LOU'S BETTER? YOU BET
Strange things are afoot in the SEBADOH camp: LOU BARLOW and his fellow glumsters are, erk, happy! And their new album, 'Harmacy' is, double erk, tuneful! But worry not angst-lovers, the 'Doh still believe every silver lining has a ruddy great cloud attached. JAMES OLDHAM talked crazy fans, lesbian lovers and settling down with the band. Happy snapper: ANDY WILLSHER
With blood streaming from a wound on his head and surrounded by the debris of the second guitar he'd smashed up that evening, Lou Barlow walked offstage at Reading two years ago in something of a state...
Claiming to be "nervous, drunk and scared", Barlow announced that he'd freaked out when he realised just how many people Sebadoh were due to play in front of.
To his detractors though, this merely confirmed what they'd always suspected about him and his band. Whining Lou Barlow, the undisputed sovereign of America's underachieving alternative scene, scared of his fans, crippled by lo-fi guilt and generally a bit of an emotional mess. A suggestion given further credence a few months later when Sebadoh pulled out of a British and European tour due to "nervous exhaustion".
People quickly began to speculate about 'girlfriend trouble', imminent martyrdom and the prospect of Sebadoh calling it quits.
Two years on, sitting in a south London pub with a wry smile on his face, Lou Barlow reveals that the reality of that day was about as far removed from piddling, indie madness as could be humanly possible.
"Let me tell you," he snorts, "doing coke with Courtney and Evan wasn't lo-fi. And it certainly wasn't lo-fi to hang out with Drew Barrymore in a bathroom."
"The only thing that freaked us out that day," announced drummer Bob Fay, "was that it was such a goddamn celebrity fest."
Not that they want to talk about it any further because, after all, you never know when your mom might pick up a copy of NME, do you?
Hmmm. Time, perhaps, as they prepare to release their mind-fusingly fantastic new album, 'Harmacy', to reassess what you think you know about the (admittedly) bizarre world of Lou Barlow and Sebadoh. Because, in the two years since 'Bakesale', there's been a whole lot of changes 'round their way...
FOR A start, Lou, in Folk Implosion mode, went funky, wrote a song called 'Natural One' and reached the heights of the US Top 30. Without flinching once. He's also managed to find some stability by marrying his long-term girlfriend, Kathleen. In fact, relationship-wise, this is something of a golden era for the Sebadoh team, especially considering the upheavals which occurred shortly after the release of 'Bakesale'. Especially for bassist Jason Lowenstein.
"He fell in love with a lesbian for Christsakes. It was idiotic," explains Bob helpfully.
What's more, Lou drove him the 1,000 miles from Massachusetts to Louisville just so he could be with her. Before he could put his bags down though, she announced that, in her soul of souls, she really preferred girls. Still, in the end, complete catastrophe was avoided because Jason had both friends in Louisville and a strong desire to quit the stifling atmosphere of Massachusetts ("One of the most uptight places you can live in the States").
"It was the right decision," maintains Jason.
"Now I'm settled. I live with a woman I love very much, and have been doing for over a year. We're very happy and have dogs," he laughs.
At which point, we should hear a quick word from Bob. "Well, the girl I'm with now was living with someone and I was the most patient guy. Just waiting for her to come around to my suave way. Which naturally she did. In the end."
As songs about relationships, and particularly relationships which aren't going too well, traditionally make up the bulk of the Sebadoh listening experience, these developments would seem to be bad news for angst-lovers everywhere. Or at least, they would be with any normal people. Remember though, this is Sebadoh.
"There'll always be something for me to worry about," admits Jason. "It's just may not be a woman. I mean, even when you're happy, the rug colour's never right or your drapes are all f---ed up."
Lou concurs: "I might be happy with someone right at this minute, but I still worry that something terrible might happen to her. There's no end to the precariousness of everyday life."
"All I'm worried about," concludes Bob, "is my girlfriend leaving me because she thinks I have sex with people every night. It's a serious concern to me. She can be very paranoid about my lifestyle. She's a scientist and isn't used to having a boyfriend who leaves for half a year to go touring."
