January 29, 2012
Though we only had a day left at sea on the Weezer Cruise before porting back to reality in Miami, the unreal experience of being on a cruise ship with a handful of a few of the most interesting indie rock bands now and yesterday made the day resonant with promise. This day I made sure to capture a few songs of the live performances on video, as truly, even on the last day, I did not want this cruise to end.
The live shows began with none other than Yuck on the Lido Deck, at 1 in the afternoon. It was a nice sunny day as usual up there, making it easy for my amateur photography skills to capture the action. Though Yuck is a new band, from England no less, I always felt the band fit in nicely among acts like Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh (both also on board), as its debut self-titled album of last year recalls the sound of the grungy but perky early nineties college rock scene.
Yuck played twice during the cruise, and though both sets were similar, they were a “can’t miss” act not only for all the buzz that surrounded them, but the simple fact they played well. According to the album’s credits, the band produced the work from a mishmash of bedroom and studio recordings. The distinctive resonating guitar buzz, not to mention a palette of whooshing and whirring effects shone through just as well live as it did on the excellently produced vinyl record. Here are a couple of songs I captured live, with guitarist/singer Daniel Blumberg noting his special connection to the cruise ship and why it was a sort of homecoming to perform on board:
After the show, we had a date for the only activity we signed up for: beer tasting with the members of Boom Bip (Yes, during the cruise there was a trivia show, shuffleboard contest, a Q&A with Weezer, picture sessions with Weezer, but if a cruise can be so damn grand that one can still have a good time as to leave little room for regrets, it goes to show just how great a selection of highlights were away from the main attraction). It turned out the beer tasting was probably the best way to get your fill of drink at an amazing price. For $20 you learned about five different beers and got what seemed like unlimited refills. Paying upwards of $5 for a single beer is for suckers.
Everyone seemed loaded up on beer by the end of it, even our guide, a cruise ship employee from Turkey. We were allowed to straggle as long as we wanted and socialize, as the beer kept coming. I of course had to approach the Boom Bip guys to compliment then on the show I caught, something I already touched on at the top of this post: Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap (Day 2 of 4). As I noted on the second day, Boom Bip were a delightful surprise to see live, as I had not heard of them prior to this cruise. Too bad I never captured any videos. Thankfully MattNorman was on board to record a video of a show I missed a day earlier, here they are in the Criterion Lounge:
Feeling buzzed, we prepared to go see the Antlers next, at 5:30, I went up ahead to the Criterion Lounge, as my wife needed to lie down after all the beer. I grabbed the vinyl record of their new album, Burst Apart, which I brought on board, so I could have the band members sign it (Did I mention what a great piece of quality vinyl it is? Thick, 180 gram weight and super clean sound… Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). After their sound check I had a chance to briefly speak with each member, and they were all quite friendly and flattered by my appreciation. As we spoke, I had them sign the record. Here’s what it looks like autographed (they had to focus their scribbles in the center of the album because of the darkness of the ether that surrounds the central path on the cover):
I found a table off to the right of the stage with a clear view, as the fans on the floor decided to space out to the music seating cross-legged and even lying prone on their backs. The Antlers were clearly a highlight band for us to see on the cruise, and it was awesome to have had the chance to see them three times on board the ship. To be honest, I was unsure just how well the band would translate live and delighted to find them improving on some their songs in a live setting, as noted yesterday (Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 3 of 4]). Here they are performing one of the lighter tunes on Burst Apart. The video opens with frontman Peter Silberman and keyboardist Darby Cici discussing the cruise for a bit before the start of the song:
The show included similar songs to the band’s prior shows, including another excellent rendition of “Rolled Together,” so I was not complaining.
For the next show, all we had to do was sit tight and chat with our neighbors at the table. Soon enough, Lou Barlow had climbed on stage for his 7 p.m. show. He was very chatty and even had an ongoing conversation with a female fan who lived in his city of Los Angeles. However, what began as appreciative chatter and even dinner plans later on land degenerated throughout the set into awkwardness, as Barlow nervously laughed, muttering “stalker” under his breath. It made for an entertaining show at least and good-natured humor. But, most importantly, the music… Barlow indeed made good on his promise to bring his ukulele on board and break out several songs from Weed Forestin, as it came up during our interview ahead of the cruise, back in December (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ [soon to be reissued on LP]: an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). He began the show with some of the most luscious ukulele strumming I have ever heard to songs like “New Worship,” “Whitey Peach” and “I Can’t See,” among a few others. Even though it was a week ago, I am recalling from a memory that now seems so distant, it already feels like a dream. I also did the usual irresponsible journalist thing throughout the cruise, not obligated to write a story for a publication or for money, I never bothered to write down the songs he played. I wanted this to be primarily a vacation experience, and I was going to fully take-in these rarely performed songs (so I made no video either, sorry to say), but I did take a picture of Barlow strumming the small, four-stringed instrument as evidence. For the fans who responded to my in-depth coverage of Weed Forestin, I do hope Barlow will begin bringing the uke along to shows in the future. He said he had practiced the songs in his cabin right there on the ship, including some songs he had not played since the eighties, around the time he first recorded these tunes, in the privacy of his bedroom.
