For a decade between the late 1980s and end of the 1990s Sebadoh were pioneers of the no-frills US East Coast indie rock genre known as lo-fi.
Since the turn of the Millennium their records have been infrequent, as songwriters Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein worked on separate projects, but together with drummer Bob D’Amico, who joined the band in 2011 after co-founder Eric Gaffneyleft, they have reconvened for Sebadoh’s ninth studio album, Act Surprised.
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As for what keeps bringing him back to this band, Barlow, now 54, says: “As far as Sebadoh goes, this is what I’ve done my entire adult life, you know. It’s just a feeling that the story isn’t over and maybe if we do something a little different the next time we’re together. For me, I guess I hope I can always do better.
“I think from the beginning we’ve had a pretty good time when we get together. When we go on tour it’s always pretty good. We’ve got our thing that we do.”
The bass player and singer doesn’t feel their relationship has changed much over the years. “Maybe that’s the reason why we keep doing this,” he chuckles. “We always set things up and go about it in a similar way. It works.”
Songwriting duties on Act Surprised were evenly divided between Barlow and Loewenstein, although D’Amico did contribute one song, Leap Year. Barlow feels his songs on this album are different in tone to Sebadoh’s last release, Defend Yourself, which came out in 2013 as both he and Loewenstein were ending their first marriages and starting new relationships.
“This record in particular seemed very political to me,” he explains. “But there are a lot of ruminations on trying to keep a relationship together, that’s for sure.”
The rising choruses that lift Barlow’s songs are a departure for him, and something of a personal challenge. “I wanted to make it a bit more cathartic, I guess,” he says. “I wanted to explore the reaches of my vocals.
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“I think one of the realisations that I came to over the years was that my voice was at its warmest when it’s lower. It’s very difficult to do that in rock music because it’s loud and it’s hard to get a low vocal over the top of that, so I guess I did want to explore my very limited vocal range.”
Barlow once said that for a long time he didn’t really refer to himself as a songwriter. It wasn’t, he says now, because of any punk rock qualms. “It’s more how I feel about myself,” he says. “Saying ‘I’m a songwriter’, I don’t know what that means because what kind of songs? Anything can be a song, anything is a song. I just don’t like the terms songwriter, maybe.
“I can see people who sit in their houses in the big cities, in Nashville, with big keyboards, that are then handed on to teams of producers. I understand that’s songwriting, but for me the process of songwriting has so much to do with the textures that you use and everything else. The term songwriting doesn’t really touch on the complexity and the breadth of what that describes.”
Unusually, Barlow favours writing on a baritone ukulele. “Very early on I wrote most of the songs on the guitar at my parents, somebody always had a guitar lying around the house but it never had six strings on it, because we abused the instruments,” he explains. “When I really began to embrace making noise on a guitar the first thing I did that began to resemble songs were done with far less than six strings on it.
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“When I was still living with my parents, when I was 17 or 18 years old, just after I’d finished school, my mother brought home a baritone ukulele for me and I really related to the scale of the instrument, I related to the four strings, and I re-strung the instrument with different and much heavier strings so it had a different sound to it. I’ve never played the ukulele as a ukulele, I don’t know what a ukulele tuning is other than ‘My Dog Has Fleas’, I know what notes those are.
“Then as you get to know music a little bit, you don’t have to be a musicologist to know that four strings is a basic folk instrument. Six strings is kind of an anomaly.”
Act Surprised is out now. Sebadoh play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on October 3. sebadoh.com