Sebadoh: Happily United

Cassette-lovin' trio reunites to avenge the 'fried shit'of the MySpace generation.

Much like their slyly sarcastic peers in Pavement and Guided by Voices, Sebadoh made an underground name for themselves in the early '90s with their prolific output of genre-surfing, punk-minded material. Typically using minimalist, analog methods of recording, the trio attracted a devoted underground following. Though they initially delivered their work via the small but influential cult label Homestead Records, their work was especially fruitful between 1992 and 1994, while the band was signed to Sub Pop. It was during this period that the trio of Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Loewenstein recorded what are arguably the two best records of their career, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and Bubble and Scrape.

As all too often happens after a band's creative high point, personal conflicts shattered the partnership originally forged by Gaffney and Barlow. Gaffney left in late '93, and though Barlow and Loewenstein went on to achieve more commercial success with the more accessible, pop-oriented sounds of records like Bakesale and Harmacy, it is the early work with Gaffney that retains significance with many fans. Thanks to contact initiated by working on a reissue of their 1991 release, Sebadoh III, they recently decided to re-form the band's original lineup and tour with a focus on that beloved older material. Despite scattered schedules and geographical locales, I managed to squeeze in interview time with all three members.

Seattle Weekly: A great deal of your early sound seemed to be built upon the willful dichotomy of placing Lou's softer side next to Eric's more caustic barrages. Was that a happy accident or a deliberate juxtaposition?

Eric Gaffney: The Freed Man, our first record and our next reissue [out on Domino Records in April], is largely acoustic-based, and shows my early songwriting to be the variety show it is—albeit on the softer side—with quieter songs mixed with electric, noise, and experimental sides. I can't pigeonhole my style or sound, and there was never any thought of presenting ourselves as the quiet one and the loud one.

Lou Barlow: I have always liked the idea of throwing all kinds of material together. "Cohesive" was a code word for "boring" to me. In 1981, the Meat Puppets released a 7-inch that had quiet, country-esque instrumentals next to the most insane thrash punk—and it made perfect sense to me as a 13-year-old. That, along with a love of the Beatles and the multiple songwriters/White Album vibe, was what we drew inspiration from. The point was to first make something that would be interesting to us and start the band as an evolving collective: no leader, no dominating style.

Since you're often held up as poster children for the so-called "lo-fi movement" of the early '90s, I'm wondering how your views on recording and production techniques have evolved over the years. Were inexpensive recording methods more of a default choice because of low budgets or a creative decision to make things sound more bare bones? If you had unlimited funds, do you think you would have made dramatically different records?

Barlow: There was no choice. Not only did we not have money to record in studios, but maintaining an organic sound true to what we wanted to hear (i.e., crickets, cars passing, tape distortion) was virtually impossible in a studio back then. Especially as a 20-year-old punk rocker with no knowledge of advanced technology and no social skills to explain yourself to the older, mostly intolerant rock 'n' rollers that ran studios. Having grown up listening to all mutations of punk and new wave (Sex Pistols to PiL, Swell Maps, Young Marble Giants, hardcore thrash), it was clear that there were no rules other than "be honest." And honesty is easiest when I am someplace I feel reasonably comfortable.

Gaffney: Hmmm. Both, I suppose. We had no money, but we had tape recorders and four-tracks and cassettes. When we could afford studio time, we did that, too. Sure, cassette quality and feel is appealing sometimes; so is reel-to-reel. If we had big money budgets early on, it wouldn't have been what it was. Spending a lot of money in a studio does not equate to a great record. The song, sound, tone, and performance are what counts.

You were so heavily involved with cassette recordings and methods of delivering your art that are now considered wildly primitive by MySpace standards. How do you feel about the impact of digital technology and culture on punk and indie rock?

Jason Loewenstein: I understand why cassettes seem "wildly primitive" in some senses. But I am immediately struck with the idea that MySpace is modern in its networking and distribution capabilities, but the sound of the music has taken profound steps backward in quality. You would have to really intentionally make something go terribly wrong on a cassette multitrack recording to make it sound as bad as the warbly, compressed, pinched, thin-sounding underwater crap sound of a sound file played through the MySpace file compression engine. MySpace is a needle-in-a-haystack kind of way to find new music, and then even if you do find something, it really sounds like fried shit.

Barlow: But the great thing about it is that we have been given the means to express ourselves. Technology is cheaper; the Web is mostly free. It's brought me full circle—I have a Web site that I have built and maintain. I do whatever I want with it, and it feels a whole lot like going down to the copy shop, cutting tape covers, and selling them in a shoebox at the record store in town.

What made you decide to reunite in your original form? What are some songs that fans can look forward to hearing live?

Loewenstein: I think this is just born out of the new communication between Lou and Eric and I that was necessary for us to get these reissued albums together. Any communication at all was enough for us to entertain the idea of getting back together and seeing what happened. We did that, and it feels right and sounds right. We are concentrating heavily on stuff from the earliest Sebadoh up until Eric's departure, though Lou and I are throwing in some stuff from later records. This is going to be a trip!

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