Too punk to be punk: An inside look at one of indie rock’s most important bands, Sebadoh

Photo: Bryan Zimmerman

“I’m used to people telling me I’m a piece of shit.” Lou Barlow doesn’t pull any punches when talking about his life. “Yeah I mean I just accept that. It’s like, ‘Whatever.’ I’m just used to this shit,” he says with a laugh. Barlow isn’t exaggerating, though. Anyone who has read “Our Band Could Be Your Life” by Michael Azerrad knows about his troubled past in Dinosaur Jr’s initial run, which found him being squeezed out by the domineering J Mascis.

Having reunited with his former bandmates nine years ago, the trio has surprised everyone by staying together, and producing three very strong records, despite some continued indifference towards Barlow. “On [Farm], I had so much difficulty finishing a song. Trying to finish the songs for Farm was like a screaming nightmare.” Barlow says that the lyrics to the tracks he made for that record (“Your Weather” and “Imagination Blind”), ended up being about the hardships of the songs’ actual creation.

While Dinosaur’s history has been very forgiving, Sebadoh’s has been way more rickety and less revered. I recall seeing a list of upcoming events posted in the Bowery Ballroom bathroom once that mentioned a solo performance by Barlow with appeared with the parenthetical sidenote – “of Dinosaur Jr.” What resonated though was that someone had taken a pen and crossed the note out, substituting “of Sebadoh.” That little correction is a perfect summation of the band’s existence in the indie rock world – misunderstood and brushed off by many critics, promoters, and club owners; held in utmost regard by fans.
While Sebadoh never went completely away for too long, it’s been a long time since they’ve produced new material – a 13 year gap to be precise, having returned in 2012 with the surprise “Secret” EP, and now more ceremoniously with the full-length, Defend Yourself, released this past September on Joyful Noise.

Formed in 1986 as a duo with Eric Gaffney, the band blossomed in the ‘90s as a key example of workingman’s indie rock, due largely in part by the inclusion of fellow songwriter/frontman Jason Loewenstein, whose versatile skills gave the group a leg-up sonically. Originally drafted in as a bassist and alternate drummer, Lowenstein became as integral to the group as Barlow after Gaffney’s departure in 1994. “Lou was a big hero to me before I was even in the band,” says Loewenstein. “I always felt like his catalog of songs were going to change history before I even joined the band.”

Sebadoh with original member Eric Gaffney, circa 1993.

Now with over a decade passed since their decent but often derided 1999 album The Sebadoh, the band is back with new drummer Bob D’Amico, drafted in via Loewenstein, who played with D’Amico in the Fiery Furnaces. Now that they’re back in action though, has distance made the public’s heart grow fonder of Sebadoh?

“I made the mistake of reading a shitload of reviews that we got for the record and it was the same old shit,” Barlow gripes. “It’s amazing how the reviews we get now are very similar to the reviews we got for The Sebadoh and even Harmacy. Bakesale was kind of an exception. A lot of people liked that record [who] hated our other records, but pretty much every record we’ve released besides Bakesale just got really mixed reviews, because everyone has these ideas of what the band should be doing and everyone has different ideas about having two songwriters in the band. That’s always been incredibly controversial.”

Loewenstein’s songs are not so much an opposite pole to Barlow’s, but a fractured alternate path that could coast between somber reflection and grungy abrasion. On Defend Yourself, the two songwriters have rubbed off each other more so than ever before, and the results are delightfully cohesive. Barlow is still the heart-on-sleeve narrator which now is especially interesting when there’s the real-life drama of his recent divorce from Kathleen Billus filling up the details in his new songs. “I Will” is one the band’s strongest songs to date, a break up ballad that is warm and optimistic, while “State of Mine” humorously self deprecating and addresses the problems of being a divorcee with a family. Loewenstein’s songs form a tight brotherhood with Barlow’s while always remaining more abstract lyrically. The bruising mid-tempo “Beat” bounces off Barlow’s minor key rocker “Love You Here,” while his alt country ballad “Can’t Depend” is one of the most openly reflective tunes in his catalog.

