The Making of Sebadoh’s Bakesale

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 06.27.11 in Interviews

Sebadoh’s Bakesale couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The Boston trio — singer-songwriters Lou Barlow (bass) and Jason Loewenstein (guitar) and drummer Eric Gaffney, replaced after the initial album session by Bob Fay — had begun with releases (many of them simply Barlow working alone on his four-track) on tiny labels like Homestead. They’d built up a word-of-mouth fanbase and a decent packet of press clips by the time Sub Pop signed them in 1992, whereupon they issued the maxi-EP Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and the full-length Bubble and Scrape. By late August of 1994, when Bakesale was released, indie rock was increasingly occupying the mainstream media’s spotlight: Kurt Cobain had killed himself four months earlier, Pavement’s second album had nabbed a lead review in Rolling Stone, and a lot of collegiate rock fans turned off by the ongoing public dramas spurred on by various post-grunge heroin addicts wanted something scrappier they could fold their arms and tap their Converse-shod feet and think “Fuck, yeah, this guy gets it” to.

Bakesale is as vivid a snapshot of its moment — three guys (give or take) playing instruments in a room while bemoaning romantic hardship — as its perfect cover photo, an old Polaroid of a naked baby apparently vomiting into a toilet. It’s a weirdly innocent album about being jaded, and as with so much about the ’90s, a time when everything seemed to be moving faster than ever, its innocence is what stands out today. That, and the songs are the most consistently tight and rocking the band ever issued as a unit.

To celebrate the new deluxe edition of Bakesale, eMusic’s Michaelangelo Matos spoke with Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein about the time, making, and legacy of the album.

One thing that stands out about Bakesale is that even though the lyrics on the album aren’t necessarily confident, you sound like you’re eager to get these songs on tape. Were you?

Jason Loewenstein: At that point in the band, there was a lot of momentum, really. We were touring a lot, and we had some songs that we were already playing [live]. A lot of my songs hadn’t been played live yet. I was itching to hear what they actually sounded like. [Laughs] If there was any sense of urgency, that was probably it.

Lou Barlow: We were having a great time. I had a bunch of songs I was really happy with. If I have songs and I think they’re good, I’m definitely confident. But it wasn’t cocky, exactly. We were totally this ramshackle band, rhythmically. Our drummer Bob was a friend, but he could keep it going. He likes to play. And he always had pot. So he was our drummer [laughs].

Bakesale came out in 1994, which was kind of an iconic year for indie rock. How did you guys feel you fit into that landscape?

Barlow: Since I’d been playing with Dinosaur, I was already part of the story. You know, there were peers of Sebadoh, like Superchunk, who’d been influenced by Dinosaur. I was in one of the bands that had influenced the bands that were peers of my band. But I wouldn’t say we were standing alone. When I saw Pavement or Teenage Fanclub, obviously there was a kinship there. We bought tons of singles from bands and we had tons of bands open up for us. We were, for lack of a better word, a band of young hipsters.

I didn’t think we were going to Break Through with a capital B. We weren’t going to make a produced pop record — even if we did make a record that was relatively polished on our terms, not the kind of compressed, brash-sounding records people were making then. I wasn’t thinking anything unrealistic. It wasn’t, like, Nirvana. Following their footsteps was never an issue. We weren’t a happy rock band, you know? [Laughs]

Does 1994 having become this mythological indie-rock year play into of people’s reactions to that album?

Loewenstein: It doesn’t really cross my mind until it’s mentioned to me. Recently, we’ve done a little bit of touring, in the last two or three years. For a lot of people, that was an important time, because it seemed to them like there was a lot of interesting stuff going on.

I worked at a record store for a little while, going on about 10 years ago now. In just the interim between the heyday of my band and that [job], which was less than 10 years, a lot of people had no idea about Sebadoh. Not that we were well-known enough to [be surprised by it], but people didn’t really think about Sonic Youth, people who were more important — or even more popular — than us. Each generation has their slice of what they think is fantastic. There’s just so many social and technological factors. I do think there’s something about, “This is what was new when my awareness of art and music was blooming.” Maybe you start thinking that way when you’re an early teenager, and that stuff becomes very important.

The album was your third for Sub Pop. Were they pretty hands off? Like, it was your baby and they helped deliver it.