About halfway through his set, he switched to acoustic guitar for newer songs and ended the show with the smart version of “Natural One” that he did during his first solo show on day two of the cruise, as documented here: Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap (Day 2 of 4).After dinner, the final full show of the night for us was Barlow’s other band besides Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh. The show started on time, as usual, at 10 p.m. at the Palladium Lounge. Barlow certainly became the MVP of the cruise, having performed bass and vocal duties in Dinosaur Jr. on two nights, two solo shows and three shows fronting Sebadoh. This marked his last show at the end of the cruise, just a half day before porting into Miami, where, that night, he would play in Dinosaur Jr. at the Miami club Grand Central with Yuck opening the show (Read a live review of the show at the Consequence of Sound website). The fact that I felt too tired to even attend that show offers testament to the notion that Barlow was the Weezer Cruise’s MVP. Counting the night before where he played in Sebadoh at the same club (see this “Miami New Times” review of that show). That makes nine shows in less than a week. Insane but a shining example of just what a prolific artist he is, as he also holds court in many side projects beyond the bands he played with during Weezer Cruise-related events.
The Sebadoh show began with noise and bass issues, but the band pushed through, determined to play their music. After a few songs, things got patched up on the technical side and Sebadoh barreled through for nearly an hour and a half. I captured two songs on video. Below you can watch “The Freed Pig,” which, according to Wikipedia, documents Barlow’s frustration with Mascis and his poor treatment within Dinosaur Jr., just before Mascis fired him. It’s interesting, just the night before Barlow sang the backing vocals for “The Wagon” with Dinosaur, the first song released by Dinosaur Jr. since Mascis kicked him out of the band they formed together. The next night, here he was, more than 20 years after breaking off with Dinosaur, singing the song that celebrated his “release” on a cruise ship where he pulled double duty performing in both bands with an ease that showed no tension whatsoever. Here’s “the Freed Pig” preceded by two minutes or so of Barlow commenting on the cruise experience and how having both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh together in the context has been a dream of his, as bassist Jason Loewenstein tried fixing his instrument:
Finally, could there be a better tune to end this series of posts with than “Soul and Fire”…
January 28, 2012
It was up early for Cozumel, get off the ship and get hoarded by residents dressed up in cartoonish outfits that mocked their own culture to take pictures with you, walked through a Duty free mall, got bombarded by sales people for all kinds of duty free. Outside, more stores, people selling the typical souvenirs. It was just a taste of what we had to put up with since we had not booked an excursion. I already touched on this brief Mexico stop in the first post (Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 1 of 4]), so I’ll spare the recap and jump forward to the shows, which is really what the cruise was about for us.
Dinosaur Jr. took the stage on the outdoor Lido Deck, just as the sun began its descent, at around 6 p.m. It was not nearly as crowded as Weezer‘s Miami sailaway show, and neither was the crowd screaming. Here comes some serious riffage and guitar noodling by frontman J Mascis. And, man, these guys know how to pile up the volume. Just look at the stack of amps on stage:
As I noted during my de-virginizing Dino experience on day one of the cruise, we came unprepared, without earplugs. We tried for a view further back and it still stung the ears. I think the further away, the louder the music was. But that is indeed the element that creates the unique sound of Dinosaur Jr. It’s a din so loud, a sort of aura of piercing fuzz coats each and every note. It creates an almost aural hallucinatory effect of multi-tracked instruments. No recording ever does it justice. It can only be experienced in person and without earplugs for that real effect. Though it’s probably not healthy.
Early in the show, Dinosaur offered many of their “hits,” per se, though they were never as radio-friendly as contemporaries like Weezer or even Nirvana. They were a strange sound to come out of the late eighties, a time when New Wave and the most atrocious of pop music staled over the air waves. Depeche Mode, New Order and the Cure were breaking out of the college/underground scene. In 1987, the same year as the Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me hit single, “Just Like Heaven” began getting noticed, Dinosaur Jr. responded with their own surreal take on the same song, on its second album, Your Living All Over Me. It almost felt like some sick joke then, and it reeked of revolt. They played it early in their set on the Lido Deck, listen for yourself:
Early in the show, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow kept asking “Are we moving yet?” This was a “sailaway” show, and he would always be disappointed between songs that the ship had not unmoored itself from the dock. By the time night fell, the ship still had not moved and Barlow had given up checking, but here was Dinosaur tearing into one older tune after another. They performed lots of gran, old stuff from the debut album Dinosaur, like “Mountain Man,” and “Gargoyle.” Here’s that last tune:
As you will note, Mascis has certainly refined his guitar solos over the years. He does amazing work just standing there working those strings. It is no wonder none other than “Rolling Stone” magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (he was ranked number 86). The proof was there show after show. He would just stand there and rock back and forth while his hands were transported somewhere else.
