Among other things, rock 'n' roll is a form of cultural baggage that depends upon something other than music for its impact. But the career of Lou Barlow is an example of how the weight of that baggage can be eased by total immersion in rock itself. For Barlow — leader of the long-running band Sebadoh and a founding member of indie group Dinosaur Jr. — the conventions of pop songwriting have inspired the sort of rocking formalism that never totally masks the deeper feelings that peek through Sebadoh's new five-song EP, Secret. Barlow's latest music is nuanced and more or less adult in its preoccupations, and it abounds with a veteran rocker's tricks of the trade.
Born in 1966 in Dayton, Ohio, Barlow is indeed a veteran. Sebadoh released its first full-length, The Freed Weed, in 1990 — the year that also saw the release of such indie-rock landmarks as Pavement's Demolition Plot J-7 and Sonic Youth's Goo. Along with Pavement's first releases, the early Sebadoh records helped establish rock's lo-fi movement. Still, it wasn't until 1994's Bakesale that Sebadoh combined their recording techniques with the kind of content that makes for great rock 'n' roll.
On Secret, Barlow's songwriting and gift for the unexpected but logical riff remains strong — it may be hard to believe, but it's been 13 years since the last Sebadoh full-length, 1999's The Sebadoh.
"Coming back to it after a bit of time, it was, like, keep it simple, you know," Barlow says from his home in Los Angeles. "Do what we know. I think that there's more maturity in our playing and where we're coming from lyrically, but that's all subtle stuff that probably only we would notice."
Working with longtime Sebadoh member Jason Loewenstein, Barlow doesn't stray far from his signature style on Secret. "Arbitrary High" could be about the futility of trying to understand other people's feelings, or the effects of too many of the highs the title references, but the band's sneaky riffs define the performance as much as anything in the lyrics: "What I've done is written on my face," Barlow sings.
Just as they did on Bakesale and 1996's Harmacy, Sebadoh reworks the conventions of classic rock. "I got really into the Nuggets and Pebbles [compilations], and the first time I embraced that was in 1987, '88," says Barlow. "I'm just so into that stuff — hundreds of thousands of bands that only did one record. And then the more obvious stuff, like The Seeds, The 13th Floor Elevators and The Kinks and The Zombies. We also listened to a lot of new music back then, like Pussy Galore and Royal Trux, who spun off of them. Royal Trux were a big influence on Sebadoh, back in the day."
Although Barlow and Dinosaur Jr. singer-guitarist J. Mascis parted ways in 1988, the two formerly fractious rockers reunited in 2005, and have since recorded three Dinosaur Jr. full-lengths. They have a new collection, I Bet on Sky, set for September release. "We kind of have a method — we record at J.'s house in Massachusetts, and it's a real comfortable, low-impact and low-stress way of recording," Barlow says. "I have to clock a lot of time following through on that, and when that starts to die down, that's when I would put out the Sebadoh [full-length] record."
As Barlow says, Secret "should be a really good indication of what [the forthcoming Sebadoh full-length] will sound like." In a career that has seen him release the 2005 singer-songwriter-esque solo effort Emoh, the latest Sebadoh material represents a return to rock. In fact, Barlow recorded part of Emoh in Nashville at Beech House with Lambchop producer Mark Nevers.
Tagged with the lo-fi designation 20 years ago, Barlow remains enthusiastic about the possibilities of imperfect recording technology. "My favorite records that I've made are the ones that sound the most lo-fi," he says. "Just selfishly, I hear the most of myself in them. I love bands that sound like they come from another time. Making shitty-sounding records just makes the world a better place — it's fucking awesome."
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