Loewenstein: I have to say, any relationship like that, artistic and business – you know, leaving people in control of your destiny — there were some rough times between us and Sub Pop. But at that point, there really hadn’t been anything at all. They were really quite a supportive label; they never were very hands-on with stuff. The band’s legacy had been making our records in a bubble. You know, Homestead didn’t give a flying rat’s behind about the production of an album, or even hearing mixes along the way, or making suggestions about marketing, or things like that. Even if Sub Pop wanted to be like that, we’d probably have been a little bit dismissive of it, frankly. But they weren’t. They gave us a kind of freedom.

Lou, you stuffed the early Sebadoh records with a lot of tracks. Bakesale has fewer — you wrote 10 of the 15 songs. Were you pruning more from what you wrote?

Barlow: I think I kind of compartmentalized everything. You know, my collaboration with John Davis as the Folk Implosion was also just taking off in that period. [We] got together and indulged our new wave fetishes and our dance-music thing; almost this kind of anti-indie-rock thing. In between the [Bakesale] sessions, I was taking my four-track and transferring the first two Folk Implosion records. And during the Bakesale sessions, John Davis and I began working on the Kids soundtrack. I was also doing solo records as Sentridoh. The four-track, lo-fi, experimental folk became my solo stuff. When I wrote what I felt were solid, electric-six-string, standard-tuned songs with verses and choruses, I said, “Hey, that’s really good for Sebadoh.”

Were you putting equal amounts of work into all of those projects?

Barlow: I was. I spent more time on the road with Sebadoh, so maybe it looks like less with John because I wasn’t really spending time on the road with it. But as far as crafting the records, I spent equal time on all of it. Sebadoh didn’t really record until we got together. At that point, Jason lived in Louisville, Kentucky. I was in Boston. We were also dealing with Eric Gaffney’s slow exit from the band.

So it was easier when Bob Fay came back in as drummer?

Barlow: It was really easy. Bob was a really good friend. When Eric was in the band, he was a very intense individual, very thoughtful, but there’d also be a lot of second-guessing of things, a lot of angst, you know? I’m supposed to be this very angst-filled individual, but I’d spent a good portion of my young adulthood on the road with Dinosaur Jr. It was really unpleasant. When I started Sebadoh, which evolved out of my friendship with Eric Gaffney, I decided when I went on tour I was going to have a good time. The band was ready to function more or less democratically and everyone was going to get paid — all that stuff. So when Eric was having trouble with the band and kind of bowed out, it was like, “OK, great. There’s no one around to complain about everything anymore.”

What were you listening to around that time? Did anything seep into your writing?

Barlow: My real infatuation with ’60s garage rock kicked in around that time: the Back From the Grave compilation series, all of the Pebbles anthologies, Nuggets. In Boston, there were all these great record stores. When I wasn’t working on music, I listened to college radio every day for hours.

Loewenstein: Around that time I was just sinking my teeth into Captain Beefheart. I was always a big fan of Sonic Youth; my Husker Du influence was probably still percolating at that time. I went through a really long phase of just listening to SST-style music, and I was still doing that at that time. But finally people were turning me onto more crazy, esoteric stuff, like free jazz. Bob Fay’s influence on me that way was pretty profound. He has a record collection bar none, and it was really fun to have his mixtapes in the van when we were touring.

Did you play much or any of the Bakesale material before you went into the studio?

Barlow: At least four of the songs.

Loewenstein: Most of the songs we actually had any rehearsal for on that record were Lou’s.

Barlow: I actually remember playing some of the Bakesale songs live, but as the Folk Implosion, with Bob Fay playing with me and John Davis. I guess that kind of is an example of how incestuous my little musical world was at that point. I knew [the songs] were working, and I knew that if I brought Jason into it, it would make it that much better.

When and where did you record the album?

Barlow: The first sessions were done in Chicago, at Steve Albini’s house, with Bob Weston. We didn’t work with Steve Albini. [We recorded] four songs with Eric Gaffney — his last session with the band. We got home from that tour, Eric quit the band, and Bob Fay joined, or reconvened with us, almost immediately. We recorded at Fort Apache [in Boston], which was a pretty established studio: Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, Belly, Throwing Muses, all of that stuff had come in and out of that studio. We didn’t go back and do a lot of polishing. We didn’t have that much money, so we would kind of blow through the sessions. I remember it being cold. I like to remember it being like springtime — that’s the way it felt, too.

Do you remember anything being particularly hard to record?