After a quick dinner, the next show I caught that night happened to be Mascis performing his only solo show of the cruise, back at the Criterion Lounge. Though he played acoustic, he would still veer into some distinctive, loud fuzzy solos thanks to an effects pedal. Toward the end a violinist accompanied him, and they gelled in a nice, surprising way. I am unfamiliar with Mascis’ solo work, but it certainly seemed as distinctive an interpretation of singer-songwriter stuff as you would expect from him. I had a couple yapping next to me, so it was difficult to focus. The girl tried to take a video, but someone from the production crew stopped her. I was trying to “get” Mascis’ solo show. I arrived late to only catch the last few songs and did not grab enough flavor to pass firm judgement, but he certainly proved himself as distinctive. I wished he would have had another show, but there was only one night left of the cruise after this.
After the too-brief show, I took off to get my wife from the cabin, as she was had spent the Mascis show readying herself for the 80s Prom Night capper. Then it was finally off to see a Weezer show at the Palladium Lounge. It was clearly a night for the hardcore Weezer fans, as the show advertised was to include B-sides and the entire Pinkerton album. As a non-fan, I did not go in with high expectations, and it turned out I selected some bad seats ahead of the cruise (you had to pick your seats for one of two Weezer shows at the Palladium when you booked your cruise). We could not even see the drummer. An usher invited is to the pit, as she knew our view would be quite obstructed but we preferred sitting. Down in the pit, the hardcore Weezer fans screamed and sang along, and the band gave as much verve to straight up pop rock that they could. Most people know Weezer for 90s hits like “The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly” and “Beverly Hills.” The band is among the least edgiest of alt-rockers of the day, and the music does not veer far off track from that, even during B-sides.
As promised, Weezer performed some obscure B-sides that the fans ate up. The repertoire even included a cover of a post-Pixies Black Francis’ “Los Angeles.” After the set of B-sides, during which I dozed off a little, the band paused for an intermission. The wife suggested that we catch the Antlers on the Lido Deck, and that was that. Not to look the gift horse that put together this cruise in the mouth, but I was here for the other bands, and I can totally appreciate Weezer for putting this event together. It will live on forever as one of the best live rock experiences ever in my memory. Weezer was great standing up out on the Lido Deck, as the cruise set sail, but it gets pretty dull in a theatrical setting, and the Pinkerton album, which the band was going to play in its entirety after intermission, is far from a great work in the alt-rock canon, I hate to report.
I like music that burns slowly and explores dynamics with much more patience and subtlety. That’s why, instead, we found cozy comfort up there on the Lido Deck, in the dark, windy night, as the cruise ship cut through the Florida Straits, listening to the Antlers during a sparsely attended show. The highlight was getting a little more familiar with the band’s super slowburn of an epic live take of the one of the lowest of keys songs on the band’s new album, Burst Apart: “Rolled Together.” It begins with almost a slow, pulsating throb of a shadow of humming synth buzz coming from Darby Cicci’s tower of keyboards that whahs and quavers. Lead guitarist Tim Mislock plucks out a few rhythmic notes with a drawn out patience capping them with an odd, swooping strum that sounds as though the notes have tumbled, ramshackle to the floor. Drummer Michael Lerner clicks out a languorous, slowcore beat with his drumsticks before he starts to delicately tap out the beat on his kit. The whistling, synthesized drones swell up a notch and frontman/guitarist Peter Silberman begins to hushedly sing “Rolled together with a burning paper heart” repeatedly. With every refrain, the music slowly grows louder. Within his rhythmic chant of “Rolled together with a burning paper heart,” Silberman throws in an occasional “Rolled together but about to burst apart.” Those are all the lyrics to the song, as it builds and builds, until Silberman howls and screams the lines, while plucking out a minimal, but soaring melody on his guitar that fades and echoes until he repeats it over and over. The song is minimal but powerful, like an entrancing chant that portals you into the music. I nearly wept it has such a simple gorgeous quality of pure crescendo. The wind swaying the few lights on stage and the pitch black of night only enhanced the effect.