Defend Yourself may not be the earth-shattering return of indie rock heroes looking to make a second history, but it is a great homemade  rock record by a band that might be the most authentic example of DIY-ers reaching middle-age. Loewenstein and drummer Bob D’Amico are both married, and Barlow has a family and a serious girlfriend, yet they still manage to make being full-time musicians work, with great results. In many ways, they are too punk rock to be bothered with being the image of punk rock.

Their true punk edge comes out in their mere straightforwardness. Their shows are still endearingly sloppy – at their November 1 Bowery Ballroom show, Barlow knocked over his microphone stand several times, there were several long tuning breaks, broken strings, unexpected bursts of feedback, and even some audience heckling — but the band takes it in their stride so well that it’s feasible to believe the fans are there for the fumbling as much as they are for the songs. And they are great songs.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Barlow on the phone and meeting Loewenstein in person for two in depth interviews where we discussed the gestation of Defend Yourself, the group’s complicated past, reviews, and relationships (both romantic and professional) Here’s some of the things we talked about first hand.

 What caused the drift after the release of “The Sebadoh” in 1999?

Lou Barlow:  Well we did “The Sebadoh” in 99 and it did terribly in the US. The record label didn’t really like it, and the reviews were awful. People weren’t going to the shows. Ironically, we were on Top of the Pops, we were in the Top 40 with a single and the record sold reasonably well and I think it actually did the best out of all of our records [laughs]. But you know when it’s your home country… it was just so much more devastating. Sire which was hooked up with Sub Pop, wanted nothing to do with us, and Sub Pop itself… there was just such indifference coming from them, it was like “God damn! Jesus! Okay…message received. We’ll slowly back out of the room.”

I did a record with the Folk Implosion at the same time and the same thing happened. I mean still I’m like “God, those records were actually pretty good!”

Jason Loewenstein: I think that because Lou and I had been going at it pretty hard since “Harmacy.” There was a shitload of money in the record industry — we got really lucky that we could really live off what we made. But also the reason that we’re getting paid is because people were trying to throw shit at the radio really hard. And I think Sub Pop saw some possibility in that and I think that was exciting in a way. I didn’t know how we were going to fit into that machine but I was like, as long as people are excited about the band, it meant that we were working all the time. I think Lou might have been under a different kind of pressure than I was and I think we were just tired at the end of that [last] tour. People were kind of pissing on the record and we thought it was great so we were really confused.
When exactly did plans for recording again become real?
We always talked about doing an album but I think we began talking in definitive terms in 2011. It became when we record our new record.”

JL: We started in January of 2012 and I think Lou was the one who was like, “Let’s just do it.” He came forward and said “I actually have this great jam space by the way,” and we facilitated a lot of it because we wanted to do it ourselves because we didn’t have a label. We had a little bit of money left over from touring. But it was really for us to just pay our own bills and stuff. We know we were going to do on the cheap with my gear mostly.

I had run into Bob D’Amico on New Year’s Eve last year and he told me the record would be out in September 2013. Were you guys sitting on the record for a bit?

JL: We kind of knew when we started that Lou was going to have to do a shitload of touring with Dinosaur right after we were done. We sat on the basic tracks we recorded for eight months. And then there was a deadline so we kind of put it together separately. It was kind of a long time but not that long relatively. But we were kind of ready to finish but then stuff sat around for a while.

LB:  It was completed in June. I pretty much got the word from Dinosaur right away… I mean I was like “I’ve got this Sebadoh record and I’m kind of figuring out when to release it,” and they were like, “Please wait until September. We don’t want any overlap.” So it was kind of out of respect for that. We took five songs [the tracks from the Secret EP] from the sessions and finished them last year. We had them finished by August of last year. We finished them so we could have a little EP for ourselves and do a little tour around it. We kept it like this self-released, Band Camp kind of thing just as an experiment. Actually it was really fun. It was really practical and really fun. And at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, that’s when I had real time to finish the songs and finish the lyrics that are on “Defend Yourself.”

What was it like juggling working and touring with Dinosaur Jr. on I Bet On Sky and making a Sebadoh record?

LB: On I Bet On Sky, we had everything recorded by March [2012]. There was about two weeks with Jason and Bob that was on the heels of completing the Dinosaur record. So I was actually in a pretty good spot because I had just worked on three songs for the Dinosaur record and it was a pretty good record so I was just in a good spot. So then Jason and Bob rolled out so I was ready to go with these other songs I had written. We all showed up prepared and ready to go. Because we really have such limited time together so we do all we can and made the best record giving the time that we had.

