Indie rock group
Tracing the history of Sebadoh is akin to unraveling a complex cloth. Structured with an eclectic musical warp and weft, the only constant in the group is founder Lou Barlow. Sebadoh is credited with bringing lo-fi music to prominence in the 1990s, but their sound has evolved into a mature indie rock.
Founded in 1987 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Sebadoh is the brainchild of Barlow, who Magnet called “one of indie-pop’s most talented tunesmiths.” During his days performing as bassist for Dinosaur Jr., Barlow experimented with personalized songwriting and four-track recording as a creative outlet. He welcomed artistic tensions in Dinosaur Jr. With help from Eric Gaffney on drums, Sebadoh made two cassettes of bedroom-recorded folk songs and shopped them around to area record stores. The idea behind this low-tech approach to creating an album, Jason Loewenstein said in Scene, was that “… people could take heart in getting a guitar and starting a revolution.” Homestead added the group to its roster in 1989 with the release of a CD combining these cassette recordings called The Freed Weed
Barlow remained in Dinosaur Jr. and relations between he and J. Macius, —Dinosaur Jr. front man—were strained at best. A 1996 Magnet article described the relationship as having ultimately retreated to “a crabbed, wordless place.” Barlow said, “After our first tour things were never the same between us. He just couldn’t handle everyone’s personal quirks and he was really unforgiving. He never understood the beauty of tolerance. Me and J just sort of stopped talking after that.” Tensions came to a head onstage. Macius, irritated with Barlow, hit him with a guitar during a Connecticut performance. Macius abruptly fired Barlow in 1989, leaving Barlow free to record and perform with Sebadoh. Rather than hearing the news from Macius, Barlow learned he’d been canned via MTV News; he was told falsely by Macius that the group was breaking up. He would later sue to recover his royalties from the group.
Sebadoh recruited Jason Loewenstein from Dissident Voices as bassist for Sebadoh III. The addition of Loewenstein started a musical give-and-take between members that created what is best described as a hardcore punk sound. This was fueled by Barlow’s anger at Macius as much as their own fondness for “musical terrorism.” Growing internal tensions made for additional unrest. Sebadoh’s music during this time was described in Magnefas “the unlikely intersections of folk, punk and pot—ranging from screeching sludgefest to winsome folk rock—and slowly but surely, Barlow went from being known as the guy who got thrown out of Dinosaur Jr. to the guy who writes those incredibly beautiful songs on the Sebadoh records.”
Sub Pop Records signed the group away from Homestead in 1992. Soon after, relations with Gaffney became strained. Gaffney wavered and wanted to stop touring. He quit the band three times between 1990 and 1993, and was temporarily replaced by drummer Bob Fay, but eventually returned again. According to Magnet, “The final straw came in the form of a letter Gaffney sent to Barlow and Loewenstein informing them that he would no longer tour, and asking for a third of all future recording budgets so that he could record his songs separately. ‘We were just like, “He doesn’t want to be in the band? F--- him, ’” says Barlow incredulously.” Barlow says that he has tried to find Gaffney and give him his share of royalties. Gaffney left in 1994 after recording Bubble and Scrape and was replaced permanently by Fay.
Harmacy was released in 1997. Stereo-Type’s Jack Rabid called it Sebadoh’s “finest hour” with “delicate, beautiful pop moments. Rabid went on to say “Harmacy caught fire in the press, but to the surprise of everyone, the LP failed to root in radio or on MTV, leaving the band in big fish/small pondville.” The band seemed to go through drummers likes a ’90s indie rock version of Spinal Tap. Fay was sacked just prior to the recording of The Sebadoh and Russ Pollard became drummer. It is an issue Barlow doesn’t like to discuss, knowing all too well the pain of being fired himself. Rather than dwell on Fay’s departure, he told the Houston Press that Pollard’s
Members include Lou Barlow (group founder; married: Kathleen Billus), vocals and guitar; Bob Fay (joined 1990, fired 1998); Eric Gaffney (1987-1993), drums; Jason Loewenstein (joined group in 1989), bass, drums; Russ Pollard (joined group 1998), drums.
