Photo by Andy Willsher / Redferns / Getty Images

How ‘The Sebadoh’ Killed Sebadoh

Twenty years later, 90s indie rock icons Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein reflect on the tumultuous times surrounding their ill-fated and short-lived major label record deal.

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Feb 21 2019, 3:30pm

Photo by Andy Willsher / Redferns / Getty Images

Lou Barlow had decided to move to California—Silver Lake, specifically. The year was 1997 or maybe 1998, though the Western Massachusetts native admits he never bothered to pinpoint the precise time. As the frontman for two of the decade’s prominent indie rock outfits, Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion, he first considered the trek out west at the behest of his wife and their Los Angeles friends, lured by the practical promise of rental apartments cheaper and better than those in Boston, where he had been living for some time.

“My wife went out there and she was like, this is great,” Barlow says, having stayed behind while she began scouting. He imagined them living bicoastally, splitting their time between the two cities whenever he wasn’t touring with one of his active bands. Before long, the conversation switched from renting a place to buying one. The timing, arguably, seemed right. After years of toiling in the indies, major labels with fat purses and national distribution machines were interested in Barlow, and for once, he was interested in them. Barlow signed up Sebadoh with Sire Records and The Folk Implosion with Interscope, the respective advances providing the necessary cash to purchase the house his wife insisted upon.

“In the process of buying the house, I realize she’s having an affair with somebody,” Barlow says. Not only has she fallen for someone, he discovers, but for someone who happens to live out there. For some, such a revelation would have put an end to things, the cross-country relocation, the relationship, and anything else in its related wake. But then, well, there were the drugs.

“In LA, there’s shitloads of speed,” Barlow says, explaining how his mind worked at the time. “So rather than have people send us speed from California, let’s just go right to the source and just live in LA.” Addicts of all stripes assuredly understand such magical thinking, though those who haven’t grappled with substance abuse may find it as shocking as what he did next.

“So I decided to just go through with it, moving to LA so my wife can be closer to someone she’s in love with,” Barlow says. These conditions, of adulterous marital strife and abundant crystal meth, begat The Sebadoh, the semi-eponymous 1999 record that would lead to the namesake band’s undoing.

For a while, Barlow was the king of keeping things going. Fueled in part by his unceremonious ouster from post-hardcore trio Dinosaur Jr. in the late 1980s, putting his energy into Sebadoh not only gave him the platform to develop and record his own songs at last, but for his bandmate Eric Gaffney to do the same. Using relatively primitive methods, they subverted norms by making willfully unprofessional sounding recordings of their songs and, appallingly, had the gall to release them that way. After an initial self-release, The Freed Man came out via Homestead Records, which had become a nurturing sanctuary in those days for home recording types like Daniel Johnston and Weird Paul Petroskey.

Sebadoh’s signature lo-fi aesthetic wasn’t expected to do the sizeable numbers that their alt-rock contemporaries Nirvana did, which, judging from their insistence on four-track or (gasp!) eight-track recording, probably suited them just fine. To put things into context, Nevermind dropped a month after Sebadoh’s third record, Sebadoh III, marking the band’s first with multi-instrumentalist Jason Loewenstein. It also proved their final album for Homestead before switching to Nirvana’s old label Sub Pop for Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock. While Gaffney ceased working with the group not long after 1993’s Bubble & Scrape, Loewenstein stayed on for the remainder of the decade, his typically noisier material providing either complement or contrast to Barlow’s comparatively more muted and moody fare. While fans of course played and continue to play favorites, few among the faithful would disagree that the duo’s respective contributions make records like 1994’s seminal Bakesale and its 1996 follow-up Harmacy work so well. Both ultimately sold well by indie label standards.

But now they were signed to Sire Records, home to Depeche Mode and Madonna, among others. This joint arrangement with Sub Pop, who still had the band under contract for one more album, immediately put Sebadoh in a position to benefit from major label budgets for the first time. Barlow, living with his wife in that house in Silver Lake, invited Loewenstein out to record in a top-of-the-line professional recording studio essentially down the street from him called Mad Hatter. Based out of Kentucky at the time, Loewenstein had recruited Russ Pollard in Louisville to substitute for fired drummer Bob Fay, who had replaced Gaffney during the Bakesale sessions and stayed on through the Harmacy days.

