Sebadoh has become a critical and underground favorite, partially on the strength of its intimate sonic portraits, crafted mostly by frontman Lou Barlow. To wit ... "I don't think I'm direct and honest," says Barlow. "I don't think, 'Wow, this is really weird, I shouldn't be singing about this.' I pretty much started from the age of 15, like, writing songs about masturbating."
While still a member of Dinosaur Jr, Barlow began recording songs with Sebadoh's Eric Gaffney on lo-fi home studio equipment. When Barlow was fired from Dinosaur, he put all of his energy and proficient songwriting ability into Sebadoh, releasing its first record, The Freed Man (Homestead), in 1989. Barlow contributed heartbreak lyrics, and Gaffney countered with noisy punk gems. Their yin-yang bang continued with Weed Forestin' (Homestead) a year later and The Freed Weed (Homestead), which combined 41 songs from the two into one package. Two years later Jason Lowenstein arrived (as a drummer and additional songwriter), and the trio released Sebadoh III (Homestead), less lo-fi, more polished. Gaffney soon began erratically leaving and rejoining the group, which caused Barlow to begin side projects (Sentridoh, Folk Implosion) and Bob Fay to fill in for Gaffney, who left for good between 1993's Bubble & Scrape (Sub Pop) and 1994's Bakesale (Sub Pop). Fay ultimately replaced him full-time.
Each Sebadoh release is an amalgam of noise, some midtempo indie rock and a small percentage of intimate, crushing love songs written by Barlow. His courtship, breakup and subsequent marriage to Kathleen Billus is chronicled in minute detail. The tunes also are less and less lo-fi in fits and starts. Sensitive, bookish indie-rock boys and girls eat it up, making Sebadoh a star of the underground.
Then a song from one of Barlow's side projects, Folk Implosion, on 1995's Kids (London) soundtrack (with Barlow co-writing all but three songs on the record) became a surprise Top 40 hit. The success of "Natural One" caused things to get weird around the Sebadoh camp. Everyone expected the band to be able to capitalize on Barlow's radio-friendliness.
"The only people that it seemed to bother were the people closest to me," says Barlow. "Audiences were not coming to Sebadoh shows and yelling for 'Natural One,' and nobody came to the Folk Implosion shows."
Instead of mining similar drum-machine-based ground, Sebadoh went back to its former formula for Harmacy (Sub Pop) in 1997. Recorded under the shadow of "Natural One," the album was a step backward; the two songwriters took pains to make sure their songs were almost hyperbolic reflections of their past work. Barlow's songs were extra sad, and Lowenstein's were supernoisy. Barlow has publicly criticized Harmacy, attributing his dislike of the record to several factors, particularly the hype surrounding it. The talk was that Sebadoh should have broken through on the back of "Natural One." It didn't happen, but Harmacy is still the band's best seller to date.
"There was more pressure, and some of my negativity toward Harmacy has to do with the fact that there were a lot of expectations, around Harmacy, that I didn't like," Barlow says from his home in Los Angeles. "It was just, like, 'This is it, man. Lou Barlow had that hit with "Natural One," so this one is going to do it.' I knew that [Harmacy] wasn't going to be the record that would catapult us into a new audience. I'm carrying a little bit of a grudge about that [expectation], I guess."
Before recording its new record, The Sebadoh (Sub Pop), the band fired Bob Fay. New drummer Russ Pollard adds a fresh sense of energy. Barlow's songs sound more like Lowenstein's noisy blasts, and Lowenstein's tone has mellowed some, though both still offer hope to the hopeless. Getting some distance between Sebadoh and the hit has helped as well, taking pressure off the band so it can do what it does in earnest.
The lush (by Sebadoh standards) pain of "Love Is Stronger" recalls Barlow's more-anguished compositions from the middle period of Sebadoh. Slow and burning, the acoustic guitar opening and Barlow's faraway voice resemble the period of the band before its forays into high fidelity. His voice comes into focus, and the band takes full advantage of a big recording studio.
Barlow's marriage caused speculation that he would have to change his songwriting style, that somehow marriage was the end of the road for feelings of love anxiety. Barlow laughs when asked if that was the case. "No, no way," he says. "In fact, it's helped it along quite a bit at certain points. Being married doesn't stop the cycles and life. I write about pretty basic things -- they're not these Kurt Cobainesque ambivalent howls -- they're pretty straightforward. I'm not doing it to fuck people up or confuse people. Songs can actually make things better sometimes."
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The fact that so many people identify with Barlow's lost-in-love songs would suggest that there are rabid fans who think that they know everything about the songwriter and are somehow entitled to more of him than is the average CD owner.
The laid-back Barlow says that just the opposite is true, that people give him more space because he holds very little back in his songs. "I've always had a great private life," he says. "When we go on the road, I never feel like people are fucking with me or want more than I'm ready to give. I never feel like [adopts a mock diva voice], 'Oh, dear. All this attention is too much; I'm feeling cramped.' I think it's almost because of the nature of the songs that I write, because they are personal. I think I write out of a respect for the way people feel, and I seem to get that respect back."
He returns that respect when asked about how Pollard has changed the band. Barlow is very diplomatic regarding ex-drummer Fay. "It's opened up the music a lot more; it challenges me more as a guitarist. Russ is, uh, I'm sorry. It's hard to talk about because I don't want to diss our old drummer, because he'll read these interviews and stuff," Barlow says. "It's already happened where he saw something where I kind of said, 'Our new drummer's better,' and all this other stuff, and he read it and totally bummed out. I don't want to do that to him, but to me [Pollard's contributions] are all on [The Sebadoh]. It made something that could have sputtered to a stop find a new life."
Sebadoh performs Thursday, March 25, at Numbers, 800 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call (713)628-3700 for ticket information.