Willing to wait

Lou Barlow works on solidifying Sebadoh's reputation

Sebadoh's post-Gaffney output--Bakesale, from 1994, and the new record, Harmacy--are more sophisticated and clearer than their predecessors. Barlow and Loewenstein have made more of an effort to be understood, but have managed to stay outside the realm of records-for-radio. "If you make a strange, eccentric record--like the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat," Barlow says, "it takes on its own mood because it's less about a shrewd marketing plan, it's more about an individual emotion."

The band and the road certainly do not fit together according to a shrewd marketing plan. Their reputation live is hit and miss (with more misses), and they know it, despite the people who turn out to hear the intimate songs from the records. "We use different guitar tunings," Barlow explains, "and I'm a complete retard." The band has always switched instruments onstage, sometimes for each song, and that doesn't help group cohesion, either. On the Bakesale tour's Albuquerque stop, the time between songs in the packed club was five minutes. The restless crowd shouted barbs at Barlow, and a near-riot ensued. At the Fillmore in San Francisco, plagued by malfunctioning equipment, Barlow walked off after only 10 songs.

If Sebadoh--armed with new and better equipment, a solid lineup, and rehearsal time--could play like they do on record for the people who love them (and perhaps a few more), they might finally begin to solidify their uneven reputation. "We've been rehearsing," says Barlow, acknowledging the problem, "and I've put down a bunch of rules that I think help, and we tested them on the last tour. They work. I've stopped smoking pot before I play, and no drinking. I keep the tantrums to a minimum, because people don't want to see that."

"Hey, Lou," calls wife and muse Kathleen from an adjoining room lit only by the idiot box. Barlow is on TV. "Holy shit, that's me on Canadian MTV," he shouts, giddy as a 30-year-old child, wide-eyed. The interview, ages old, shows Barlow with longer hair, glasses, and the same cardigan he's wearing now, only a little less decayed. Barlow talks blithely into a foam-covered microphone about acidophilus pills and their ability to aid in regulating bowel movements.

On the video that follows--Sebadoh's hit "Ocean"--Barlow, the Un-nerd, sings: "So you think you're in the middle of the oh-shun..." Then the volume goes off with a push of Kathleen's pale and delicate thumb on the mute button, but masterful pop still pipes out to Canada. "I'm getting back at all of the people who ever put me down," Barlow says as Billus goes back to the dishes. This is the relationship of song to writer, the musical bedroom where small loves and losses become mythically huge. Everyone has had a terrible relationship. Everyone is misunderstood. Everyone is fraught with ambivalence, but in Boston there is hardly a sign of the tossing waves of longing, regret, angst, and misery that Barlow describes so brilliantly on every Sebadoh record. The seas here are calm. For now.

Sebadoh plays Trees Saturday, February 1.

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