“It’s a new generation of electric white boy blues,” Lou Barlow declares on Sebadoh’s 1991 single “Gimme Indie Rock.” “Come on indie rock—it’s gone big.”
No lyric encapsulated the alternative-goes-mainstream revolution of the ‘90s so perfectly and powerfully. But even when its music incorporated that era’s most in-demand features—quiet/loud dynamics, aggressive guitars, lyrics blending cynicism with sincerity—Sebadoh’s own transition from the periphery to full-on popularity never quite transpired. This was largely a consequence of the creative tension that existed between Sebadoh’s chief songwriters: Westfield native Barlow, and Northampton’s Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein—three songwriters who occupied three vastly different worlds.
Sebadoh can trace its roots to Dinosaur Jr., the seminal alternative rock band Barlow founded with J Mascis in 1984. For the Dinosaur Jr. release You’re Living All Over Me, Barlow cut the song “Poledo” with a portable recorder and a pair of cheap microphones—a creative approach that presaged Sebadoh’s involvement in lo-fi (an involvement that would help bring about lo-fi’s metamorphosis from humble aesthetic to actual genre). Also, in the Boston area, early pressings of You’re Living All Over Me included a Barlow cassette titled Weed Forestin’. The release was recorded under the name Sebadoh, a nonsense word Barlow often sang on his home recordings.
Following his departure from Dinosaur Jr in 1989, Barlow made Sebadoh a full-time endeavor. Gaffney was already on board, having contributed to the group’s earliest homemade recordings; Loewenstein later joined to play drums and bass. Early releases—particularly the landmark Sebadoh III, issued in 1991—betrayed the divergent styles and inspirations of all three artists. Barlow spun rickety folk-rock songs of the heated and plaintive variety, many of which were dedicated to girlfriend/wife/muse, Kathleen Billus; Gaffney spit out noise-punk that was damaged and indignant; Loewenstein’s material gleefully occupied the cramped space in-between them. The effect of hearing such divergent styles packaged on the same album was wonderfully disorienting and alienating.
Subsequent releases—1993’s Bubble and Scrape and the following year’s Bakesale, the first without Gaffney, who quit the band (he was replaced by Bob Fay)—marked a shift in the approach to recording and production. Loewenstein assumed a more prominent songwriting role; as a whole, the band relied less on the bedroom four-track and transformed its trademark lo-fi sound into something more robust and focused. (Despite Barlow’s contention that hi-fi is “brutally sterile.”)
Two more albums followed—Harmacy (1996) and The Sebadoh (1999)—before the group took an extended hiatus. Barlow worked on his side-project, the Folk Implosion, before reuniting with the original members of Dinosaur Jr for several tours. Loewenstein released a solo album, 2002’s At Sixes and Sevens, and recorded and performed with the Fiery Furnaces and Will Oldham. Gaffney’s done solo work (such as 1999’s Brilliant Concert Numbers), as well as recorded with his band Fields of Gaffney. In 2007, the original Sebadoh lineup of Barlow, Loewenstein, and Gaffney reunited and toured. Sebadoh’s eighth and most recent album was 2013’s Defend Yourself, featuring original material from Barlow and Loewenstein.
(by Ryan Foley)