For both this record and in the past, how much does a song change from when you guys originally come up with it, to when the final version is recorded?

JL:  I think that because we’ve had the M.O. that we bring a pretty solid skeleton to the rehearsals, I think that’s made Lou and I both feel like, “Let’s let the guys go with it,” until something gets weird.

Is your approach to Sebadoh songs different to your approach to other projects?

LB: For Sebadoh, it’s always the songs that are the most raw emotionally. Because when I think about Sebadoh songs, I think about them in terms of our live show. They are the rawest, most plainly spoken, ugliest songs. But I feel like it has to be that way because we’re still this ramshackle band. We pass the instruments around and we work our way through a set and we have the best time we could have. We draw from a really raw and energetic place. With Dinosaur, I go in with concepts, like a Dinosaur Jr song that sounds more like the Ramones or Queens of the Stone Age. I kind of map it out that way conceptually with Dinosaur.

Lou, do you ever feel embarrassed about being so candid in your lyrics?

LB: Yeah, I mean embarrassment is such a basic part of my life. I feel like I got over it a long time ago. I always feel like being embarrassed is actually being closer to the truth. So I guess I grew a third skin with that a long time ago. It’s always going to be close to the bone. I’m also usually always singing to one person. Especially, the more tense the song is. With Sebadoh, I always go to a vulnerable place.

And it’s funny because  now, the record’s getting reviewed, and some of the reviews are just punishingly negative. Like “Lou’s creepy! I can’t believe how creepy this lyric is.” And it’s like you know, yeah. I can kind of identify with that, I guess it is creepy. There’s only so much that I can fight that. I mean here I am laying out all this shit, and you know, there it is.

Given the candid nature of some of your lyrics, have you ever gotten in trouble with anyone you know over your words?

You know its funny, I never get shit for the songs I should get shit for. What always happens is that someone thinks a song that I didn’t write for them, is for them. That’s happened several times. People are like, “You did this,” and give me this whole rundown, I’m like, “Wow, you’re so wrong.” I would get so angry that I would then actually write a song about them. Like “You asshole, really?”

Embarrassment is such a basic part of my life. I feel like I got over it a long time ago. I always feel like being embarrassed is actually being closer to the truth.

In terms of relationships, do you feel like you’re always the same guy, or do you feel that people really do evolve and become different over the years?

On the lead off song on the record [“I Will”], I say “I’m still the same.” There is an unchangeable thing about myself that has remained the same, but one fundamental change that I went through was something like a mid-life thing. I mean I hate to say “mid-life crisis,” because it’s not really a crisis, it’s just — whatever I’m 47 years old and suddenly you’re like “oh, what will the rest of my life be like?” Do I want to continue to experience the same pattern over and over again? For the rest of my life?! I mean I could even apply this to what happened with Eric Gaffney. Do I reenact this whole drama with him or do I move on? So I would replay dramas hoping for a different result and always waiting for things to change and for other people to change and waiting for myself to change in some way. But at some point I just was like, “Look, is this what I want?” And you know what — maybe it’s not. And also, I fell in love with someone else, so that was something that I had always feared – that being in such a volatile relationship that I had been in, that at some point I could very well meet somebody who is cool or not, or someone who I could not have a volatile relationship with,. And to have a relationship that is more like what I have wanted or something that I thought maybe I never would have. And that’s what happened.

You two had reunited with original member Eric Gaffney back in 2007. Was there ever a discussion to record new material with him at any point?

LB: It was kind of more, “Let’s play some shows” and to see how things got along with Eric. Getting him back into the fold was a long arduous process…even to do the reissues of the records he was involved in. We could have recorded stuff but we had to be really cautious because Eric is not a real team player. At any point in Sebadoh’s development, it’s always been about the team.

JL: Things were always sort of tenuous with him. We were like, “Let’s just see what we can do just to do it and play those old songs again,” because we’d missed those songs forever frankly, and we loved Eric and we missed him. It was kind of heartbreaking for me, that whole thing. We knew we had to play it by ear. I think what we managed to do was we played the songs and it went really went well but at the end of it, it was still hard to get along with him on a certain level. He likes to have a lot of control over things. I will say this: he’s a very suspicious person. And I think it’s due to what he’s been through. I just want to make sure that there’s some tenderness to me saying that. But I knew we couldn’t deal with feeling suspect all the time. We invited him back into the band and gave him a full cut in as a full member of the band and to be kind of met with suspicion was kind of hard to take.

