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Sebadoh – Lou Barlow on the 20th Anniversary of Bakesale

Until It Bleeds

Dec 29, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Though we’re still in the process of assessing the cultural and creative significance of the seminal indie rock records from the early ‘90s, three albums from that era stand out as more or less indisputable touchstones: Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted, Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand and Sebadoh’s Bakesale. Of the three, Bakesale was the least obvious choice for canonization at the time of its release, if only because it was so out-of-step. When indie rock’s prevailing pose was to look like you didn’t care, Sebadoh wrote songs with a heart-on-sleeve sincerity. When loud guitars and obfuscation were in, Sebadoh played straightforward guitar-pop songs that focused on hooks and lyrical directness. Twenty years later, Pavement and Guided by Voices might be more revered, but Sebadoh is more copied. Bakesale is the moment their legacy was secured.

Having developed their emotionally raw lo-fi sound over four albums, ex-Dinosaur Jr. member Lou Barlow, bassist Jason Loewenstein, and multi-instrumentalist Eric Gaffney seemed poised at a culminating moment by 1994. For one, their previous album, 1993’s Bubble and Scrape, had proven the band could clean up their sound in the studio without losing any of their frayed edge charm. For another, Barlow had started writing songs on an electric guitar, further opening up his textural palette as an artist. With Nirvana’s ascension suddenly making indie rock a viable career choice, Sebadoh had the momentum necessary to capitalize on the opportunity if they could overcome the unfocused sprawl of their earlier work and make an album that stood as a unified statement. A lot was riding on Bakesale.

Then, right as they began recording, it all began to slip away. After years of conflict, Gaffney finally quit, leaving them as a duo. From that point on, Sebadoh would be a different band. With Gaffney gone, they had lost their most unstable and restlessly creative member, and Barlow responded to the challenge of replacing him by elevating Loewenstein to an equal partner in the songwriting process. Thus was born the new Sebadoh, a cleaner, leaner band that traded their lo-fi buzz for power pop classicism, and Bakesale was their coming out party. Here, Barlow reflects on Gaffney’s departure from the band, Bakesale‘s lasting legacy, and how nothing would ever be as simple for Sebadoh again.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): When you started working on Bakesale, did you have different goals for it than you’d had for Bubble and Scrape?

Lou Barlow: Not really. The sessions started while we were on tour. We were in Chicago, and we went into Steve Albini’s studio with our friend Bob Weston, who was engineering it, and we recorded four songs with him. That was the final recording for Eric Gaffney on drums. I guess one of the things was to capture four songs that we were playing live at the time and capture them as we were playing them, which is something I don’t ever feel like I do enough of with my band—record while we’re on tour. That’s when the band is in really good form, and I think the sound of those songs, in particular, really capture Eric’s tour drumming. He was a really great drummer, and an interesting musician. We felt like we were able to capture him in his natural habitat, which was tough, in general. We were able to do that with those first four songs.

What was your reaction when Eric quit the band?

He’d quit the band several times, and we were okay with that. We’d always get our friend Bob [Fay] to come play drums. But the last time he quit, he sent me a list of demands for the next Sebadoh record, which was that he’d get one-third of the recording advance, get to record by himself, and would not tour with the band. Those were his demands. I just thought that was ridiculous, so we took his resignation at that point. “You can’t do that. Sorry.” We adjusted to anything he wanted to do up until that point. We did a lot of stuff that was kind of unusual, and we went with the flow for most of that. But that was kind of out of bounds. So he left the band. Eric was great. He was a great musician and an interesting collaborator, but he was also a huge pain in the ass. When he left, it felt like we could just have fun. So we went into to finish the songs and write some new songs, and it was great.

Do you think he saw making those demands as a way to quit the band without actually quitting? Did he expect you to take his demands?

I think he did expect me to take his demands, because I had generally done whatever he wanted to do. [Laughs] I think he and I were locked in a power struggle that only he was aware of a lot of the times. He’s not a team player, you know? He’s a pretty individual talent and a pretty unique person. Trying to be in a band with Eric, I felt like we had kept him in the band for a long time considering how much he didn’t really like being in bands.

Did that change the way you approached that album, knowing he wouldn’t be in the band?

