How can you reunite when you’ve never broken up?
Lou Barlow doesn’t understand why reunions are treated like such a big deal.
“Some people are like, ‘gosh, you’re so old and you’re still playing music?’ What are you talking about? All bands from the beginning of rock band times get back together again, and they play deep into their fucking 70s and 80s,” Barlow says, a few weeks before the release of Defend Yourself, Sebadoh’s first album in 14 years. “If you were reasonably popular and stick it out you can have a reunion. I don’t think it’s extraordinary or strange.”
Here’s the thing, though: Sebadoh hasn’t reunited. The band never disunited. Bill Clinton was still president the last time the lo-fi pioneers and indie rock stalwarts put out an album, but they never actually broke up. Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein, the band’s only permanent members, have toured together every few years since 1999, sometimes with Sebadoh’s prodigal co-founder Eric Gaffney, sometimes with Loewenstein’s Fiery Furnaces bandmate Bob D’Amico.
You can be excused if Defend Yourself feels like a reunion, though. Some erroneous media reports have even described it as such. It fits the easy narrative of the day, where almost every week brings news of another classic indie-rock band getting back together. If you’re lucky, maybe that band will play your favorite album from junior year in its entirety.
Sebadoh didn’t quit, though. They’re professionals. Music is their business and their lives. As Barlow says, “I don’t understand why people ask, ‘wow, did you ever think you were gonna play music again?’ What else am I going to do? There’s no Plan B. Never was. It’s just play music until literally there’s no one to play it for.”
Loewenstein confirms. “We’ve found ourselves in a position in life where we’ve made no other plans than being musicians,” he says, with a hint of self-deprecation. “So we continue to be musicians. We didn’t decide to quit music and become professionals in some other area. We’re stuck being musicians.”
Loewenstein means stuck in the best possible way, though. As he quickly adds, “it’s a pretty utopian position to be in. Lou and I still get a kick out of playing with each other and we can draw a limited number of people pretty consistently all over the world. We play small shows all over the place.”
Now the band will have a new album for sale at those shows. Defend Yourself is a vintage Sebadoh record in the vein of Bubble & Scrape or Bakesale, with emotionally honest rock songs that range from tender to raucous, and a rough-hewn aesthetic that sounds homemade.
“We decided we had to make a new record because the recent shows had gone so well and we knew we were going to continue,” Loewenstein says. “It just seems like for our own creativity and the people who are enthusiastic about us that we should make new stuff. It felt like the responsible thing to do rather than just keep playing the old material. We’re playing well together now, so it made us curious what that would mean for new songs. We knew we had to do that.”
If early fans were turned off by the slick work on Sebadoh’s last two albums, Defend Yourself should win them back. Even the band thinks it’s the type of record they should have made after 1994’s Bakesale.
“Trying to dress up [Sebadoh’s 1996 album] Harmacy was just a farce,” Barlow says. “A huge, absolute farce. We should’ve gone right back to the garage. Trying to make that into a break-out record was a total mistake. We should have recorded the whole thing on a four-track—it would’ve been way better. Then people would’ve thought we were Guided By Voices and liked us more, instead of doing this turd-polishing we did on that record. If we kept it raw it would’ve been a far more effective record.”
Of course the musical landscape in 2013 is vastly different than it was in the mid-’90s, especially for rock bands that don’t have overtly commercial sensibilities. With Defend Yourself the band felt no pressure to write a hit (or, as Barlow might put it, polish any turds.) Record sales are essentially a non-factor now and there are barely even modern rock radio stations to try and crack anymore. Barlow and Loewenstein could record in comfort, at their own pace.
“When we recorded it we didn’t have a label,” Barlow says. “It was just me, Jason and Bob [D’Amico]. We weren’t submitting the mixes to anybody to see what they thought, and there were no particular expectations or pressure.”
When they finished they hooked up with Indiana’s Joyful Noise label, who Barlow had worked with on a cassette box set of Dinosaur Jr albums. “They’re awesome,” Loewenstein says. “They’re really passionate, driven younger dudes who understand the landscape now that the music business has rearranged itself. It’s a great fit for us, because we don’t know what’s going on in the record industry anymore.”
Joyful Noise might not have the fame and reputation of Sub Pop, Sebadoh’s mid-’90s label, but their low-key demeanor and professional attitude were exactly what the band was looking for. “It’s just nice to work with people that are excited about it,” Barlow says. “It’s very much a collaboration, and that appeals to me, too.”
A return to Sub Pop was “out of the question,” Barlow says. “We owe them tons of money. We’re associated with a pretty difficult time in their history. Sub Pop back in the day were trying to be a major label. They spent tons on promotion. They were always collaborating with some kind of corporate behemoth. They lost tons of money on Sebadoh, even on the Sebadoh reissues. If we reissue anything on Sub Pop it means we make absolutely no money, because we owe them so much. There’s no reason to do [a previously announced Harmacy reissue]—I’m positive there are at least 3000 copies of Harmacy sitting in the Sub Pop warehouse.”
Bad record deals and commercial indifference can easily end a band. After expensive misfires like Harmacy and the disastrous major-label stint that birthed their underrated last album The Sebadoh (“we were dropped within two weeks of signing to Sire,” Barlow says), most bands would have called it a night. For Sebadoh, it might have lead to a recording hiatus, but it didn’t kill the band.
That’s a testament to the strength of the friendship that Barlow and Loewenstein share. It’s a relationship that dates back to the ‘80s, when a teenaged Loewenstein helped turn Barlow and Gaffney’s two-man recording project into a genuine band. Loewenstein compares it to a fraternal relationship. “Now that we’re older it’s fun to think that Lou was kind of an older brother for me,” he says. “Neither one of us has brothers, so maybe that’s what we do for each other.”