THE REAL AMERINDIE UNDERGROUND Sebadoh

An American tour and a Sub Pop
reissue recall the glory days of another classic early ‘90s alterna-alumnus.

 

BY
MIKE SHANLEY

 

Over
the last few months, much attention was given to the 20th anniversary of
Nirvana’s Nevermind and its impact on
music. Significant as that release was, to some it pales in comparison to what
Sebadoh accomplished during the fall months of 1991. First of all, they
released Sebadoh III on Homestead
Records, a 67-minute album (making it the label’s first CD-only release) on
which they became a “band,” as opposed to a lo-fi experimental tape project
that was heard on their previous two Homestead releases. That October, Lou
Barlow, Eric Gaffney and relative newcomer Jason Loewenstein hit the road in
what felt to these ears like a performance that probably rivaled heyday Mission
of Burma for its excessive volume. At least one set of ears went home with a
low level ring that has hung on, lo these many years.

 

But
it was the band’s delivery that really impacted the eardrums. Barlow’s
sensitive balladry sounded more vital with a thundering rhythm section behind
it. Gaffney’s twisted, screamed lyrics were grounded and balanced by his
bandmates. And when the band switched instruments, the momentum kept moving
thanks to a pre-recorded tape of Barlow, yelling band introductions like a
sarcastic carnival barker (see the final bonus track on III‘s 2007 reissue).

 

Of
course the band would reach its apex in 1994 with the release of Bakesale. By then Gaffney had flown the
coop, Loewenstein moved from drums to bass and became the wild ying to Barlow’s
sensitive yang. The group also became more a determined performing act as well.
“We decided to be on the road all the time,” Barlow says. “We made it easier to
tune. We kept a lot of songs in the same tuning. We streamlined our live thing
so it wasn’t as difficult to play shows. Bakesale definitely reflects that. It was out of necessity and it was the spirit of the
times.”

 

Earlier
this year, Sub Pop re-released Bakesale in all formats with the usual smattering of bonus tracks tacked on. Barlow and
Loewenstein joined forces with drummer Bob D’Amico (who plays with the bassist
in Fiery Furnaces) to tour in support of it. Following jaunts that have taken
them as far as Europe and Japan, they’re currently on what Barlow casually
calls the “fifth leg” of the tour, which lasts through mid-November.  [Go here
to view tour dates; Thursday night the band is in Baltimore, followed by Friday
in Hoboken and Saturday in Brooklyn.
]

 

The
trio didn’t have any copies of the reissue for sale on the first night of the
tour in Pittsburgh, cracking that “the label doesn’t care.” But beyond that
comment, the band is playing with a determination that exceeds both the III incarnation and the Bakesale lineup (that had Bob Fay on
drums), which still dragged a bit between songs. Barlow and Loewenstein may
indeed be older, wiser and maybe a bit mellower (offstage at least), but that
hasn’t diminished the lyrical force of their songs or their sonic execution.

 

Barlow,
speaking by phone a week prior to the tour, freely admits that his songs in the
band correspond to events in his life from the time that they were written.
“Usually I would write the songs as a way to overcome things,” he says,
stopping to edit himself as he frequently does while he talks. “Not ‘overcome,’
[because] maybe by the time I recorded them I wasn’t necessarily in the midst
of what I had written about. But pretty much all my songs that I’ve ever
contributed to any Sebadoh record generally were- well not generally, but
pretty specifically, that’s my life: friendship and romantic stuff.”

 

One
of his strongest songs opened Sebadoh III,
“Freed Pig,” which combined a catchy guitar riff and bouncy chorus with lyrics
that were a sarcastic dig at his former bandmate, Dinosaur Jr., guitarist J.
Mascis. (Gaffney refused to play on the recording due to the lyrical content.) A
few other songs from that album also seemed particularly barbed, like the solo
acoustic “Rock Star.”

