Hardcore Gets Soft Edge

"As far as playing live, it still depends on the hall. The larger places we play now can have sound that is just as bad as the old tiny places we used to play. I don't mind playing to larger audiences. Where it used to be we felt like we had to prove something and kind of fight the crowd, now we feed off the crowd's energy more and we've gotten comfortable in that situation. Our songs are written with more of a live show in mind, so that makes things a lot easier, when you don't have to struggle to translate stuff from the studio to the stage."

Bakesale was the band's rock and roll breakthrough. Loewenstein came up with his best batch of melodies; the band, anchored by drummer Bob Fay (who replaced Gaffney), laid down a lean groove, and the sound left lo-fi behind for sixteen-track clarity. The lyrics explored the old tensions from a more level-headed, less self-hating, point of view. Everything clicked.

The new album, Harmacy, tones down the Bakesale indie power-trio idea a bit. And because of Barlow's Top 40 success with the song "Natural One" (released as part of his side project, the duo Folk Implosion), the band has had to weather more mainstream attention, industry pressure, and sniping from their old indie fans. Both Barlow's and Loewenstein's new songs react to this, but in different ways. Barlow seems to welcome pop possibilities more, producing smoother, more conventional midtempo love songs, while Loewenstein seems to be resisting the pop call. His songs step away from their fully developed Bakesale state, reaching back for minimalist hardcore integrity.

As one of their aging indie fans, I find it hard to get worked up about this new record. Not that it's a bad album, or that success is the band's fault. But after "Natural One," Sebadoh became a marketable part of youth culture, something we're now spoon-fed rather than a voice in the wilderness. And without the snotty experimentalism of III or the rock and roll momentum of Bakesale, Harmacy strikes me as a bit too modest, a safe entry into the alternative rock universe.

"It was fun to watch 'Natural One' happen," Barlow recalls. "It wasn't something I went after or anything. I mean, the Folk Implosion was the place where I was able to experiment outside of Sebadoh. That's why I did it. So it was ironic that that would become such a big success. I went through a time after that, though, where I was scared about what might happen. It was like, 'Shit, things are going to change.' And we did get some biz pressure, which I had never experienced before. People in the industry were like, 'You should really cash in on this, you're going to let a great chance go by.' It did fuck me up for a while, but I think I've come through that tunnel.

"Coming out of the punk-rock world, I always looked at the industry part as very black and white, and major labels were just bad. But it isn't like that, necessarily. We've developed a good relationship with Sub Pop over the years. It took time, but both sides understand each other. They don't really pressure us. They know what we're comfortable with.

"But to me, the Folk Implosion and the instincts we had in making that music were the right ones. My favorite music is from the Sixties. That stuff sounds so perfect, but it was experimental. I want to keep going in that direction, and that's what the Folk Implosion was. Any success from that was out of my control."

While the new record might not be Sebadoh's best, they're still a very good live band. They do seem more comfortable up there now, and they deliver good rock and roll without the star turns. The songs fill out nicely in performance, and the band is still willing to experiment and mess with the audience's expectations. If they can't give us the old thrill of finding a private voice outside the mainstream, and if they can't create raw tension by trying to make self-criticism entertaining any more, they make up for it with some of the most committed, unpretentious, and grooving music you'll see from alternative rockers anywhere. Call it maturity or call it a sell-out, but dig it while you can.

"I really enjoy touring now," Barlow says. "We've got a bus. There are no issues of integrity about that. It just improves the quality of life and makes us play shows better, really. I play better because I don't have to spend nine hours a day staring straight ahead from the seat of a van. We've got the money to support it, so we do. And it inspires me, because when our fans see me come out of a bus, I think, 'Jesus, I'd better play a great show!'"

Sebadoh performs a free in-store show Sunday, January 26, at Blue Note Records, 16401 NE 15th Ave, North Miami Beach, at 3:00 p.m., 940-3394; regular show Monday, January 27, at Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, 561-832-9999. Tickets cost $11. Doors open at 9:00 p.m.

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