The onset of age can devolve into a rapid spiral of emotions, among them cynicism and panic. It’s human to reach a certain age when, alone with fading memories in hand, you’re forced to take stock of your experiences and regrets, accept them, and figure out how things will be better moving forward.
Dinosaur Jr. bassist and Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow speaks of his life, at this moment, as a still point in time. Over Skype, the 47-year-old’s tone is reflective, yet confident.
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Sebadoh perform Friday at Bowery Ballroom. Defend Yourself is out now.
“I spend a lot of time in my life trying to figure out what I did wrong in situations, how to get back together, examining my own behavior and how I was wrong,” Barlow confesses. “Right now I’m facing my middle age, I’m a father even — it’s a very typical crossroads to be at. But instead of trying to make amends, I’m thinking of working my way out.”
Part of said crossroads involves Barlow swerving past an enormous detour — the end of his marriage. Instead of shying away from the subject, he brings up romance often during our conversation, with the clarity of someone who’s allowed time to contextualize the loss.
“I love long and winding conversations about relationships — about how you should do it, the intricacies. I love that. I think after the smoke clears on this particular chapter of my life, I may have a better view of everything,” says Barlow, pausing for a moment, allowing his own words to sink in.
Then he speaks again, this time definitively, “I held onto a lot of things for a long time. I recently was able to admit that I was wrong in a lot of ways.”
It’s evident that Barlow and fellow Sebadoh bandmate, Jason Loewenstein, braved especially craggy territory during the past few years. Barlow left his wife of 25 years, and Loewenstein recognized an his own struggles with intense self-criticism, jealousy and insecurity.
“Criticizing yourself is a violence against yourself,” Jason Loewenstein admits. “That mindset is addictive, and for people like myself, it takes a lot to unravel that way of thinking. But I’ve made strides.”
Fittingly, Sebadoh’s latest record Defend Yourself, the ramshackle rockers’ first record in 14 years, aptly traces the two musicians’ trajectory from torment to triumph. The record’s title and the central conflict — the idea of “defending oneself” — manifested itself organically when the band flew out to self-record in Barlow’s refurbished Los Angeles garage. Along with former Fiery Furnaces drummer Bob D’Amico, the three plowed through the recordings in two weeks. During the process, both Loewenstein and Barlow brought forward the idea of self-defense separately, a response to their respective experiences.
“In the way there really is no self, the way we look at it. Who Jason Loewenstein is … is a collection of opinions,” Loewenstein says, his voice trailing off over the phone.
He continues: “Defending yourself is a little bit of a sarcastic comment, because there is no ‘self’ to defend. It’s funny, Lou and I both came to this recording with the idea of ‘defend yourself’ without even knowing it at all.”
“It almost makes sense that this particular time and change there would be Sebadoh record to accompany these changes,” Barlow adds. “The last time I went through something so tumultuous was the last time we made a record, and ‘defend yourself’ kept popping up on this one. So it’s kind of perfect.”
It makes sense, then, that Defend Yourself single “State of Mine” explicitly tackles the aftermath of a failed relationship. But instead of lamenting its decline, the song is unnervingly positive. The chorus, “Failure is a state of mine,” acts also as a double entendre. “State of mine,” of course, can easily be understood as a “state of mind,” a statement that both recognizes a huge mistake and embraces it with a burly hug. This identification and celebration of failure is a definitive peak in Sebadoh’s lyrical evolution. The sentiment is mirrored throughout the entirety of Defend Yourself, in a way its overarching thesis.
Though in order to reach that kind of clarity, the band had to step back.
“The thing I learned over the years is that it’s always really important for the record to speak of the band in that moment in time,” Barlow says. “And the best way is to do it yourself — I knew it’d be our best one if there would be no outside opinions coming in. For it to be a true new Sebadoh record and a true evolution, we had to take it back to that approach.”
“The way we did this one was very akin to how we did it in the first days of Sebadoh,” Loewenstein adds. “We have slightly better equipment now, but we did all of the recording on stuff that I own in my recording business, brought it to Lou’s and schlepped it out old school.”
The bare-bones approach to recording is the very same that marked Sebadoh’s ascent. The project began as Lou Barlow, in a sense, defending himself against songwriting tensions that rocked his place in Dinosaur Jr. in the late ’80s. Sebadoh’s languid conceptual approach to guitar rock, both firmly rooted in do-it-yourself punk roots and pulling from art-rock squalor a la Sonic Youth, garnered the band a swift cult acclaim.
Barlow speaks retrospectively of Sebadoh’s focus as tackling “breakup songs.” But Defend Yourself is marked by a newfound unflinching optimism, a feeling that stems from grappling and growing past strife. Barlow speaks of the record positively, and remains hopeful in its reception.
“I have a unique relationship to it — there were my songs but Jason’s songs are extraordinarily strong on this record. I hope people can open their minds up to that. It’s always been a struggle for us – allowing people for us to shift and to embrace our complexities,” he says.