It was just over a year ago that Lou Barlow, the Boston-by-way-of-Northampton indie-rock singer-songwriter who got his start playing bass in Dinosaur Jr., seemed to have given up on Sebadoh, the band whoíd sustained him through much of the í90s. Instead, having resettled in LA, heíd turned what had been a side project of sorts ó the Folk Implosion ó into a rock trio who resembled Sebadoh in both sound and style. The album they released in March 2003, The New Folk Implosion (Artist Direct), abandoned the folk-hop sampling that gave the old Folk Implosion Barlow had formed in Boston with his friend John Davis a breakthrough hit from the Kids soundtrack (London) in favor of the kind of melancholy, guitar-driven singer-songwriter fare that had been Sebadohís bread and butter.
But Barlow has always followed his own path, and just when it seemed that Sebadoh were a dead issue, he disbanded the Folk Implosion and reconnected with long-time Sebadoh partner Jason Loewenstein for a loose reunion thatís now spawned a tour that comes to T.T. the Bearís this Sunday. And just as the "new" Folk Implosion had mutated into something resembling the old Sebadoh before breaking up, the new Sebadoh bear a striking resemblance to the old two-singers/guitarists-and-a-beatbox Folk Implosion, with Barlow playing acoustic guitar, Loewenstein on bass, and a four-track providing minimalist backing beats.
Whatís more, this new, two-man incarnation of Sebadoh mirrors the first touring version of the band. Sebadoh were conceived as a trio, with Eric Gaffney (and then Bob Fay) on drums. But when they were invited out on their first tour by Fugazi and fIREHOSE, Gaffney opted out, leaving Barlow and Loewenstein to their own devices. "That was in early 1990," Barlow recalls when I reach him in LA. "And Eric bagged out on the tour only a week or two before it started. So it was just Jason and I, playing acoustic guitar and electric bass, with a tambourine between us that we stomped on. That was the original Sebadoh touring line-up."
The genesis of the current Sebadoh reunion dates back to last year, when Barlow was asked to perform at a series of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of the British label Domino Records. "The very first release on Domino was the Sebadoh album Bubble and Scrape. So they asked me to play solo at the anniversary event. I was just coming off what turned out to be the last Folk Implosion tour, and Iíd been thinking about Jason a lot. So I called him and asked if heíd be willing to do it as a Sebadoh show. That turned into a tour of England and Holland and Iceland. It all worked out so well that I think we both felt it was something we could do again."
Now the story gets a bit more complicated. As anyone whoís followed Barlowís career knows, his departure from Dinosaur Jr. in the late í80s was not a pleasant business. He and J Mascis didnít speak for years. Given Mascisís misanthropic nature, that might not seem particularly unusual. But Barlowís bitter feelings about his old pedal-stomping comrade-in-noise surfaced in the Sebadoh song "The Freed Pig" (later covered by the Breeders in a session produced by Mascis) and the single "Gimme Indie Rock," which features a witty and thinly veiled salvo aimed directly at Mascis. It became common knowledge that the Barlow/Mascis friendship had broken down in 1987, a full two years before Barlow was booted from the band. Alternative rock had its own intriguing if ultimately uneventful Everly BrothersĖstyle soap opera.
Yet that feud came to a very rock-and-roll resolution last year when Barlow showed up to see Mascis perform with bassist Mike Watt and former Stooges Ron and Scott Asheton in England. "I apologized to J for yelling at him the last time I had seen him, and we had a nice time together. I even went up and sang with them: we did Ď1969,í I guess. It was so loud, I couldnít even hear it. It was so perfect, because I hadnít been on stage with J in a long time, and nothing had changed: I couldnít hear anything. I was just screaming my head off. It was pretty funny. I met his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife. And I got all kinds of backstory on what had been going on. We just hung out. It was like, ĎWow, Iím growing up and this is great.í "
Thatís bound to conjure visions of a Mascis/Barlow Dinosaur Jr. reunion, but donít get your hopes up just yet. Barlow points out that he hasnít even "thought" about anything like that, particularly since he hasnít had any contact with the bandís original drummer, Murph. "I donít know. I just donít know how realistic it would be. I donít know whatís up with Murph. And he was absolutely crucial to the band when I was in it."
