"I don't know what our sound is," says Sebadoh singer/guitarist Lou Barlow. "We've always kind of consciously avoided having a sound."
And they've done a damned good job of it, too. Since Barlow and his fellow Sebs (bassist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Eric Gaffney, recently replaced by Bob Fay) started gigging together seven years ago, they've managed to confuse, befuddle and--oh, yeah--dazzle listeners with their offbeat musical prowess. For proof, one need look no further than the group's 1992 indie extravaganza, Smash Your Head on a Punk Rock. The blistering speed-metal of the album's opening cut, "Cry Sis," is followed by "Brand New Love," a melancholic power-pop ballad; "Notsur Dnuora Selcric," a grimy slab of pseudo-prog rock; "Vampire," an ode to co-dependency; "Cecillia Chime in Melee," a raucous noise experiment; "Everybody's Been Burned," a tribute to David Crosby; and "Mean Distance," whose sparkling acoustic melody serves as an introduction to a hardcore rendition of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon." If William Burroughs set out to create his own postpunk version of the Beatles' White Album, chances are it would sound an awful lot like Punk Rock.
Moreover, these songs are only samples of the bandmembers' vast and varied repertoire. In addition to their work with Sebadoh, Barlow, Loewenstein, Gaffney and Fay have recorded dozens of solo and collaborative efforts under such cryptic pseudonyms as Sentridoh, Belt Buckle, Folk Implosion and Sparkalepsy. Released on obscure indie labels such as Shrimper and Sonic Bubblegum, these homemade tapes are so numerous that even Barlow has lost count. "I don't really know how many [songs] I've written," he remarks. "Hundreds, I guess. It's funny. I never really think [about it], but then I start counting and it gets up there pretty quickly. I start thinking, `Wow, that's a lot of songs.'"
ÊMany of Barlow's compositions date back to the period prior to the forming of Sebadoh, when he played bass with Dinosaur Jr., the brainchild of neo-guitar god J Mascis. Although Barlow's partnership with Mascis led to some of the group's richest material, the animosity between the two players was legendary--and a trio of highly acclaimed albums on SST wasn't incentive enough to keep working together. After Mascis booted him out of the band, Barlow says, he was certain his musical career was over. "By the time I had recorded my third record with Dinosaur, we had already exceeded all our expectations as a band," he recalls. "We were already more popular than most of the bands that we liked when we were little. We were more popular than the Meat Puppets, and we were almost approaching Husker Du status at that point. I mean, we were influencing Sonic Youth. It was like, `What the fuck is going on here?' It was just too weird."
Barlow was far from finished, however. With the help of Gaffney, he composed a collection of acoustic songs on a four-track cassette recorder. A pair of by-products from these early Sebadoh sessions, The Freed Man and Weed Forestin, were issued by the Homestead label in 1989. Loewenstein was recruited shortly thereafter, joining Barlow and Gaffney to produce the 1990 EP Gimme Indie Rock.
Sebadoh III, the band's first full-length effort, hit stores a year later. A combination of electric songs and acoustic home recordings, III's loose, pop-based style came as a welcome relief from the homogenous grunge sound that was then congealing in the Pacific Northwest. The disc's faux-amateur production quality also helped spawn what is known as the "lo-fi" revolution--a low-budget production style used by many of today's underground innovators, among them the Grifters, Guided by Voices and the Palace Brothers. But Barlow stresses that Sebadoh was only following in the footsteps of its mentors. "I can understand why people might think that [we helped pioneer the movement], because we've been doing this for a while," he concedes. "But I was inspired by other things. The Young Marble Giants and hardcore punk rock--I guess what you'd call `early lo-fi'--influenced me. A lot of the early Minutemen records were recorded on really, really lo-fi tape.
"But anymore, I sort of feel trapped by the four-track," he continues. "I mean, I've pretty much perfected how much I can build something and craft something. I could probably get 32 tracks out of a four-track if I really worked at it. But then after doing all that and spending all that time, people are still going to say `Yeah, cool, lo-fi, four-track!' If I'm really going to take a step forward, I need to use a different means of recording."
On their next two releases--Punk Rock and 1993's Bubble and Scrape, both put out by Sub Pop--Barlow and his bandmates did just that. Using eight- and sixteen-track studio equipment, the three-piece explored a wide range of musical directions that might otherwise have been lost in the murk of their previous sonic methodology. Scrape, in particular, pushes fuzzy garage pop to its limits thanks to the use of harmonicas, keyboards and tape samples.
Sebadoh's most recent release, 1994's Bakesale, has earned even more recognition. Its first record without Gaffney ("He leaves all the time," notes Barlow, "but this time he's not coming back"), Bakesale has been lauded as the act's most professional--and most cohesive--record thus far. And with good reason: On numbers like "License to Confuse," "Give Up" and "Drama Mine," Barlow and Loewenstein create a sharp landscape dripping with loneliness, sorrow and anxiety. When Barlow murmurs the lines "Somehow I don't trust you/I don't trust myself" during the chorus of "Not a Friend," you can't help but wonder if he will be strong enough to get to the end of the song.
Such displays of sentiment have resulted in Barlow being tagged a stereotypically sensitive male. He doesn't complain about the characterization, but he suggests that his image has been distorted over the years. "I am more or less a child of the feminist revolution," he concedes. "I grew up reading a lot of Ms. magazines because they were lying around my parents' house. But I don't think I'm particularly enlightened, really. That's just the way I'm supposed to be, I think. I don't see that that's exceptional in any way. The `enlightened Nineties guy' sort of makes me think of those guys with chains in the Seventies going, `Hey, I'm a modern man. Check me out.' Fuck that."
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Likewise, Barlow believes Sebadoh's popularity has been greatly exaggerated in recent months, due in large part to the fallout from the so-called alternative explosion. One of the primary reasons Gaffney left the band, Barlow reports, was because he felt the act was getting "too big." But, he goes on, "Sebadoh is like a third as popular as Dinosaur was back then. People don't really realize that. The truth is, we just get a lot of press and we influence a lot of other musicians, so there's this illusion that we're huge. I mean, we're still struggling just like we always were. We're still nowhere near where I was eight years ago. So why are people telling me that I am?
"I'm really happy with Sebadoh, and I'm glad we're as successful as we are," he admits. "It just gets really annoying. That kind of shit doesn't really matter to me. I don't even want to think about it. I just want to go about my business."
Sebadoh, with Godhead Silo and Abdomen of Hypnosis. 9 p.m. Saturday, March 4, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $10, 830-2525 or 444-