In a run that lasted more than seven years, the original lineup of Sebadoh helped define the 1990s indie-rock lo-fi movement. Its records were barely competent sonically but otherwise engaging; filled with beauty, longing, humor, alienation and pain. The band was unpredictable balanced perpetually between brilliance and disintegration.
Now, Sebadoh co-founder Eric Gaffney has returned to the fold for the first time since he left the group in 1993, joining other original members Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein for a tour that hits Detroit this week. So far, things are going swimmingly for the trio of multi-instrumentalists.
"We're playing well, it's more fun than I even thought it would be and I had high expectations," Loewenstein says by phone from Los Angeles on a day off.
Barlow and Gaffney formed Sebadoh in 1987, when the former was playing bass in Dinosaur Jr. The pair began recording challenging and emotionally potent music using rudimentary home recording tools. Albums The Freed Man and Weed Forestin' were released on Homestead in 1988 and 1989 respectively. When Barlow was axed from Dinosaur in 1989, Sebadoh became his full-time project and the outlet for his angst.
Loewenstein was added in 1989, making Sebadoh a proper band (with the members switching between guitar, bass and drums). The trio recorded the audacious III, which saw the songwriting duties split more evenly among the three members. III created the template for the Sebadoh records to follow a pastiche of gentle acoustic guitars and ukelele, skull-crushing feedback and neo-psychedelic sonic collages. College campuses haven't been the same since. Before sampling was common (or easy to do), Sebadoh records featured snippets from records. It was heady, innovative stuff.
Given the psychologically twisted content of many Sebadoh songs, it's no surprise that there was turmoil within the band. If Barlow's firing from Dinosaur Jr. launched one of the most public beefs in rock history, Gaffney's departure from Sebadoh is one of the most mysterious. He quit and rejoined the band several times before leaving for good in 1993, after the release of Bubble and Scrape.
"I didn't want to be part of it for a while," Gaffney says. "I played music with Lou for seven or eight years, up through my mid-20s, and wanted to take a different direction."
Loewenstein says there was a lot of tension in the band between Barlow and Gaffney from fairly early on. "Those guys knew each other for years before I even met them. There was a lot of built-up resentment and weird dealings between those two. They were pretty pissy with each other even by the time I got into the band," he says.
Gaffney began writing and recording on his own, releasing the Lights Up & Spins Around cassette in 1998 and undertaking a project called Fields of Gaffney. "I'm an independent person, always have been, so taking years off from being part of Sebadoh and everything to do with it was something I did for myself," Gafffney says.
Sebadoh continued on and in some respects thrived without Gaffney. By the late-'90s, the band snagged a major-label deal with Sire. But access to fancy-schmancy recording studios and promotional budgets didn't help matters. The last full-length Sebadoh release, The Sebadoh, was a mess, and the band went on an extended hiatus following the tour for that album. Barlow and Loewenstein reunited for a stripped-down acoustic tour in 2004.
In 2006, Domino reissued the long-out-of-print III album, complete with bonus disc and liner notes, a project that sparked the current reunion. "I wanted to tour at least once after doing the III reissue," Gaffney says. "Bands make their bread and butter from touring, not from record sales for the most part, plus I wanted to put out a bunch of records in a nine-month period and tour before turning 40 this year."
It seems that Gaffney will likely get his wish, as this year will see his solo record Uncharted Waters, Sebadoh's Wade Through the Boggs tour merch CD, and the reissue of its The Freed Man album.
This seems to be a time of ceasefire for Barlow, who has been touring and recording with Dinosaur Jr. again after a long estrangement. Barlow says that reconciling with Dinosaur mastermind J Mascis whom Barlow heaped plenty of abuse upon over the years helped him realize that it's possible to repair damaged relationships. To that end, not only has he reconciled with Gaffney, but also he spent some time getting reacquainted with onetime Sebadoh drummer Bob Fay. For Barlow, it's not just business. It's personal.
"For better or worse, I can think of one friend that I have that's not involved in music or that I haven't played music with," Barlow says. "The people that I'm closest to are the people that I've played music with. My relationship with Eric, when we started Sebadoh, that wasn't just, 'Hey, I'm starting this band with this guy.' He was my best friend; he was my man at that moment."
Loewenstein says the good relationships within the band are a function of growing maturity.
"We're just a little more adult in our day-to-day dealings, which is quite a comfort," Loewenstein says. "There's enough crap as it is without us being in our mid-20s trying to figure out how to deal with each other."
The tour kicked off on Feb. 25 to ecstatic reviews. Loewenstein says the band sounds much as it did in the old days. "It's kind of like riding a bike with that stuff. Coming back to it all these years later, I think it sounds better, personally. We're better players and we have a better understanding of musicianship in general in that regard. But we also don't belabor the musicianship either, which is very much in keeping with the original sentiment."
Gaffney adds that the shows feature "a lot of switching instruments and old favorites, and it is unquestionably louder than we used to be when we used Peavey amps."
Recording is a possibility, but Loewenstein says it won't happen anytime soon. After this tour ends, Barlow will go on the road to support the new Dinosaur Jr. album, Beyond, and Loewenstein will continue his work as a touring member of the Fiery Furnaces.
8 p.m. Thursday, March 22, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; with the Bent Moustache.
Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org