When Gaffney originally left the group in 1994, he was replaced on drums by Bob Fay, who subsequently was fired around 1997. Was there ever a discussion of including him in a reunited Sebadoh?

JL: He was not asked. We transitioned to Bob D’Amico. Bob D’Amico plays drums really well. Bob Fay played drums really well. To have him back specifically to play on the records he was on didn’t seem to make much sense. Bob [Fay] was really mad at us for a really long time too.

LB: No. We kicked him out of the band for purely creative reasons which was really hard because we always made decisions on personal decisions really. It would be like, “Bob is not the greatest drummer,” “Who cares?! He’s great to hang out with.” [laughs] . And then at some point it became, “Wow, if we really want to make the recordthe way we want to make it, he can’t play drums.” And we had to make that decision and when we [did], he turned around stole a bunch of money from us just said the most withering shit about us. He was a real tough guy. He’s a little bit older than us and he’s from Boston, so he’s a real fighter. He went down swinging basically.
JL: We at least still talk to each other. I’m a little sorry about how that was handled.

How did you meet Bob D’Amico?

JL: I lived in NY for a year back in 1999 and my friend Kevin Mazzarelli, wanted to help me start a solo band right after Sebadoh stopped playing. And he was like, “my friend Bob.” Bob was super easy to work with, so he and I and Kevin were the solo band. And then he got a gig playing with the Fiery Furnaces. The Friedbergers like to have weird sounds — they had keyboards, guitar and drums and I think they just thought, “We should have another member to fill it out.” And Bob was like “I know a guy.” So I came down to audition for the first time in my life and started playing with them.

Now that you’re reformed and playing again with new material, how do you feel about the public opinion of Sebadoh?

JL: What comes to mind immediately is that in the past three years since we’ve had Bob, that we’re playing material that is preaching to the converted. The forgiveness level to us is pretty high. I love when a band I like plays new material that I don’t know, but it doesn’t have the same effect. it doesn’t have that feeling of like, “Oh My God, this is that Mission of Burma song I heard when I was 15 years old!” My mind gets blown before they even play, and then everything else is gravy. It’s a different listening position to be in, so that’s different than years ago. Every time we’d play something back then, we at least had an album’s worth of new material to kick into the set. So that’s different, but I think we’re much better players now. I don’t think we’re slick by any means but we know how to get what we want out of our instruments.

 LB: It’s amazing how the reviews we get now are very similar to the reviews we got for “The Sebadoh” and even “Harmacy.” “Bakesale” was kind of an exception. A lot of people liked that record that hated our other records, but pretty much every record we’ve released besides “Bakesale” just got really mixed reviews, because everyone has these ideas of what the band should be doing and everyone has different ideas about having two songwriters in the band and then you release that me writing and putting songs next to Jason’s songs – that’s always been incredibly controversial.

It’s disheartening to me because I was a huge fan of Eric Gaffney’s work on the early records. And I’m a real fan of Jason’s stuff, so when I read people cutting down his stuff in favor of mine, I have a really hard time with it. Also I just find a lot of the reviews to be kind of condescending because they’re always talking about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do and it always takes a day or two to roll off my back. Because I get so into every record we do – with the exception of “Harmacy,” I really lover every record we’ve completed.

That’s interesting that you never liked “Harmacy.”

LB: No…I thought the songs were good but there was so much bullshit going on.

Well it’s great to see this hasn’t discouraged the band.
I mean that’s really why we made it. We made the record to fuel the live shows. I was thinking about that a lot over the last day or so. The records are always kind of a collection of songs from where we’re at around the time we do them. Jason brings in what he has and mine and we put them together. We’re not like tinkering in the studio for a year trying to make the perfect album. We’ve never tried to make anything that was like “trendy.” We’re not going to drown our record in reverb or put group choruses on it. It really comes down to the songs. I’ve always felt that a good album is just a bunch of good songs.

‘Defend Yourself’ is out now on Joyful Noise. The band is currently on tour.