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October 18, 2006
Part II: Stuck in the Middle

The whole time the Sebadoh III lineup of Sebadoh was together, Jason Loewenstein repeatedly practiced the duck-and-cover drill. While band leaders Lou Barlow and Eric Gaffney took potshots at each other and got into actual physical confrontations on stage and off, Loewenstein stayed out of it. It was the smart thing to do.

Recruited by Gaffney to join Sebadoh as a teenager, Loewenstein constantly feared that internal conflict would rend asunder the band he admired from the their two self-released cassettes, The Freed Weed and Weed Forestin' (which included the Freed Man recording). Even worse, he imagined that any attempts at peacemaking would result in his summary dismissal from Sebadoh. Loewenstein did get kicked out a number of times, but every time, he was asked back. And he stayed because he had more than an inkling that he was part of something special.

Sebadoh III was his reward. A sprawling, enigmatic affair that's full of space jams, abstract, distortion- and feedback-laced freakouts and tender folk passages, Sebadoh III was, and is, one of the seminal records of 1990s indie rock. Recently, Domino Records reissued the album with a separate disc of material that included the Gimmie Indie Rock EP. Loewenstein took time out to discuss Sebadoh's legendary dysfunction and the utter brilliance of III, which wouldn't have happened were it not for Loewenstein's understated musicianship and his willingness to weather the stormy relationship between Gaffney and Barlow. Loewenstein's inside-out jazz piece "Smoke A Bowl" may be III's defining mission statement, considering the group's love of the leafy, green, mind-altering substance.
---


LAS: Reading the liner notes for the Sebadoh III re-issue, it's a wonder you kept your sanity during the recording process. Did you feel like it was up to you to keep the peace between Lou and Eric?

Jason Loewenstein: I'm not sure that at the time my sanity had any anchor point, so it was very hard to tell if I was losing it! As far as keeping peace or balance between Lou and Eric, I really had no chance of controlling the alchemy of the situation and I knew it. I just crossed my fingers the whole time, and tried not to let on that I was so nervous. At the time I really thought that I was involved in something really important, to get to play on those songs with those guys, on a real record, in Fort Apache, for a real record label! I couldn't believe it was happening, and as a naive young man I trusted and indulged my paranoia as some kind of divine instinct of impending doom.


LAS: What's the story behind your membership in Sebadoh? Did you have to audition or were you gradually assimilated into the fold?

Loewenstein: I was sort of gradually assimilated I suppose. I had been playing a lot with Eric for some time before I ever jammed on Sebadoh songs with him and Lou. Maybe that was audition enough. I was kicked out a couple of times when they got gigs, even though we had been rehearsing pretty regularly.


LAS: What were your initial impressions of Lou and Eric? Did it seem at first that it was going to be a difficult venture, that they were going to be at each other's throats a lot?

Loewenstein: I had been in a few band situations before them, with really nice people, with total morons, smart, dumb, etc. Eric and Lou were different. Personality-wise I didn't see them as more or less difficult, but I knew that it was a unique scene and that their personal tension had lent itself to some singular creativity. I knew that it would be worthwhile. I weathered many situations in rehearsal spaces just to get to play someone's drumset or guitar or whatever on really bad songs - just to get to play. In this situation with Lou and Eric, I was getting to play on songs that I really thought were great. I didn't care that they were at each other's throats, they seemed to like it that way.


LAS: Having been a fan of the band first, what attracted you to Sebadoh's music? Where did you get Sebadoh's first cassette? Was it in stores, was it traded among fans, or did you get it at a show? Did it seem more of an "underground" way to get the music out there, and did that create a sense among fans that this was a way to stick it to the record companies?

Loewenstein: Unless you had a record deal, cassettes were the only way to distribute your music. CD's were just really coming on the market, computers were really still just word processors with solitaire, and CD burners were way off in the future. Cassettes were ALL there was. You put a $1 or $2 cassette in the four-track and had 45 minutes of recording time, mix it down to another $2 cassette. You had the makings of a "record" for $4. You could scrape together enough empty beer bottles in an hour to fund a recording session. Pretty amazing. Your other alternatives at the time were to get a "real" record deal, or put out your own 7-inch single for like $500, which was out of the question financially for most of us at the time. I think that the goal for anyone playing is to have your band put out a real 12-inch vinyl record, complete with shrinkwrap, paid for by someone else. But that wasn't going to stop those of us who had four-tracks and big bags of empty beer bottles.


LAS: When you first heard the songs Lou and Eric were writing for III, did you get the sense that this was going to be a special record? Or did that feeling emerge later, during the recording of the record?

