Sebadoh: Lou Barlow’s Secular and Unintentional Lo-Fi Legacy

Originally created as a side project to coincide with his work in Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh quickly became Lou Barlow’s main musical outlet after being ousted from the band he helped create. After a notorious power struggle in songwriting with J. Mascis, Lou Barlow began pursuing his more autonomous endeavors.

In contrast to the towering guitar-based rock band that Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. would become known for, Barlow and his work with Sebadoh would soon led to Lou’s reputation as one of the pioneers in the lo-fi sound revolution.

While he has reunited with Dinosaur Jr. for the occasional tour and recording sessions, it is his work in Sebadoh that will always remain as Barlow’s secular masterpieces.

This interview with Lou was taken a few months back as he prepared to open for himself at the MIddle East Downstairs.

So I heard you’re hitting the road today. Are you driving straight to the east coast from LA?

I’m flying to New York tonight. Oh no, my band mates live in Brooklyn, so I’ll fly out there and practice for a few days.

What brought you out to California?

Low rent as compared to Boston. We moved out here 13 or 14 years ago and I wanted to buy a house and that definitely wasn’t able to happen in Boston.

Do you still feel an affinity for Massachusetts?

Yeah, of course I grew up there.

What is the difference between Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Lou Barlow?

Well, Sebadoh is me and my band mates. I guess Lowenstein and I have been keeping it going. It’s been the two of us with a few different drummers. Well, three I guess at this point. There have been a fair amount of drummers. We started swapping drummers out in 93 or so. Eric Gaffney is the original and he formed the band with me. We got Jason on board pretty soon after that in 1989. We toured after awhile and Eric kept quitting the band so we got Bob Fey and he played with us until about 1995 or 96. Then we got Russ Pollard. And now we have….

So Sentridoh and Lou Barlow are strictly solo acts?

I mean I guess when I made records with Lou Barlow it meant that I’d actually have people play on them with me. The thing with Sentridoh is it’s basically just me.

Was there ever an end to Sebadoh or has it always been active over the years?

We’ve always been active. We never gave up.

Did reuniting with Dinosaur put Sebadoh on hold for a bit?

Not really, it kind of facilitated it. When Dinosaur got back together for the first round of reunion touring, it sort of gave me the financial means to get Sebadoh back together with Eric Gaffney. I was able to make a leap and make this happen and buy plane tickets for everybody. Dinosaur kind of made Sebadoh possible. To be completely happy in Dinosaur I have to be doing other stuff. And if I’m doing other stuff I’m perfectly happy doing Dinosaur.

So on this tour you are playing solo and opening for Sebadoh? Is this a first… opening for yourself?

I guess it is the first time we’ve officially done it. I’ve always wanted to do this and take over the night and do what we wanted.

How did the reissues come to be? Was it your idea, or did the label come to you to do it?

It was the label. They said, “hey you guys should reissue these records”. And we said okay. I didn’t think there was any particular interest in it. I didn’t think there was a necessity to reissue, because they’re probably all still readily available in bargain bins everywhere and sitting in piles in warehouses. I think it is a gesture made by people and labels to say that you made an important record and you should reissue it. It was also the impetus of getting back together with Eric Gaffney and collaborating with the reissues of our really early records. I was very grateful for that. It facilitated Eric coming back into the band and doing the original lineup for the reunion tour in 07 and 08.

Did Harmacy get re-released yet?

No, because they wanted me to do that and I absolutely don’t want to pursue it at all. I just can’t get excited about that record and I also think it’s another one where I think its everywhere. I think anyone can find it and I don’t know how we could improve upon it unless we included the b-sides from that time, but the b-sides we did from that time I don’t know they were that great. After we redid Bakesale, I mean that was cool, but it’s not like they sold anything or we make any money from it. Only the very original reissues that we did with Eric was there any money involved. Maybe we would get some change from working on it. I mean Sub Pop lost so much money on Harmacy that when we get royalty statements its like, “oh now you only owe us $15,000.” It’s like oh great. And Harmacy precipitated this huge meltdown at Sub Pop and Sub Pop just totally reorganized itself after Harmacy and Supersuckers records. They made a lot of bad decisions at that time that it’s hard for me to get psyched about it.

Do you have a favorite record or time period with the band?

I really liked Sebadoh 3. That was a really cool record. It was schitzo-tense and really represents the introduction of re-writing members of the band. And we did Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and Bubble and Scrape, and those records have such a good vibe to them. They were kind of self-produced and we did those before we recorded with other people and let other people determine how we sounded. We were actually at the boards with our friend Bob Weston mixing stuff and cranking EQ’s and doing all the crazy things that we could think of. Those records have a wild sound to me. Bakesale is cool too. It has a cool vibe too, but it’s pretty well-mannered compared to the previous period.

And you guys are putting out new stuff?

Yeah, we just did a digital EP that came out a few weeks ago on Bandcamp with 5 new songs. And we have 15 more songs in various stages of completion and hopefully we’ll release those early next year and start the whole cycle over again.

When people comment on Lou Barlow being part of the lo-fi revolution, do you see any merit or truth in that? Or was there just a time and place for that that was do to the technological limitations of the time? Was being lo-fi a conscious thing when you were recording?

I guess I never though too much about it. It was really just about making music. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, going to a studio was a sure way to kill your music. Rock records in the 80’s and 90’s were horrendous sounding to me. I just did what I did to keep it interesting for myself and do things that I thought sounded good. Generally I wanted to keep it kind of crunchy and to my ears natural sounding. I mean we also literally recorded things on Walkmans to record records. But to me that wasn’t a radical statement or anything. I grew up in Massachusetts and there was a wealth of college radio and I was exposed to a bunch of independent spirited music early on, from the time I was 11 or 12. You go left of the dial, and even in Western Mass, I swear there were 10 different stations at any given time that were playing totally independent music like punk rock, hardcore, college rock… all that stuff was out there and I was hearing it. Rough Trade had a domestic thing back then too and they were just flooding stores with Young Marble Giants records. I heard all of that stuff. I just think that my music was a response to all of that.


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