Lou Barlow is at home in Greenfield, Massachusetts, struggling to speak over the sounds of high-pitched giggles and little footsteps scurrying in and out of the background. His two youngest kids are having a playdate, and every now and then the Sebadoh frontman has to abruptly stop what he’s saying to address his tiny intruders. But his tone is playful, and you can almost hear Barlow grinning on the other end of the line.
It would be easy to forget that this same person helped shape the mood and sound for an entire movement in the 90s. When Sebadoh released indie rock gems like Bubble & Scrape (1993) and Bakesale (1994), you could feel the crushing weight of emotional ambivalence reflected in the delicate yet discordant music. Of course, these records were written during the band members’ tenuous 20s. But Barlow happily reports that he’s since reached a stable period in his life, which made it possible for Sebadoh to create one of their most refined albums to date.
“It gave me a chance to really concentrate on the texture of the record and how we were going to record it,” he says. “There were a lot of ideas that I was able to follow through with. When I’ve written and recorded music in transitional times, it was hard to do the basic structural work that it takes to make a really good record.”
Act Surprised, Sebadoh’s first full-length work in six years, arrives May 24. Lead single “Celebrate the Void” explores the band’s familiar theme of anxiety, but it isn’t despondent; instead, the song urges you to take everything in stride. About a year ago, Barlow was recovering from a shattered collarbone, he had slipped on some ice while carrying his youngest child. The timing couldn’t have been worse: his other band, Dinosaur Jr., was just about to reunite for a tour. His mishap also came on the heels of a divorce, and the prospect of losing income from tour cancellations was a constant source of panic.
“It was like my worst nightmare was coming true,” he says of the accident. “At the same time, my 13-year-old daughter was going through some really intense personal changes – it was just a very overwhelming period of time. But I think I realised that I was going to have to live through it. The most important thing to do in that situation was to relax and move forward and let go of the idea that I’d ever have an easy resolution to everything.”
It was a turning point for Barlow, and for Sebadoh. Hoping to steer the band in a new direction, Barlow, along with guitarist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob D’Amico, commissioned long-time acquaintance Justin Pizzoferrato to produce Act Surprised. His technical expertise was hugely beneficial for the trio. “We were able to zero in on the creative side of things, which was what I always wanted for the band,” says Barlow. This balance is clear from the three singles released so far: “Stunned,” “Raging River,” and “Celebrate the Void” are classic Sebadoh head bangers and showcase the band at its most powerful.
“We’d been touring for a long time together, so the core of the band was always electric. I think we knew what our strengths were and we made an album that was the most representative of what we were capable of as a three-piece rock band.”
If there’s one thing Sebadoh truly excels at, it’s maintaining an equal relationship between all three members. It explains why they’ve lasted so long and why they may never break up.
“We’ve always been a fiercely democratic band. It can be difficult, because people tend to want to take all control or very little,” Barlow laughs. “To negotiate that middle ground is challenging, but for Sebadoh it only made sense that everyone’s voice was heard.”