Lo-fi, High Expectations
In Lou Barlow's Boston apartment, it's always easy to know where you stand. As Barlow, the auteur of the subterranean lovesick blues that have made his band Sebadoh an indie icon, describes his home, it sounds like a comfortable place to crash: books and guitars everywhere, wine-colored carpet, intricate woodwork. Then he adds the most salient detail -- mirrors hang in every room but one, the bedroom. Wherever you go, you can always see that, well, there you are.
"I can't tell you," Barlow says, "what the mirrors have done to my personality ... yet."
Rest assured, all that reflection is sure to affect Barlow in some way. Everything usually does, somehow. After all, he's often called the most sensitive guy in rock -- a tag even his mother likes. Think acoustic guitars; think '90s love and longing poems set to shiny, often skewed indie pop.
Sebadoh has, with its latest CD, Harmacy, added a gallon of saline solution to its already overflowing weeping well. "Willing to Wait," the disc's gorgeously vulnerable second single, has been wooing the VH-1 audience, and there's this eerie feeling that your mom might wind up enjoying what Barlow has to say. That must be a weird feeling for a guy who's always championed rock's bluntly youthful pathos.
Not that he could do anything about it, even if he wanted to; his music has taken on a commercial life of its own. Last year, Barlow's side project, Folk Implosion -- which he began in 1993 with guitarist John Davis -- scored a Top 40 hit with the perky "Natural One," from the soundtrack to Larry Clark's controversial film Kids.
Actually, Barlow was a good match for Clark's teens-in-crisis project. As Barlow notes, he and his main partner in Sebadoh, Jason Loewenstein, mine their inspiration from "teenage tensions." "Some of my songs are positive and stuff," Barlow says. "But some are about staring down at the ground and obsessing about stupid things -- and it is teenage, in a way."
And while Barlow admits that his "songs are well suited to popularity," Sebadoh has rarely gone out of its way to be commercial, or to pander to any particular listenership other than themselves.
"It isn't thickly textured music with lyrical platitudes that everyone can understand," Barlow says. "We don't go for that power stuff. I bought Ratt and Cinderella because I thought they were the heaviest thing at the moment, [but] it ages so poorly. None of our music is powerful in that kick-ass way that makes guys drive fast in pickup trucks or dance at the prom. Sebadoh is popular to people who never did those things."
Despite his overt intelligence and sensitivity, Barlow wasn't bred in a university setting. He did, though, work full-time in the college town of Northampton, Massachusetts, so he could buy equipment for his first real band, Dinosaur Jr. It was while playing bass for that group that Barlow met drummer Eric Gaffney, who would go on to become his partner in founding Sebadoh. He ran across Gaffney at a Dinosaur Jr. show, one notable for more than professional reasons; it was at the same show that he encountered Kathleen Billus, who would go on to become his creative and romantic inspiration, not to mention his wife.
"She was my first girlfriend," Barlow says of Billus, whom he ended up marrying on the first anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. "She was one of 20 that would come to the local shows. After her, I started wearing black and wearing deodorant."
By the late '80s, Dinosaur Jr. had became college radio favorites; at the same time, Barlow and Gaffney were laying the foundation for Sebadoh through a lo-fi bedroom recording collective. One result of that collective was a murky acoustic-guitar melody fused to swirling tape loops called "Poledo" that appeared on Dinosaur Jr.'s 1987 CD You're Living All Over Me. Some have called that tune Barlow's "resignation speech" from Dinosaur Jr. If that was the case, it took a while for the resignation to go into effect. But a year later, it was clear that Barlow's relationship with Dinosaur Jr. leader J. Mascis had deteriorated beyond repair. Communication between the two went from constipated to violent. The feud exploded on-stage when Mascis hit Barlow with his guitar during a show in Connecticut. After that incident, Barlow's revenge fantasies mounted.
"I imagined smashing him with my bass on Saturday Night Live," he recalls. "This heightened to me killing him on national TV, and then killing myself."
But before Barlow had the chance to wreak havoc, he was fired. "I found out through MTV News," he remembers.
In 1989, his ties to Dinosaur Jr. broken, Barlow moved full-throttle into Sebadoh, which he termed his "terrorist folk" project. Homemade releases were churned out on the small Homestead and 20/20 labels. Many of Sebadoh's rawest and most moving songs during this period were literally made in the kitchen, and they sound that way.
Soon, the band's unlikely fusion of folk and punk -- which ranged from intimate acoustic numbers to two-minute feedback blasts -- found a passionate underground audience. By 1991, the band's backroom aesthetic had caught on in a big way, thanks in part to Sebadoh's 1991 single "Gimme Indie Rock," which became the rallying cry of a movement. Almost on command, a fleet of do-it-yourselfers armed with four-track recorders were knocking at Barlow's and Gaffney's heels. In some ways, they can be credited with, or held responsible for, Pavement, Liz Phair, Smog, Beck and others.
It was around the time of 1991's Sebadoh III that Jason Loewenstein came onboard as the band's third member, and the trio began freely trading instruments and songwriting duties. At the same time, though, the creative and personal distance between Gaffney and Barlow was growing uncomfortable. Gaffney quit the band no less than three times between 1990 and 1993, each episode usually sparked by his unwillingness to tour. Every time Gaffney bailed, drummer Bob Fay dutifully picked up his sticks and filled in. By 1994's Bakesale, Sebadoh's most varied and complete effort to date, Gaffney was out of the picture and Fay was behind the set for good.
Gaffney had fed Barlow's lo-fi instincts, but with him gone, Barlow seemed willing to add a little more polish to his efforts. Both Bakesale and the new Harmacy are more sophisticated and clearly recorded than anything Sebadoh had attempted before. Even so, the group has matured on its own enigmatic terms. "If you make a strange eccentric record ... it takes on its own mood," says Barlow. "Because it's less about a shrewd marketing plan [and] more about an individual emotion."
Raw feeling notwithstanding, Sebadoh has been known to suck live. Their playing and enthusiasm is often a hit-and-miss proposition with more misses than hits -- and they know it. "We use different guitar tunings," Barlow explains. "And I'm a complete retard."
As when recording, Sebadoh has always been game for experimentation on-stage, switching instruments and band roles frequently. But while that's been a positive influence on Sebadoh's CDs, live, all the messing about has hurt more than it's helped.
This time out, though, things may be different. "We've been rehearsing," claims Barlow. "I've put down a bunch of rules that I think help, and we tested them on the last tour. They work. I've stopped smoking pot before I play -- and no drinking. I keep the tantrums to a minimum, because people don't want to see that."
Ah yes, the tantrums. At one stop on the Bakesale tour, time between songs in a packed New Mexico club often extended to five minutes. The restless crowd taunted Barlow, and pandemonium ensued. At the Filmore in San Francisco during the same road trip, equipment difficulty and a tense overall vibe proved too much for Barlow, and he exited after only ten songs. But this time out, armed with a rock-solid lineup and a fine new release, Sebadoh has a shot at ruling a respectable portion of the planet.
Sebadoh performs Friday, January 31, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Those Bastard Souls open. For info, call 862-3838.
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