Especially because of that song, the Antlers remind me of the Verve during its A Storm in Heaven era, in the early nineties, before they succumbed to a more traditional, dull rock sound. This live version of “Rolled together” captures the pinnacle of the best kind of ambient rock, up there with the dreamiest of Spiritualized music. The Antlers’ live version blows away the recorded version of the track, as live it always seems to end with Silberman screaming out the words, as the music turns epic from almost nothing. I never recorded it on the cruise (I would have missed experiencing it by working the camera), but the only YouTube clip I found that equals the performances I saw of the song can be watched/heard here (though the beginning few seconds, all important to the set up of spasmodic finale, are missing):
For me, that song alone was one of the sublime highlights of the cruise, and the band played it during all of its performances. But whatever fuels the creation of such a performance certainly spills over to the rest of the Antlers experience live, and their shows quickly became my favorite memories of the cruise.
After that show, we braved the disco near the casino for the 80s Prom. It was super crowded, and people certainly embraced the theme night with gusto. Many had touted this as the highlight night. At his solo show the following evening, Lou Barlow spoke about nursing a hangover after hitting the dance floor, but me and the wife are more the introverts than the lives of the party. If the description of “Rolled Together” above does not show it, let me say I’d rather be transported somewhere metaphysical via music than dancing in a crowd, so we went upstairs to the Lido Deck to end the night with another Wavves show, at around midnight. The band was more subdued but cohesive. Most everyone else was below deck either dancing to memories of the eighties or singing the songs of the era during an Ozma-hosted karaoke event in the Criterion Lounge. We just laid out in deck chairs as the Wavves spewed their smarmy, rebellious punk rock into the night. The final day would prove to be our party day, with never-ending glasses of beer during a beer-tasting event hosted by none other than Boom Bip. (This series of post continues here: Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 4 of 4])
January 27, 2012
As I noted yesterday, during the first day the Weezer Cruise, I left my camera for the most part in the cabin to enjoy the cruise as a pure spectator experience (Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 1 of 4]). The next day the camera came out to document a few of the many great indie bands and musicians on board this unique four-night cruise.
The first band we saw that afternoon, at 4 p.m. was Boom Bip (pictured above), which needs a new name like the Sea Eats the Sky or Kaleidoscopic Soundscapes (kaleidoscopic images unfolded on the giant screen overhead as the band performed on the Lido Deck). The trio of musicians produced an extraordinary din of post rock grooves that recalled everything from Neu! to Explosions in the Sky. They began just as we sat down to have lunch behind the stage. I was looking out at the ocean, and I could not help but notice the waves out there reminded me of the cover art to Ride’s album Nowhere. Maybe it was the music, an odd sound to hear on a Carnival cruise ship, if there ever was one. For a trio of musicians, they had an awesome, grand sound that still had a nice driving, drone-rock quality. Nothing less than entrancing… if you listened to it. It was instrumental but mighty. I would later meet and chat with the band’s founder, Bryan Charles Hollon (pictured above on the keyboards). He was pleased that I had noted the references to Krautrock masters in the music, like Neu!, as well as the all-around post rock vibe of the band, which also recalled Mogwai. Turns out Mogwai has remixed their stuff:
Hollon also said he is longtime friends with Stuart Braithwaite, one of Mogwai’s guitarists. Of course, it would turn out Boom Bip are better known outside of the US and have a long catalog to show for it (mainly available in the UK on Lex Records). They were the only band I did not know before going on the cruise that also won me over as a fan. Unfortunately, a need for rest and a prejudice to over-indulge in the bands I already knew meant I missed getting to know other bands with respectful attendance. Over the course of the cruise I only got tastes of Keepaway and Sleeper Agent that showed potential, but not enough to pass serious judgement. But both sounded worthy of seeking out recordings (and I purchased a cool Sleeper Agent T-shirt on board). But I definitely hope to catch up with Boom Bip in the future.
Next show after Boom Bip on the Lido deck, at 5:30 in the afternoon, was the Wavves. We just chilled for a moment on deck chairs and then the show started right on time following a very precise sound check with the band. All the shows we saw throughout the cruise started like clockwork and sound was never an issue, except maybe at the artists’ discretion (Dinosaur Jr. was loud on purpose). I only witnessed one problem with buzz shrieking from an amp during Sebadoh’s last show, on the final night of the cruise, but even then, on-stage, frontman Lou Barlow gave props to the sound throughout the cruise. I’ve never seen so many shows, one after another, run on time with great sound. It certainly seemed the show’s producers, Sixthman, knew what they were doing. Also, though the bands were certainly of the anti-establishment ilk, they showed great professionalism when it came to logistics.
