In the current climate of uncertainty and unrest within the recording industry, where big record labels eat other big record labels in perpetuity and indies retract themselves into self-contained genre-of-the-month stalwarts, it's nearly unthinkable for a 12-year-old band to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. But Sebadoh, the lo-fi, sensitive-boy guitar-rock institution that screamed "Gimme indie rock" more than a decade ago, is doing exactly that.
Dropped last year by its label of seven years, Sub Pop, the three members of Sebadoh -- Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and drummer Russ Pollard -- are slowly testing the newly raucous waters of recording politics. Because of recently exacerbated logistical issues (band members currently live in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, respectively) it's been nearly three-quarters of a year since Sebadoh has played together. Barlow has kept busy with his side project, the Folk Implosion, which scored a minor hit in 1996 with the song "Natural One" from the Kids soundtrack, while Loewenstein and Pollard settled into their new locales (both moved from Louisville, Kentucky, last year).
The band is no stranger to tumultuous circumstances, as its history clearly illustrates. In 1987, Barlow was playing bass in another band, the acclaimed fuzz and distortion outfit Dinosaur (later Dinosaur Jr.). During his off time with Dinosaur, with whom he recorded the classic You're Living All Over Me album, Barlow holed up in his room with just an acoustic guitar and four-track recorder, making songs with fellow cassette-swapper Eric Gaffney. Two years later, Barlow was booted from Dinosaur by front man J. Mascis, the beginning of a bitter feud that would last for years. This came shortly after Homestead Records released the first Sebadoh album, 1989's The Freed Man, which, along with the group's second record, 1990's Weed Forestin, featured only Barlow and Gaffney, playing acoustically. (Both albums were compiled in 1990 as The Freed Weed.) Barlow even penned a song attacking Mascis, the vitriolic "Freed Pig" on Freed Man.
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Without Dinosaur monopolizing Barlow's time, the duo decided to recruit a drummer to flesh out its sound, which oscillated wildly between Barlow's soft, acoustic songs and Gaffney's chaotic and increasingly electric cacophonies. Jason Loewenstein -- like Gaffney a songwriter and drummer -- joined the band, and the filled-out Sebadoh began playing shows.
But the sailing was far from smooth, as Gaffney continually bailed, breaking up and reforming the combo on a whim. This pattern would repeat itself in the years to come, though Gaffney's frequent absences were eventually compensated for, as the members' roles were continually changing -- who played what depended on the song -- as was the band's lineup. On multiple occasions between 1991 and 1993, Sebadoh enlisted Bob Fay to substitute for Gaffney, who eventually made his disappearing act permanent.
Sebadoh's shows were notoriously inconsistent. Famous for intraband temper tantrums and onstage bickering, the group brought unabashed volatility to each performance, which for many fans was part of the attraction. The onstage tension paired well with Sebadoh's lyrical subject matter -- tortured relationships, broken trust, incomprehensible frustration. It was this combination, along with the members' ever-increasing musical sensibilities, that cemented the band's stature as lords of the rock underground by the mid-'90s.
Sebadoh released two records on Sub Pop, Bakesale and Harmacy, once Fay had replaced Gaffney. After 1996's Harmacy, which was considered a disappointment by both fans and the band members (despite containing some extraordinary songs like Barlow's disheartening "Too Pure" and Loewenstein's hick-flavored stomp "Worst Thing"), Barlow and Loewenstein decided that Fay's days with Sebadoh were finished.
Shortly after current drummer Russ Pollard's arrival, the band recorded and released last year's The Sebadoh. Pollard's arrival signaled the beginning of some much-needed stability. But a decade's worth of lineup changes and interpersonal chaos haven't been Sebadoh's only trials.
After 1994's Bakesale, the band's most accessible effort to that point, Sub Pop decided that Sebadoh had the potential to be more than an indie fave popular only with the bespectacled, corduroy-wearing, young, tortured, intellectual set. Flush with money from Nirvana's success and the label's subsequent popularity, as well as from Warner Bros.' purchase of 49 percent of the company, Sub Pop put its starmaker works into motion with Harmacy. This was fine with the band members, who did their best to play the game, going on promotion tours and playing with radio-friendly artists like Sheryl Crow and the Wallflowers on stadium concert bills (think "That Damn Show"), but fate was against them once again.
