Q&A with Sebadoh

Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein resurrect a minimal Sebadoh

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

photo

A lot about Sebadoh seems accidental. The band's very existence began as a side project for Lou Barlow, who was trying to cope with playing bass in the less-than-democratic environment of the band Dinosaur (later Dinosaur Jr.). Sebadoh became a full-time gig when Lou was unceremoniously booted from Dinosaur, but then founding member/drummer/guitarist/songwriter/train-wreck Eric Gaffney started quitting/rejoining the band with alarming frequency. The band's first tour was undertaken with only two thirds of the lineup - Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein. Despite these strange goings on within the band, Sebadoh managed to (at least according to the people who feel the need to gauge these things) invent the genre lo-fi, which (according to accidental full-time drummer/bass player Jason Lowenstein) turns out not to have been a genre at all, but more of (you guessed it) an accident. And now Sebadoh is back on the road. Just Jason and Lou, just like the first time. lawrence.com spoke with Jason Lowenstein about the new tour, lo-fi, and volleyball.

lawrence.com: You guys are probably in the planning stages for your tour, eh?

Yeah, there's just a certain - we're not playing with a drummer, so I'm making the backing drum beats myself.

Okay.

Past Event

Sebadoh / Tom Heinl / Riddle of Steel

  • Saturday, August 21, 2004, 9 p.m.
  • Granada, 1020 Mass., Lawrence
  • 18+ / $10

More

So I've been doing a little bit of that, and I'm also drumming on this fella from around here's country record this week, and today was really hectic between working and recording, and I'm sorry you ended up on the short end of the stick on that.

Well, I'm glad we're finally getting a chance to talk. First off, help me clear something up. Did you mainly play bass or drums for Sebadoh. I know you played bass, but I often see you listed as drummer/songwriter.

Well, I started out as the drummer, and then played bass right away because one of the members of the band kept quitting who played -

That was Eric [Gaffney]?

Yeah, he kept quitting the band.

What did he play?

He started out as a guitarist, and then when it came to playing Lou [Barlow] songs, pretended he couldn't play his bass. But I knew he could. (laughs) He really was an excellent, excellent drummer, and wanted to play drums, so he had me play drums on his songs, and then when it came time to play Lou's tunes, he was like, "I can't remember the parts," but what he really wanted to do was play drums.

Wow.

After he quit, I ended up playing guitar on certain songs, and we just turned into what I always called the volleyball band, 'cause in volleyball you change positions after a certain amount of plays. So, at a certain point, when we had Bob Fay in the band as a drummer, mostly, I was just playing guitar, bass, and drums during the set.

Okay.

Which was cool.

And how about with Russ [Pollard]?

Yeah, when we got Russ back I actually played - well, actually that was pretty volleyball-like as well, just a little bit less. 'Cause Russ can play any instrument as well, so he ended up playing bass on some songs, and really not much guitar, but I got to switch around to all the different positions myself.

And you have a solo record out on Sub Pop.

Yeah, it came out two summers ago. It's called "At Sixes and Sevens." That I did all the instruments myself too, and recorded it all by myself and everything.

Is it weird getting back into the group atmosphere after being solo?

No, not with Lou, not at all. This country project that I've been doing is far more - it was more of a stretch for collaboration because it's the songwriter who I know vaguely, and then this woman named Paz, who played in Perfect Circle and also in David Pajo's band [Papa M], on bass, and me on the drums for all the sort of basic tracks on this country record. And none of us really had played together before, and everybody is sort of like a better than average - as far as production and stuff like that, so we all kind of - there was a lot of talking going on and trying to get excited and try to push your ideas without like stomping on anybody. So that was more of a collaborative exercise than Lou and I, because we - Lou and I have been playing together for like 11 years now. As weird as that collaboration can ever get, it's very smooth compared to others just because we have familiarity.

All the tumult that surrounded Sebadoh, you two were always the constant. Does this tour feel like full circle to you since the very first Sebadoh tour was just the two of you?

Yeah, it's right back to where we began, basically. I mean, more so because of how the lineup and how this tour is, the physicality, with just being him and I, and we're touring in the sedan. (laughs) It's back to how it was in like 1990 for us where, like I was telling you, when Eric quit the band and he and I went out on tour by ourselves. And that's why I learned how to play bass. It is strangely reminiscent, but it's like getting to do it over again, but being much smarter.

So what's the size of the operation this time around?

It's the same as it was on that little trip we did earlier this year.

So you're literally driving around in a sedan.

Oh yeah.

With all your gear.

We've gotten so smart as to get - we have these things, they come from a company called Line 6, they're called Pods. And they're amplifier simulators, and so we don't even have amps anymore. We have the boombox that contains the drum tracks that I've either played or programmed, and then these two amp simulators, and we put 'em all on this one little coffee table and fire it up, and that's the show.

Is anyone else doing that, that you know of?