That said, Wavves gave a show worthy of the punk rockers they are. Frontman Nathan Williams started the show by showing gratitude to a mysterious character named Willers. He told the crowd about the difficult day before, as he said, he had took in too much mescaline. Willers apparently came to his rescue and brought him to his cabin, leaving him a note that said “Your cat looks just like mine” and his Twitter account info. Here’s a video of that show, with Williams still asking for Willers before the band tore into “Idiot” and “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”:
It was a fun concert with great attitude, yet the band remained affable and connected with the audience. Williams dedicated a song to a little kid (one of the few on board) and expressed appreciation to a man who yelled out “I enjoy your music!”
“Thank you, I’ll take that. That’s very nice,” Williams said, acknowledging the man with odd, mock sincerity.
Drummer Jacob Cooper at one point seemed so annoyed by all the banter between songs, he yelled at bassist Stephen Pope to “shut up,” as he seemed eager to tap out the next song. Here is an image of the band blowing their dirty beach rock jams out to sea:
That evening also marked the first Lou Barlow solo performance. It was a nice, low-key show at the Criterion Lounge, toward the back of the ship, which seemed to have already begun when we got there, even after we skipped out on the Wavves early. About halfway through his show, Barlow began asking how much time he had left, as he basically improvised the set list and even took requests. At one point Barlow expressed regret for not having his ukulele, something he referenced in my first interview with him before the cruise (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ [soon to be reissued on LP]: an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Not only is the uke an appropriate instrument for a cruise, but it would have facilitated some selections from Weed Forestin. But the requests rolled in nicely, and he did a creative version of his one big hit single, “Natural One” (from one of his many side projects, the Folk Implosion). He ended the show with “Day Kitty” which, as he set up in the introduction to the song, revealed a lot about his life, love of cats and children. It was a fun, revealing show at the end, and the audience offered hushed attention, for the most part. Here he is taking on a Dinosaur Jr. song, early in the set:
After the show, it was off to dinner with more people: John from Atlanta and a couple from the Boston area wearing good ugly sweaters. The guy wore a printed Tupac sweater and the gal some hideous purple flower-print thing decorated by sporadic fake amethyst gem stones. Great efforts indeed. I had left my “ugly” sweater in the cabin, expressing I could not believe it was the Ugly Sweater Night already. It’s the second evening, and the Weezer cruise already felt as though it was passing fast.
During this dinner we stayed for the entire meal, all the way through to desert (heck, it was lobster night), but that meant missing bands. In the Criterion Lounge the Nervous Wreckords played a full set and Ozma had begun its set, which would bleed into Yuck’s show at the Criterion. Yuck were one of the star attractions of the cruise for us, so we had to catch them on the first night. They brought on the hypnotic white noise, which has the unfortunate effect of sometimes making one feel sleepy (it did not help that we had full stomachs), and we were sitting in the back at a cocktail table, watching everyone sway to and fro. It seemed a more choppy night at sea than usual. Max Bloom, one of the guitarists, asked for seasickness pills on stage, but the band made it through their set. The floor was cleared to make way for standing room, and it was too crowded to even get a good snapshot, much less make a video, so I offer a later picture of Bloom with the band outside on the Lido Deck.
As the band packed up their gear much of the audience straggled to chat. It was a pretty packed show. Seeing as this was the night of the first Weezer show of Pinkerton and B-Sides at the Palladium Lounge (we found that we had a pair of those randomly distributed “golden tickets” at check-in but chose Yuck over the headliners). There must have been other fans of Yuck like us who skipped Weezer to see them. As the band packed up, I went down to the cabin to grab the now out-of-print first edition Yuck record, which I had brought with me so they could sign it. They were all friendly but pretty aloof. I did speak with singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg a bit. He praised the Silver Jews as an influence, but he also seemed tired of talking about his band, seeing as 2011 was a breakout year for the band on many a critic’s list (check out this “Rolling Stone” article). He was actually more interested in talking about his little known passion for cinema (turns out he is a big fan of the Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieslowski). Seeing as he signed my record on a cruise ship, here’s the appropriate note he wrote on the back of the record as we chatted:
Here’s the front after the rest of the band signed it (Blumberg also did the cover art, by the way. He was amused when I told him it wound up on “Billboard”s “10 Worst Album Covers of 2011“):
Then it was just back to the cabin, where I considered seeing Sebadoh, but, man, had the crowd grown rowdy. My wife told me that while I had been upstairs meeting the members of Yuck, some guy was knocking on cabins in the nude to use a phone. She heard yelling outside like “Dude, you’re naked!” and “Bro, I was just trying to get laid! She took my beer! I paid $8 for that beer, and I chased after her, and I look down, and I’m naked. She took my beer, and now I’m not even going to get laid!” That was a good enough note to end the day on. Still, more action-packed nights lay ahead… (continued in “Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 3 of 4]“).
