Lou Barlow, just off the phone with wife/muse/Sebadoh chatlist coordinator Kath Billus ("She was made. Some guy in The New Yorker gave Welcome To The Dollhouse a bad review and we really like it"), is poking through the welter of hotel-room debris one might expect of a young, respected but not rich band with New England hardcore roots in town for interviews and the like--pizza boxes, drummer Bob Fay's paperback biography of Kraftwerk, and a boom box surrounded by CDs of such current Sebadoh favorites as Harry Partch, Sepultura, and French pop singer Jacques Dutronc. He picks up a minimally packaged advance CD of an upcoming record by a "signed" band. "These guys are staying in the hotel too, and one of them was hanging out in our room. He brought over his CD to give us, and he just put it in and started playing it."
Bassist Jason Loewenstein, coming from his room down the hall, joins the conversation: "Yeah, and he was playing along with it, like he was really getting into it." Jason closes his eyes and plays exaggerated air drums, miming a would-be teen idol, oblivious to his surroundings.
Lou shakes his head. "Man, I can't even imagine being that guy." Anyone giving Haramcy (Sub Pop), Sebadoh's seventh and latest full-length, even a cursory listen would have an equally hard time picturing Lou (or the rest of the band) displaying that brand of arrogance. As ever, a kind of rigorous self-consciousness is key to the Sebadoh aesthetic, an unwillingness to be satisfied with easy explanations of one's own motivations or actions. It was there in Barlow and departed founding member Eric Gaffney's painstakingly original assembly of four-and-fewer-track fragments into the first two Sebadoh records; it was there in the surgical dissections of Lou's departure from Dinosaur Jr. that fueled "Gimme Indie Rock" and the album III, the band's first electric recordings, and in the public airing of the ups and downs of Barlow and Billus' romance from Bubble And Scrape onward, as well as in the band's continued use of open tunings as a means toward avoiding guitar clichés.
And it's here, in spades, in both sound and song on Harmacy. In many ways, the record is a consolidation of the gains of 1994's Bakesale, rather than any great departure--producer Tim O'Heir (largely known for work with such commercial-alternative bands as Superdrag and Possum Dixon) is again at the helm, though the record is assembled, says Lou, "from a bunch of different session. I can't even begin to list them." This aside, Harmacy, even more than Bakesale, was conceived and recorded with a consistent line-up; on the latter, Gaffney was still in the picture, sporadically, and a few of Loewenstein's songs featured fellow Louisvillian Tara Jane O'Neill (Retsin, Rodan, Sonora Pine). "[Harmacy is] the first time that Bob's played on every song, so that's a first--it's all three of us on the whole record, and that's a big first," says Lou. Downplaying any radical shift in production or approach, Bob simply says, "Some things were more fussed over," and it's true that the rich combinations of guitar tones on "Willing To Wait" and "Too Pure", not to mention what Bob calls "the classic '70s FM soft-rock drum sound--like Bread!" of the opening "On Fire" would be nearly unimaginable on previous records. But for all the tightly arranged Barlow offerings, there are also off-kilter instrumentals (all three members write one apiece), and an exuberant closing cover (sung by Bob) of "I Smell A Rat", by latter-day Boston punks the Bags.
Loewenstein, asked how this record proceeds from the last, jokes, "they let me put too many songs on it--they didn't fight with me enough." But the truth is that he's moved on from his role as rocker/pothead id to Barlow's pop star/pothead superego as on III (making Gaffney the Whitmanesque auteur/pothead ego) to being Lou's match in melodic songwriting. There's still a lingering sense, in change-ups like the minute long "Love To Fight" ("confusion, illusion, bullshit!"), that the Sebadoh division of song-labor is good cop/bad cop: Jason screams so that Lou, equally dissatisfied, won't have to. But Jason's first two salvos, "Prince-S" and "Nothing Like You," are undisguised love songs; in the first, he capitulates to sincerity ("I guess there's no use, really... 'cause there's nothing like the real thing"), while in the second, he twists the old many-fish-in-the-sea line ("There's a lot of girls in the world [pause] that are nothing like you").
"Nothing Like You" wafts by on a "Heart-Shaped Box"-ish feel, minus Kurt Cobain's angst. The resemblance hasn't gone unnoticed: "I must have heard that a lot on the radio when it came out, but I've had a four-track version of it for a long time. But you know it's one of those ancient dirges, it's one of those chord progressions people eat up, I just happen to be white in 1996." Lou adds, "People hear certain songs, and they don't go [suspicious voice] 'Hey, I've heard that before,' they go [yells] 'Awright! There it is!' Like that pop thing in 'Brand New Love', that's in every song on the radio right now."
Harmacy is a consolidation in another way--one of Jason's songs had an early incarnation on a 7" by Sparkalepsy (his four-track side project), Lou's "On Fire" and "Perfect Way" showed up as acoustic B-sides, and "Willing To Wait", though never before released, dates from the earliest shows by the pre-Kids Folk Implosion, "when it was called the John Davis Folk Implosion," Lou adds. He's commented in other interviews that one impetus behind his use of four-track recording has been the ability to take a certain kind of care in the assembly of guitar parts that isn't always possible when a rock band is in a studio. (The aforementioned presence of open tunings is more obvious on a simple acoustic recording, for example.) One key achievement of Harmacy is the transference of some of that ethic to a studio situation that could easily have become cluttered, especially given the presence of a certain degree of comemerical expectation.
As Lou points out, "Sub Pop is at this crossroads in their labelness. They can't really figure out where they fit in--they want to be movers and shakers of mass culture, and have their bands be big, and have an impact. They're not in the position of Touch And Go, where they just do what they want to do for the people who want that. We're really the next thing in line for Sub Pop, the next hopeful things. None of the Sub Pop bands have really caught on in a big way while they're on Sub Pop."