 

Of
course, Barlow and Mascis buried the hatchet several years ago, when Dinosaur
Jr. reunited, and they band continues to play together on frequent basis. Yet
“Freed Pig” remains in Sebadoh’s set list, and Barlow sees no problem playing
that song or any others that were inspired but such true emotion. “People say,
‘Oh, they’re so special and personal. Obviously that’s from a difficult,
younger period of your life.’ I don’t really think they are that way,” he says
with a laugh. “I think that I crafted them to be like a country song or any
other kind of song that someone listens to and is able to take and
personalize.”

 

Albums
like Bakesale pre-dated the arrival
of emo bands, but Barlow sees that style as a more extreme version of the way
he writes. “That stuff is really specific: talking about the color of a girl’s sweater and walking up the steps
and opening the door, what coffee cup the guy drank out of,” he says. “That
almost literary way of writing about stuff that is more like something that
Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, [or] Mountain Goats does. I don’t hear that
in Sebadoh songs.”

 

Although
some songs might seem like open letters, Barlow says he never intended them to
come off sounding too personal. “To me, I was never being specific and many
songs that were written about men could be construed as songs written about
women. Many songs I wrote about women could be construed as [being about] dudes
that I know,” he says.

 

He
has recorded some songs in the heat of the moment, and he was reminded of that
when he recently began to remaster Weed
Forestin’
the first Sebadoh cassette release that he did with Gaffney in
the late ’80s. (Homestead later issued it prior to III.) It features a song about masturbation guilt might not make it
into the band’s current setlist, but Barlow sees the value in articulating such
youthful feelings. “I’m glad people have their difficult period and put their
hearts on their sleeves and maybe said things they regretted later,” he says.
“That stuff really smoothes out some of the edges and difficulties of being
young.”

 

 

 

The
1991 single “Gimme Indie Rock,” ranks high in the band’s history, as a
well-executed poke at the independent guard that would “break” just a few
months after the song’s release. With its references to Pussy Galore, Sonic
Youth and Husker Du (“They got what they wanted/ maybe I should get what I want
too”), it showed a self-conscious level of humor that wasn’t all that common in
college radio bands of that era.

 

Barlow
is modest in discussing what still sounds like a bull’s eye hit, two decades
down the road. “I was at that age where the random crap that comes out of your
head is somehow reflecting a larger… uh, a larger thing,” he says.

 

He
adds that “Gimme Indie Rock” had more of a direct precedent in “Thank God for
College Radio,” by Pajama Slave Dancers, an Amherst surf punk band that
nevertheless played hardcore shows when Barlow was coming up. “The music that
was important to me as a teenager was hardcore punk, before it became this sort
of generic movement. It was a rich and interesting congregation of older new
wavers and punk rockers and all the young kids who were discovering punk rock,”
he says. [Pajama Slave Dancers’] attitude was kinda jokey, but also made things
more fun to have that kind of attitude about things, to be a bit spikey about
everything. To not be some precious about any particular influence you have.
‘Gimme Indie Rock” was a real tribute to the Pajama Slave Dancers.”

 

Sebadoh’s
current set, according to Loewenstein, draws from a pool of about 34 songs, and
the tour finds them playing about 25 of them. It draws heavily from Bakesale but several cuts from its
followup Harmacy work their way in,
as well earlier songs like “Freed Pig” and “Brand New Love,” the latter dating
back to the Weed Forestin’ tape.

 

Barlow
has no problem playing a set of would-be classics, saying he’s actually never
stopped playing them. “Jason and I have gotten together every four years since
1999, when the last Sebadoh record was released,” he says. They’ve toured as a
duo and once with Gaffney after III‘s
reissue in 2007. As far as a new album, they have intention of doing one, Barlow
says  – and pauses. “I’m not positive
when that’s going to happen.”

 

For
now, Barlow is content with the reissue of Bakesale and a planned vinyl reissue of Weed
Forestin’
. “Maybe I’ll start trying to do well-curated, lovingly reissued,
back catalog stuff,” he says.

 

 “I have this fantasy where if I reframe that
stuff, people will say, ‘Wow, that‘s really good!'”

 

[Top photo credit: Jens Nordstrom]

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