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ (soon to be reissued on LP): an Indie Ethos Exclusive (Part 1 of 2)
January 16, 2012
Ahead of his many appearances as part of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and as a solo artist on the Carnival Cruise ship Destiny during the Weezer Cruise singer/guitarist Lou Barlow spoke about the misnomer “prince of lo-fi,” the up-coming vinyl reissue of Weed Forestin and Sebadoh’s debut Miami show ahead of the cruise. He spoke with me from his Los Angeles home, a few days before a tour with Dinosaur Jr., in early December. I was expecting to have just about 15 minutes. We ended up speaking for nearly an hour and covering many more subjects. Barlow even offered some candid insight into the dynamics between he and his longtime bandmates in Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. (wait for part 2 of this interview).
Founded by Barlow in the late eighties, Sebadoh has long existed in the shadows of many more popular acts of the nineties alternative rock scene. Their height of exposure came while on the Seattle-based label Sub Pop, probably the most famous independent label during the rise of the so-called grunge rock scene. The band signed a deal with the label in the early nineties, just as the label’s most famous product, Nirvana, had flown the coop to ride high on MTV buzz while crossing over to a major label, DGC, an off-shoot of Geffen Records, distributed by Warner Bros. Meanwhile, Barlow’s former band, Dinosaur Jr., also enjoyed MTV popularity in support of albums on the major label Reprise, also distributed by Warner Bros.
Sebadoh carried on as a curious but well-respected band fronted by the man cast out as bassist and sometime singer of Dinosaur Jr. just before Dino signed its major label deal. Sebadoh’s “size” fit Barlow just fine, as he prefers the inherent low profile approach of an indie label. He even enjoys being his own roadie and piling into the van with just his two other bandmates, currently longtime bassist Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico (who are both also key to The Fiery Furnaces). Still, Sebadoh were no less influential or important to revitalizing rock. Even before Sebadoh signed to Sub Pop, and only had its second album out on the even smaller Homestead Records, Superchunk took three songs from Sebadoh’s all Barlow-composed collection of home-recordings, Weed Forestin, to fill the majority of an EP called “the Freed Seed” in 1991. Weed Forestin had only arrived on the scene a year earlier, but there it was, celebrated by another band that was also important to the indie rock scene of the early nineties (Superchunk’s frontman, Mac McCaughan, still owns and operates Merge Records, which most famously became the first indie label to earn the Album of the Year Grammy in 2010 with Arcade Fire’s the Suburbs).
The humble start of Sebadoh was just an alternative venue for Barlow to give life to his songs, which were often rejected by Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman J Mascis. He recorded them at home on a 4-track cassette recorder with Eric Gaffney providing percussion. Homestead Records would compile the works, first released as cassettes, on a 1990 CD entitled the Freed Weed. The first 23 tracks on the 40-track disc, covers Weed Forestin and the last 17 tracks are the Freed Man, Sebadoh’s first official album, which saw commercial release in 1989. According to the Freed Weed‘s credits, the songs were recorded in 1986-88. Sometime this year, Barlow says he promises to officially reissue Weed Forestin on vinyl. In recent years, earlier Sebadoh reissues have been released by Sub Pop Records in the US and Domino Records in the UK, but Barlow says he plans to release Weed Forestin as a very limited run on vinyl, independently. “Five hundred,” he says with a laugh. “Get ‘em while they’re hot.”
OK, so there is a hint of sarcasm to that last statement, but I offer my surprise at such a low pressing. “That’s all we need,” Barlow insists. “No more than 500 people want that record.” During our conversation, Barlow notices how serious I am about this album, and he tells me he cannot believe I am as interested as I say I am in this record, an obscure introduction to Sebadoh if there ever was one.
We argue back and forth a bit. I plead my honest curiosity, sharing a story of how a dear friend of mine from my early college years, who happened to have abused enough LSD to turn schizophrenic, turned me on to the album. “The first generation of the people that really found it and felt that it was speaking to them, those people are real sensitive people,” Barlow says. “They really found something. It was not just, ‘Hey, man, this sounds pretty good, you should check this out.’ It was more like, ‘No!’” he says with a laugh and continues in a raspy voice, ‘This is amazing. You should hear it.’”
There is a purity to Weed Forestin, as it presents Sebadoh at its most raw and intimate. It is also on of the more obscure and probably most rough-around-the edges Sebadoh record in the band’s catalog. It can even be seen as a genuine goof with heartfelt intention, filled with experimental tangents and sincere, soul-stirring songwriting.
The subtleties that many take for granted are testament to the album’s character. The album opens with what sounds like a split second of orchestra, then four notes of a swinging guitar line with a muffled, tapped beat before the song “Temporary Dream” begins. Made up of some meandering whistling and a steady snare beat, where Barlow sings varied versions of “On my way to temporary dream,” before voices start screaming “Dreams! Dreams! Dreams!” the song picks up, stumbles and stops. It’s a defiant statement against whatever may have existed on the tape first and hinted by the album’s blink-and-you-might-miss-it opening. The track provides the perfect set-up for the album, with a beginning that alludes to the patch-work quality of leftover music recorded over on tape. The past and the present are experienced as one.
