By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Mirrors cover the walls of every room except the bedroom in Lou Barlow's ancient Boston apartment house. Dark, wine-colored carpet and ornate woodwork line the new dwelling of the guiding auteur of lo-fi rock heroes Sebadoh. Their "Willing to Wait," off of Harmacy--the band's seventh album--is hitting on VH-1, and there persists the eerie feeling that your mom might enjoy the band's earnest and unexpected mix of punk rock and acoustic guitar.
Barlow's Boston place has the look of a '70s crash pad for reformed slobs or practicing potheads. Or both. The books belong to Kathleen, his wife and inspiration; the guitars are his. "I can't tell you what the mirrors have done to my personality," Barlow says. "Yet."
That his new Beacon Hill home will affect him is almost a given; everything does, somehow: Barlow is probably the most sensitive guy in modern rock. His songs are poems of love and hate, songs of longing--either to caress a neck or wring it--written for the '90s and set to shiny pop. You'd think that people would have had enough of their sorry love songs, but they apparently haven't had enough of other bands' stupid hate songs, or meaningless grunge songs either, so there's hope that Barlow--misery-prone and worrisome--won't stop. He has every reason to keep going: In addition to Sebadoh's critical acclaim, his "side project," Folk Implosion, scored last year with "Natural One," a Top-40 hit from the movie Kids. "It's nice to know we can do it," says Barlow, pondering the phenomenon between bong hits. "We don't go for that power stuff. I bought Ratt's greatest hits and Cinderella because I thought they were the heaviest thing at the moment. It ages so poorly."
Living in an emotionally charged land of regret, ambivalence, and repressed desire, Barlow, drummer Bob Fay, and Jason Loewenstein--Sebadoh's guitarist and other singer-songwriter--mine "teenage" tensions. "Some of my songs are positive and stuff," Barlow says, "but some are about staring down at the ground and obsessing about stupid things, and it is teenage in a way. My taste isn't what's popular, really. My songs are well suited to popularity, but we never execute them in that way. It isn't thickly textured music with lyrical platitudes that everyone can understand. None of our music is powerful in that kick-ass way that makes guys drive fast in pickup trucks, or dance at the prom."
Sebadoh, now a decade old, is popular with people who never did those things. Barlow didn't go to college. Instead, he worked full-time in the leafy college town of Northampton, Massachusetts, to buy equipment for his band, Dinosaur Jr. At a show, he met Eric Gaffney and Kathleen Billus. With Gaffney, he transformed a bedroom recording collective into an indie phenomenon, releasing albums and scores of four-track singles. With Billus as inspiration, he let his heart break and form and break again, pouring it into songs for the world. "She was my first girlfriend," Barlow says of Billus, whom he married on the first anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. "She was one of 20 that would come to the local shows. After her, I started wearing black and wearing deodorant." Dinosaur Jr. became big with two savage SST records: Bug and You're Living All Over Me, which included the first Gaffney-Barlow tune, "Poledo," a swirling, murky acoustic guitar song with tape loops.
While the band threatened to rule the universe, Barlow's relationship with guitarist J Mascis deteriorated. The two didn't talk, and their relationship went from strained to violent. Mascis hit Barlow with his guitar during a show in Connecticut, and Barlow began entertaining violent revenge fantasies. "I imagined smashing him with my bass on Saturday Night Live," he says. "Kill him on national TV and then kill myself...I found out through MTV News that I was fired before I had a chance."
After that humiliation, Barlow, Gaffney, and Loewenstein formed Sebadoh and continued their "terrorist folk" project, trading instruments and songwriting duties freely and churning out more singles, records, and songs for compilations than even Barlow can count. In the process, they issued one of the first rallying cries of the '90s' home-recording revolution--"Gimme Indie Rock"--and became the eye of the storm that caused the "lo-fi" tsunami. Barlow's anger at Mascis fueled some of the more hostile and perversely funny Sebadoh songs, including "Latent Homosexual," "The Freed Pig," and "Asshole." Much of their rawest and most moving music was literally made in a kitchen, and sounded that way. Soon, the unlikely intersection of folk and punk--producing everything from intimate acoustic songs to two-minute blasts of screeching feedback--had a voice. On Sebadoh's heels came a welter of do-it-yourselfers armed with four-track recorders who regard the band as standard-bearers even among company like Liz Phair, Pavement, Smog, and Beck.
Barlow went from being the guy who got booted from Dinosaur Jr. to the guy who delivered beautiful songs. But the distance between Gaffney and Barlow also grew; Gaffney quit the band no less than three times between 1990 and '93. Once, he announced his unwillingness to tour three days before the band was supposed to leave. Fay, his replacement, dutifully grabbed his drumsticks and picked up where Gaffney had left off each time. The last time it was to stay, freeing Barlow and Loewenstein to concentrate on what they do best--delivering torrents of emotion in a gripping, tin-cans-and-string sort of way. "The four-track is like a sketchbook or diary," Barlow says, and his music reflects that belief--confessional, immediate, and fresh to the point of being primal.