Fourteen years is a long time in anyone’s money, that’s for sure. In 1999 I was recovering from a first shambolic performance at university (graduating class of 1998, yo) by working in that same university’s bookshop, thus wilfully subjecting myself to dealing with people more cut out for the uni life – look at them, buying books and the like! It was though, the year I bought my first Sebadoh record, after a few years of the band floating around the periphery of my musical consciousness. The Sebadoh turned out to be – while not the band’s best work – an excellent purchase, opening me up to a glorious alt. rock back catalogue, at the heart of which stands the impeccable song writing of Lou Barlow and his long-time collaborator Jason Loewenstein.
Little did I know I’d have to wait another fourteen years for the chance to buy another Sebadoh record, never mind be getting the opportunity to write about it. A lot has changed since 1999 for Lou Barlow (and me, but this isn’t about me, okay?) both musically and personally – who would ever have suspected he’d get back together with J Mascis and Murph in a reunited Dinosaur Jr(Barlow was kicked out of the band circa 1988 thanks to a breakdown in his relationship with Mascis)? And who of us really expected another Sebadoh record after all these years, despite the band touring various reissues over the years under the guise of the classic band lineup: Barlow, Loewenstein and another chap who Barlow has an “interesting” relationship with (more of which in a bit), original drummer Eric Gaffney. Yet it took another change, new drummer Bob D’Amico joining, to finally get Barlow moving on this new album, the rather fine and punchy Defend Yourself. Twenty five years and 9 albums in the only thing that hasn’t changed is the music Sebadoh produce: still a heady mix of the plaintive and the rocking (and probably songs about smoking weed), just as it’s always been. The album reaffirms the song writing talents of Barlow and just how consistent in quality – even if the sightings are rarer these days – he’s been since 1989. As much as legend status is handed out like sweets these days, it’s safe to say Lou Barlow is a legend , at least in indie rock circles.
Defend Yourself was written amid personal turmoil for Barlow; he’d split up with his wife and started a new relationship, and the songs here document this transition alongside the worries of fatherhood and family life in general. If that doesn’t sound enticing as a prospect, just remember how good Barlow is at making breakups and emotional troubles sound like the best thing in the world. I spoke to the Sebadoh front man recently to chat about Defend Yourself, and what’s changed since 1999…
I say to Lou that the obvious place to start is the fourteen year gap between The Sebadoh and Defend Yourself. So what took so long? “Well, we’ve been touring on and off since, I think, 2003 and I had the Dinosaur Jr reunion in 2005 and that’s kind of dominated my time,” says Barlow. Was there anything in particular that kick-started the recording? “It kinda took until Bob D’Amico joined the band; he’s been collaborating and working with Jason since 2002 at least, so once Bob joined the band it really clicked.” D’Amico joined the band for the tours in support of the Bakesale and Harmacy reissues, and it’s clear that he fit right in: “Touring was really good,” reveals Lou, “and I think that’s when we really started to definitively think about doing a new record. Then it was just a matter of time and finding the right scheduling to do it. We started talking, rather than saying ‘we should do a record’ we were saying ‘WHEN we do the record!’ and it happened!”
Given that Barlow isn’t slow in giving his opinions on bandmates old and new, I ponder the question of whether or not another Sebadoh record would have actually happened had original drummer Eric Gaffney remained as part of the “classic Sebadoh” trio – a powerful outfit who I saw in concert back in 2007, in raw and vicious form. So, was Bob the one who got it rolling? “Yeah, he was! Bob has a lot of energy,” confirms the frontman. “Eric is….I mean, Eric is a unique presence in the band but making a new record with him it just didn’t seem realistic! He’s, um, he’s not a real team player – let’s just put it that way! God bless him, but he’s not a team player. Bob has a lot of energy, and we just really clicked y’know?” So what did D’Amico bring to the band, did he write much for the album? “For my songs, Bob wrote his own drum parts; I brought very loose ideas to the band and then Jason and Bob helped me solidify those ideas.” And it didn’t stop there: “Bob wrote an instrumental for the record; recording with him was great. He was really curious, climbed inside the songs and found cool things to do – and it was fun!”
Although Barlow has been very open about the lyrical content of Defend Yourself in press for the record, it’s not a subject I wanted to broach straight away. But now, into the interview’s swing, I ask about the subjects he’s singing about: the breakup of his marriage, the start of a new relationship (documented openly in the album’s first track and single ‘I Will’) and worrying about his children. So, I ask Lou if this is something it was difficult to write about: “Well…we started recording the record before I left my wife and during the course of it that’s when everything kinda came down,” he begins. “But that’s actually typical: the last time we had done a record [1999’s The Sebadoh] that was the last period of upheaval in my life, and it just seems that Sebadoh records naturally occur when everything is kind of rearranging itself. We’re always in some kind of real transitional time – I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s what happened.”
Although Defend Yourself is a record that addresses these life-changing moments and decisions, it’s not a one that wallows in self-doubt or misery. As with many Sebadoh releases, it’s an upbeat and uplifting affair – classic indie rock played simply by three guys who still think they’re teenagers at heart. Is that the key to making a record about breakups and breakdowns to keep it simple, and avoid the whole ‘woe is me’ aesthetic? Lou tends to agree: “I’ve always felt, at least from my point of view, that my songs…even the ones about breakups… I think it’s necessary for me to, with stuff that’s happened, figure out a way to not make it pure depression, y’know? I know people listen to my songs or hear my voice and go ‘oh god, it’s all depressing!’ But for me, I don’t really feel that way; I actually think my songs take a turn before they get too bogged down with, like you said, the whole ‘woe is me’ part of it because I find that really off-putting.”