As Loewenstein explains it, Sub Pop "had a big radio staff at the time. People were making a lot of phone calls, just making sure everyone was aware of us, setting up a lot of press and whatever, and midway through the big American Harmacy tour, everybody from the label left." Because of disagreements between longtime staffers and the label's owners, Sub Pop was left a skeleton of its former self and had to be completely restructured.
For 1999's The Sebadoh, the story was much the same. Sub Pop had contracted with Sire Records, a Warner subsidiary, for promotion and distribution. "Basically, they were going to do the same things that Sub Pop did," Loewenstein recalls, "but they had more connected people working in their company for radio and this and that...sleazy promotions. We were just hoping that at least we'd get into more Wal-Marts so that the kids in the Midwest could get our records without having to mail-order."
But Sire's promotion machine was quick to dismiss the band. "They basically dropped us a month into their promotion. I think we were just disappointing for them."
At the same time, the band's relationship with Sub Pop had cooled. Though not a bitter breakup, Loewenstein explains that "we just sort of exhausted our tenure with them. The company had been through a million changes; they grew and then shrank again with the state of the industry. I'm not really privy to the inner workings of the label, but I do know that a lot of the personnel that they had from day one are all gone now, and I think that's a big sign. People who stuck with it through the coldest days around there and then got to enjoy the success of the label are gone now."
Freshly dropped and coming off multiple disappointments, the three members went their separate ways and took a contemplative break for much of the past year. Loewenstein says they never questioned their choice of careers, but began to re-evaluate with whom the band had associated itself professionally. "The whole thing makes you rethink, like, 'Does anybody around us really know what they're talking about?'"
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Loewenstein packed his things and moved to New York City with his wife, two dogs, and potbellied pig to reflect on his past and future and to study a bit of farm-animal behaviorism as well. "[The pig is] an enormous burden, he is. But he's also magic. He teaches you life lessons every day. Like don't eat a lot, and be nice. 'Cause he wants to eat all the time and he's really grumpy. You can sort of see how that looks to other people by watching him," says Loewenstein, laughing.
The time off has obviously done much to clear his head. Kept busy playing music with friends in a trio currently billed as Hot Carl ("The name means something very lewd; it's kind of stupid, like teenage sexual things."), recording on his eight-track at home, and polishing his Internet skills, Loewenstein is assimilating well to the New York lifestyle...almost. "It'd be a lot better if I was a big rock star or something like that, where the money was just rolling in droves. I haven't had to work in a long time because I lived in a really, really economically different place." Loewenstein's even put in applications at several temp agencies (for Web tech jobs; he also writes and maintains Sebadoh's official Web page, www.sebadoh.com) to soften the Big Apple-size blow to his pocketbook. "But it's interesting. There's just so many people doing cool shit here. It's refreshing; there's just a million people being creative and not being weird and competitive with each other."
But now Sebadoh's vacation is over, and the band is facing the challenge of striking out again, trying to win over an industry that has never been especially kind to it. The three will meet in San Francisco prior to its South by Southwest venture to refresh their memories (eight albums is a lot of songs to remember) and chemistry, then will spend two weeks on the road (including an enviable SXSW slot -- a Saturday-night showcase at the large La Zona Rosa venue alongside Modest Mouse) before hitting the studio for three days to record what may well be a demo tape to shop to labels. All this baby-band hustling is a slightly strange proposition for a group with a name and a large back catalog. "We just got a manager for the first time, and she mentioned the word 'demo' to me," Loewenstein says. "I was like, 'How about our eight records?' I got all offended at first, but the climate's changed so much, I think maybe it is a good idea to sort of show what we're up to."
When questioned about what they're looking for in a label and whether they're leaning toward the indies or majors, Loewenstein is unsure. "We'd like to be promoted, y'know," he admits. "That's kind of what this whole trip is about. We're gonna see who's interested, what resources they've got, and try to pick the best plan. 'Cause we'd like to be promoted, but we don't want to be in a situation where people are trying to kick us onto the radio again -- that seems a little ridiculous for our band. "It seems like after 10 years of playing together, we have a pretty good clue who our audience is, we have a pretty good clue what we want to do, and it just seems like everyone says, 'There's a billion possibilities out there, kid.' Which is exciting because you want to make a living off your music, but it's a lot of hot wind, I think."