TORTURED SONG TRINITY
Nirvana, The Jam, Hüsker Dü, the Jimi Hendrix Experience -- and now joining the legendary rock 'n' roll power trios are SEBADOH, bringing their cathartic co-operative to the nation's collective guitar soul via the open ears of KEITH CAMERON.
"You want to know how it will be / Me and her or you and me / What can we do now we both love you? / I don't really see why we can't go on as three..." -- The Byrds, 'Triad'
Typical David Crosby. The old walrus was simply trying to get a three in a bed rumpy pumpy sesh going when he penned that deliriously beautiful ditty way back in '66.
But over a quarter of a century later, Sebadoh are proving that a triad of '90s renaissance men can get it together, get it on, and get whatever the hell else they want in a musical ménage à trois that would have even Crosby's handlebar moustache quivering with emotion. For Eric Gaffney, Jason Lowenstein and Lou Barlow, three is most certainly the magic number.
After being for so long ignored or marginalised as Lou 'Bassist Out Of Dinosaur' Barlow's folky side project, or subsequent to his departure from that band as Lou 'The Loser' Barlow's masturbatory bedroom doodlings, Sebadoh stand in 1993 as a potent force. Last year's two mini-albums 'Rocking The Forest' and '...Versus Helmet' served as a crash course introduction for those (most) people whose acquaintance with the band had amounted to little more than Lou's Dino past, thanks to the import-only status of their first three releases.
Drawing from various periods in the band's history, these were uneven but vital glimpses into a weird little world where Lou's lovelorn pop dissertations would sit jarringly alongside Eric's skewed dissonant screams, as well as a couple of instructive covers: Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon' and -- hey! -- David Crosby's 'Everybody's Been Burned'. It was easy to say what Sebadoh were not: glib; throwaway; cliché-ridden; grunge. A more positive definition was still awaited.
And it's here at last. 'Bubble And Scrape' is the most coherent realisation of Sebadoh's triple-pronged assault on our collective soul, where Eric's splatter-grooves are even catchier than before, Lou's personal Post-it Notes touch year's-supply-of-Kleenex levels, and Jason's nascent talents take giant steps towards those of his partners.
Sebadoh's three-ness is more important than for most trios, which have long been a treasured ideal in rock. Unlike the many other great threesomes -- Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Jam, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana -- Sebadoh is not the vehicle for a single person's dominant vision with the other two struggling to edge their way onto the B-sides. Due to his stifling experience in Dinosaur, Lou insists on giving equal groove space to his partners, despite the fact that an entire album's worth of his own material would undoubtedly make Sebadoh a prodigious megabuck-earning proposition.
But after the Nirvana-headed rollercoaster the better US bands were forced on last year, is that such a desirable proposition any more? And make no mistake, without Eric's wild scraping and Jason's rapidly developing mid-point between his two more experienced colleagues, Sebadoh would be a pale excuse for their real potential.
"The differences in style just make it more interesting," asserts Lou, as Sebadoh brew coffee and rifle through the records at NME photographer Steve Double's east London studio. "It puts me ill at ease reading reviews that go 'Why isn't Sebadoh just this pop band...' It seems like people are frustrated managers. Get your own band! Be Malcolm McLaren! Otherwise tape the songs you like off the Sebadoh record. Do whatever you want."
Lou Barlow's songs we know all about -- except 'Bubble And Scrape' adds further detail to that picture, more of which later -- but as for Eric's and Jason's, the picture is far less clear. With three years' service in Sebadoh as opposed to the other's seven, Jason considers himself very much a junior songwriting member, and admits to a lack of self-confidence only now being slowly overcome.
"The songs are mostly about relationships," he says, "be it a relationship with a woman or your family. I think about family politics a lot. I was born to a very young mother and her sister ended up adopting me, and I lived with her from nine-months-old up 'til now. Then her husband, my 'father', left us when I was nine. My mom and I had a real hard time getting on for a few years after that."
