Sebadoh - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Sebadoh began life as a home-recorded side project of Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow and his friend Eric Gaffney and grew into an influential indie rock band in it's own right. The band is credited with helping to create a niche of music often called lo-fi, that is, usually primitive indie singer-songwriter fare recorded quickly using limited means, usually just a hand-held microphone or the built-in mic of a boombox.
Lou Barlow gained fame in independent rock circles in the 80's as the bass player and occasional songwriter in Dinosaur Jr. Feeling frustrated with only being able to contribute a song or two to Dinosaur Jr. albums, Barlow began experimenting and recording his own songs at home on either a boombox or a primitive 4-track recorder he had, getting help from his friend Eric Gaffney, who was a DJ and multi-instrumentalist like Barlow. Barlow issued a limited self-issued cassette of his mostly acoustic songs in 1987 titled Weed Forestin' under the non-sensical name Sentridoh. The cassette was sold at local record stores near where Barlow lived in Massachusetts. Having had fun producing the first cassette, Gaffney and Barlow got together again when Barlow had a break from his duties in Dinosaur Jr. in 1988, and the duo both contributed songs to their next self-released cassette, The Freed Man, this time using the name Sebadoh. (Sebadoh was reportedly just a nonsense phrase that Barlow was heard to mutter during recording.) The Freed Man was split almost evenly between the usually mostly acoustic, confessional songs of Barlow and the more noisy, almost psychedelic outbursts of Gaffney. The second tape was sold in local record stores and among an underground network of indie rock enthusiasts, and eventually found it's way to Gerard Cosloy, who was then running the independent Homestead label. Cosloy liked the tape and contacted Barlow and Gaffney about releasing the tape as an album on his label. The tape was expanded and revised and was released as The Freed Man on Homestead in 1989. At around the same time, tensions between Barlow and his Dinosaur Jr. bandmate J. Mascis were coming to a head, and Barlow soon found himself kicked out of his main band. Though Barlow started Sebadoh as a side project for musical ideas he wasn't able to express in Dinosaur Jr., it now became his primary project. Gaffney suggested the band add a drummer and start playing shows, and drummer and multi-instrumentalist Jason Loewenstein joined the Sebadoh ranks in late 1989. At around the same time, Homestead offered to re-release Sebadoh's first cassette release, and the revised and expanded Weed Forestin' came out on the label in 1990. A CD combining the first two releases came out later in the year entitled The Freed Weed (Homestead).
The new trio version of Sebadoh played gigs regularly throughout the end of 1989 into early 1990, and the live gigs were notable in that they were noticeably different than how Sebadoh usually sounded on record. Whereas their albums sounded more intimate and acoustic, the live shows were exercises in noise-rock and post-hardcore aggression. The group was active on-and-off throughout 1990, deciding if they wanted to pursue the band as a full-time proposition. By 1991, the band was ready to record as a full-fledged electric three-piece band, and released the EP Gimme Indie Rock!(Homestead), the title song being both a celebration and a put-down of early 90's alternative rock, followed later by the album Sebadoh III (Homestead). The album featured songwriting contributions from all three members, with Loewenstein and Barlow's contributions tending towards the more acoustic and Gaffney's tending towards the electric. Just as the band was preparing to leave for it's first major tour, Gaffney unexpectedly quit the band. Loewenstein and Barlow initially carried on playing shows as a duo, but soon found drummer and multi-instrumentalist Bob Fay to take over drumming duties. Once the band got back from tour, Gaffney had a change of heart and wanted to rejoin the band. Barlow and Loewenstein agreed to welcome him back into the band, but the balance of power was never the same, and the band took to playing more of Barlow's compositions. After the tour, the band got back to recording and put down five of Barlow's songs to be used to see if the band could get a recording contract with another better distributed label. The demo worked and the group signed on with Sub Pop in the U.S. and City Slang/Domino in the U.K. and Europe.