Group founded in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1987, by Lou Barlow with Eric Gaffney; Jason Loewenstein later added to line up; released two self-produced cassettes; signed by Homestead, 1989; after a couple of releases, group was signed by Sub Pop Records in 1992; released Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, 1992; Gaffney left group and was replaced; group recorded Bakesale, 1994, and Harmacy, 1996; Fay fired, 1998; Pollard joined band, 1998; released The Sebadoh, 1999.
contributions to the group “made something that could have sputtered to a stop find a new life.”
Barlow said that he and Sebadoh have been evolving and growing up. “I feel like I’ve gone through musical puberty in the last year,” he is quoted as saying in record company publicity materials announcing the release of The Sebadoh. “Rather than being this center of confusion maybe I’d rather be a center of inspiration.” At least one newspaper headline—which appeared in Cleveland’s Scene —summed up how critics view this older, getting wiser group: “Folk Terrorists Find Peace: Sebadoh survives near-breakups and cleans up its act.” Critic Marc Lefkowitz called The Sebadoh their “most accomplished collaborative effort to date” and said that the group “after ten years of slogging out punkfor punk’s sake… has made a subtle but conscious shift toward a more textured and, I daresay, commercial sound.”
Influences and groups the band enjoy range widely. They include Brazilian metal band Sepultura, 1970s easy rockers Bread, The Byrds, and the Eagles, as well as an unlikely mix of Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Devo, The Minutemen, Theolonious Monk, Stereolab, Kraftwerk, and Harry Partch.
Group members, as if not prolific enough in their recording with Sebadoh, also regularly play in side projects including Folk Implosion, Sentridoh, Sparcalepsy, and Deluxxe Folk Implosion, among others. Barlow’s stint with Folk Implosion resulted in his penning most of the songs for the 1995 film soundtrack, Kids. “Natural One” became a hit.
The Sebadoh doesn’t seem to indicate Sebadoh has abandoned its punk sensibilities, the group is simply refining them. “I’m kind of sick of yelling,” Loewenstein told Jane Ratcliff of the Detroit News. “It really came down to technical stuff—like I couldn’t hear myself in the monitors on stage so I’d have to yell. Now we have to play nice places so I can sing.” Houston Press writer Jason Simutis explained the often hard to describe group succinctly. “Each Sebadoh release is an amalgam of noises, some midtempo indie rock and a small percentage of intimate, crushing love songs written by Barlow.… The tunes also are less and less lo-fi in fits and starts. Sensitive bookish indie-rock boys and girls eat it up, making Sebadoh a star of the underground.”
The Freed Weed, Homestead, 1989.
Sebadoh III, Homestead, 1991.
Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, Sub Pop Records 1992.
(contributor) Afternoon Delight (compilation), Sub Pop Records 1992.
Bubble and Scrape, Sub Pop Records, 1993.
(contributor) Curtis W. Pitts: Sub Pop Employee of the Month (compilation), Sub Pop Records, 1993.
Bakesale, Sub Pop Records, 1994.
(contributor) KRCW Rare Air, Volume 2 (compilation), Mammoth, 1995.
Harmacy, Sub Pop Records, 1996.
The Sebadoh, Sub Pop Records, 1999.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, and Chris Woodstra, editors., All Music Guide to Rock: The Best CDs, Albums & Tapes: Rock, Pop, Soul, R&B and Rap, Miller Freeman Books, 1995.
Detroit Free Press, March 5, 1999.
Detroit News, March 5, 1999.
Houston Press, March 18, 1999.
Huh, September 1996.
Magnet, October-November 1996.
Request, October 1996.
Scene (Cleveland,OH), March 4, 1999.
Stereo-Type (Kingston, PA), March 1999.
Additional information provided by Sub Pop Records publicity materials, 1999.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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