Sebadoh's Lou Barlow keeps it personal
Lo-fi pioneers return with Defend Yourself
In his social history of recorded sound, Perfecting Sound Forever, author Greg Milner quotes Thomas Edison, who claimed, "The phonograph knows more about us than we know ourselves."
Edison, every bit the traveling elixir salesman as well as technologist, was more dead-on than he may have known. His proposed uses for the phonograph, with its ability to capture and reproduce sound, were mostly practical: dictation, elocution lessons, etc. The musical virus that was soon to spread was scarcely anticipated, and in the ensuing century and change, recording technology has brought people closer to one another, and in some cases, closer to themselves.
Lou Barlow, guitarist and chief member of Sebadoh, has succeeded in both realms. When he launched the project in the late '80s, he was seeking an outlet away from his main gig as Dinosaur Jr.'s bassist. When he found himself ejected from that band's tension-fraught dynamic, he turned his attention toward Sebadoh full-time. Over the following decade, the group established lo-fi recording practices as an aesthetic crucial to indie rock's development. Now, after an extended silence, the group has returned with a new album, Defend Yourself, which brings the band back to its DIY roots without retreading past triumphs.
The group's early albums, up until its seminal 1994 release Bakesale, were all recorded in a DIY fashion. Nascent offerings, like 1989's The Freed Man, showcase Sebadoh's home-recorded idiosyncrasies the most brazenly. One may note the prominently featured (and well mic'd) cat purring on "Level Anything." The next song, "Soulmate," is jarringly personal and affectingly honest, capturing the sound of Barlow's 23-year-old anxiety, and the sound of the room with equal fuzz and clarity.
In the years since the band went into hibernation following 1999's The Sebadoh, digital audio workstations like Pro Tools have rendered TASCAM tape machines the tools of analog loyalists. In other words, home recording isn't just an option for those seeking a cheap alternative to time spent in a "real" studio: It's possible to make professional-grade recordings at home, and many do. To Barlow's point of view, that's all the better.
"I think it's made music more personal in general," Barlow says, speaking from his home in Glendale, Calif., a whole nation away from his roots with Dinosaur Jr. and the earlier version of Sebadoh in Westfield, Mass. "It's actually made it so people can be really relaxed and make really amazing recordings. For people to spend that kind of time, and bear down on things, and make them really good and personal, they need to be at home. They need to be doing things themselves."
It makes sense that comfort would figure largely into Barlow's process, because his catalog has retained much of the emotional immediacy of his early recordings, if not the quirky tape scuzz. Dinosaur Jr.'s intra-band neuroses are well-documented, particularly in journalist Michael Azerrad's love letter to the American underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Barlow's songs have addressed his conflicts with that group, as well as other personal struggles. So while anyone can record at home in the 21st century, for Barlow, it seems to be less a matter of convenience, budget, or politics — it's how he successfully connects to his audience as well as to himself.
After a few experiences doing things the "pro" way, Barlow has brought things back home with Defend Yourself (Joyful Noise), the group's first full-length in 14 years. For the album, bassist Jason Loewenstein flew to join Barlow in Southern California, recording in Barlow's practice space with drummer Bob D'Amico. The band took its time, laying down the basic tracks live over the course of two weeks. While the album bears the mark of a relaxed recording with plenty of space to breathe, the group didn't stick to the analog tools of yore. "We used Loewenstein's PC, his laptop, and some audio interface I don't recall right now. It wasn't Pro Tools. It was something else — Reaper."
The decision to go DIY was a deliberate attempt to avoid previous missteps. "We did Harmacy in 1996, and there were a lot of expectations surrounding it," Barlow says. "We had this guy that we had engineering us and kind of producing the record, and it was kind of intense. You go into the studio when you're ready to take the next jump up, and become more polished ... That just created such a bad vibe. The worst, most unnatural thing — trying to introduce other people into the process — and worrying about whether the record was going to sell enough copies. That stuff just ruins it, absolutely. The less people involved, the better. So we just involved the three of us; pretty much the way we used to. It's just a way to be comfortable and natural."
As for Barlow's preferred method of home recording, he may have gone digital, but certain security blanket-style comforts remain. "I have this really old desktop Mac that has, like, OS 9 on it, really old. It will not die," Barlow says. "It runs the first version of Pro Tools, the real basic, first commercially available for normal people Pro Tools interface. So I use the really basic version of Pro Tools on a really old desktop computer."
Whatever the medium, Barlow likes to keep his tools close by and familiar — if only to keep making connections.