This familial upheaval impinges on conceivably three of Jason's four songs on 'Bubble And Scrape', most obviously 'Sixteen', where he tells of being given the opiate Paragoric as an infant while being left unattended as his relatives went to work. "But you're just fine," he accuses, "making up your mind at 16". What happened to your natural mother, Jason?
"Actually she lives two blocks away from us. We're not very close."
Eric Gaffney has been in so many bands he's pushed to recall exactly how many ("err, well over ten," he frowns, doubtfully). One was called Brain Injured Unit, in which Eric played drums behind someone who went on to form Walt Mink -- "he was a much more talented musician than me" -- and another featured the late Charlie Ondoras (original Unsane drummer), rejoiced under the name Gracefully Ageing Hippy Soloists and featured Eric's first foray onto guitar.
What distinguishes Sebadoh from all the other bands you've been in?
"Most primarily the fact that it's somewhat successful!" chuckles Eric, a man whose sense of humour begs a redefinition of the word 'dry'. "No other band I've been in ever got their records distributed, and a fair number only ever did a few shows now and again. In terms of songwriting, this is the first band I've been in."
Like Jason, Eric had a troubled childhood that saw him carted around various households with his mother and a series of stepfathers and stepmothers.
"It could be a month, it could be a week, it could be two years," he nods, as Jason and Lou try out the 'William Tell Overture' in the background. "It sucked. I think I learned a lot of strength. A lot of the anger comes out in the songs, and it affects how I work in relationships; love relationships and even the group sometimes. I've left the group twice. It's definitely a pattern that's difficult to break, feeling sceptical about things. I'm not a particularly easy person to be with all the time. But at this point in my life I'm feeling more confident than ever that something might work out."
Lou Barlow didn't have a f---ed up childhood. His parents were, he says, completely open for him to make of his life what he chose. He also has a girlfriend -- Kathleen, whom he began seeing while still in Dinosaur -- which one might not automatically assume from listening to his nakedly personal treatises from the heartbreak zone.
Yet she's here, sat on his lap as Eric and Jason scrap over which Meat Puppets track to hear, explaining just why she left Lou for another man in the autumn of 1991, thereby inspiring the new strain of Barlow songs on 'Bubble And Scrape' -- love songs.
"We started as best friends, but then I got really fed up of Lou because he was really distant," she says. "I would hear songs on 'Sebadoh III' that rang with doubt and confusion, and I thought something's missing."
"I'd never really written any true love songs to her," agrees Lou. "They're all very ambivalent. But when she left me it was totally crushing. You can think about splitting up and think you'll be OK but when it happened I was devastated and I wrote all these songs to her and sent her the first versions of 'Soul & Fire', 'Two Years, Two Days', 'Cliché', 'cos I knew that all I really had was my songs. It was the first time I ever really came out and expressed anything I really believed in. It was a huge turning point. I couldn't write about heartbreak until I felt it and I don't think I could have written a true love song until I lost it, because Kathleen was my first love, my first girlfriend, my first everything. Love isn't a chemical reaction, it's not that simple. It has to do with accepting someone. It's just... just really being afraid that that person will die."
In what must have appeared like an out-take from Love Story, Lou and Kathleen were reunited after a Sebadoh gig last April, at which the electric versions of all the songs he'd written for her were debuted. Kathleen broke down, which isn't surprising under the circumstances. 'Two Years, Two Days'' climatic verse runs thus: "Guilt is a stupid thing / Don't let it make you stay / Leave me if you're wanting someone else / I'll be OK / Two years or two days from now / Even though I love you more now."
Lou merely shrugs when confronted with the opinion that it's the best song he's ever written.
"If anything, I still prefer the stuff we did on the first two albums. I've never found making the 'perfect pop' record particularly interesting. I'm much more interested in extremes. Can you handle the extremes? There are people who can take it and others who can't but our only concern is ourselves and the people who can take it. There's so much for us to do."
Sebadoh -- they're three-ly saying something.