WAKING LOU BARLOW
"Hi. You've reached Kathleen and Lou's apartment. If you'd like to leave a message, please do so after the beep. Thanks."
That's what you get after two rings at Lou Barlow's place in Massachusetts, and under normal circumstances, there'd be nothing wrong with that. But getting the machine totally sucks, though, if it's within the last moments you're able to talk to him during the final days before he and his fellow bandmates take off for a late-summer tour.
"Uh, Lou, are you screening?"
Harmacy is the band's fourth full-length record on Sub Pop; when 1992's Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock debuted, the band had already become a broken-household word.
"Okaay ... well, I'll call back later." During the Sub Pop Years, Sebadoh awareness has continued to rise. Their minds ever fertile with ideas, the band members are involved with numerous side projects -- from Sentridoh and solo works to the Folk Implosion, whose work on the Kids soundtrack got a lot of people talking.
Ten minutes later, the answering machine in Lou's apartment picks up again. So you raise your voice, and hope they've got speakerphone on: "Good morning, Lou! This is your wake-up call! Hel-looo--"
They did a "really weird" video for one of the new songs ("Ocean"), and promo for this record has shifted into fifth gear -- perhaps at the dismay of some sebadoh-l'ers, who've been duly noting the radio-friendly unit-shifting qualities "their" band is obtaining. They've been rocking since the 80s, and Others are starting to notice.
It's just after nine in the morning, and you hope he's just asleep, and hadn't forgotten that you'd be calling. But you need to be sure -- so you take your second phone line off the hook, turn up the gain on your telephone console as high as it will go, and then conference in your off-hook line to Barlow's home.
Not long after the answering machine beeps to record your message, Ameritech's horrible off-hook reorder tone is amplified tenfold and pumped into Barlow's line, where you hope a groggy Lou somewhere on the other end can hear it. You keep it on until the answering machine stops recording five minutes later.
Since he's not calling back, there's one last thing, a long shot -- if his answering machine has remote-access features, you can get in there and play whatever messages might be on his tape, possibly getting a clue as to where he is. His machine answered quickly after the second ring, and you know that most early 90s models with second-ring pickup as one of the features uses two- or three-digit access codes. A two-digit code would be easy: every possible combination can be tried easily in under a minute; for the three-digit code, it might take five minutes or more to get it. You're hoping that he has one of those Panasonic Auto-Logic machines, which are cake to get into.
But this time, someone answers. He sounds far away and groggy, and you ask for Lou.
"Yeah," says the voice. Then, "Can you hold on for a sec?"
Nintey-two seconds of silence, and then, "Hi."
"Hi. Did you just wake up?"
"Okay. How's it goin?"
"Pretty good. Yeah, I just woke up," he says, and laughs.
CHURCH OF THE SEBGENIUS
What's "harmacy"? It's the cover of the album, a photo Jason took when the band was on tour for Bakesale. "We did a little tour of Ireland, and Jason took this picture of this totally rundown pharmacy from the van window, and the pharmacy was just run down to the point where the 'p' had actually fallen off -- really big letters, too, and when we were looking for pictures for the album he had a lot of pictures that he had taken, and we chose three of his photographs for the album -- and when we saw the pharmacy picture we're like, 'That's it, that's the fucken' title right there!
"At first I thought it sounded like this stupid heavy metal band like Cannibal Corpse and all those bands," he says, then does his best King Diamond and grunts out "Harmacy!" He also points out other ties to the word: harmony, of course, and pharmacy -- "You know it's a comment about drugs," and he laughs -- "This from the band that's been well-known for smoking dope for so long, smoking tons of pot ..."
He thinks, as you do, that the new record is a lot better than Bakesale. The closest comparison to their last album Lou gives is to the song "Ocean" -- which, like "Open Ended," is "sort of like a souped-up Bakesale song -- it sounds better, it's a little bit heavier, the parts are better, we play it better."
Looking back on past work, he's not so hard on 1993's Bubble & Scrape, an album he put on last night after not a long absence. Asking what his reaction was, he says, "I thought it was really cool!"