“He could play anything and he was a good guy,” Loewenstein says of the decision to bring Pollard along. “Not only could he play drums but we could still switch around [instruments] as a band.”

Not altogether surprising given Mad Hatter owner and jazz legend Chick Corea’s status as a celebrity member of Scientology, Loewenstein recalls the Church having a presence in the building, particularly on the floors above the studio. He knew a little about the group from what he’d read from defectors, and most of it scared him enough not to interact or go exploring. “The engineer was really nice, but he was like, ‘Please don’t smoke weed in here because the Scientologists will freak out,’” Loewenstein says, likening the act to “a contamination of their souls.”

Despite his being inconveniently creeped out and compelled to smoke up elsewhere, the Mad Hatter facilities gave the band more than adequate room to work. “We had so much time,” Loewenstein says of the five weeks of recording sessions there for The Sebadoh. “You’d come in with half an idea and you could take two days and put out a wicked song.”

Though working closely as a unit with Loewenstein and Pollard no doubt had its benefits, Barlow craved some of the more solo aspects of his well-established songwriting process. “In order for me to be comfortable sitting and writing, I need isolation,” he says. Unfortunately, the Silver Lake house didn’t prove the conducive creative setting he’d anticipated. “The reality was I had no space at all,” Barlow says. “My wife had told me there was a basement I could play in, but it was actually just made of dirt.”

Under pressure to write material for two different records, not only The Sebadoh but The Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, Barlow stole furtive moments amid the chaos whenever he could. Not long before Loewenstein and Pollard were to arrive, his mother had flown out for a visit, further adding to his obligations. “I’m just hoping the speed dealer doesn’t come when my mom’s there,” he says of the period. When his wife and his mother stepped out one afternoon to do some shopping, he grabbed his guitar and, within a half-hour, wrote the gut-wrenching “Love Is Stronger.” The song agonizingly encapsulates the state of Barlow’s volatile relationship, on par with devastating earlier material like “Soul And Fire” but with the added narcotized heft of his downward spiral. “That’s me biting my fingernails, holding on.”

Naturally, that raw emotionality bled into the Mad Hatter sessions as well. Still fresh and new in Loewenstein and Pollard’s ears, “Love Is Stronger” found powerful instrumentation to buttress its potent message. For the take that made it onto the record, the band essentially performed it live, including Barlow’s evocative guitar solo. Then, something unusual happened just before the song ended. “This huge fucking centipede just fucking ran right across the middle of the room on that last note,” he says with a laugh. “It scurried right into our little triangle in the studio. I’ll never forget that.”

That earth-shaken pride found a more portentous counterpart later in the recording process. “Tree” had originally been Barlow’s personalized gift to his sister on her wedding day, a song exuding the goodness of love. Over time, however, he reworked it to reflect his bad romance, so that by the time it reached the studio, the lyrics possessed a newfound bitterness. “I remember being in tears, so dramatic, just so fucking strung out and so fucked up and just holding on,” Barlow says. “Recording the vocals for that song, I was trying not to lose my shit between takes.”

“That’s a timeless song,” Loewenstein adds, likening it to a poem. “People will be able to listen to it in a hundred years.”

With all the tumult happening in Barlow’s world outside Mad Hatter, he determined to keep as much of it to himself as possible. “I had a lot of people relying on me, all these people in my bands,” he says. “That was a period where I really learned that I’m alone, that no one has to understand what I’m going through.”

Though his bandmate of nearly ten years may not have exactly been forthcoming with the painful details, Loewenstein insists both Pollard and himself weren’t oblivious to Barlow’s woes. “As much as he tried to minimize impact, he was going through some hard shit, so it was in the air,” he says, adding that the band was actually living at the Silver Lake house during the weeks of recording.

While Loewenstein’s own songs here may not carry the same cataclysmic quality as Barlow’s amphetamine folk, The Sebadoh nonetheless yielded some of his best songwriting to date, including fuzzy power pop opener “It’s All You” and rollicking album highlight “Bird In The Hand.” When prompted, he chalks some of that up to additions and improvements to his home recording setup back in Louisville. “I started investing in equipment—tape machines and real mixing boards,” he says. “I actually had figured out how to make really good demos by that time.” Thus, Loewenstein arrived in LA more prepared than he’d been for any prior Sebadoh record, with several songs for the record already fairly far along.

