Return of the Lo-Fi

Sebadoh: two friendly minstrels who aren't very friendly

The vagaries of fame are often puzzling: What becomes a legend most? goes the question. In the case of one Lou Barlow, founder of the hugely influential indie rock band Sebadoh, there were frequently occasions where it seemed his path might mirror someone like Beck's, at least in terms of success if not Scientology. But as Barlow himself will now tell you, whatever eminence Sebadoh enjoyed was fleeting.

"Well, Jake (Loewenstein, aka Jason, the last remaining active member of Sebadoh save Barlow) and I both, really ... we experienced ... our post-Sebadoh days were pretty dire. Everything I've done since Sebadoh has been pretty much critically panned and totally ignored commercially. We've both been in the same boat with that. Although he had a rougher road of it than I did, because I had Folk Implosion; I had two bands." Barlow is referring to Loewenstein's tremendous, but largely ignored, 2002 album At Sixes and Sevens and the failure that met the post-Sebadoh offerings from the now-defunct Folk Implosion.

It was the Folk Implosion's 1995 hit "Natural One," from the Kids soundtrack, that hinted at potentially glorious salad days in the offing. Coming on the heels of Bakesale, Sebadoh's most popular album, as it did, "Natural One" was the crest of a "groundswell of Lou"; indeed, there was a point in the mid-'90s where the serious rock fan couldn't escape the guy (this refers specifically to a couple of occasions where this writer desperately wanted to escape his ubiquitous ass --a particularly grating co-interview he did with sucker-mom Liz Phair for Rolling Stone and his appearance on a popular MTV sexumentary sporting a Joy Division shirt).

In their early '90s prime, the joys of Sebadoh were multifarious. Barlow, and secondarily Loewenstein, can largely be credited with the creation of the "lo-fi" aesthetic as exemplified by their favored four-track recording style. He and Loewenstein wrote magnum opi of heartbreak, particularly on Bakesale and its predecessor, 1993's Bubble and Scrape. The pair had the perfect voices to convey all the longing remorse of their songs--melodically wistful in a way that was later perfected by Elliott Smith. Throw in the amelodic experimentation of former member Eric Gaffney's songs, and you had a unit which, while somewhat in flux due to Gaffney's comings and goings, embodied what became indie's defining ethos, which was really just a heart-on-the-sleeve variation of Keep It Simple, Stupid. But some time after Gaffney split for good, and their friend Bob Fay somewhat reluctantly joined the band to play drums, things started coming apart.

"Harmacy (Sebadoh's 1996 album for Sub Pop) to me was like the big, that was the one thing where we were given some money to do a record. ... We hit this wall, where like, 'Bob Fay hates the drums,' Barlow says with a laugh. "I mean what do we do? Our drummer hates playing drums. And then there were all these other complications. Like, God, we didn't get any time to practice before we went to the studio, because there was a blizzard, you know, and then like all these things started piling up."

Barlow looks at Harmacy as the belly-flop from which Sebadoh never really recovered, despite turning in a final album, The Sebadoh, that stands with the group's best work. "I think our time was up anyway. We had a long run of like, every record we put out goes to No. 1 on CMJ (College Music Journal); you go to the show, and there's a bunch of kids there. (After that) our time was up, that was it."

Prior to this year, Sebadoh hadn't played a show since early 2000. But Barlow never declared that the band had broken up; he and Loewenstein just gave it a rest, and Bob Fay didn't want to participate anyway at that point. Contrast that with the much-ballyhooed curtain call that will be undertaken by Barlow's peers in Guided by Voices this fall.

"The only consistent thing about the band (is singer Bob Pollard). It's his voice; it's his songs. ... For him to make the announcement, 'This is the Final Show!' to me seems like, just a shrewd commercial move. 'Cause he's going to continue to do ... y'know?" The sentence trails off with a laugh.

After a handful of gigs organized around a record label anniversary in England and a benefit for an organization for which Barlow's mother works, Barlow and Loewenstein decided that they enjoyed what they were doing enough to continue, solving their drummer problem by obviating the need for one, at least through this current tour.

"It's really fun," Barlow says. "The setup is so simple; it's just Jake and I in a car together. No one's traveling with us; we're doing everything ourselves. It's real simple, and we get along well. The approach that we have right now, we're playing to prepared beats. Jake played them and programmed some of them. So we're playing to that, which is real simple and kind of a novel approach. There's a real emphasis on the vocals. It's cool. I like it."

As for future prospects, Barlow is circumspect. "I don't mean to be bleak about it; (I'm just trying to be) realistic," he says. "... We're getting like maybe a 150 people at the shows, especially on the West Coast, with a few exceptions like the Bay Area, and Seattle was surprisingly good for us. But other than that, people ... I mean, there's this idea that Sebadoh was this, sort of, uh, pivotal indie rock band, and influential and things, but the people that it's actually important to, it's a very, very small group of people, and especially now that any of the audience that we did have, they've aged (laughs) as much as we have, obviously, and have moved beyond that part of their life where they really are like engaged in going out to shows all the time, or really taking the trouble to go see a band, which I totally understand and relate to."

Neither Barlow or Loewenstein plans to stop being who they are, however. They will both release solo records in early '05 and will likely record another Sebadoh album in the near future. But they're not getting their hopes up.

Despite the comparative hard times of the last few years, however, Barlow has "made it," in that he owns a house he loves in Los Angeles and can still support himself as a musician.

"I mean, being able to do what we're doing right now, Jason and I, it's a total gift," he says. "It's a gift that we're able to travel around right now and play these shows and worry about breaking even, and just tool around and keep it easy, and see if we can rekindle any kind of interest in the band, or just remind people of some, you know, day gone by, I don't know, when our songs meant something to people."

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