Sebadoh is a name of considerable renown within the indie rock world.
Early classics like Sebadoh III employed a largely acoustic blueprint to deliver the band’s melodic-yet-crunchy message, as the group’s liberal use of four-track recording and modest equipment helped establish them as trailblazers of the “lo-fi” sound, along with acts such as Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Subsequent favorites Bakesale and Harmacy added more electric guitars and further refined the one-two punch of co-frontmen Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein, unleashing the lethal combination of Barlow’s subtle pop genius and Loewenstein’s knack for biting rockers.
Following the release of The Sebadoh in 1999, the group went on semi-hiatus, occasionally playing gigs but releasing no studio output. Fans starved for new material can now rejoice, as on Sept. 17, the band unveiled Defend Yourself, their first full-length in 14 years. Barlow, Loewenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico have created a new gem that stands up to the outfit’s legacy.
In a recent phone chat, Loewenstein provided the scoop on the band’s triumphant return to the studio, secrets of the Sebadoh sound, and why you might see him strolling down the streets of Brooklyn with a pig on a leash. The transcription is below:
First of all, congratulations on the new record. Often, when a band makes an album after a long absence, they can’t recapture the magic they once had, but Defend Yourself revives that Sebadoh sound like no time has passed.
Thanks! That’s good to hear, because we went into the project not trying to think too much about that in terms of songwriting. We didn’t consciously say, “We’re going to make it sound like we used to.” But we had the same reaction, after listening to the first completed tracks, that it did seem like the old days. So, I’m glad that comes across.
You’ve done some touring as Sebadoh in the last few years, but what made you decide the time was right to make records again?
Basically, we had been touring a lot, and we were having such a good time doing it and were fairly well received. But we felt that in order to feel like a real band, we need to write songs or we’d get bored.
Also, it seems like a good contract with our fans. As a fan, I’d feel that if a band I liked was coming back, they’d need to have new material in order to have my continued attention. We want to continue to be a band in the future, and make a few more records.
Was there any inspiration taken from Lou’s successful reunion with Dinosaur Jr.? It shows that an act can get back together after a long time and make new music every bit as good as their classic stuff.
I’m sure it’s definitely an influence in some way. But Lou and I had been somewhat active playing Sebadoh shows in the meantime before Dinosaur Jr. reunited. We never really broke up, but the shows were less frequent for a while.
It has been enlightening to see Dinosaur Jr. reunited for several years at this point and still going strong. They’re busy all the time. We have to fight for Lou’s time now. (Laughs) It does give more hope that there are some old fans waiting in the wings to see Sebadoh again. I feel super blessed to have people still interested.
What expectations, if any, did you set for yourselves as a band when you started making Defend Yourself?
It had been so long since we worked on anything. We had a goal of simply creating some quality tunes. If there was anything pushing us, it was just to bring our best material to the table. The rest of it had to happen organically, like recording in the studio with different qualities of gear. You have to leave a little bit up to chaos. Luckily, chaos is in our corner.
Prior to the release of Defend Yourself, the band did something unique: You handpicked some of your favorite U.S. record stores and staged listening parties so your fans could hear the new music, and you also gave away advance copies of the album.
Our new label [Joyful Noise] came up with the idea, which was a really good one. All of the fans’ copies of the record were on vinyl, which is cool for collectors and also makes it harder for people to digitize and leak the record. Our label is really into vinyl, so it was a perfect marriage. I know I would love to get a prize like that if I went to a listening party.
Sebadoh are known for helping to pioneer the “lo-fi” style of indie rock. Is that something that the band takes pride in, that you’re considered so influential for something?
I think it’s nice. And I think much of it is directed at Lou and [original Sebadoh drummer] Eric Gaffney’s early work, because the first couple of records had a lot of four-track recording on it. I’ve certainly used four-track for a long time at home. But I think our ethic is not anti-high fidelity, but pro-DIY. It’s like, don’t let the fact that you don’t have a ton of money limit your recordings. Figure out how to get it done with whatever gear you have around you. I think that part of the creative process is solving problems that are technical as well as musical.
