It isn't news that the '90s are back. And while some of us are likely to roll our eyes and wonder if they ever even left, it's hard to find too much to complain about if you're a fan of certain bands.
Besides all the reunion tours, in 2013 there were new—good—records from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, Superchunk, and Yo La Tengo. Those first two releases especially got a lot of press, being the bands' first records since the '90s. But another equally deserving album in the exact same situation slipped under the radar for a lot of critics too busy listening to Lorde—Sebadoh's Defend Yourself, the band's first album since 1999's The Sebadoh.
Defend Yourself isn't exactly a change of pace for the trio of Lou Barlow, Jason Lowenstein, and Bob D'Amico (the latter a post-'90s addition to the band). In fact, it's almost freakish how much the first Sebadoh album in 14 years sounds exactly like Sebadoh 20 years ago—it could have been made at the same time as Harmacy.
But Lowenstein says when the group decided to make a new record—they had occasionally toured over the years but otherwise had been on hiatus—there wasn't a plan to intentionally echo their earlier work.
"In fact, I was a little bit surprised at how it turned out," Lowenstein says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "When we were recording, I wasn't thinking it would sound like this. When I finally heard the whole album in sequence, I was taken aback."
Taken aback in a good way, that is. Lowenstein says after a decade of everyone playing in different groups—Barlow has spent a lot of time touring with Dinosaur Jr. (which he was in before Sebadoh), and Lowenstein and D'Amico are in the Fiery Furnaces, along with other projects—he had no idea how a new album would turn out. What they ended up with is definitively Sebadoh—lo-fi, jangly, noisy pop that's just a little sad.
Sebadoh's always had break-up songs, of course, like "Soul and Fire," the opening song on Bubble and Scrape, and Bakesale's pop classic, "Rebound." When I listened to those albums on repeat in high school and college—they're great albums to listen to when you're dealing with the crummy relationships you're likely to have in high school and college, by the way—I always assumed Barlow was going through the same tortured dating processes as me. In reality, he was happily married.
But the songs about a relationship ending on Defend Yourself hit hard. Barlow and his wife split up as the album was being recorded and produced.
"We were as surprised as anybody," Lowenstein says. "I didn't really understand what had been going on until hearing the finished lyrics."
It's much to his surprise, Lowenstein says, that the band lasted longer than Barlow's marriage. Looking back, he never thought they'd still be playing together.
"I remember when we first started playing together, and we were somewhere, and there was a Grateful Dead poster on the way. And they had been playing, like, 20 years at that point, and I said, ‘Holy shit, that's a long time for a band to be together!' And now we've been together longer than that," Lowenstein says.
Barlow started Sebadoh in Boston in 1987; Lowenstein joined the band two years later, when he was still a teenager. By the early '90s, the group had a cult following, but they surged in popularity with 1994's poppy Bakesale. They were in many way the quintessential "indie" band—recording on a four-track, decorating their album covers with snapshots, never signing to a larger label than Sub Pop.
But the band didn't jump back into recording to take advantage of the '90s nostalgia, Lowenstein says.
"I think we were just disenchanted with what we're hearing now," he says.
Lowenstein worked for several years at the Mercury Lounge in New York, doing sound, and he says that after hearing so many bands, night after night, he felt incredibly disillusioned with the current state of the music scene.
"I was astounded in how many groups there were no guitars and no drums," Lowenstein says.
He admits it's expensive to have a band in New York—to rent an apartment with the space for equipment, to rent a rehearsal space, to record.
"But I also felt like there were a lot of people getting up on the stage and pressing play and that was it. I feel like younger kids have been shortchanged. There's not a chance of things going wrong," Lowenstein says. "I'm not against using electronic instruments—I'm not against electronic music at all—but I think one of the best parts about a live show is the suspense of what's going to happen next."
And so the band decided to record, and then to tour. Lowenstein and D'Amico flew to Los Angeles, where Barlow lives now, to record the album. Then Lowenstein did much of the mixing in Brooklyn. He says, somewhat surprisingly, the influx of digital audio equipment and software didn't make the production process easier than it was the last go-round.
"When you're recording on a four-track, you've got an excuse if something sounds like shit. But with all the added technology, there's no excuse for it not to sound good. In a way, it's been a little more difficult," Lowenstein says.