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Sebadoh leader Lou Barlow has been the reluctant godfather of experimental lo-fi since his groundbreaking acoustic four-track work on the Boston anti-folk trio's first two albums (Freed Man, 1989, and Weed Forestin, 1990). Those two records were followed by Barlow's Sentridoh solo series, most of which he recorded in his bedroom. Then last year, Barlow's studio-only side project, Folk Implosion (with guitarist John Davis), scored a sleeper radio hit with "Natural One," a single off the Kids soundtrack, which Barlow compiled. A video for the song went into heavy MTV rotation as a buzz clip, and the ensuing "Where the hell did this guy come from?" furor nudged Barlow's primary, previously underground band into the spotlight. "Natural One" was the last the indie-rock public heard from Lou, leaving obsessive/possessive Sebafans waiting anxiously to hear what the first post-hit Barlow album would bring.
That wait will come to an end August 20, the street date for Sebadoh's new release, Harmacy. And Revolver is happy to report (via advance copy) that all fears are for naught. Harmacy is by far Lou and Co.'s greatest accomplishment, marking a transition from a casual conglomeration of musicians to a cohesive, focused unit. During the recording of past albums, Sebadoh's members were typically distracted by side projects. In addition to Lou's outside interests, Jason Lowenstein also plays with Sparkalepsy, and Bob Fay with Deluxx. But all three put other interests aside to concentrate on Harmacy, the first Sebadoh record where all three members play on every song. The band's last album, 1994's Bakesale, was almost all Barlow's material, and sounded monochromatic as a result. Harmacy is a kaleidoscope by comparison.
At its best, the genius of Sebadoh's "sound" is there isn't one--all three guys in the band write songs, and Lou and Jason trade off bass, guitar and vocal duties. (Harmacy even finds Bob the drummer busting out in lead vocals on one track.) This musical-chairs approach to songwriting lends the album an intriguing, schizophrenic personality--songs range from Lou's heart-wrenching ditty "Willing to Wait" to the Monkeywrenchish psychic stomp of Lowenstein's "Mind Reader" to the beer-drenched wailing on "Can't Give Up."
Earlier this month, Revolver contacted Barlow in Boston to throw props at the new album and investigate the current Sebastatus.
Revolver: Do you find it strange that after doing Sebadoh for so long, it was Folk Implosion that scored a hit?
Barlow: It's not that weird. I just think that, musically, "Natural One" is a lot more accessible than anything I've done with Sebadoh. If you put something together with sort of a dance beat, a sample, and a lyric that's vaguely about partying, you get that feel-good sort of party song. I don't think Sebadoh songs really translate to a large group of people. It doesn't surprise me that "Natural One" was a hit. When we finished it, I was like, "Wow, this is pretty catchy." On top of that, it's not particularly punk rock or anything, so it sounded pretty accessible to me.
R: How comfortable are you with being thrust into the role of rock star?
B: It's got its ups and downs. We don't have a manager, which most bands do, so I'm so busy trying to keep up the business end of it. I don't really have time to, like, ponder my image. We're still pretty underground, regardless of "Natural One," which didn't sell a lot of records, anyway. It was mainly a radio hit. There's not a lot of people that recognize me. There's a small group of people who are that into Sebadoh, and those people are usually pretty cool.
R: Now that you're married, is it more difficult to write those pain-wracked, emotional songs? (1992's "Bubble and Scrape" was Lou's successful attempt to win back his girlfriend, whom he married last year.)
B: No. Just being married doesn't necessarily make me a happy guy, so there's plenty of subject matter left. A lot of the songs on Harmacy are about relationships with friends of mine instead of romantic relationships. When you're writing songs about how your relationships with people change, and you're trying to analyze that, you don't ever run out of subject matter, because trying to figure out the politics between people is really difficult. Sometimes, I'll be able to say something in a song to someone that I couldn't say to their face. As far as romantic stuff goes, I think I've written my fill of heartbreak songs.
R: Do you still think of yourself as part of the whole punk thing?
B: The whole punk-rock scene is so complex, if I was to suggest that, "Oh, yeah, Sebadoh, we're punk rock," a lot of kids would go, "Fuck you, man, NOFX, dude! That's fuckin' punk rock." We exist on a different level; we're kind of like this college-rock band, but on a musical level I'd say we're very much still a punk band, in that a lot of our songs are still really aggressive and use a lot of power chords. I also think our attitude about music reflects what punk rock is to me. Punk and hard-core is still the music I'm influenced by, but what is or isn't punk is a really political issue. Maximumrocknroll has never reviewed a Sebadoh record, even from the very beginning, just because of the label we were on. I would hesitate to call us a punk-rock band, because I don't want people going "Lou Barlow's talkin' shit, he ain't no punk rock; Sebadoh's just that faggot college R.E.M. bullshit."