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sebadoh and suchlike
articles - volume, 19 july 1993
"THAT'S a song about discovering porn at a younger age and masturbating excessively," says Lou Barlow of 'Homemade', a highlight of the latest Sebadoh album, 'Bubble & Scrape'. "I was wondering about it, how it would affect my sexuality. Did I need to see pictures to get excited? Would it affect my sexual orientation and the way that I would touch a woman?"

It could be said that the Sebadoh founder member likes to confront things head on.

"In the third verse I ask the woman if I'm cold because of this and she says, No way, we have a great sex life. But it's a big issue. It's one of the things people don't like to talk about. I mean, I think there should be pornography -- but there is a point at which it begins to degrade your sexuality."

SEBADOH'S winning ticket is their ability to confront, to get it all out in the open. Lou Barlow, with his songs, is coming not only from the heart but also the bowels of his humanity. Lying on the high psychiatrist's couch of the stage, he confronts his own fears and inhibitions. His audience, the most geeky, reverential bunch of rock 'n' roll librarians available that evening, stare back. There is a crushing weight of appreciative silence between the tracks -- these people are touched, seriously.

"I write about my worst fears, the situations that I am in. It's like all the early DC hardcore, Minor Threat and that sort of stuff -- personal politics.

Not that Sebadoh (a name chosen for its meaninglessness) is a vehicle for only Barlow's paranoia and guilt trips. This is very much a three-piece operation, Eric and Jason each writing their own songs. Sebadoh is more like three solo projects happening to meet up as a band-style unit. There is a freedom here, a determined attempt to throw off the restrictions that most bands stifle themselves with.

Is this a reaction to Lou's Dinosaur Jr days, by any chance?

"Oh yeah, sure -- Dinosaur Jr wasn't a band at all. It wasn't three people interacting. It was a formula, a totally useless formula beaten into the ground -- and with no sense of growth. It was a cynical exercise, and I guess I see a lot of bands doing that. When I started this I had a real contempt for that 'indie rock' format."

WHEN you speak to Lou you get a different take on Dino. No longer is J Mascis painted as the sleepshod axe genius who just bumbles along. He comes over as very smart, very calculated. Maybe Lou is pissed off because of the way that the band ditched him. Instead of the usual trad farewell note (somthing along the lines of, Well, Lou, the rest of us hate your riffs and you're getting on our nerves... oh, and by the way, we're keeping all your gear), Mascis split Dinosaur in '89 and then reformed the group without Lou. This muddled exit still rankles.

"It was so gutless, the way he kicked me out. If it had been done another way, I think that I could have forgiven him for it. On a personal level, I don't have any respect for him. It's a long time in the past, but it's told me what to avoid in music now."

The painful departure from Dinosaur left Lou to work on Sebadoh. He had already worked on solo material -- at one point a tape of his gear was going to be given away with a Dinosaur album -- the songs were formless, avant garde doodles, weird songs, acoustic workouts. Influenced as much by Joni Mitchell as by the hardcore roots and Oi! influences that moulded Dinosaur, he was pursuing a completely different direction. Lou sounded angry, embittered -- with a headful of ideas waiting to explode.

Hooked up to the Homestead label, he gradually let Sebadoh become a band.

"Well, I just started working with Eric, and Jason came along with Eric. I wanted this to be something very different. We're not avoiding being a band, we just want to approach it differently."

Strange, but Sebadoh don't have that sort of band feel to them. They swap instruments; they play some great songs and some infuriating, formless ones; they goof around, then get serious; they hold it back, keep it quiet, then explode in noise. They get painfully confessional and then get all amusing with 'Gimme Indie Rock', their crossover hit.

"Oh, yeah, that song, we just played it live, made it up on the spot and it sort of got into the set. It seems to be one that everybody hooks on to. Sometimes I think that it would be cool to try and do a really formulated album, just to see if we could do it. But we pull back. We're too scared it may become the last record that we would make. That's the great thing about Eric and Jason, they won't stand for too much of my pop instinct. They have too much respect for themselves."

LATER, as Lou bares his soul to the Manchester crowd, their scrunched-up, intense faces peer at this geek, this over intelligent Woody Allen lookalike, who laughs a lot and sings of personal confusion. They wait intently for some sort of signal, a bit of magic, some sort of explanation for the mundane mediocrity of modern life. Something that will make sense of the confusion and pain that bubble just below the surface. They are a strange lot, your fans, Lou...

"I really like the people that like our music," he announces unsurprisingly, adding, "how fucked up they are, I suppose, depends on which album they like the best. People who like the newer stuff are better adjusted and people who like our older stuff are more introverted. I like those people the best because they write letters -- real long letters."

Do you get all that weirdo fan mail shit -- the kind that's usually attracted by musical exorcisms of the Lou Barlow kind?

"Totally. I got this bizarre one from some bloke in South Carolina who claimed that I was being Satanic with the music. He even phoned up for two hours, going on about how one of his friends had become totally immersed in the music, the way that the rhythms were played and the way that the songs were constructed was designed to pull him in and that the lyrics were really downcast and it was doing him no good at all -- I suppose that there is a fine line between music being inspiring or sucking you further in to the dark side."

LOU sits there and briefly worries. He cares too much. This music for people who think too much, made by the sort of people who gatecrashed rock 'n' roll in the fall-out of the punk years -- all the geeks, freaks and brainy sods who were far too smart to be able to play the game of churning out moronic anthems for bored kids. A generation of musicians fucking around with the structure. Messing around with the trad rock framework, sometimes fucking up and sometimes hitting the target with accuracy. It's weird how you can be so confessional with music and yet, in real life, everything is so hemmed in.

"That's the beauty of art. You get to find an acceptable middle ground. You don't feel like a freak confronting things, playing on a stage. Singing to an audience is really strange, there is a weird disembodiment. Playing electric is really cathartic but playing acoustic has so much more emotional power."

In the future Lou dreams of getting more poetic about "my place in the world, instead of just relating things from my own personal journal". But in the meantime Sebadoh are going to have to deal with the inevitable pressure of becoming a successful band. A trad indie outfit would have either to wriggle out or to go down the path to the big bucks that await the indie stormtroopers who are currently playing the game.

With Sebadoh, the rules are broken. The more they wriggle, the bigger they'll get.

It's a cool paradox.