Nevertheless, Mascis and Barlow will once again be sharing a stage together, this time a little closer to their original home ó at a benefit at Smith College in Northampton on April 30. And the Sebadoh tour probably wouldnít have come about if Barlow hadnít been invited by, of all people, his mother to play the benefit, which is being headlined by Sonic Youth. "My mother works for a resource center for families with children who have autism out in East Hampton. And through that, she came in contact with J Mascisís cousin, who has a kid who has autism. So she and a co-worker formulated this idea of having a benefit for the resource center. They were like, ĎWeíll ask Lou, and J, and Jason . . . í The way my mother was thinking, there was no issue between J and me. Since we had already patched things up, it really wasnít all that outrageous that my mother thought she could put a bill together with J and me. And since she was inviting Jason as well, I thought we should just set up another Sebadoh tour around the benefit."
Most of the shows on the 17-date tour, which kicked off in St. Louis on April 19 and ends in Nashville on May 8, sold out well ahead of time. And given how prolific Barlow has always been when it comes to home recording, youíd think the bandís main American label, Sub Pop, would have some kind of Sebadoh retrospective rarities compilation or box set in the works. But according to the often self-depreciating Barlow, there are major impediments to thatís happening anytime soon. "Sebadoh were guinea pigs for Sub Pop as far as them flirting with being a major label with Warner Bros. As a consequence, they made a lot of stupid decisions on Sebadohís behalf, and we went right along with those decisions. So they lost so much money on us. We were willing to do a retrospective of some kind, and they balked because they had to give us money to do it. The Sebadoh catalogue just doesnít sell. Weíre not Pavement. Our records donít sell anymore, and there really isnít the interest. And Jason and I both know from when we went out on tour with our respective bands that thereís a very limited audience for it. I mean, when Sub Pop says they canít afford to do one of our records, that tells you something."
But though the audience for solo material by Barlow and especially Loewenstein (who was always an unsung songwriting hero of sorts in Sebadoh) might not be as robust as either would like, the two could be underestimating the Sebadoh allure. Even Barlow admits that "the Sebadoh tour in England was different. We did do a lot of really old Sebadoh stuff, and there were great silences after a number of my songs. But when we finally started playing songs from later records like Bakesale, people went crazy. So itís pretty clear what people want to hear from us on this tour.
"Jason is making a bit of a compromise because weíre not playing very electric. Even the percussion has no samples or cymbals. So heís taking a step back to where Iím really comfortable right now, which is the quieter stuff. But Iím able to step it up a little bit to play his songs. I donít know how long this can last, but itís a happy medium between the loud and the quiet."
In the meantime, Barlow has been putting together what amounts to his first fully produced solo album, which heís planning to release on the North Carolina indie Merge. "I guess the model for what Iím doing are the acoustic songs that were on the last Folk Implosion record." Loewenstein has already played on a couple of the tracks, and it seems likely that the two of them will continue to collaborate, whether or not itís as Sebadoh. "As long as my friendship with Jason is there, Sebadoh is still alive. We just work really well together. I think people donít realize how many of the songs on albums like Bakesale are Jasonís: people tend to think that his poppier songs are actually mine, and theyíre not."
The current tour may help clear that up, but Barlow isnít entirely optimistic. "Someone interviewed me from the Onion yesterday and asked why I donít collaborate with anyone. I mean, except for my home recordings, all Iíve ever done up until now has been collaborative. There are a handful of people who have worked with me and left, but itís always been for personal reasons, not because I donít collaborate well with other people. Iím actually very easy to work with. This new album Iím doing is the first time Iíve ever done a studio album by myself listening only to my own opinions about stuff. But I guess the perception is that I donít collaborate well with other people. Itís kind of depressing. But once I start doing something, I really donít give a shit about what the perception is."
Sebadoh perform this Sunday, April 25, at T.T. the Bearís Place, 10 Brookline Street in Harvard Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.
Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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