Hence the presence among the leftovers, baggies and compilations of Ghanaese guitar music on the hotel room table of a just-delivered cassette of post-album remixes of "Ocean," a recent live favorite with an unusually straightforward structure; it's the song tagged by the label as the most likely single for 'modern rock' radio. "If they don't think there's a song like that on the radio, then the radio people don't have anything to do... Sub Pop really wanted another mix, because that's what you have to do for 'radio'- the original is never good enough. But it's not actually deductible from our royalties, so we had Tim do more mixes, even though we'd already done two. Sub Pop chose the song partly because it has no instrumental introduction--'Oh my God, if you don't start singing right away, no one's going to listen.'"
"If the vocal hook isn't in the first 10 seconds, they get really jumpy," Bob confirms.
Lou adds, lightly mocking his own song, "And they like the sing-songiness of it." There's not a whisper of doubt that "Ocean" belongs on the radio--it's got a sprightly, major-scale melody that contrasts with more angular guitar undercurrents, in the fashion of an earlier generation of Boston bands (Christmas, Big Dipper) that never got within spitting distance of commercial radio, but it conceals a vintage dose of Barlow's colloquial venom. "I wish I had a way to make it better/to rearrange the truth and make you smile/but it's dumb to think I even have that power/and we haven't been that close for a while," he sings, capturing the moment when one realized that one's trust has been mistakenly placed in those who "didn't care to lose or keep it." Admitting to a friend or lover that "we never quite connected from the first," Barlow makes the bitter message that much icier through sheer tunefulness (and his usual sweet, intimate vocal tone).
It's harly the only song on Harmacy with hit-in-a-better-world written all over it; in addition to the Jason songs mentioned above, Lou's "Willing To Wait" ("No one knows if we should be together") could be the climactic slow-dance at an alternative prom, and "Perfect Way" has the record's best lyric: "If you're holding, I'll shake you down/share that perfect way to make me happy." The reversal of cliché here is so subtle it needs spelling out: think "if you're shaking, I'll hold you down," recast into a demand for recreational drugs.
Deservedness (and record-company push) aside, faceless radio hit-making á la Dishwalla or Ammonia isn't a major Sebadoh ambition, says Lou: "It seems pretty unrealistitc. I think the texture is pretty different from what people want on the radio--my complaint about the radio now is that the textures are all the same, and you really have to fit with that to get on. I mean, I think our songs are great and all that, and if we had made a record with that kick-ass punk/Nirvana sound, maybe we'd have a chance.
"That's part of what we struggle with Tim O'Heir about--he spent the year since he did Bakesale coming out to L.A. and firing drummers, and he's really gotten to the point as a producer where he won't accept anything less than that texture, because that's what brings the music to the most people, and it's what brings the producer's name into prominence. If you're going to play rock music now, it generally seems like it has to sound like that, and it has to fit in with whatever amound of Smashing Pumpkins they have to play."
Bob jumps in: "It's ridiculous, this idea that a drum sound should always be as tight as that last big Tom Petty single. I love certain electronic stuff, like Kraftwerk, but that thinking can ruin a song; it's the disco beat of the '90s--I think it'll sound ridiculous a couple years from now."
Lou adopts the incredulous tone of a future listener to '90s radio: "'Why did everyone put that crazy bass-and-snare beat on every song back then? Who can imagine? Why the hell did they do that?'
"But even when we were doing the first Dinosaur record, the snare hits would trigger this static signal, like there had to be this element of white noise to the drum sound, and it was never right, ever. We were just obsessing over this snare sound, and it didn't sound natural at all--a lot of records from that time just sound bizarre."
Nowadays, Barlow's no longer a commercial radio virgin, since the Folk Implosion's "Natural One" became a left-field hit. Even if "Ocean" isn't it, he says, "There'll probably be another one. That song wasn't much of a stretch for me stylistically, so I think there's a possibility that, before my time playing music is through, I might hit on that magic formula again. John [Davis, the taller half of the Folk Implosion] gets really mad when people say that it's a one-hit wonder--'we could do it again if we wanted to.'
"When it happened, I thought it was the end of my career, like it was really going to complicate things. But people think that if you have a song on the radio, you're seeing a lot of money, and that's not always true. We're going back to [small San Francisco indie] Communion for the record we just finished, so I think it'll be okay. The last time we played, we did 'Natural One' by actually singing to the real karaoke version.
"Sebadoh's in a pretty unique position, because we have a pretty large audience for just how little we fit in. Of course, the more we're perceived as getting more mainstream, the more some of our original audience will hate us--there's no one less tolerant than a 17-year-old kid. I know how much I hated everything then. At this point, I wouldn't know how to stop the backlash if I tried, so I don't worry about it."
Hit or no hit, post-Harmacy plans include a good bit of road work--"go toEurope, play some festivals--tour the States, tour Europe, go to Australia and Japan again," and, as always, keeping everything in perspective. Before the band goes off to a lengthy photo session, involving hairstyling--a Sebadoh first--and Todd Oldham jackets, Jason offers a final anecdote:
"I went to Lollapalooza last year to check out Stereolab and get out of Louisville for a day, and I was standing in a huge pasture in Atlanta, surrounded by people who like that sort of thing, and the Breeders came on. They said, 'We're going to do a cover now, by this band called Sebadoh, maybe you've heard of them,' and I'm standing there with 50,000 people who don't know me or the band, for that matter. I looked around and no one cheered, no one said anything. Then they played it and it sounded like they didn't remember the words, or how it really went."
Bob asks, "Did you say anything?"
"Nah--I played air drums."