The prodution on that record is quite different from that of Harmacy: "There's a lot of space on it 'cause we really did a lot of the EQing and mixing ourselves ... so even though some things sound really terrible, it's all got this really interesting space on every song because [there's] a lot of room mikes on everything and it sounds really trashy, but actually quite -- I think it sounds kinda three-dimensional, almost more three dimensional than the stuff on Harmacy.
"I thought that was kinda interesting -- I didn't know that I would think that.
"I hadn't thought about that record [Bubble & Scrape] in a long time -- everybody was like, 'Oh, that was such an ugly duckling record.' All these people had a really difficult time with that record, but I thought it was really great. I thought Eric [Gaffney]'s songs on it were ... I thought his lyrics were pretty amazing. When I was listening to it last night I was like, 'Wow! No wonder some people really flip out that he's not in the band,' 'cause he was just a total -- he really brought this whole other, this energy that I really don't know if anyone else has really approached."
Self-recording is one of those things that Lou Barlow and Sebadoh are known for; since the downside of DIY is usually inadequate access to tools, it's often confused with a low-fi philosophy -- a curse that has haunted the band since their earliest boombox tapes. Their records have been recorded in studios for years. But what's interesting is that this time around, they developed a laissez faire attitude toward the mixing process, avoiding it altogether.
Lou describes the process: "Going to the studio, going in and hanging out like as it was being mixed for the first hour, and then just going, 'Hey man, this is monotonous! I can't believe how boring this is' -- and we couldn't really touch anything: 'Hey, could you do this?'
"'Well, if I do this, it's gonna do this, and if it does this--' and I'm like 'Okay, alright, whatever ...'" So he stopped offering advice and left the mixing to them. "We kind of like took more of a back seat: 'You make this record just sound real nice.'
"I mean, we really let a lot of, we really let other people decide what this record would sound like -- it was kind of an experiment in handing over control, sort of being like, 'Okay, you want to mix this song for a day? You do it.'" He laughs, and continues with his imaginary conversation: "'Fine. You think this will make this sound better? Well maybe it will.' You know, 'We're gonna be out here talkin', watchin' videos--' It's like we just sort of gave up, we sort of do what most bands do, which is just not ... just kinda give over the process to someone who decides to sit there, the producer -- so we kinda let that happen on a lot of songs on Harmacy, you know -- just last night when I was listening to it I was actually regretting that decision," he says with a laugh.
"... for the first time. Just because I thought about Bubble & Scrape," he said, "I was like, 'Aw man -- it's cool.' When we really try to do it ourselves it really gives it a whole other, you know -- but I mean I guess this record we were just tryin' to, like, just a very well-mannered record, Harmacy."
Harmacy was recorded in 21 days; in that time, the band often layed down more than one version of a song. "A lot of that 21 days was almost, you know, just demoing songs, and then doing the versions that actually came out on the record," he admits.
Lou started writing Harmacy material right after Bakesale was recorded -- "We finished Bakesale in December -- of whatever year that was; I don't remember," he says, and laughs. "It came out like in August of the following year, you know? So like in between that December and the August [sic] I put together some of those songs like ``Beauty of the Ride'' just so we had them to play when we hit the road to support Bakesale. So most of my songs are kind of like post-Bakesale tunes, I guess.
"A lot of Jason's songs on this record were actually written while we were in the studio ... or he hadn't written them in the studio, but he presented them to us while we were in the studio, he was like, 'Okay I have this song, it goes like this,' and we'd play it and then we'd record it and he'd be like, 'Well that doesn't sound that great -- let's try it again,' so we'd try it again the next time we were in the studio, get the good version of it."
While it's common knowledge that Lou is not the sole songwriter in the band -- everyone writes their fair share of songs -- it may not be so openly apparent that everyone shares in writing lyrics, too. "When we write our songs, each person is kinda responsible for the content for that song -- it's like, 'Okay, I got this song, here's the lyrics, and here's the chords, and it goes like this--' and then everybody else just kinda picks up and goes along with it."
