Hardcore Gets Soft Edge

Lou Barlow first appeared as an unsettling blip on the radar screen of Eighties postpunk. As the tape-looping bassist for Dinosaur Jr. and then as the original lo-fi bedroom bard of the early Sebadoh records, Barlow seemed like nothing more than an anomaly, an angst-ridden character bent on upsetting the pleasantly accessible strums of the day's indie rock.

By 1991 and Sebadoh III, though, we knew he was the future. My friends and I, out of college and newly lost in urban America, found our soundtrack in that record. Unable to relate to R.E.M. any more except as purveyors of happy neo-hippie music, finding ourselves drawn to "outsider" rediscoveries like Syd Barrett, we immediately latched on to Sebadoh III, which mixed those influences into gnarled, experimental song forms. Sebadoh's lyrics gave up on grand statements and focused, with irony and optimism, on an intense personal world. Barlow and bassist Jason Loewenstein, too smart to pass themselves off as either macho or sensitive guys, struggled to find love relationships that were not based on anything as simple as sex or companionship, but on something much more difficult -- namely, friendship. When this effort proved fruitless and they ended up angry and self-flagellating, their honesty as songwriters was confirmed. Dozens of lines from that record still echo in my mind: "Self-righteous but never right/So laid back but so uptight"; "Violence is cool, one of two things real"; "All the world will tell you you're all wrong/But big deal if you're wrong."

"I hope I can do another record like Sebadoh III," Barlow says now. "We weren't much of a live band at that point. We were more geared to doing these little four-track things, and that was great. I still love that process. We were listening to people like Royal Trux, who were fucking up their sound, and we wanted to do the same thing. I hadn't really heard Syd Barrett at that point. People will say, 'Oh, you sound exactly like Barrett or Nick Drake,' and I can see that I was trying to do something like them without ever having heard them.

"On the next record, I'd like to get back to fucking with our sound more. We've been trying on these last two records to get a cleaner band sound. But I would hate to look back and see us just progressing in this straight line toward a poppier sound. I love pop music, but there's time for us to explore that and give it a thicker sound and make it more experimental."

After III, Sebadoh did progress toward a more straightforward rock sound. While Nirvana was dominating, they signed with Sub Pop and made a couple of big, grungey records (Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and Bubble & Scrape) that uneasily mixed Barlow's delicate melodic sense, Loewenstein's herky-jerky hardcore, and drummer Eric Gaffney's inaccessible, bomb-throwing mania.

If those records were a bit uneven, with the three sensibilities clashing more often than flowing together, the musicians themselves became a fascinating live band. Fighting against rock star poses and never giving audiences easy pleasure, they put on shows that attempted to reconcile their regular-guy integrity with rock and roll transcendence. Ignoring requests and not indulging in cover tunes, the band struggled to please its audiences by giving them honest feelings, not showmanship. Although they did reveal the artifice behind a rock performance, their shows seemed like wonderful failures.

Typical of this was a 1994 New York gig where Barlow saw an old friend in the audience. The guy requested Black Flag's "Rise Above." Barlow gave in and started the song. The crowd, recognizing a punk classic, went crazy. Halfway through Barlow threw up his arms and stopped, saying, "God, I feel like a loser." After a few more old Sebadoh numbers that hardly anyone in the audience knew, the band went into "License to Confuse," a popular song from their new record at the time, Bakesale. The crowd, which had come primarily, I think, to hear songs from that album, went crazy again. Barlow announced with his usual anti-fanfare, "Okay, here's your get-out-of-jail-free card."

"I think we used to be pretty paranoid on-stage that we were letting somebody down," Barlow says today. "We were more into the indie rock thing where you were doing it for a cause or something. It took us awhile to get comfortable with having a good time. I used to see all these cliches in playing live, and I spent a lot of time fighting that. We were also inexperienced and didn't have the details of playing down. That in itself can be cool, but there came a time when we wanted to step up and be a live band.

"That's also affected our more recent records," he continues. "I mean, the last two albums have been us trying to get our live sound down on tape. We've stepped up and gotten our shit together, I think. To do that, though, we've had to leave some decisions about our sound to an engineer. I'm comfortable with that up to a point. I mean, we decided that's what we wanted to do, so it was okay. Like I said, I'd also like to take our sound and play around with it again. But I'm very happy with the new record. It's pretty modest and controlled, more listenable, I think, than our other stuff.

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Stephen Tignor