The lo-fi legacy of Sebadoh III

    Lou Barlow, whose musical career was born out of his love for tape recording and DIY sound production, may have initially received attention for his work with J Mascis in Deep Wound and the acclaimed Dinosaur Jr., but it’s likely his bare-bones bedroom recording projects (Sebadoh, Sentridoh, the Folk Implosion) that he’ll be remembered for. Fifteen years after the release of Sebadoh’s third album, Sebadoh III, an event that was marked by a deluxe-edition reissue, Barlow is generally regarded as a pioneer in the genre, but he argues that he was simply following the lead.




    Was home recording something you did as a kid?

    My parents had a small recorder when I was growing up in the ’70s, and we would record “letters” for my grandparents, my little sister’s first words, stuff like that. My cousin and I began recording fake commercials and whatnot in Dayton, Ohio, in the late ’70s. Another cousin of mine taught me that pressing the record buttons and the fast forward button at the same time produced alien sounding, slowed-down voices. I moved from the Midwest to Massachusetts in 1979. I began with short (twenty-second) songs, crude psychedelic tape collages, and figuring out how to make two-track recordings (layering myself) on the family eight-track recorder (eight-track as in the bulky proto-cassettes). I finally got a job after high school and bought a Fostex cassette four-track and began what is known as Sebadoh/Sentridoh. I neglected school, work, sports, everything in favor of music — punk, post-punk and eventually hardcore. The records I loved were DIY, and I felt empowered to record at home. I came to accept, at least in my mind, that what I was doing was legitimate, and eventually I released some cassettes.


    Did you ever think what you did would set the foundations of an entire genre?

    I don’t think I did anything of the sort. I’m just another minor character in a very long line that extends from the invention of the tape machine and, before that, plain old folk music. What became indie rock was set in motion by the hardcore labels of the early ’80s: Dischord, Touch and Go, SST. I was a follower. The only thing possibly unique I did was embrace acoustic music and “sensitive” lyrics when it was uncool. It was the late ’80s/early ’90s, and I was unapologetic to the point of being confrontational about it, which was a strange combination of attitudes and made us some enemies.


    Did your interest in home recording increase as you were drifting away from Dinosaur Jr.?

    I did it all the time — pre-Dino, during Dino, post-Dino. I never felt my songs matched the scope of Dino, and aside from “Poledo” and “Lose,” I didn’t feel comfortable introducing them to the band.


    What do you like specifically about home recording? What are its drawbacks? How did you find his way along that path?

    I like being alone to make mistakes, to talk to myself like a crazy person, to do what it takes to drag a song out of my subconscious. I take other people’s opinions way too seriously, and often find I work faster and more efficiently without anyone over my shoulder. Collaborations are ultimately the best, but finding people to work intimately with is difficult because most don’t want to go that deep — myself included sometimes — which is why most music is mired in cliché. I think it’s easier to default to an established style rather than embarrass yourself trying to find something new. Right now I am happy to be alone again, with the four-track waiting.


    It’s been fifteen years since you first recorded Sebadoh III. What do you think about the record now?

    It’s a mess, which is what I thought back then. I love messy records. Compilations are still among my favorites. Consistency was for critics and major label bands. I still think my songs are among the best I’ve recorded.


    How has your songwriting changed since that time period?

    I write the lyrics with the music these days. Back then I often recorded the music first, without any thought to performing the songs again after they were finished. I can’t say one is better than the other. I like performing much more now, which motivates the current approach.


    How do you feel you have changed/developed since the first release of Sebadoh III?

    It was more than 15 years ago. I turned forty this year; I’ve been through the cycle of Sebadoh’s popularity, from indie darlings to steady gigs to complete has-been backlash. The only thing that hasn’t changed is my desire to write songs and make records. Other than that I’m more mature; I’m not a sociophobe.


    With the release of your first official solo album, Emoh, was it your intention to leave the lo-fi behind?

    At least half of Emoh was recorded in the same style as I did my stuff for III, but digital/analog technology takes the hiss away. I still use a four-track (a discontinued Sony MD four-track). I did another solo record two years prior that was real lo-fi. I love lo-fi, mid-fi, hi-fi. I especially like records that incorporate all three. I think Sebadoh III was the first record I did that achieved that. “Lo-fi” confuses people and creates questions like, “Was it intentional?” “Was it financially motivated?” The only thing that really matters to me is the way a song feels.


    All the musicians who contributed to Emoh wrote their own parts. Can you tell us how that worked? Would you consider a project like that again in the future?

    I write the bones of the song — lyrics and basic chords. Then I play it with someone, and we work together to find the arrangement that suits us both. It’s easiest to let a player find what’s comfortable for them in a song. I’m leaning toward creating my own mess with my next solo record. Working with others demands a certain amount of streamlining that I’m not into doing right now.



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