Barlow's always quick to point out the work of his bandmates: "Like on Harmacy, I wrote seven songs -- one of them doesn't even have lyrics, so that's six songs with lyrics; Jason wrote nine songs, one of those songs doesn't have lyrics, so that's eight songs."
The last song, 'I Smell a Rat,' is a cover of a Boston band called The Bags. "They're actually a pretty, kind of a really brilliantly funny hard rock band. They kind of faded into obscurity but this is our tribute to them. Bob was quite a huge Bags fan, so he sings on it. He taught it to us."
This record is more dynamic than the last one, and when you point that out to Lou, he seems kind of let down for a second, but he agrees -- "Really, you're right. Similar tempo, same kind of tunes. I'd just gotten the finished version of Harmacy and I'm like opening the plastic you know, crank it and sort of pretend that I was listening to it as a non-biased viewer or listener whatever, and I thought, 'You know, Bakesale is kind of like, sonically it's even narrower than Harmacy -- like Harmacy sounds narrow to me compared to Bubble & Scrape, but Bakesale is even narrower than that ... it's like, 'Whoah! Shit, I didn't know!' You know?
"It's funny how you just, you can do something, you're like, I don't know -- it's just crazy, it's like getting a haircut like, 'This looks pretty good!' Then you're like walking down the street and your friend's like, 'Hey, man, where'd you get that fucking haircut?'
"'What do you mean?'
"'It's all fucked up and stuff -- you haven't seen it?'
"You're like, 'No!'"
"And then a couple years later," you say, "you look at a picture of it, 'Hey, that was pretty cool!'"
"That's true, maybe that's it -- 'I had a great haircut back then. I can't believe I walked around like that -- I thought I looked pretty cool, didn't I? Holy shit...'"
"I guess there goes the canon of an 'official history' of anything," I say, "'cause it seems every time you look at something it's in the context of how you're looking at it."
"Oh, totally. that's kind of really an important thing. That always seems to be like news to you, too: 'Wow, things are really different when you look back at them from another angle!' It's always like that -- you'll be like 80 years old and you'll be like, 'Wow, it's really amazing how when you look back at things--" He laughs and said, "It's always one of those, it just regenerates all the time, that realization."
SKELETONS FROM THE CLOSET
In past interviews, Lou's quoted as saying that -- contrary to popular belief -- he's not a very frustrated and lonely person. His life changed at a very specific time, as he'll laugh and tell you: "When Eric left the band."
"Do you still talk to him?"
"No, because he was really hard to deal with. He just didn't trust me, ever. It was really hard, you know, after years and years -- and he was really paranoid about money, and like in the early years of the band I would really cut a lot of corners so he could make more money and I'd eat up the loss or whatever, so I didn't have to listen to him bitch at me -- but I mean even that you know, it just didn't matter, he just kept coming! He was always paranoid about money!
"Being paranoid about money just never looks good, and it always just makes things really bad and always makes things really horrible and really hard to get along, it's just like ... so when he left or whatever, it was just like, 'Wow,' you know? he was sort of like, 'I'm leaving,' and I think he was kind of expecting us to go, 'Oh, don't leave!' but it's like, 'No, alright, fine!' -- we just gave him that final push, like 'Get out! I can't deal with this any more, you've finally given me the opportunity to say so' -- it's just like, 'Forget it. It's just become too hard.'
"I mean, he's a fucking amazing musician, an amazing lyricist, has great ideas, but god he just has absolutely no fucken, no sense of friendship or anything. So once he left, it was like, 'Okay, well...' and us you know, I'd been through a lot of shit with Kathleen [Billus, his wife and co-moderator (with Jeanne Kinney) of the sick-n-tired listserv] and that was all pretty much just settling down."
Going back further, Lou's not too surprised by the irony that ex-bandmate J. Mascis, who'd thrown him out of Dinosaur Jr., gets worse reviews directly in proportion to Sebadoh's rising acclaim.
"It's pretty much 'the usual' thing that happens -- I mean, he didn't make much of an effort to like, move musically very much -- he kind of just found his place and kind of just kept doing it.
