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.
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.
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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.