Barlow: Not on that record. That’s what makes that record kind of extraordinary to me. It’s a studio that I can look back on — I mean, I recorded a couple of songs twice, “Rebound” and “Skull.” There was a second version of “Skull” where I expanded the middle part, but that didn’t really fly. It didn’t end up being a problem; it was just, “Hey, let’s run through that again.” The songs are really short, and so simple, we just kind of blew through it.

Loewenstein: A lot of my tunes on that album were recorded in Boston with Tim O’Heir at the helm, at Fort Apache Studios. Most of my stuff on that record was recorded with a woman I was romantically involved with, named Tara Jane O’Neil, who was the bass player for Rodan at the time and has gone on to have a solo career. She’s also known as a visual artist. She was a sort of fledgling drummer, if you’ll excuse the term, at the time. We played a lot together at the time. I thought it would speed up the process by having her play drums on it. She plays drums on most of my stuff on that record, frankly. “Dramamine” and “Careful” stand out as stuff that Bob got to play on.

Because it starts with “Licensed to Confuse” and “Careful,” I always think of Bakesale as Sebadoh’s “riff album.”

Barlow: Yeah, it is, actually. [Laughs] I agree. I was just coming up with them. I swear, only recently someone told me, “That riff in ‘Rebound’ is awesome.” I had to think: “Does it have a riff? I guess there really is a riff in ‘Rebound’!” I’d never thought about it. “Riff” is a big word to me. A riff is, like, Led Zeppelin. [Laughs]

And Sebadoh was scrawnier than Led Zeppelin.

Barlow: Yeah. That ’60s garage rock I was listening to — I didn’t think of them as riffs. I don’t know why. I was thinking it was folky, almost; things that come out of strumming rather than big old, curlicued riffs.

Loewenstein: I think we like riffs, but Lou was playing a lot more standard-tuning guitar — not for the first time, but he was really introducing it to the band. It lent itself more to riffs than in the earlier Sebadoh. [On the] nuggets of songs that became [the early Sebadoh] albums, Lou’s playing a lot of open tuning, which lends itself more to droning melodic stuff, rather than what you’d call riffs. In a way, the guitar kind of dictated what happened, but we were all into riffy bands. Obviously, Lou was in Dinosaur. Even Lou’s early hardcore band, Deep Wound, was pretty riffy for a hardcore band. And frankly, I was a much younger man — I was just able to play riffs on the guitar, finally! [Laughs] I could do a little bit more of what I liked to hear, physically. It was actually just getting a little more adept with the instrument.

Do you look back at the album as a highlight? Is it something you ever feel the urge to pull out and play?

Loewenstein: During the process of reissuing it, obviously, and also with our recent touring, I’ve relistened to it to relearn songs. With a lot of recordings, maybe in the short term, after we recorded [it], it’s kind of fun to do. But once you’ve recorded it and are satisfied with it, with us the m.o. was to go out and play it a lot. It’s more interesting for me as a musician, or as a songwriter on some of the stuff and a player on the others, the real satisfaction is seeing it evolve out of its recorded framework into something that has a little bit more soul live. Replaying the album is actually interesting as an anthropological thing at this point. But the cool thing is watching it become its own thing between the players. That’s the real action of the song.

Barlow: I don’t really listen to that one. I don’t find it as interesting as a lot of the other records. Songwriting-wise, it’s probably my standout record. But texturally, I’m not really into it. To me, lo-fi recordings or strangely-layered studio recordings are much more interesting. The record itself is pretty plain, very unadorned, but it was also recorded in the mid ’90s, and it has that sound to it, and I’m not crazy about the ’90s as a decade, as far as the way the records sound from that era. Not my favorite musical era. The guitars were really — it’s almost the EQ that it occupies. It’s bright.

Is it the digital thing?

Barlow: Possibly, but I’m not a digital snob. There’s something splashy about records from that period, to me. For some reason, there was a real kick to bury the vocals at that time in general. Sonically, the way those things work, you would tend to bury the vocals because you don’t want to overpower [the music]. But when you bury the vocals you take away from the character of the music. I think people re-embraced vocals after 2000, especially now that people don’t have to go to studios to make amazing-sounding records. I love Pavement, but I have a hard time listening to those records. The Pixies — I really dislike the way all those records sound. I wasn’t really into that Steve Albini thing in that period, either. That’s kind of the primary reason I don’t go back to Bakesale very often.

Given all that, were you tempted at all to remix the album for the reissue?

Barlow: No. That’s just not fair. I think that’s against the rules.