"And Sebadoh, it's real easy for us to move forward 'cause we started out basically in the basement, so every time we even take a step up it's like, 'Oh my God, they took a step up!' or if so we got out of the basement and now we're in the kitchen and they're like, 'Oh, now they're in the kitchen!' Meanwhile he's been like on the second floor for a long time," he says, and laughs. "'I can't believe it, he's still on the second floor, Jesus Christ...'"
Out of anyone that he hasn't worked with before, his choice of someone to work with musically is "those guys who just did that new Beck record." Why? "Just because they've done all that shit like Young MC and all they've done rap stuff and R&B a little bit -- now they do rock stuff, but I'd be into working with people who kind of have a different, come from a different, um -- you know it'd be really cool to work with like an r&b producer or something to see just what the hell it would sound like, you know? see if I could follow through with the whole process, and whatever would come out at the end would just be so, it might be horrible -- it might be shockingly horrible -- but at least it would be different.
"That kind of appeals to me, just tryin' to cross-breeed some influences, but as far as people and musicians and shit, I can't think of any."
UNCLE LOU'S BAND
With their hometown indie-rocking, plain-as-life approach, Sebadoh is one of the most straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is bands I know. This is also one of their most copied traits, and it's been one of the reasons why I'd always figured they had a dedicated touring crowd (well, I've never followed them on tour, but I've thought about it).
Lou's quick with an answer. "Some people do, but not a lot. We're not the Butthole Surfers -- a lot of people follow them, they've totally got that kind of Greatful Dead thing going on."
I'm surprised -- after all, this is one of the first bands with an Internet mailing list dedicated to them. "I've always had this image of hardcore Sebadoh fans in VWs with Sebadoh stickers--"
"I wish," he says, laughing.
"There were a few in Cleveland last time you guys toured."
"Oh, I remember them -- there were two of them, Erin and Todd. They follow us around. Nobody else does.
"I love that. I mean, I've never seen the Grateful Dead, but we played a show in Sacramento the same night they did, and we tried to stay at a hotel, and when we stayed at one it was just full of Grateful Dead fans. It was 4 o'clock in the morning and they're walking down the hall going, 'Trips or hit, trips or hit,' and just like all these really old hippies with babies, like living in these ugly, really horrible cars ... it was just -- it was really weird. It was impressive -- I was really impressed. I mean, I was like, 'Wow -- these people all really like this band to the point that they've actually figured out a way to make money going on tour with them -- by sitting out there and making like grilled cheese sandwiches...'"
"Right -- or reselling beer--"
"I was like, wow, they have this whole travelling commune -- regardless of what the music sounds like, I couldn't give a shit about that, but just the idea -- my God!"
"It was cool that they allowed fans to tape their shows; and even though it's not a popular thing to say in the indie rock world, I think there's some merit to Jerry Garcia's guitar playing."
"I'm totally into 60s music," he says, "but whenever it comes to San Francisco music, songs are just too long, and there's no agression with it at all -- but I think that how they started was not unlike how the Butthole Surfers started, by reselling drugs to their audience. And that's really what started their culture, there was just a drug trade happening in their audience, and then people started doing the tape thing, you know, and ... I'd love to know a whole history about the Grateful Dead without reading too much about the band -- the band itself doesn't excite me, but that time in Sacramento where I saw all those people, I mean, it was just unbelieveable, there was just so many people, with their Volkswagon buses..."
"No doubt loaded with guitars and hackey sacks and coffee machines and stuff ... and their history even, it's kind of melded with the Beat Generation and the whole West Coast Leftist thing."
"Yeah, there was old people -- that was the amazing thing, I was like, 'these people are fucken old!'"
"So when we're all fifty years old, are we all gonna be going to see Sebadoh?"
"They were always a feel-good band, and if you're a feel-good band, you can kinda last, and people kinda come back to you -- I mean you don't have to be a feel-good band to have a following, I mean, the Butthole Surfers were never exactly a feel-good band!" -- laughter -- "Maybe a feel-dizzy kind of band ... but with Sebadoh, we've been evolving a lot -- like, I sort of thought when Eric was in the band, I thoght that we could've become something like that ... because our shows were really, really different from night to night -- just because it depended on what Eric would feel like doing. It was like, 'Do you really feel like doing drums through that whole song today, Eric? Do a drum roll through the whole fuckin song? Wow, it sounds great!'