“New Worship,” a true, guitar-oriented song, follows with a distinct, seesaw rhythm. Barlow sings in his typically earnest, hushed voice, as the song drives on. After he sings “All my friends are killing me,” a higher-pitched, almost gnome-like voice repeats the statement, adding, “They think I’m a genius,” before dissolving into a whir of reverb. The song picks up the driving beat, and the melody comes to life with exuberant strums before grinding to a halt. No song on the album lasts longer than three and a half minutes and most are just under two minutes. They may be sketches but breath with amazing life, pulling back the curtain of the catchy, dynamic, punchy music of later-era Sebadoh.
With “Subtle Holy Gift” the distortion around the music makes the song sound like it’s coming from the inside of a big, old, wooden boat, drifting on a still ocean. Barlow offers two tracks of vocals, one in his regular tone, the other a falsetto, that harmonize with every other line, until the chorus, when they overlap. The sound is so distorted, the guitar strings sound as though they are being scratched instead of strummed.
“Whitey Peach” opens with nothing but tape hiss, Barlow states “5:20″ (it’s a subtle enigma that probably means nothing, but an enigma nonetheless) and then some disjointed guitar playing begins, sounding as if recorded from a distance, and once it catches a groove, the first word from the softly sung “Hey, girl, do you see the thing I see?” is also used as an accompaniment by a second vocal track, just a whiny, soft quavering “heeeeeey,” which reappears with each line, as the song rambles along like something from a hundred years ago. It’s not because the music’s style sounds dated, but the tape these songs were recorded on sounds like it is on the verge of disintegrating, and these are the voices of ghosts. The acoustic guitar rumbles and reverbs but also glistens and chimes. A variety of taps and beats appear here and there to spice things up.
Most songs on Weed Forestin are sung hushedly, as if not to disturb anyone outside of the bedroom. The songs have a vibrant, varied quality, defined by the earnestness of youth (Barlow says he recorded the tracks between the ages of 19 and 21). It’s a contrast to Sebadoh’s later studio-work, which garnered more notoriety on the college music radio charts and from other musicians, at least. With proper studio equipment and regular members who contributed to the songwriting, Sebadoh became a more polished, though still grungy project, which even took rare but notable hard, abrasive turns into screaming hardcore, a genre that defined the punk sound that first brought Barlow and Mascis together in high school. Their group with two other band mates and Mascis on drums, Deep Wound, only recorded a self-titled EP on an indie label. Then there was Folk Implosion, which gave Barlow his biggest hit, “Natural One,” released on the Kids soundtrack, peaking at 29 on the Billboard singles chart in 1995, higher than anything Sebadoh ever released. Here’s the video for that as a refresher:
But before Folk Implosion went on to release four albums and Sebadoh broke out on its own, there were the homemade recordings later released as Weed Forestin, and that is what I am most curious about (no better time for that seeing as the vinyl reissue is on its way this year). When I first met Barlow, back in 1997, in North Miami Beach, during an in-store at the long gone Blue Note Records, I expressed my deep affection for the Freed Weed. As he signed the CD booklet for that, he suggested I go check out Smog. When I remind him of that meeting, he laughs. “See, look at me, selfless, even back then: ‘You like the lo-fi? Go get a Smog record.’”
On with the Q&A…
Hans Morgenstern: You remember that in-store at the record shop Blue Note?
Lou Barlow: That was amazing. That was a really cool record store.
Otherwise, you’ve never, ever toured down to Miami.
Not really, no. I did that one show at the record store and that’s it … It’s so weird. Miami is this weirdly ignored place. It’s like Miami and Montana, it’s like the two places that nobody plays, although I don’t really understand why. I don’t get it. Miami I think is just like a whole other culture unto itself. There’s something about it that is so unique. It’s almost like touring South America or Mexico or something … I’m excited to be back there actually.
No challenges really. The problem with it was that when it was mastered originally they put way more hiss on it than was on the original recordings. I think people really like the hiss. They will probably really hate the reissue because the reissue actually sounds like what I recorded, so people won’t like it at all, which is sad, and that’s why we probably won’t even sell 500. We will only sell like 250 or 300 coz people won’t like it (laughs). I’m kidding. I’m sorry.
You’re right, though. It’s true that the hiss is a very important part of it.
The hiss is a big part of it, but a lot of the hiss was really added by other people and not me.
So when you first heard it, you were like, ‘What the hell? Did it really sound this crappy?”
Yeah, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
But now, you’re fixing that. You’re doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars.