Gaffney again decided to quit the band in late 1991, and Barlow and Loewenstein again brought Bob Fay back as the third member of Sebadoh. The trio toured in Europe and the U.S. during the early part of 1992, also finding time to record two British EP's, the jokingly-titled Sebadoh vs. Helmet (Domino) and Rocking The Forest (Domino), which were combined later that year as the band's debut on Sub Pop, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock. The album was a mixture of post-punk rave-ups with Barlow's emotionally naked acoustic numbers, and included a poignant cover of the David Crosby song “Everybody's Been Burned”. Almost astonishingly, Gaffney rejoined the band again after Smash...was released, causing Fay to leave again. With all of the back-and-forth membership changes in the band, Barlow continued releasing more material by himself under the Sentridoh name, releasing a series of cassettes, 7” singles and EP's through smaller labels through 1994. With Gaffney back in the band, Sebadoh released their fifth album, Bubble And Scrape (Sub Pop), in 1993, and spent most of the rest of the year touring the U.S. and Europe. The touring and continued press coverage raised the band's profile to the point that many saw the band as a standard bearer for a new generation of indie rock. Gaffney contributed a couple of noisy tantrum-rockers to Bubble And Scrape, but what is really on display is Loewenstein's emergence as a songwriter and Barlow's continued streak of achingly beautiful love and love-lost songs. Gaffney left Sebadoh for the last time, (well, almost), at the end of 1993 and Loewenstein and Barlow asked the ever-patient Fay to become the permanent third Sebadoh member.
Before another Sebadoh album was put together, Barlow got together with his friend John Davis, already a fixture in the lo-fi underground as a singer/songwriter and a former member of Palace Brothers, and created the group the Folk Implosion, (an obvious dig at The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.) Barlow spent the early part of 1994 working with Davis, and the duo released three recordings that same year. Barlow also spent time with his Sebadoh bandmates, and the group recorded another album, released in mid-1994, called Bakesale (Sub Pop). As Sebadoh's first full album without Gaffney, Barlow seemed to be more in charge of the band, and the album had a more accessible, pop-friendly feel than their previous efforts. Sales for Bakesale were the best yet for the band, and they even had a near-hit with the single “Rebound”. After touring for the album, Barlow turned his attention back to the Folk Implosion, as the duo were asked to record tracks for the controversial slice-of-life narrative film Kids (1995), directed by Larry Clark. The Folk Implosion scored an unlikely Top 30 American hit with the song “Natural One” off of the soundtrack, which also included tracks by other Barlow side-projects as well as tracks from underground favorites Daniel Johnston and Slint. (One can hardly imagine a soundtrack that would have been less likely to chart in the U.S., but there it was, riding on the coattails of the post-grunge indie rock boom.)
With the success of both Bakesale and the Folk Implosion, it would seem that Sebadoh's next album would be sure to be a hit. Though Harmacy (Sub Pop)(1996) did become the band's first album to make the American charts, it didn't do as well as many in the music industry were hoping it would do. The album was a continuation of the slightly cleaner, more straight-ahead sound started on Bakesale, with Barlow further refining his songwriting style and Loewenstein continuing to develop as a songwriter. It was met with generally positive reviews, though many critics felt the band was capable of more. After touring for the album, Fay was fired from the band and was replaced by drummer and multi-instrumentalist Russ Pollard, a friend of Loewenstein's. After many delays, a new Sebadoh album came out in 1999, The Sebadoh (Sub Pop). The group took the extra time between releases to gel more as a band, and the album showed a more kinetic energy to the songs, though some critics complained that as the band got tighter, they're earlier feeling of intimacy got lost. The album garnered middling reviews, and after touring for the album, the band didn't break up so much as go on an extended hiatus.
Barlow went on to work more with Davis in the Folk Implosion, and then moved on to release a solo album and then, somewhat surprisingly, reunited with his ex-Dinosaur Jr. bandmates J. Mascis and drummer Murph in 2005 to tour and, eventually, to release another album. Loewenstein went on to record a solo album and to drum with the brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces. Pollard went on to form the bands Alaska! and Everest. Barlow and Loewenstein reunited for a couple of concerts in 2003 and 2004, but it wasn't until 2007 when the two reunited with Gaffney and used the Sebadoh name again to tour to promote reissues of their first three albums. The reconstituted Sebadoh has continued touring into 2008, and it is not known if the trio plan to work on any new material.