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Never one to hide his true feelings, in song or otherwise, Lou Barlow has had his share of troubled relationships. Long before there was Sebadoh, the band he fronted with Eric Gaffney, Barlow was J. Mascis' top lieutenant in Dinosaur Jr. Their stormy partnership ended in divorce, with Mascis infamously telling Barlow that Dinosaur Jr. was breaking up only to reform the group the next day.
From that frying pan, Barlow did a swan dive into the fire that was Sebadoh, a ramshackle, instrument-swapping outfit that included Barlow, Gaffney and Jason "Jake" Loewenstein. A continuation of the lo-fi home recording experiments Barlow had been conducting while in Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh was a schizophrenic mess. Bouts of noisy deconstruction were followed by incredibly lucid folk confessionals, Barlow's specialty, and weird, alien sound collages - undoubtedly the result of the band's prodigious marijuana use - and none of it seemed to fit together. And yet it all made perfect sense to themselves, and their growing legion of followers.
After two self-released cassettes of humble, lo-fi emissions, Sebadoh gathered for a brief recording session that would birth the certifiable classic III. At the time, Barlow, stung by Mascis' palace coup and smitten by a brand new love, was channeling all his anger and confusion into starkly beautiful acoustic musings like "Perverted World" and "Kath," and viciously strummed pop jangle like "The Freed Pig" and "Violet Execution." His no-bullshit lyrics were shockingly candid and delivered with a wounded grace that rose above the freaked-out clamor of III.
Originally released in 1991, Sebadoh III flew under the radar as Nirvana's Nevermind hijacked pop charts ruled with the sequined-gloved fist of Michael Jackson. III's unruly energy and all-access intimacy made it an underground sensation. Through it all, Barlow and Gaffney fought like brothers, and despite all the turbulence, they delivered an album that was wildly enigmatic and painfully self-aware, connecting passionately with college brainiacs and romantic drop-outs alike. Last month, not long after Domino Records' reissue of III, LAS talked to Barlow and Loewenstein about the record, the band's tortured past and its place in musical history. Barlow's take on the album is below, Loewenstein will follow tomorrow, and unfortunately efforts to get Gaffney's side of things have, as yet, been unsuccessful. We are still trying.
LAS: Words like "seminal" and "landmark" still get bandied about in discussions regarding Sebadoh III even today, 15 years after its release. Does it surprise you, or are you maybe even taken aback a bit, when you hear critics and fans talking about it in such terms?
Lou Barlow: I felt strongly about the record when we made it, so, in a way I wasn't surprised. I have the belief that anything honest and made with conviction finds an audience. No one talks about it like true seminal, landmark records like the Velvet Underground or whatnot, so it's easy not to get carried away with the idea. The world is lousy with seminal, landmark records. III has a place somewhere.
LAS: Have your impressions of the album changed after all this time?
Barlow: Not really. It's still a mess. I still like it.
LAS: Stylistically, Sebadoh III was wildly schizophrenic and scattered, going from freaked-out noise experiments to fragile folk confessionals to song fragments to your beloved tape collages and well-sculpted indie rock. On some level, that sense of, "Fuck it, let's try this, and then hit play and don't look back," really seemed to forge a connection with the disenfranchised. Where did that come from?
Barlow: There's such a rich history of DIY that it's hard to feel like we did anything extraordinary. Maybe the timing allowed us a larger audience than we would have had otherwise.
LAS: Is that sense of adventure missing from a lot of what's considered "indie rock"? It seems like so much of it has become so, for lack of a
better word, professional, and while that's not inherently such a bad thing, it does seem to have spawned a certain amount of fear with regard to change. Because of it, bands don't seem to evolve beyond their pre-determined sound. Would you agree?
Barlow: I've made that observation too. The bands that started in the late 90's, your Death Cab's and that Pacific Northwest emo-indie new new wave movement showed a real musical progression from the Sebadoh/Royal Trux/Pavement days, as if all the bands discovered indie rock as pre-teens, went to progressive high schools and learned how to play. Being ramshackle and chaotic ceased to be charming sometime in the late 90's. The kids rediscovered wearing suits, being confident on stage and having their shit together. It was a healthy reaction to the grunge, indie thing that we were a part of, and there was the Radiohead thing - prog informed by indie rock. That Ok Computer record blew a lot of impressionable minds. There are probably more great bands right now than there were in the late 80's, early 90's. The only problem is the unbelievable amount of options a listener has. It's fatiguing.
LAS: What were recording sessions for III like? In the liner notes to the reissue of III, Jason talks about how there was an indescribable "something" between you and Eric and how serious the atmosphere was. He even goes on to say he was "pretty intimidated" by it and that he
seemed like a nervous wreck all the time, wondering if or when the whole thing was going to crumble. Did you feel that as well, and how did the three of you get through it?
Barlow: It lasted three days and we sent the tapes to the label on the fourth day. There was no time to consider not going through with it. We were prepared and commited to the task at hand. It was actually a lot of fun. Any growing pains we experienced as a band happened when we weren't playing. Time off was always our biggest enemy in my opinion. I was a total workaholic.
LAS: It's interesting that you say in those same liner notes that you felt "overwhelmed and emotional" as "As The World Dies The Eyes Of God Grow Bigger" ended when the album was finished because the song feels so comic and mocking. Is that natural for you when a project ends, or was there something special about this one?
Barlow: You hear it as comic and mocking. I hear Eric telling his life story. I always have that overwhelmed feeling when I've finished a record, but III was the beginning of something new, my post Dino-life. It was the first album I recorded after being kicked out of the band.
LAS: The wounds of your fallout with J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. were still pretty fresh at the time. Was it anger or confusion, or a whole buffet of emotions, that fueled a lot of your writing back then?
Barlow: Getting kicked out of the band was rough, but it was just part of it all. Unfortunately, I did so much public bitching about Dinosaur and J. that it was assumed that nearly everything I wrote bore the mark. In reality only one song on III was specifically about the situation. It was a turbulent period - the first gulf war, moving to the big city (Boston), living outside my safety zone with my crazy girlfriend.
LAS: Was III the most difficult recording you've ever been involved with?
Barlow: Nope, like i said, the recording was fun. Only later on when sessions could drag out over a year did it become difficult. Harmacy was probably the worst.
LAS: Working with Eric again on the bonus tracks, has your relationship changed in any way or?
Barlow: Nope, contentious as ever. I do feel like I understand him more these days.
LAS: Talk about how the bonus CD was compiled and what went into the choices you made. Aside from the Gimme Indie Rock EP, where did you
find all this stuff? Was it sitting around in somebody's attic or garage? Is there more out there that we'll never hear?
Barlow: Eric was concerned with having as many songs as I did in the final package so he did most of the work. We've got loads more stuff from that era - live tracks, 7 inches. I had to hold back.
LAS: There's kind of a stoner mythology surrounding the original Sebadoh lineup that's taken on a life of its own over the years. How prevalent was the marijuana use and if drugs weren't a part of the equation, how different would III have been?
Barlow: We loved pot, it kept us focused, but we didn't have a steady supply. The sessions for III were done straight except Eric getting drunk for his vocals on "...As The World Dies" and Jake and I getting stoned for the final listen of the finished album. Music and marijuana go good together. We were young and pot has a way of scaring the life into you. It wasn't all about feeling good. It was a part of our life and we didn't hide it.
LAS: Is there a part of you that wishes you could go back to those days?
Barlow: Not really. We pretty much did everything we needed to and everything we could. SEE ALSO: www.sebadoh.com
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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