Dutiful Sebadoh devotees will note that two of The Sebadoh’s tracks, “Cuban” and “So Long,” weren’t recorded at Mad Hatter, but instead came from Loewenstein’s basement, a space dubbed the Negative Energy Company. They took the latter of these right off his eight-track, a blatant nod to their old school lo-fi roots in its sequential contrast with the poppier preceding number “Flame.” “I threw a cymbal on the floor at one point,” Loewenstein says. “Instead of a guitar solo, I dragged this metal table across the floor that was making this crazy rhinoceros sound.”

Of the 13 LA studio songs that made it onto the album, “Flame” was an obvious standout, at least to Sub Pop. Sonically, the track seemed to hint at a Phil Spector influence, with the orchestral wall of sound replaced by guitar squall and Barlow’s deceptively dispassionate delivery. Though “Flame” would be Sub Pop’s obvious choice for a single, the label certainly wasn’t the same place in 1999 that it was when Sebadoh’s Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock first dropped. Just months ahead of 1996’s Harmacy, founder Bruce Pavitt had departed over business disagreements with partner Jonathan Poneman. At that point, Warner Bros. owned 49 percent of the company, which, beyond the cash infusion, also allowed for opportunities and overreach by Sub Pop leadership. Given that more corporate environment, it wasn’t all that shocking that Sire Records, officially part of the Warner Music family of imprints since around 1980, would want to sign Sebadoh.

Loewenstein seemed to sense early on that this new arrangement was a bad fit. He remembers an awkward dinner around their signing with Sire president Seymour Stein, Poneman, and some assistants at a fancy restaurant. “Stein, from what people were telling me, was sort of dusting himself off and representing himself as a tastemaker,” Lowenstein says of the record executive credited by some with breaking The Ramones and Talking Heads. Sire had released the bulk of Dinosaur Jr. releases since Barlow’s ouster, which may have factored into the label’s interests in Sebadoh. During the meal, Stein half-facetiously declared himself the king of punk while calling the band, in turn, the kings of grunge. “It was like a scene from a movie,” Loewenstein recalls.

Sire made a number of miscalculations with their alt-rock signings in the late 1990s. Along with Spacehog’s sophomore slumping Chinese Album, the likes of Midget’s Jukebox, Soak’s Flywatt, and Sugarsmack’s Tank Top City weren’t making much of a dent in 1998. Sebadoh had a track record, and at least a perceived marketable coolness to major label executives that still associated Sub Pop with Nirvana dollar signs. Sire’s then-VP of promotion Sherri Trahan told Billboard at the time that she expected “Flame” to capitalize further on the band’s prior indie rock hit “Ocean” by way of college and alternative radio.

A Barlow-penned number off Harmacy, that single had reached No. 23 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, peaking in October of 1996 just below Counting Crows and Weezer. “You’ve got to be a little dumb to think Sebadoh is the right texture for the radio,” Loewenstein says in retrospect. Less than three years later, however, that chart had taken on a noticeably different character.

The top three singles on Modern Rock Tracks the week The Sebadoh rolled around were, in order, Sugar Ray’s pop ditty “Every Morning,” rappin’ folkie Everlast’s “What It’s Like,” and Creed’s headbanger devotional “One.” Though the increasingly broadening chart wouldn’t change its name to Alternative Songs for another decade, it nonetheless reflected an extraordinarily eclectic inclusivity by 1999. While veterans like R.E.M. still held some clout there, nu metal, electronica, and industrial rock now populated its ranks as well, leaving little room for the likes of “Flame,” which failed to chart in the US.

“Fatboy Slim and Sebadoh and Guided By Voices were all in the same boat somehow,” Loewenstein says. “The timing was just weird.”

The Sebadoh spent just one week on the Billboard 200, scraping its bottom rung at No. 197. (Also debuting that week: TLC’s Fanmail, Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP.) The album fared noticeably better overseas, where the band’s work had released through longtime European partner Domino Records. Though it only spent one week on the UK album charts, “Flame” and “It’s All You” both charted there on the singles side, peaking at No. 30 and No. 88 respectively.

Sire quickly, albeit belatedly, surmised that Sebadoh wasn’t their next big hitmaker. While Barlow and Loewenstein don’t quite agree on the exact time frame, the label unceremoniously dropped the band somewhere between one to three weeks after The Sebadoh’s release. “They would’ve been happy to find a Green Day or something like that, a pop punk band that had huge commercial value,” Loewenstein posits.