So your secret for getting that lo-fi vibe is not simply using four-track, it’s also the mentality of not overthinking things?
Yeah. Don’t get bogged down by the process of recording. We don’t concentrate on needing special types of equipment or microphones like a lot of bands do. Defend Yourself was all done on gear we had laying around or borrowed. It was surprisingly low tech, especially for this day and age and what’s available to people. Going from a four-track to even a modest computer set up is really quite an upgrade (laughs).
We live in an era of overproduced music, where auto-tune and Pro Tools reign in the recording studio. I’ve always felt that Sebadoh stands out as a refreshing contrast to that.
I have a minor career as a recording engineer, so I’ve been in situations where I’m the guy who auto-tunes somebody. I’ve personally found that the time it takes to auto-correct someone’s vocals, rather than just having them sing it again, is longer. It’s like how people send dozens of text messages instead of just having a 30-second conversation on the phone. In a recording situation, the artist can say, “I don’t feel doing another take.” It’s sort of giving up on the performance aspect of the music.
You’ve done reissues for several of the earlier Sebadoh records. From what I understand, a reissue was also planned for Harmacy but never completed. Are still there plans to reissue that record?
I think so. We were in the initial stages of collecting additional material, but there was some hang-up and we ended up going on tour and putting it on the back burner. I would say there are still plans for it, but it’s not high priority right now. As with all the reissues, we’d want to make sure the packaging and liner notes are as comprehensive as possible and that there are bonus tracks that add value. To do reissues just for the sake of doing them is not worthwhile.
You and Lou have a really good songwriting dynamic going, as you provide some of the edgier material that’s still catchy while Lou comes up with these pop gems. How does your collaboration work, and how do you divvy up how many tracks each will sing on for a new record?
It’s sort of assumed that the balance of songs is usually about 50/50 at this point. As far as collaboration, each of us will bring some kind of fleshed out songs into rehearsal, but typically with a lot of loose ends. So, much of the songwriting that goes on is figuring out how to translate from one guy playing the song on guitar, to playing it together as a band. Lou and Bob have a crapload of input on my tunes, because they’re making up their parts for the first time. Sometimes Lou ends up writing little hooks and basslines that really make my songs happen, and vice versa.
What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of music? How do you keep yourself busy when you’re not on the road or writing songs?
Well, I have a pot-bellied pig named Emmett. He’s about 16 years old, which is really old for a pig. He’s pretty hearty for his age, but he has arthritis and some other ailments. I’m with him a lot of the day. I live in Brooklyn and I have to take him out for a walk three times a day.
Also, I love building and shooting slingshots. It’s a terrible hobby to have as a New Yorker! It’s not illegal to have a slingshot but shooting one can be a problem. But I’ve found some safe places, and I’m only shooting at tin cans. It’s not like I’m hunting squirrels or something.
Most people just say they’re into photography or fishing or something like that; your hobbies are definitely unique. So, you put Emmett the pig on a leash and walk him around the streets?
Yeah, we throw the harness on and take him out on the sidewalk. We get a lot of crazy looks. We stop and talk to lots of people. It’s amazing; I know everybody in the neighborhood from the gangster types to the old ladies, and I don’t know if I’d interact with all those different people if not for Emmett.
He must be quite the icebreaker!
Yes, he is. New Yorkers are actually very warm and social, and seeing a kid or pet brings that out of them. Personality-wise, Emmett’s like a dog crossed with a three-year-old.
It would be pretty awesome if Emmett went on tour with Sebadoh sometime. I can picture him doing some crowd surfing.
(Laughs) I would love it! We’d need to get a bigger van, though; he’s a big boy. And he’d have to have a job on tour, like selling merch or something.
Sebadoh will play at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Nov. 1 and Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on Nov. 2. Defend Yourself is available now on Joyful Noise Recordings. For more information, visit sebadoh.com.