Yeah. It lifted the mood considerably. When he was around [on tour], we never knew night-to-night whether he’d play his songs. He was very mercurial, and we spent a lot of time trying to gauge where he was at and submitting to his demands. So when he left it was like, “Let’s have fun. Let’s learn a bunch of new songs and play some shows and go into the studio.” So the spirit we had when we finished Bakesale—it was great. We were on a high and were having a lot of fun.

So the mood totally changed from those first four songs?

Yeah. [Laughs] To say the least.

Was it difficult to replace him?

Oh yeah, definitely. In some ways, depending on how you look at it, we streamlined the sound of the band at that point. I wasn’t happy about losing Eric. That wasn’t my goal. I didn’t want him out of the band. I just wanted to work with him, but he didn’t want to work with me. I always missed Eric, and in a lot of ways I think our records with him are stronger than Bakesale. But Bakesale is a more consistent record sonically. Jason’s songwriting is much closer to mine than Eric’s was at the time, so we streamlined the sound and made an easier record to digest for people. The timing of that was fortuitous, because people were still listening to Sebadoh records. A new Sebadoh record was still kind of an event, like a new Pavement record. We still had people’s ears, so that was good.

Many writers point to Bakesale as being the moment where Sebadoh finally made a focused record. Was that due to Eric’s departure?

Yeah. [Laughs] It’s due to his departure, because when he quit, Jason had to step up to the plate and bring an equal number of songs. Up to that point, Jason was giving us one or two songs, because Eric and I were the main songwriters. But Jason came up as an equal partner. I love Jason’s songs and I love his voice, and his songs on that record are considered, among our fans, their favorite Sebadoh songs.

Did you have any particular goals for how you wanted it to sound different than previous records?

At the time I had a really good relationship with Fort Apache Studios [in Cambridge, Massachusetts], and I was recording with my other band, The Folk Implosion. We were going in and out of Fort Apache and taking my four-track in and making these lo-fi things that were recorded on four-track but taking them into the studio and making them more powerful than they would have been if they remained on cassette. I had a really good flow going there, for lack of a better word. I could go in and take time with whoever happened to be working and get really great stuff. It was a really great atmosphere. Also, at the time, I was listening to a ton of ‘60s garage music. And Bob Fay worked at a record store in Boston, so he and I, every morning we’d go through stacks of records and listen to all this new stuff, because the compilations of that kind of music were starting to pour out at that point.

Did you have any expectations for how that album would be received?

No. For the songs I had finished the record with, they were pretty simple compared to the four songs we had done before, which were a little more musically complex and longer, and they had Eric’s drumming, which was really dynamic. When we played with Bob Fay, I knew he was limited in a way that I liked, because I had been listening to a lot of primal garage music, which has simple drumming. Bob had that spirit and his drumming was simple and spirited, and that’s what I wanted. But I didn’t know if people would like it.

As far as the production goes, was it a goal to have cleanly produced sounds?

I guess so, yeah. The only thing I can think of is that I wanted to have the same guitar sounds as The Folk Implosion records that we were working on, so I basically took my friend John Davis’ guitar and amp into the studio, and I loved his guitar. I just adopted it. I knew it would sound different with my style of playing. And then they had some great vintage amps there that we were able to overload and get a fuzzy sound. But at the same time, there was a clarity because we were working in a studio.

Because you were working with The Folk Implosion at the same time, was it difficult to switch your mindset back and forth?

No. It was a really happy and production period for me, and I couldn’t work enough, really. When Eric took that vibe away, it was pretty exhilarating.

Had there ever been any doubt that the band would continue without him?

No. On the very first tour we set up, he bailed on us. We had a tour where we were opening up for Fugazi for a bunch of shows, and it was going to be the first Sebadoh tour, and he bailed a week before the tour. [Laughs] He sent me a long letter and told me all of the things I was doing wrong. And that’s when Bob Fay joined us halfway through that tour, after Jason and I had played it as a duo. It was one of those things: we knew Eric could leave at any moment. We just wanted to play, because we were young and playing music was fun. Going on tour and stuff was the only thing I really knew, from having been in Dinosaur Jr.

