put it that way.
So are you comfortable going back and listening to old Sebadoh records?
I have so many emotions tied to each one, and because they seemed transitional I never really felt like I could — other than maybe the very last record we did, [The Sebadoh] and maybe Sebadoh III. I never really thought that we made one record that was as consistent as it could’ve been.
You’ve been involved in plenty of projects apart from Sebadoh — Are you a different Lou Barlow depending on what band you’re with?
Um…I guess so. When I’m with Dinosaur Jr, I’m not in the center of the stage flapping my gums in the middle of the show, you know? (laughs) Dinosaur Jr is a power trio; when I’m with them I’m a bass player there to create that wall of sound and to lay down something the singer can use. I love that role in a classic rock power trio. Definitely, with Sebadoh I’m crazier…more comfortable. There’s more vulnerability and more opportunity for things to go horribly wrong, but there’s also more opportunity for spontaneity and real communication. When I play solo, I’m completely out there with the songs and communicating them with just my guitar. And that’s something I love to do, too.
How did you get to the point of writing and recording the Secret EP?
Our original drummer left in the early 90′s, and the drummer we got after that was a really good friend but wasn’t a really great drummer, so we did a couple records with him and then kicked him out. We were at a place where we wanted to make a record that would feel really textural and would be the best record we could make, but unfortunately, that was at a time when no one really cared anymore if we were making a record (laughs), so we kind of disbanded in ’99. But Jason and I really stuck it out through the years and got back together as a duo in 2004. We did a tour of semi-acoustic shows. It went really well…and there were people around who wanted to hear our songs, you know? Three years after that, we got our original drummer back and toured and that was fun, but we couldn’t really see the band continuing with him. Then last year, when we toured playing Bakesale and Harmacy, Bob D’Amico — who’s been friends with Jason for over a decade — came and played drums and it went really well. At that point we all thought, ‘Well, why don’t we make some new music so we can keep doing this and touring doesn’t always have to be about the old stuff?’ It was kind of a leap of faith, but we got together and recorded some new stuff; Secret EP is the first five songs from that session.
Wow. Well, when my friend Jason reviewed Secret EP for the site, he said something that was probably pretty universally felt by Sebadoh fans everywhere. He said, “It’s a nerve-wracking experience buying new material from an old band. You want them to tickle your nostalgia buttons, but you don’t want them to turn into some sad parody of themselves.”
Yeah… What he’s talking about is really intimidating and that’s kind of why it took so long to make a new record. We had to wait for the right time. It’s daunting to know that I could potentially make a record that didn’t sound like a Sebadoh record, you know? But we invested a lot of thought beforehand about what we could do to make it sound like the old stuff even though it was new, so the recording process was actually pretty quick. People seem to be into it and that’s a good thing. When we play the new stuff, they’re like, ‘Yeah, great!’
Well, we’ve all grown up and matured together. So many things change over the years; it can’t ever sound exactly the same…even though we think that’s what we want to hear. Yeah…I mean, I think it’s important to echo the old stuff, but stylistically, I think we pulled more from this new period of the band because it’s not like we can just pick up from where we left off (laughs). At the same time, I think we also pulled from a time when we were most dynamic as a band — the mid-period of Sebadoh where we did Bubble and Scrape and Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock and then leading into Bakesale. That to me was always our strongest period and the new material echoes that the most.
So is this a Sebadoh comeback then? Are you going to keep going?
I think so. We never really went away, so whether it’s a comeback, I don’t know. I guess it might be determined by whether or not our audience actually grows (laughs). I mean, if more people like us, great, and if we end up touring around and playing for the same group of people we’ve always played for, that’s great, too. It doesn’t matter. We’re doing this as a way to keep ourselves engaged. Making new music is the most satisfying thing in my life…I love it.
Seeing as you went from Dinosaur Jr to Sebadoh, to The Folk Implosion to solo stuff — then back to Dinosaur Jr and then Sebadoh again – it’s safe to assume that you’ll keep making music in whatever way you can for as long as you can, right?
Sebadoh’s recently released Secret EP, which serves as a preface to the band’s forthcoming 2013 LP, can be purchased here. Proceeds will go to their current recording efforts and will help the band “remain as independent as possible.” Limited compact discs of Secret EP are available only at the live shows listed below.