Rocky road back for Sebadoh

ON AND OFF: Sebadoh are hoping for a better reaction from their first album in 15 years.
ON AND OFF: Sebadoh are hoping for a better reaction from their first album in 15 years.

The last time Sebadoh released an album the reaction was far from flattering.

Critics who'd previously championed the band's lo-fi aesthetic and the intensely personal songwriting of Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein chided the band for the perceived bloated production aesthetic of 1999's The Sebadoh.

"I didn't really understand the idea that it was an overproduced record, because in many ways it was pretty raw," guitarist Lou Barlow says.

"But I think it was definitely a departure for Sebadoh because at least the two records we'd done before that were pretty streamlined, and they weren't particular heavy records - they were fairly light overall."

While Barlow and Lowenstein defended the album's virtues, audiences had voted with their feet, and Sebadoh - with albums such as Sebadoh III, Bakesale and Bubble and Scrape making them darlings of the 1990s indie scene - were on the outer by 1999.

"By that time, Sebadoh had been around for a while and we were the old making way for the new," Barlow says philosophically. "There was kind of a sea-change happening in indie rock and a lot of our older fans and critics didn't really want to hear another Sebadoh record."

Barlow and Lowenstein reacted by putting Sebadoh in hiatus. Barlow turned his attention to his side project, the Folk Implosion, before eventually repairing his estranged musical relationship with J Mascis in Dinosaur Jr, while Lowenstein divided his time between solo projects and bass duties in The Fiery Furnaces.

The classic Sebadoh line-up of Barlow, Lowenstein and drummer Eric Gaffney reformed in 2007, before Gaffney left the band.

"It was actually one of [Gaffney's] more amicable splits from the band," Barlow says dryly. A new EP released on the band's bandcamp page in July 2012 heralded Sebadoh's return to the recording studio. In September 2013 they released Defend Yourself, their first album in 15 years.

Barlow's songwriting has frequently provided an insight into his personal life and state of mind. On Freed Pig, the opening track on 1991's Sebadoh III, Barlow explored his fraught relationship with Mascis with venomous invective, while Kath from the same album celebrated Barlow's burgeoning relationship with Kathleen Billus.

On the lead track on Defend Yourself, I Will, Barlow explores the emotional toll of the break-up of his 20-year marriage to Billus. When a critical Pitchfork review of the new album made particular reference to his marital dramas, Barlow reacted strongly, making his feelings public via Facebook.

Six months on, and Barlow down plays the relationship between the break-up of his marriage and the writing and recording of Defend Yourself.

"There was obviously a lot of change and turmoil from when we started recording the record and when we finished it," he says.

"It was a period of upheaval in my life and change. I find that in my songs and also in Jason's we're always struggling with relationship politics and trying to sort that out. Historically, we've always addressed difficulties in our relationships. And Defend Yourself is no different in that respect."

While Barlow acknowledges that he's drawn to more honest songwriting, he doesn't spend much time exploring the underlying meaning of his own favourite songs.

"I prefer to read into other people's songs what I want to hear in them. And the best songs are those that I can relate to. There's a Linda and Richard Thompson record that's a brutal dissection of their divorce, but I can't hear that - I just hear a song that I like!"

Sebadoh New Zealand dates 

Bodega, Wellington - March 27

Churchills, Christchurch - March 28

Kings Arms Tavern, Auckland - March 29

Chicks Hotel Port Chalmers, Dunedin - March 30 and 31

The Age