Sept. 10 2014 02:19 PM

Legendary indie-rockers confront a new era

From left: Bob D’Amico, Jason Loewenstein and Lou Barlow
Photo by Travis Tyler

Just got dumped? Feel sad, insecure— like a loser? I know your pain. It’s time to put down the vaporizer and listen to some Sebadoh.

For years, this venerable indie-rock band has plumbed some of humankind’s most awkward feelings. Anxiety, self-pity, resentment, confusion—this is where Sebadoh shines. But these guys aren’t all sad. If their happy tunes are shaded with darkness, they’ve also found glimmers of hope in gallons of tears. That’s what makes them the ideal accompaniment to so many makeups, break-ups and hopeless crushes.

In part, this rich complexity comes courtesy of Lou Barlow, the band’s cofounder and one of its core songwriters. The 48-year-old musician is noted for his songcraft and heartfelt lyrics—often juxtaposed with scruffy, lo-fi production values—and he’s long been regarded as the ’Doh’s mopester-in-chief. That wouldn’t be giving him enough credit, though, since his best songs walk a carefully calibrated emotional tightrope.

“Some people are, like, ‘It’s depressing!’” Barlow says, speaking by phone from his home in Glendale. “Really? It’s not that simple. I try to spend the time when I write songs to make a realistic reflection of my thought process. Not all just happy and not all just sad. It’s going to occupy that middle ground.”

Twelve months ago, Sebadoh dropped their first album in 14 years, Defend Yourself. Released on indie label Joyful Noise, the record features songs by both Barlow and longtime bandmate Jason Loewenstein, with Bob D’Amico on drums. The album is far from Sebadoh’s finest moment (that would arguably be 1991’s III), but it does feature some of their classic tricks. “Can you tell / that I’m about to lose control?” Barlow murmurs in album opener “I Will,” before the band launches into a bruising riff.

Sebadoh’s emotional turmoil dates back to the late-’80s, when the nascent project was given a push after Barlow got booted from his other band, Dinosaur Jr. Together with co-founder Eric Gaffney and a young Loewenstein, Barlow helped pioneer the “lo-fi” movement with songs like “The Freed Pig,” a bitter paean to Barlow’s ex-Dinosaur bandmate, J Mascis. In the ensuing years, Gaffney checked out as the band reached new commercial heights with 1994’s Bakesale, a more polished effort that nevertheless ached with raw emotion.

Sebadoh plays Sept. 16 at The Casbah

In these earlier years, Barlow says, his songs came out of him like he was under a spell. Nowadays, writing music is harder, but he also has bigger responsibilities—including his two children, a 4-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl. He digs into his paternal insecurities on the Defend Yourself cut “State of Mine,” urging himself to be strong for his kids as Loewenstein and D’Amico fill out the jingly-jangly cow-punk.

“These kids pick up your vibe, for lack of a better word. You can tell them things and tell them how to behave, but what they’re really doing is watching you,” he says. “It’s not just for me anymore. It’s not just about me trying to keep my head above water and be positive with myself. That’s a fine thing to do, but now it’s on me. They’re little minds there… little sponges picking up on what your true essence is.”

Sebadoh’s strongest material will resonate with any anxious soul. Loewenstein’s “Happily Divided,” off of 1993’s Bubble and Scrape, almost snaps from its tense acoustic-guitar strums. Barlow’s early optimistic ballad “Brand New Love” plays on decaying 4-track textures to underscore the fragility of romance.

On the other hand, the music video for “Rebound,” a single from Bakesale, is more of a nostalgic affair. A grainy montage of live footage, tour-stop antics and fraternal backyard brawling, it offers a snapshot not simply of a band at its peak, but also of the heady, mid-’90s indie-rock era as a whole. Alas, the days have long since passed when sensitive guys with guitars could rule the college-rock airwaves.

Now Sebadoh must compete with both younger buzz-bands and reunited legacy acts cashing in on the nostalgia boom. And it’s easy to see how this unassuming trio might get lost in the noise. It didn’t help that when Defend Yourself came out last year, Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy handed it a 6.0 rating with a methodically brutal review.

And yet Barlow presses on, his mop of dark curly hair signaling his indie-rock veteran status. He started growing it out two years ago, and he’s kept at it ever since, getting it trimmed occasionally at his friend’s L.A. barbershop.

“I went through some life changes. I went through a divorce, got a girlfriend that I’m pretty much in love with, and she loves longer hair,” Barlow says. “It’s a lot easier for me. I feel better when I have longer hair. It feels better when I play. I feel like more of a rocker, which is kind of what I am.

“The reality is, I’m a lifer,” he adds. “So, I grew my hair out.”

You see? If Lou can tough out the hard stuff and still find happiness, we all can.

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