I also knew we were lucky. We had a record deal, and it wasn’t a great record deal, but we were getting $750 to go into a studio and transfer our four-track tapes and turn them into a record. I thought we had some momentum. I wasn’t going to let Eric completely control everything. [Laughs] But he was with us and played with us, and we did what he wanted to do and expected that he’d do what we wanted to do. But some people kind of want to be in control a lot…or all the time. I respect that, but that wasn’t the spirit of Sebadoh. The spirit of Sebadoh started as Eric and I as two equal parts of the band, and that’s the concept I wanted to stick by.

Do you think Jason felt any pressure with having to step up and take a lot more responsibility in the band?

I think he did, but when that happened I made sure that he did whatever he needed to do to be comfortable recording his songs. At the time, he was going out with Tara Jane O’Neil, this fellow musician from Louisville, and Jason had just moved to Louisville, Kentucky. And he was playing music with her, so he had her come in and play drums on some of his songs, which I think really provided a safety net for him or a comfort zone, so that when it came to recording his songs, he did it in this really beautifully simplistic and warm way. I think a lot of that had to do with his love for Tara and his love for Louisville, Kentucky. It was really good timing. We just made sure that however he needed to record his songs, that was cool. However he was comfortable. Eric really pushed that to an extreme that we couldn’t abide by, but Jason went with it.

You said that some of these songs were recorded right off of tour, so does that mean that there was a fairly short incubation period for them?

Yes, but they weren’t written in the studio. We actually did some touring on the songs, so when we did go into the studio, we knocked it out really quick. It was really natural, and everyone knew when to start and stop. That was great. That’s what we did.

It seems like the record has a very spontaneous energy to it. Do you think that’s due to it being not labored over?

Yeah. The way the songs were written, there really wasn’t anything to labor over. It was like, “Here, Bob. Start and stop.” That’s all I wanted from the drums—for him to stop at the right time. We were just trying to make it as easy as possible for everybody.

It looks like that was an incredibly prolific period for you, since Sebadoh was putting out a record pretty much every year and you were doing Folk Implosion, too. Was it difficult to keep up with that pace?

Not then. It got a lot harder after that. Success kind of complicates stuff, generally. But up until that point, no. Right after that period, I started doing Folk Implosion stuff, and Folk Implosion did the Kids soundtrack after that. It was just a really creative period. It was great.

Do you think slowing down is just a function of age? Or are there extra things you have to consider due to success?

It just becomes more complicated. We were like a real, actual success. We weren’t huge. We weren’t like The Gin Blossoms or anything, but we were nipping at the heels of Pavement and doing shows with Sonic Youth every once in a while and getting on 120 Minutes on MTV. But when it came to the next record, which became Harmacy, right away the same producer we used on Bakesale said, “You’ve got to fire Bob. The drumming isn’t good enough.” All of the stuff that was fine for Bakesale, all of a sudden wasn’t good enough. It’s typical. It’s a very normal story of what happens to bands when they have any sort of success.

Do you think you were unprepared for that?

No. I think I was prepared. I don’t think anyone else was, really. I think about it like I had already been through it with Dinosaur Jr. for those first three records. So I already had my experience with being in a band and touring and having success. For me, it was like round two. “Here we go! Great! This is cool. I can manage this.” But it was round one for everyone else I was with, so I think it was difficult for them. Obviously, for Eric Gaffney, he bailed before Bakesale because the pressure was too much. There wasn’t even that much pressure. I was prepared, but that doesn’t mean anything.

Do you think that pressure started building with Bubble and Scrape?

I didn’t really feel any pressure until after Bakesale. I just didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I didn’t think we were that popular or that it was out of control at all. Everything was very manageable, and we were making just enough money to keep ourselves going without getting regular jobs. We were given enough money to spend a couple days in the studio. It seemed really manageable. I thought the band and our approach was so modest and simple that we were never going to be mistaken for Nirvana. We were a very mid-fidelity band, mi-fi. We weren’t macho. We weren’t heavy, though we could be. We could be a very dynamic band, but with Bakesale, because Bob was the main drummer, it grounded the band in a pretty pop direction. It was extremely modest.

But since you were listening to so much garage music at the time, that’s what was sounding good to you.

Absolutely. All those hundreds and hundreds of one-hit wonders from lo-fidelity recordings and simple drumming. They were just sweet pop songs, and they were also raw. So much of that stuff is so great and inspiring.

