As much a collective of musicians as a band, Sebadoh was the quintessential lo-fi band of the '90s. Formed by singer/songwriter Lou Barlow while he was the bassist for Dinosaur Jr. in the late '80s, Sebadoh's music was a virtual catalog of '80s alternative rock and '90s indie rock, featuring everything from jangle pop to noise-rock experimentalism. After being kicked out of Dinosaur in 1989, Barlow turned his attention toward Sebadoh, a home-recording project that he and drummer/songwriter Eric Gaffney began in 1987. Sebadoh soon developed into a backing band for both Barlow and Gaffney, as each submitted home-recorded tapes for release and toured behind the albums. Eventually adding drummer/songwriter Jason Loewenstein, the trio became an indie rock sensation, as well-known for the size and inconsistency of its output as the music itself. Often, Sebadoh sounded schizophrenic, flipping between Barlow's sensitive folk-rock and Gaffney's noise experiments without warning. This very diversity became the band's calling card, and by 1992 they had earned a devoted following. As the media focused on Barlow -- who also released a number of solo records under the name Sentridoh -- Gaffney grew frustrated. Gaffney left in 1994, and with new drummer Bob Fay, Sebadoh produced its most accessible albums -- Bakesale and Harmacy -- which expanded its cult somewhat. Despite the group's flirtation with (relatively) polished production and the fluke success of Barlow's side project Folk Implosion, Sebadoh remained a cult band and became one the largest touchstones of '90s indie rock.
Sebadoh began as an outlet for Lou Barlow's frustration with J Mascis, who refused to let Barlow contribute songs to any Dinosaur Jr. releases. In 1987, Barlow released Weed Forestin', a cassette of acoustic songs he had recorded at home on a four-track recorder, under the name Sentridoh. The cassette was sold at local Massachusetts record stores. Eric Gaffney contributed percussion to Weed Forestin', and when Barlow had a break from Dinosaur in 1988, the duo recorded The Freed Man, which consisted of songs by both songwriters. Also released as a homemade cassette, The Freed Man worked its way to Gerard Cosloy, the head of Homestead Records. Cosloy offered to release the cassette on his record label, and the tape was revised and expanded into a full-length album. Homestead released The Freed Man in 1989, and shortly after its appearance, Mascis kicked Barlow out of Dinosaur, and Lou turned his attentions toward Sebadoh. A revised and expanded Weed Forestin' was released in early 1990; the two records were combined on the CD The Freed Weed later that year.
By the end of 1989, Sebadoh added a full-time drummer, Jason Loewenstein, on the suggestion of Gaffney. Sebadoh began playing concerts regularly, concentrating on Gaffney's material and throwing in a few Barlow songs for good measure. Where their albums were acoustic-oriented, their concerts were noisy ventures into post-hardcore and Sonic Youth territory. Over the course of 1990, the group was active only sporadically, deciding whether they wanted to pursue a full-fledged career; a few 7" singles of primarily acoustic material appeared that year. As of early 1991, the band began recording electric material, as evidenced by the EP Gimme Indie Rock! Released early in 1991, Sebadoh III was divided between Gaffney's electric songs and acoustic material by Barlow and Loewenstein. The band was prepared to embark on its first major tour when Gaffney abruptly left the band before it embarked. Barlow and Loewenstein carried on, initially performing shows as a duo, but soon hiring Bob Fay as a drummer. Upon the completion of the tour, Gaffney returned to the band, but during his absence, the direction of Sebadoh's music had shifted away from his songs and toward Barlow's.
Following a full-length national tour in the fall of 1991, Sebadoh recorded five of Barlow's songs as a demo tape that served as its gateway to contracts with Sub Pop in the U.S. and City Slang/20/20 in the U.K. Gaffney left the band at the end of the year, and the group again hired Fay as a replacement. With Fay, Sebadoh toured America and Europe in early 1992, recording the British EPs Rocking the Forest and Sebadoh vs. Helmet, which were combined later that year on the Sub Pop album Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. Gaffney again returned to the band after Sebadoh released these recordings, with Fay again leaving the band. Barlow and Loewenstein had begun to tire of Gaffney's constant sabbaticals, and Lou returned to his Sentridoh project, releasing a series of EPs, 7" singles, and cassettes over the course of 1993 and 1994. Sebadoh released its fifth album, Bubble and Scrape, in the spring of 1993 and spent the remainder of the year touring behind the record, building their cult across America and Britain. Gaffney left for a final time in the fall of 1993 and Fay became his permanent replacement.
Before recording the sixth Sebadoh album, Barlow began a new band with John Davis called the Folk Implosion; the duo released three recordings over the course of 1994. Sebadoh returned with Bakesale, their first album without Eric Gaffney, in the summer of 1994. Boasting a somewhat more accessible sound, Bakesale became the group's most successful album to date, generating the near-modern rock hit "Rebound." The band took a break in 1995 and the Folk Implosion recorded the soundtrack to the controversial independent film Kids. Surprisingly, Kids spawned a genuine hit single with the haunting, hip-hop-tinged "Natural One," which climbed all the way into the Top 30 of the U.S. pop charts. In light of the success of "Natural One," Sebadoh's next record, Harmacy, was expected to be a hit upon its fall 1996 release. Though it didn't match commercial expectations raised by "Natural One," Harmacy expanded the success of Bakesale, becoming the first Sebadoh album to chart in the U.S..
Before the recording of their follow-up to Harmacy, Sebadoh replaced drummer Fay with Russ Pollard. After a string of delays, the revamped lineup released their first album, the cleverly titled The Sebadoh, in February 1999. After a tour supporting The Sebadoh, the band announced that they were to go on hiatus to focus on other projects. Barlow continued his work as Folk Implosion while also releasing two solo albums, 2003's Emoh and 2009's Goodnight Unknown, while Lowenstein went back into the studio to record his solo album, 2002's At Sixes and Sevens, and also to work with other bands including Fiery Furnaces. With the reissue of albums Sebadoh III, The Freed Man, and Bubble and Scrape in 2007, the original Sebadoh lineup of Barlow, Lowenstein, and Gaffney reunited for a string of live dates for the first time in some 14 years. With Barlow reuniting with former band Dinosaur Jr. to record and play live, Sebadoh was put on hold and in 2011, with the reissue of albums Bakesale and Harmacy, Lowenstein and Barlow recruited drummer Bob D'Amico to play some live dates in support of their release. With the trio clicking as a unit, the three-piece re-entered the studio and set about writing new material. In 2012, the band announced the release of the Secret EP. Available as a digital download, the five tracks would help fund the recording of their next studio album. In 2013, the group announced they had signed a new deal with Joyful Noise Recordings and that their ninth album, Defend Yourself, would be released that September.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine