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The Freed Men

Sebadoh undo their indie shackles and unleash another album on their confused and devoted fans

February 22, 1999 12:00 AM ET

It's nearly impossible to talk about the "indie ethos" without mentioning Sebadoh. For the last ten years, the fluid trio has been the quintessential lo-fi band, modestly recording in a basement and slowly working its way up the stairway to the main room at Sub Pop and Sire Records. They've witnessed band-member departures, writer's block, bad blood, misnomers and reams of press, but have always emerged as singular and defiant as they were back in 1989, when Lou Barlow formed the experimental act in direct response to his dismissal from Dinosaur Jr. But to the current (and what appears to be permanent) line-up, all that indie cred is a load of crap.

"It seems like a misnomer," quips Barlow at the notion that Sebadoh are, indeed, the lo-fi monarchs of the indie empire. "It's not really important to us, and we're not going to cater to people's personal politics." What is important to Barlow (guitar, vocals), Jason Lowenstein (bass, vocals) and Russ Pollard (drums) is that the music reaches out to more than just some bespectacled, fanzine-editing indie-snob who gets offended when his favorite little band goes "mainstream" (read: earns a living). "If you record and put something out, you should be prepared for the idea that maybe more than one person will wanna listen to it," explains Barlow. "And then you have to accept the fact that that could be a million or two million. Or whatever. It's all the same to me."

It's this blend of passionate bitterness and fundamental apathy that defines Sebadoh. Loyalists argue over whether Lowenstein's angry punk tunes are more earnest than Barlow's broken-hearted love songs, but over time, the two divergent styles have found common ground. "I think our fans are confused about who's writing the songs that they like sometimes," says Lowenstein. "It seems that Lou gets credit for my tunes and I get credit for his tunes. But I've always imagined that they were really close." Barlow concurs: "I think that passion and anger get confused. I mean, I just think that passion can make you grit your teeth in the same way that anger would." And though avid fans may fight the notion, The Sebadoh's fifteen new tracks clearly exhibit a merging of the minds.

Whereas 1996's Harmacy expanded on the pop sound -- and sales success -- of 1994's Bakesale, it proved a creative disappointment for the band. Recorded at the same time that Barlow's side project, Folk Implosion, was enjoying commercial success with "Natural One" (off the Kids soundtrack), tension and the impending departure of drummer Bob Fay permeated the studio. By the time the sessions were over, it seemed that Sebadoh would be, too. But with the introduction of Pollard, the aggression and momentum that fueled Sebadoh's previous seven albums swiftly returned.

"I thought it was gone for a while, but then it started to pick up its own energy," recalls Lowenstein of the period between Harmacy and The Sebadoh, during which time the band negotiated a joint contract with Sub Pop and Sire Records. "I mean, every record we've done is like a transitional record. It's like we're always in motion. But I never lost the idea that you can get aggression out in songs, you know. I thought that was gone for a while, but it always comes back."

"Back" this time means hard and heavy, and where Barlow used to tread lightly, he stomps his feet. Where Lowenstein shouted in anger, he articulates in iambic pentameter. "This is the one, this is 'the Sebadoh,' finally," Lowenstein states emphatically. "It's taken ten years to make this into a band."

Though, one might argue, it's the ornery nature of once and future fans that really makes Sebadoh a band. "I saw this little kid at the record store like two years ago," says Lowenstein. "He had a friend with him and he points to the Sebadoh section and goes, 'They're evil. Don't buy their records.'" He laughs. Obviously, having staunch adversaries is as flattering as having dogged patrons.

But, whether they have mainstream success or college-rock credibility, the indie trinity are grateful for what keeps their embers burning. "I don't see any bands that really seriously undermine themselves as actively as we do," says Lowenstein. And, quips Barlow, "I just feel lucky that I've managed to fuck myself up for so long."

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