With Sub Pop suddenly and unexpectedly left promoting the album Sire no longer wanted, the band was out on the road touring in support of it. From their vantage point onstage, disinterested audiences and poor turnouts at previously reliable venues only compounded Sebadoh’s woes. “We did this show with Modest Mouse, who were kind of up-and-coming at the time,” Barlow says. “The indifference towards us was palpable. By the end of that tour, we’re playing to 20 people in Dallas, where we had been playing to 400 or 500 people like a year before that.”

Within its first 12 months, The Sebadoh did roughly a quarter of what Harmacy had done, saleswise. “When something underperforms in the way that record did, compared to the ones that came before it, you always wonder if it was a shitty product,” Loewenstein says.

For Barlow, the writing was on the wall. By 2000, Sebadoh was no longer on Sub Pop. While publically the band’s management appeared to be actively searching for a new label partner, behind the scenes Barlow felt too dejected to go on. “There was no hunt; I just gave up,” he says. “With Sebadoh, it was like, let’s just stop.”

Indeed, The Sebadoh would be the band’s last word on record for more than a decade. “I guess didn’t really hang out with him for two or three years,” Barlow says of his relationship with Loewenstein once they stopped playing. His focus had shifted to The Folk Implosion, which Pollard would eventually join after collaborator John Davis left. Drawing thematically from the same solitary place that The Sebadoh did, One Part Lullaby came out in September of 1999 and failed to chart on the Billboard 200.

Changes underway at Interscope and in the music business as a whole certainly didn’t help its prospects. Major label consolidation, the rise of online piracy, and other such institutional factors made The Folk Implosion stick out—and not in a good way. “The guy driving me around to the radio stations was also promoting a Sting record,” Barlow says. “We were no longer this little boutique band they were gonna promote.” Not surprisingly, Interscope deigned to release another one, abruptly releasing him back into the indie world from whence he came.

Not long thereafter, Loewenstein reupped with Sub Pop for a 2002 debut solo album entitled At Sixes And Sevens. Though not a commercial success nor necessarily intended as one, musically it came the closest to properly following up the 1999 Sebadoh album, particularly with the suitably angular “Angles” and the downright shimmering “Casserole.” After so many years of writing on the side, he seized the chance to try a few things that he might not otherwise have done with Barlow, pushing his sound further without radically departing from it. “With the quieter pieces like ‘More Drugs,’ I didn’t really think I could have pulled off with Sebadoh,” he says, doubtful of his ability to direct the band on that material.

Ultimately, it wasn’t Sub Pop but rather Domino that put Sebadoh back together again. For the label’s tenth anniversary, the London-based imprint reached out to the guys behind their first ever release, the Rocking the Forest EP, to see if they’d play one of its celebratory Worlds Of Possibility concerts. Barlow and Loewenstein obliged, reforming as a duo for the 2003 gig and a short run of European dates. From there, more performances happened, with Gaffney returning to the fold for a 2007 tour. When Gaffney’s involvement proved temporary, Sebadoh pressed on as a live unit with drummer Bob D’Amico, who Loewenstein also worked with in The Fiery Furnaces.

Encouraged by a successful series of shows around Sub Pop’s 2011 Bakesale deluxe reissue, and aided in part by money earned from an unexpected and fruitful Dinosaur Jr. reunion that began a few years earlier, the rejuvenated trio recorded and released an EP called Secret the next year, followed by the full-length Defend Yourself in 2013, both via Joyful Noise. Having divorced his wife and relocated back to Western Massachusetts, Barlow continues to juggle the reactivated group along with ongoing Dinosaur Jr. duties and solo endeavors. He recorded another as-yet untitled Sebadoh album with D’Amico and Loewenstein in 2018, with plans for its release sometime this year.

“It was very interesting to watch him write this last record,” Loewenstein says. “I always knew someday he was going to be regarded as this really great songwriter." "It reminds me of The Sebadoh, in a way, just ‘cause it’s an electric record,” Barlow clarifies, calling it the most band-centric album they’ve ever done. “We really came together and made it. Unlike The Sebadoh, there’s no drama, necessarily. We’re sort of post-drama.”