The very thought of this dilemma momentarily appears to trouble Bob. Still, it's nice to know that collective domestic bliss hasn't eroded Sebadoh's superhuman sense of neurosis.
But if stability hasn't cured their anxieties, there are signs that they're coming to terms with their increasingly popular position, and all the attendant difficulties that go with it -- in particular, the intensity of their fans. Apparently though, cases of them being stalked by bespectacled, poetry-spouting lunatics are relatively rare, as Lou explains.
"For us, it's not like Nirvana with Kurt Cobain singing all these really ambiguous lyrics, which could be about anything. So total crackheads in Tulsa think, 'He's talking to me. I gotta find him and kill him'. People who write bad lyrics always get a lot more people following them around, because they can read more into it. Our lyrics are too specific for that to happen."
But presumably you still have to deal with the occasional obsessive?
"Of course we know fans who are really f---ed up, but we keep in contact with them just to make sure they don't kill us," laughs Lou.
"They're the people who call Lou at 5am and say, 'Turn the tape recorder on. I really want to talk to you'. Which he always does," adds Bob.
Crikey! Don't you ever feel like telling them to piss off and pull themselves together?
"No way," says Lou looking genuinely shocked at such a heartless suggestion. "That's not what people do. My mom used to say to me, 'C'mon Lou, pull yourself up by your bootstraps or no girl's ever gonna come knocking on your door, asking you to marry her'. But hey, what do you know, some girl did come and knock on my door. Ha ha!"
That aside though, there's always a cautionary tale about The Flaming Lips politely telling one of their more persistent fans to 'give it a rest', only to turn the corner and find him dousing himself in petrol, shortly before he set himself alight.
"But, y'know, a band singing songs like 'Jesus Shooting Heroin'...," reasons Bob. "Frankly, if I was imbalanced and bipolar and I heard that, I'd think, 'Shit! All bets are off. What does it matter anymore?' And then I'd go down to the mall and start gunning people down."
A GOOD time, then, to tell you about 'Harmacy', which once again sees Sebadoh making gigantic strides forward. Any fear that Lou Barlow might try to temper the commercial success of 'Natural One' with an album of attritional contrariness proves absolutely groundless. Because from the triumphant surge of new single 'Beauty Of The Ride' through to the maudlin predilictions of 'Too Pure', this is Sebadoh's most fully realised (and melodic) work to date.
More commercial than its predecessor, it also contains probably the most romantic Sebadoh song written to date. 'Willing To Wait' is a heart-wrenching message written by Lou when Kathleen briefly left him for another man a few years ago.
"That song's just about how if you're really in love with someone you're willing to accept the most ridiculous propositions. You wanna f--- this guy? That's fine, but I'll be here for you. Torn between two lovers -- no problem," he jokes.
And, perhaps even more surprisingly for the occasional Sebadoh listener, 'Willing To Wait' conspires to sound like the Tindersticks. The bloody Tindersticks! It's got strings on it, and everything! And it certainly makes a mockery of Barlow's reputation as someone who simply burps out lo-fi ditties whenever the need arises.
"I just think people need to know a lot of my songs are really old," explains Lou. "Some of these were in labour for two years. I mean the world is littered with my four-track recordings recorded the day I wrote the song. On this album, I just thought it was time for six or seven songs that actually had a life."
That'll be your new-found sense of maturity then.
"Well, I'm 30 years old," states Lou. "And this band has totally changed. I think it's perfectly reasonable for anyone who's liked our band in the past to hate it now. I don't begrudge anyone for hating our new stuff. But for me, this album is a revelation. We're still climbing."
And when they return to this year's Reading Festival you'll be able to see just how far they've actually come. There will be no wilful guitar destruction, no high-pitched petulance and absolutely no more misdemeanours with the grunge aristocracy. Because these days Sebadoh are no longer mimsy, lo-fi whingers with glasses and a lifelong grudge against The Tune: they've grown up, settled down and waved goodbye to the temper tantrums of yesteryear. In short, they've stopped the madness.