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."
A new Folk Implosion album is scheduled for release early next year, and several local promoters are currently bidding on a mid-September Sebadoh show in the Valley.
Punk Media Watch
When the April issue of Spin magazine included an ass-kissing feature on prominent national punk 'zine Punk Planet, complete with quotes from PP head man Daniel Sinker, purists' heads everywhere were shaking. How, they wondered, could Sinker have sunk so low? The 'zine's founder rushed to explain in Planet's June-July issue. His story begins with being inexplicably whisked off to New York City, put up in the Plaza Hotel and limoed to a lunch with his secret admirer. The founder of the feast turns out to be none other than Bob Guccione, Penthouse publisher and father of Spin editor and publisher Bob Guccione Jr.
According to Sinker's editorial, Mr. Guccione explained to Daniel that he gave his son Spin because Jr. needed a hobby, but that he thought his "directionless, untalented" kid was fucking up bad. (Based on Bob Jr.'s pathetic P.J. O'Rourke rip-off piece on Sarajevo in Spin's latest ish, Revolver concurs.) Sr. goes on to tell Dan that "his people" think a lot of Punk Planet, and he wants Sinker to work his magic on Spin. Sinker says no. Bob starts begging. "My son's a dope. He needs a man with vision. Do you know what it's like to raise a dope?" Sinker says no again, but he's starting to feel sorry for the old man, so when Bob asks for at least an exclusive profile of Punk Planet, he throws him a bone.
End of story. As you might have guessed, it's complete bullshit. Revolver called Dan and got his version of the real deal, which goes a little something like this: Freelance music writer calls Dan and says he'd like to write up Punk Planet for a local alternative weekly. (Dan says he doesn't remember which one.) Dan agrees. At the end of the interview, said writer informs Dan there's a "small chance" Spin might buy the piece. Dan frowns. Time passes. Dan more or less forgets about it. Someone from Punk Planet's distributor, Vital Music, calls to ask if Dan has seen the Spin piece yet. Dan reads it and is not happy to find his butt clogged with the writer's nose. (The thrust of the Spin piece is that PP is young, punk and vital, whereas the country's other major punk 'zine, Maximumrocknroll, is burnt out, stuck in '77 and close-minded.) Punks everywhere frown. Dan decides to stick it to Spin with one of punk's sharpest knives--satire. Punks everywhere smile. Face saved.
On to the plastic. Franklin Park, Illinois, record label V.M.S. has released a barrage of live seven-inch recordings of bands like Blanks '77, the Parasites, Sloppy Seconds and the Pink Lincolns playing shows around Illinois. A cut of the Queers playing the Fireside Bowl in Chicago on February 24, 1995, is the first from the V.M. Live series to find its way to the Revolver review pile. Somehow V.M.S. managed to squeeze eight songs onto seven inches, including legendary Queers tunes "I Was a Teenage Bonehead" and "Monster Zero." The sound quality here is sketchy, but it's worth it to have a home version of a Queers concert. The band's manic power-punk and whacked sense of humor come through in fine form on this disc, the perfect soundtrack for getting drunk by yourself. Watch for future V.M. Live slabs from J Church, Quincy Punx and Man . . . or Astroman? (V.M.L., P.O. Box 183, Franklin Park, IL 60131)
Avail has been driving its aggressive, midtempo p-rock all over the nation for the last five years, and the van pulls into the Valley August 30 at Nile Theater. The Richmond, Virginia, band's new record, 4AM Friday, finds Avail continuing to pound away. The record has a fierce edge that keeps you tensed for most of the songs, excluding a nasty "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" cover and the dooby-doo intro'd "Monroe Park." The band slips into Fugazi mode on "McCarthy" and "Fix"--both songs are riddled with hyper power-riffing and anthemic yells. Also like Fugazi, Avail is one of those few bands that can launch a p-rock attack on sociopolitical subjects without sounding like a tired soapbox jumper. (Lookout Records, P.O. Box 11374, Berkeley, CA 94712)
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Japanophilia has swept the indie world in the last few years, giving rise to the popularity of bands such as Shonen Knife, American Soul Spiders, Teengenerate and the Boredoms. Now the all-girl 126.96.36.199.s are moving product out of the vinyl racks. Which is a disgrace. These girls play '50s doo-wop rock at its worst. Their new seven-incher, This Record Is Not for Fuckin' Square!, sounds straight out of Al's Diner from Happy Days. "Continental Hop," a full-on "At the Hop" takeoff, represents a startling lack of originality. And the B-side, "Jump Jack Jump," would have sucked even back in '58. (Time Bomb Records, Toporo 51 Bldg., 3F 2-18-18 Nishi Shinsaibashi Chuo-ku Osaka 542, Japan)
I'll be damned, another band from Olympia, Washington. Worst Case Scenario is the latest round in the barrage of bands from this drizzly town of 80,000. Someone must be slipping p-rock pills in the beer up there. Scenario's self-titled first album on Vermiform records is a dark, menacing piece of work. The vocals sound like Napalm Death's singer sucking helium, and the rhythm section freaks out like a head case on speed, jamming behind guitar riffs that strafe from the speakers. If you want evolutionary, new-school punk, this is it. The album starts off with a psycho sax/drums jam on "If You Were a Sparrow, I'd Clip Your Wings." Sound effects and background noise throughout the LP sustain the jarring, paranoid vibe. The lyrics are more or less unintelligible, but it's hard to lose with song titles like "Dead Clients Don't Pay" and "Ignore the Pigs Outside." Once again, Olympia rocks. (Vermiform, P.O. Box 12065, Richmond, VA 23241)