"Since he was so, from night to night, really different, he really made it really different. Once Eric left, now it's like Bob, Jason and I, and we're just so -- we all play the game. Let's just say that we all wanna do our best every night and we're not really into fucking with each other. Eric, when you had him involved with it, he just really ... fucked with balance. Sometimes that was great -- mostly, it was just a complete pain in the ass, but sometimes it just made those moments when he came around that much powerful."
"And things were different then," I say, "back when the Dead was creating their scene -- these days, it's like everybody's in a band, and maybe that's part of the reason there's no one big band getting all the following to itself -- it's a lot more democratic."
"Maybe," Lou says, in answer to that last muse. "And because of like the way that Nirvana kinda fucked things up in that sense, too," he says, "'cause even though they were ungodly powerful, they were bringing something that hadn't really been heard before mainstream-wise. I mean, certainly I'd heard things exactly like Nirvana way before it happened, or heard what made Nirvana into what they are, but when that happened and since Kurt Cobain was such a fuckup, it was like, you know, people were more willing to take the means of music into their own hands."
"How did they fuck things up, was it popularity?"
"No, I'm just saying that Kurt was a fuckup, that's all I'm saying -- just like a lot of people I know. He wasn't really happy -- when I say he was a fuckup I'm saying that in the most affectionate way possible--"
"I totally understand why he was a fuckup, in fact I felt a lot of the same ways and--"
"And his life sucked."
"Yeah -- exactly, and on top of that he had like, he had a life to me what was very similar kinda to what like Eric and Jason had been through and, you know, being raised by single mothers, and living in a kinda small town -- like, I did that all too, but my parents were married the entire --" He stops to correct himself.
"Well, pretty much," he says. "They split up for a while, but they stayed married -- and my parents were really supportive. Not so much like money-wise or whatever, but just in terms of letting me--" He stops to re-think his statement -- "I had a certain amount of like freedom and security that a lot of people around my age didn't really have, because where there was such a tumultuous age in terms of like marriages breaking up, it was kind of like all these people -- the children of the people who grew up in the 60s all kinda freaking out, and all coming out on their kids, you know?
"But my parents stayed fairly secure through all of that, and they kind of passed that along to me."
"Which Kurt didn't have. Even though he did what he did, it seems like he made everyone else stronger, like nobody else has to do that now."
"We can't now," Lou says with a laugh. "It's like, 'Shit, I can't do that now? Even if I kill myself, it's been done before!' But somebody had to do it, definitely. Like, he defintely stepped up. He's like, 'Hey, I'm one of the biggest rock stars in the world -- check this out!'" He pauses. "BLAM!
"'Whoah! No one's done that! Holy shit!' And just because it was such -- he kinda like crystallized the negativity of our time."
There's kind of an awkward silence before he continues, as if he's re-thinking it all, and then he says, "Wow, in one fucken -- even though maybe to him it was a totally personal decision, like in a lotta ways, it was like ... he made it impossible for anyone else to do that after that."
"Like becoming a Christ figure."
"Oh, he did! If you look at the way that people were treating In Utero and stuff before he died, they're like, 'Oh, this record's pretty good,' you know, 'It's kind of a lot like Bleach, I don't know,' you know, and people were kind of like taking him for granted in a way -- I mean I kind of remember that, and people were--"
"Yeah, everybody was like that!"
"Yeah, and everyone was taking him for granted and it's like BLAM, it's like, 'Wow, ``All Apologies'' sounds really good now!'
"I didn't even like that song before," he saus. "I was like ``All Apologies,'' oh you know, that song's okay! It's funny how that one act made that record so powerful."
"That's kind of like what we were talking about history before," I say. "Haircuts, you know?"
"Totally," he says. "You look back and it's completely different."
Sebadoh was in town on 9/29 at the Odeon in the Flats; they're currently rocking in Europe.
Original content copyright © 1990-1998 by Michael Stutz; this information is free; it may be redistributed and/or modified under the terms of the