I don't know anyone who's pulling it off this minimally. (laughs) Without being dreadfully folky. I really enjoy folk music and old rural blues and old-time music quite a bit, but to keep my attention for over 40 minutes, you're gonna have to keep it going. (laughs) Keep it loud, or at least have some dynamics. And we're able to do that because of the drum tracks and because of the fact that we have these amp simulators so we can get different tones throughout the show and can switch it up a little bit and have some dynamics. We call it the Turbo Acoustic Tour because he's playing acoustically but he's playing into these fake amps that make it sound rather electric.

So these Pods go directly through the PA?

Exactly. Everything from the stage goes direct, except for the vocals. We're really proud of ourselves, 'cause our load-ins are unbelievable easy. We show up and we have a guitar in each hand and a backpack, and that's basically the load-in. (laughs) I'm just so psyched, since that doesn't necessarily mean that we're gonna be completely low key. We actually have beats, and can kind of rock out in that context, which I'm pretty psyched about.

Sebadoh, along with Pavement, have been credited with practically creating the lo-fi genre.

Lo-fi was never a master plan of any kind, and I'm not sure that it was for Pavement either. It was just trying to do the best, as sort of amateur engineers, with recording equipment. We were kind of musicians first and then engineers way far behind that, at first at least. So the fact is that we don't understand signal path or any of these things that you learn when you start dealing with real recording stuff - adding noise and blah blah blah. And sometimes all of the things that would be called mistakes in the professional realm actually end up sounding rather warm and kind of reassuring. It just has to do with what aesthetic you're wanting to entertain for your music. Some people are very particular about having extremely clean and controlled recordings. And I think for Lou and Eric and those guys, when they were starting out, they really were more about, "Let's have a good song and get it on tape in whatever fashion we can."

That aesthetic seems to have come back around after years of rampant over-production. Do you think that resurgence will help you guys out on the road? Are you feeling retro?

Well, there's really nothing lo-fi about playing live. I just don't understand how that aesthetic could ever have been applied to live, except for being sort of amateur about your show, and not being very showman-like. So I don't necessarily feel retro. The only thing that feels retro to me is the fact that we're not touring on any new recording, and so all the music is over five years old. It's not retro to me in the definition that I know, but the fact that we have older fans and we're doing music that we wrote a few years ago - that may feel a little bit retro. Just out of curiosity, when you say you think there's been a resurgence of a more lo-fi aesthetic, who are you thinking of?

The White Stripes and the Strokes come to mind right away. The bands that seem to be trying to be more visceral, I guess - trying to give you the sound as it comes out of the amp.

I think if that's the case, then the aesthetic of lo-fi has even changed in the last few years, because that stuff doesn't sound lo-fi to me at all, it sound completely produced. And I don't mean that as an argument to you. I think that that's interesting. I don't know. During and after Sebadoh, there were bands like The Dead Sea and Royal Trux and people like that whose recording were almost unbearable, but for some reason people were fascinated with them. I bought a whole buttload of Dead Sea records, and when I throw them on now I'm like, "Oh my god, this stuff is so f*cking noisy." From recording down to the idea that they maybe don't give a shit about their songs and stuff like that. You know what I mean. That whole aesthetic was so extreme at a certain point in the mid-'90s that - I do understand what you mean by things kind of going back down to basics, but to juxtapose that to people who were obviously recording on a 4-track that they didn't even set the level on ... (laughs) I don't know. It's a whole new wave of what sounds dirty.

When Sebadoh got access to big studios with better equipment, did you find yourselves struggling to produce an "unproduced" sound?

No, not really, 'cause we like a big sound. I think we tried, even from the beginning, to get big sound out of the 4-tracks and the 8-tracks and stuff that we got to record on, but we just didn't know enough, you know what I mean? And the last three or four Sebadoh records there were all recorded in what would definitely be called commercial or professional studios that we were paying good hourly rates to record in. But I think that, especially on the last one, we recorded with some of the best studios available in the United States. ... I just think that people made more of that about us than we actually wanted made of us. And recording is that fashion - the more professional fashion - wasn't reaction to that. It was just what we always were trying to do in the first place. It's funny, 'cause even at that, I read an interview recently with the guy who mastered the last Sebadoh record in a recording magazine, and they actually asked about our band in relation to his mastering, and he claimed that we - I feel bad that I forget what the guy's name is - he said that we specifically had requested it to sound a little more crunchy and lo-fi than normal, and we by no means did that. We literally spent almost $200,000 recording this record. We're not going to, at the last stage, go ahead and go, "Make it sound like shit." (laughs) It was hard for me to read that, 'cause I was like, what the f*ck is he talking about?

Well, people's memories play tricks on them.

Right, right.

Are you guys writing any new Sebadoh music?

Well, nothing specifically for Sebadoh. Lou is, at this very moment, has got his nose to the grindstone trying to finish up another solo record. And myself, I've been trying to write for another Jason Lowenstein record too, so really nothing in the works officially for any new Sebadoh songs right now. As we get our druthers and we keep touring like this it just seems like if we keep doing it it's inevitable that we'll do some more recording together.