It also requires a certain amount of confidence to put out a record like Bakesale. There’s nothing to hide behind in those songs.

Yeah, that was my approach then and still is, in a lot of ways.

Was there any moment you realized Bakesale was breaking through in a way that the others hadn’t?

I guess so. The shows were selling out, and we did some show in L.A. where Pia Zadora, who was a big celebrity at the time, announced us. The reviews were really good, which was shocking to me, because we’d always had people who liked us but had gotten mixed reviews. Some people really hated Sebadoh, because we weren’t particularly heavy. There was a lot of hard music happening, and indie rock in general was pretty hard, and we weren’t. We were in spots, but we were also extremely vulnerable and we’d quiet stuff down. We weren’t always screaming. Pavement was like that, too. There were bands like that.

What do you think it was about Bakesale that resonated with people then and still does?

I don’t know. It’s an easily digested record. It’s easy to approach. It’s friendly. [Laughs] In comparison to what I tend towards, I do like to challenge people, not necessarily in a really musical way, but emotionally I like the songs to be a challenge. I like uncomfortable things divulged. That doesn’t always make for easy listening for people. For some reason on Bakesale the tone of the songs was a lot easier for people to take. It wasn’t as heartbroken, and there was some real joy behind it, too, which is rare for what I do.

If you were to listen to that album right now, what do you think you’d hear? Do you think it would sound differently to you now than it did then?

Well, we did the reissue a couple years ago, and I did have to sit there and listen to it. And it was actually the first time I actually enjoyed it, though when we initially finished it I was thrilled. I was excited by it, but there’s a lot of things in the vocals that I didn’t really like, and there is a lack of dynamics in some of the stuff that I mourned. But the last time I listened to it, I was really pleased that it was a nice record, like, “This is a really friendly little record.”

At the same time, I don’t think that record has aged much at all. You can put it on and it doesn’t sound 20 years old.

Oh, that’s good! That kind of stuff is hard for me to gauge.

It seems like there are probably more bands now that have picked up on that sound than there were back then.


Surfer Blood sounds a lot like that record. Have you heard of them?

No, but that’s cool. I never really hear bands that I think are influenced by Sebadoh. Especially in comparison to when Pavement happened, when all of a sudden there were bands that sounded exactly like Pavement, and there were a lot of them. Sebadoh, to me, the sound was never really defined, because it was so simple. It wasn’t really something you could really imitate.

I can see that. There aren’t any obvious affectations in Sebadoh records to mimic. But at the same time it’s a classic sound.

Well, that’s cool.

How many songs from Bakesale still turn up in your live set?

A lot. A lot of those songs, to me, are pretty airtight. I don’t want to use the word “perfect,” but to me they are. [Laughs] Maybe not in the sense of the world of pop music, but to me they are perfect. They’re the perfect length, and they have little riffs that are easy to play. I almost feel like they get better and better the more we play them.

Going into the next record, how much of the momentum of Bakesale influenced the way you approached Harmacy?

Well, we recorded it at the same studio with the same guy, but it was totally different. Unfortunately, at that point I had written a new batch of songs, and I was happy with them, but I was looking for more dynamics in the songs and realizing that we weren’t really going to get that. That was a bummer. The next one was a hard record to make because of that.

So Bakesale was that perfect window when everything came together.

Yeah, it was when we could be what we were, and people weren’t asking us to be more than that. I think once you have success people naturally go “Okay, what’s the next step? What’s going to be better than that one?” But the band we were at that time, with Bob Fay on drums and Jason becoming more aware of what he had stepped into, he was all of sudden like, “Oh, my God! I’m now an equal member?” I think for everyone it got harder. When we did Bakesale, we did it in such a rush of time and before anyone really had time to think about what it meant, so the vibe really reflects that. Harmacy was where the record label really stepped in, and people started talking about singles and music placement—stuff like that. But we were still punks. We didn’t really want to be what other people wanted us to be. We didn’t really want to be famous or do what it took to play the game at a higher level. We didn’t want to do it. We just wanted to continue to do what we did in the simple way that we did it. But that’s just not realistic. I just wanted to play music.

[Sebadoh, with a lineup of Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and Bob D’Amico, released a new studio album, Defend Yourself, in 2013 on Joyful Noise. Read our 2013 interview with Sebadoh on that album here.]


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