No! No, absolutely not. He ruined it. He went back and changed things. No, I’m not changing anything. I’m just taking the original recordings, and I took them to an amazing mastering studio, and we just made them sound like they sounded. We don’t change anything. It was presenting what I listened to and what I know as Weed Forestin, what I know the songs to sound like.
What did you record it on?
A Fostex 4-track.
What is that orchestral sample that keeps appearing throughout the album?
I don’t know. I listened to the radio a lot, and I still do. One day I was listening to a classical radio show, and I just hit record and play… and I hit stop. I had no idea what it was, and it was so beautiful, and I took that little piece and I just went crazy with it. It’s possibly from something well-known.
It sounds like Wagner.
Really? (laughs) If it’s Wagner that will be really heavy … I don’t know if I could deal with that … Someone knows, but the people that listen to my music don’t know. Only people that really like real music know (laughs).
As I researched what you’ve been up to lately, I noticed you being called the unofficial prince of lo-fi music, but it wasn’t like you set out to create a new genre with your music.
I didn’t create anything, no. There was already lo-fi before me (laughs).
It’s not bitter … It’s very wary, cautious… um, maybe bitter. It’s a little bitter, but I’ve heard much more bitter in my life by other bands that people don’t call bitter. I don’t know. I mean, that’s fair, I guess, yes.
But there’s also some wisdom.
I was trying to talk myself through my life. I was trying to understand what I was experiencing, but I don’t think … but, there’s some bitterness.
But then there is some hopefulness, like “I Believe in Fate.”
Yeah, well, there you go. “Anyone can be your brand new love” (a lyric from another Weed Forestin song, “Brand New Love”).
But in “I Believe in Fate,” you sing, “Some girl I don’t know is waiting to marry me.” Now you’re a married man. How long have you been married?
26 years or something (he laughs).
Are you kidding?
We’ve been married since… ’95? We were married since the day we met. I met her because of the music. When I wrote out the original lyric sheet, I wrote out, ‘A personal plea to a special someone.’ I was writing those songs for a girl I didn’t know. Someone that would hear that and understand me and that would want to be with me. It was for a girl (he laughs). On one side there was these love songs and on the other side it was meant to be what I was thinking about philosophically and what I was struggling with on a sort of spiritual level. Originally, on the record or the cassette, one side was the relationship songs, the songs about love, and the other side was meant to be the philosophical side where I was struggling with philosophical issues and almost, like, political issues, struggling with the power of charisma. How you get one asshole male with an incredible amount of charisma who changes the world, who can change the way people think, who can sway people. I was just very torn between these things.
So your wife is one of the original Weed Forestin fans?
The thing is, on the Dinosaur Jr. record You’re Living All Over Me, the song I put on there, “Poledo,” in that sort of noise collage, that song was the genesis, and Weed Forestin was the outgrowth of that. “Poledo,” that was the beginning of it and then, when I elaborated on it, that was Weed Forestin.
Are you playing some of these songs on the cruise?
I could do it…
Oh, come on.
Yeah, fuck, why not. I’ll bring my ukulele (laughs). Absolutely.
No better place for a uke than a cruise ship.
There you go. Perfect (laughs).
How does it feel to be part of the entertainment on a Carnival cruise ship?
It’s fucking awesome.
How did you wind up booked on a cruise?
Rivers Cuomo [Weezer's frontman] really liked Sebadoh. He really liked the Bakesale record, and I met him a few times, and we hung out a little bit. We’re kind of from the same area of the country. He’s from the middle part of Connecticut. We’re from southern-western Massachusetts. Sebadoh got asked to do it pretty early on, and then Dinosaur was asked to do it. With Sebadoh, we were like, yeah, we’ll do it, and Dinosaur weren’t getting enough money, so Dinosaur asked for more money, and then J didn’t really want to do it. I think J is getting paid for his solo shows as well. I’m playing solo shows for nothing (laughter). It’s just amazing, man, the power of Dinosaur Jr.
Up-date: you can stream the entirety of the brilliant Weed Forestin album, now credited to “Sentridoh,” by visiting Sentridoh’s Bandcamp by clicking through the image of the new album’s cover art here:
* * *
Part 2 of this interview is available here:
Barlow shares much about working with Mascis in Dinosaur Jr. and Gaffney in Sebadoh, as well as the perils of reissuing vinyl.
Sebadoh performs in Miami on Wednesday, Jan. 18, with Jacuzzi Boys and Plains supporting. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, on sale here, or $20 at the door. All ages are welcome. After a long weekend at sea on the Weezer Cruise (Edit: You can now read a 4-part recap of the event here), Lou Barlow returns to the same venue as bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Yuck will support at that show, also all ages, on Monday, Jan. 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance, on sale here, or $30 at the door.