Loewenstein: I knew that I was playing with the right guys, but seeing what the batch of songs that made it to III seemed to encapsulate as the recording came together really cemented the idea that the record really would represent the band in such a great way.


LAS: Was that creative tug-of-war between them an inspiration for you to try to write your own material and come up with something challenging, something that didn't sound like Sebadoh but that fit with what the band was trying to do?

Loewenstein: I just thought that I ought to be as involved as they would let me, so it would be harder to kick me out! I was "writing" stuff at the time and recording a lot of shit with Eric before and during my early involvement and got lucky that some of it was interesting enough to be allowed to record it or play it live. I was a little conscious of the idea that my tunes should have their own thing going on, to not sound so much like the songs that Lou and Eric were writing.


LAS: Besides the fact that Sebadoh III has just been reissued, why are we still talking about it today? Is it the soul-baring, carefully worded lyrics, or the beauty of Lou's folk melodies, or is it the unabashed experimentation, the unique sonic chaos of the record that makes it important?

Loewenstein: Not sure. I think it is all that you mentioned and more. I have always wanted to make sounds that are timeless. Music that sounds good and not dated even 20 years after it was made/written, like certain Neil Young records. It could have been written yesterday, but it was decades ago. It's pretty much impossible to guarantee or do much to facilitate this phenomena, but it exists if you have integrity, in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. We had integrity, and got lucky I think.


LAS: Did the drugs help or hinder the band? Without the marijuana, would III be as wild and unpredictable? And would the three of you have been as honest lyrically without it?

Loewenstein: I'm sure it would have been different. Even when we smoked weed in a shit smelling alley between bands at a local rock show, we were in a centuries old, mind-expanding reverent ceremony of perspective expanding and sacred brotherhood. Our partaking of the weed was part of our tribal dance. Modern-day seekers, looking for a wormhole through consciousness to a place of pure transmission of creativity. So, without this feeling of a constant striving toward some kind of mystic connection, things would have to be different.


LAS: Even though it was a difficult process, was the recording of III still a fun thing to be a part of? What was it that made it such an amazing experience?

Loewenstein: I look back on it fondly, but at the time I was torturing myself with all of my anxiety and the uncertainty of my position in the band.


LAS: There are some great stories floating around about Sebadoh's live show from back in the day. What are some of your favorites?

Loewenstein: My favorite is going to Ames, Iowa to play with fIREHOSE. I got to meet Mike Watt that day. I couldn't believe that I had met him, and now I was going to play a show with him! Our set was normally wrought with equipment problems and long tuning breaks (we didn't have a tuner) but this show was much more tense on stage than usual between Lou and Eric. Lou had a problem with this weird distortion pedal. When he would hit it with his foot, it would turn on and then off again ... really frustrating. Lou had that happen to him over and over again, and eventually stopped playing (in the middle of one of Eric's tunes) to bend down and try to fix the pedal. Eric seemed to take this as a lack of committment to playing his song, and came across the stage at Lou with his guitar. They pushed and yelled and grappled with each other, guitars around their necks clanging against each other. The show came to a halt and I lit a smoke and watched from behind the drums. They eventually cooled off enough to play one or two more songs. I was thinking, "What the fuck is Watt going to think about this?"


LAS: What was the lowest point that Sebadoh reached while recording III and did you think that was the end right then and there?

Loewenstein: There weren't any real moments like this. We were just working hard to get it all done in the short time we had in the studio.


LAS: In hindsight, if anything had been done differently, would III be as good or as influential? It seemed to be a clarion call to lo-fi DIY artists everywhere.

Loewenstein: We were just in a unique position to have what we were up to become bigger than the sum of its parts. If the parts had been different, the result would have been different. In terms of lo-fi and DIY, I think that the first two records (Freed Man and Freed Weed) should have served as more of an inspiration to those who strive for DIY ethics. Those records were done entirely on their own, no engineers, studios, good mics... completely self sufficient. I was floored personally.


LAS: Do you still love it, and if so, where does it rank on your list of Sebadoh albums?

Loewenstein: It reminds me of one of the most exciting times in my life, and it created a momentum for me to be a musician for real. I should really offer sacrifice to the gods for the opportunity to have been involved. If not for Sebadoh III, my life would definitely be vastly different.

---
Originally this revisitiation of Sebadoh III had been planned as a three-part retrospective, with each of the members revisiting the album in their own words. Unfortunately, to date, Eric Gaffney has not made himself available for an interview. We will be sure to keep you posted if he ever materializes.

SEE ALSO: www.sebadoh.com
SEE ALSO: www.dominorecordco.com

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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