How permanent does this reunion feel right now?

It feels blissfully impermanent. There's no pressure on us to do anything, which actually makes it a lot easier to really put your best foot forward. We're really doing this for the love of it at the moment. We don't have any contract with anybody, we have no record, we have no - the only thing new we have out is a t-shirt. We're just sort of gettin' back to being friends and playing some music. It's rather earthy/crunchy, but that's really what it's about.

So no plans for a full-blown reunion as of yet.

No. But I expect that if we do more touring we'll get a drummer and it'll be more like the old days in some ways. We'll be able to have real dynamics for the rock songs and stuff like that, and so on and so forth. But for now, this is a really interesting way to portray the old songs, I think. 'Cause it's really not like it used to be, but at the same time definitely hints at it, having real drum beats and stuff ... Because we're the only musicians on stage, we're really playing our parts in a more interesting way than we did when we could just rock them out with a drummer. A little perspective on it didn't hurt at all.

Who would you like to drum on a full reunion? Would it be Russ or Bob?

No. No, it wouldn't. It'll probably be somebody from here in Louisville, I would think, 'cause I know a bunch of musicians here. But it probably wouldn't be one of the old - it probably wouldn't be Russ or Bob.

You guys used to play Lawrence in the olden times.

Oh yeah, we played there a bunch of times. Three or four times. The Bottleneck, I think.

Any fond memories?

I do remember one - I wish I could remember specifically what it is. We had some kind of blowout moments in Lawrence that I can remember. We came there with Verbena at one point, and we came through there with Godhead Silo at another point. I'm still trying to remember specifically what happened. It wasn't anything bad or anything, but I have vague memories of having opening bands on stage at the end where it was not planned. Lawrence seems like kind of a party town to me. People definitely let loose.

The city commission is trying to rectify that.

I can remember some serious mayhem at the show, with opening bands onstage, plus audience members and things like that, and just sort of burning the house down at the end and that kind of thing. And I always remember the first time I went there, somebody told me that the Residents played there, and for some reason that really endeared me to that place 'cause I was a huge Residents fan. ...

Is Lou still getting the bulk of the attention?

I think the balance is still about the same. I think that most people look to him as the leader of the band, and for all intents and purposes that's pretty right on. I contributed a lot of songs to the records and to the set and stuff like that, but I think that either through correct assumption or - I think there's been a lot of times that people shout out for songs that they think are Lou's that are actually mine. ... He's definitely still the focus.

Do you ever want to kick his ass?

Well, I don't want to kick HIS ass, but I kinda want to kick everybody's ass, and be like, "Well, some of these songs that you think are his aren't his. They're mine," and get that credit for them, but at the same time I really - At this point, it feels pretty clear, because I've been able to do my own solo records and stuff like that. I really don't have that much problem with Lou getting that much attention. He's contributed so much to the group. In the old days I got a little jealous, but I was also a little younger, a little more angry, and took it a little more personally. But at this point I'm just happy to give it up. He's the man, you know?

Sebadoh really seemed to strike a nerve with a lot of people. What do you think people related to, and do you think you can hit that nerve again?

To answer the second one first, it's still the same songs, and it's the same songs being sung by a guy with some perspective on it. I would say 90 percent of the material that does that is Lou's stuff, and he's had five years to sit on some of these songs and rethink how he may want to portray them, and to understand which ones are powerful to him as well as to the people who listen to it. I think we're striking more of a nerve on these tours than we ever did, just considering the amount of people who sing along with the songs and stuff like that that we're noticing now. Because of the set being a tiny bit quieter than it used to be, we can actually hear, at certain points, the audience raising above the vocals of Lou and stuff like that, which is insane. Makes you feel more important than you're just wallpaper for beer drinking, which is the fate of many young bands.

At this point we're preaching to the converted, for one thing, and then the converted actually know the tunes for one thing, and they're happy to sing along. As far as impact goes, I don't know how much more you can expect as a songwriter as to have people just really know what you do and be excited about it, and be there, and participate. You could never ask for more than that. Now the beginning part of the question I'm kind of losing again ... I think that Lou's always thought that it was very important to be really f*cking saying something in a song. It sounds cliche, and it is, but he gives a damn about what's going on in the song. I think he'd rather not play than go ahead and write a song that really yanks his heart out or whatever. There's so much static art going on in the world, where it's like, "Oh, that's pretty" or "That sounds good," but there's really no staying power to it. I think he understands what he wants to communicate in songs better than a lot of young songwriters did. He had maturity young that a lot of people don't get until their 30s and 40s. There are certain country artists I know that are like that, who developed through their 20s in Nashville, and then ended up being in their 40s and 50s being complete heavies. And it seemed effortless to them. I think that he had a lot of that going on when he was actually in his 20s, which is very lucky.