It's darn near impossible to keep it real as a hardcore indie band when the national media are knocking down your door. Sebadoh learned that lesson three years ago, when Lou Barlow's single "Natural One" blew up on commercial alternative radio. It was the day before the band went into the studio to cut its 1996 album Harmacy, and Barlow's other group, Folk Implosion, became the overnight darlings of MTV's Buzz Bin with "Natural One," which also showed up on the soundtrack to Larry Clark's hype film Kids. Basically, the press fawned all over Barlow and ignored Sebadoh. On top of that, Sebadoh's producers were reportedly feuding in-studio, and the session devolved into a six-month nightmare, recalls Sebadoh vocalist/bassist Jason Loewenstein.
"That hullabaloo made it impossible for us to practice, because all these people were hovering around Lou," he says. "I couldn't get the attention from the engineers. Basically, they produced the hell out of his songs and not out of mine."
Despite the tense atmosphere, Harmacy still managed to pull out some bright spots, like Loewenstein's bluesy cut "Prince-S" and Barlow's beautifully crafted folk number "Willing to Wait." But the experience left Sebadoh on the verge of breakup--a very real scenario for a band that nearly called it quits no less than three times in the early '90s. One casualty was longtime drummer Bob Fay, who left the band to pursue other interests.
"At the end of Harmacy, there was a lot of stuff we needed to talk about," says Loewenstein. "We were acting like good soldiers, but I think we gave up creative control as a band. From the beginning we had always been DIY kind of people."
The brief, tumultuous history of Sebadoh goes something like this: Barlow and Eric Gaffney hooked up in Northampton, Mas-sachusetts in 1989, after Barlow was brutally dumped from Dinosaur Jr. by frontman J. Mascis (he found out by watching MTV News). Loewenstein was recruited from a band called Dissident Voices, and Sebadoh launched its garage punk band, which was first signed to Homestead Records. Early Sebadoh recordings were a combination of angry punk rants and stoner folk numbers; Barlow tirades like "Latent Homosexual" were leveled directly at Mascis.
A band that fashioned itself from the likes of HYsker DY and the Minutemen, Sebadoh is looking to land a haymaker with its newly released CD, The Sebadoh. Perhaps the band's most accomplished collaborative effort to date, The Sebadoh blends Barlow's sensitive observations on relationships, Loewenstein's broken-hearted hardcore assault, and top-notch production values--something sorely lacking from previous Sebadoh efforts. After ten years of slogging out punk for punk's sake, Sebadoh has made a subtle but conscious shift toward a more textured and, I daresay, commercial sound.
"We're totally happy with [the new release]," says Loewenstein. "We've made some pretty lousy records in the last five years. This time we spent the money it takes to stay in the studio long enough. Sonically, it sounds like a much bigger production, but in a lot of ways it's much simpler. It's that whole less-is-more thing."
The new album's production is far from the old Sebadoh, a band synonymous with lo-fi studio sensibilities. Sebadoh was just being frugal, but it is credited for pioneering a movement--a sort of bedroom recording style that prides itself on cheap tapes and four-tracks. "Eric used to swear by these cassettes that were, like, from Radio Shack," Loewenstein says of Gaffney, who left the band in 1993. "God forbid we spend the money on a Maxell. Those records were crudely recorded. Creative, but crude. I mean, people could take heart in getting a guitar and starting a revolution."
Sebadoh was also infamous for recording its earlier albums with one band member in the studio at a time. The Sebadoh, though, was a group effort on every song, Loewenstein says. Barlow contributes a number of pop gems like "Tree," a jangly acoustic number that skips merrily along while he croons sardonically, "See how much we've grown/Pleasure takes its toll every day." Barlow hits a high point on "Love Is Stronger," a melodic folk rocker with layers of acoustic guitar, flute, and percussion.
Loewenstein, whose crushed heart was on display in Harmacy, recently got hitched. But marriage has not exactly soothed the beast; no, Loewenstein still has a few more rantings in him about failed relationships. The difference this time is, they sound like fully formed rantings. On his tracks "Nick of Time" and "Bird in Hand," angular guitar riffs match his bitter observations on a failed relationship.
"I'm always writing about my relationships," he says. "Now that I've been living with the same woman for five years--and as I get older--I can give credit to people for communicating. I guess I'm more interested in understanding than complaining."
This sounds like sacrilege, coming from a band that weaned itself on punk, or as Barlow has sometimes called it, "folk terrorism." Live, Sebadoh was known to mess with the audience, like playing all soft folk sets to an audience of punks or screaming punk to a crowd of college kids.
"With Lou and Eric, it was always a no-holds-barred antagonism match," Loewenstein says. "We could play in a cafeteria, and they would try to pick a fight. We don't really do that anymore. Our focus is on the music."
After pausing to consider that very responsible-sounding answer, he adds, "It can still get pretty tense sometimes. There are not a lot of bands who could take a bad night and blame it on the audience."
Loewenstein hopes that Sebadoh's reputation as a spotty live act will be put to rest on its current 38-date U.S. tour. The band toured for two weeks in Europe, and it was a smooth test drive for the newest member, drummer Russ Pollard, and a chance to learn the new material. "I'm excited about being in this band again," Loewenstein says. "There's a lot of places we can still go. I think we have another ten albums in us. And the music is going to come from all three of us."
Sebadoh. 9 p.m., Friday, March 5, Peabody's DownUnder, 1059 Old River Road, the Flats, $12 ($14 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.