Even before his acrimonious departure from Dinosaur Jr, bassist Lou Barlow was recording his own material. Dinosaur’s second album, 1987’s ‘You're Living All Over Me’, had closed with ‘Poledo’, one of Barlow’s tape experiments - a chilling mess of funereal folk and disturbing, manipulated found sounds. Lou, it transpires, had been messing about with tape recorders since he was a kid.
“My sisters had one of the first cheap tape-recorders,” he remembers, “And my cousin showed me that if you half-press the ‘ffw’ button and the ‘record’ button and yell into the mic, it’ll make this nice stretched-out groaning sound… That cracked me up! I started making cassettes of me playing guitar and singing, real primitive multi-tracking, when I was about twelve. Twenty-five years later, I still have them somewhere.”
As he became more and more estranged from Dinosaur front man J Mascis, Barlow immersed himself in his home-recorded music. He made cassettes and began selling them through small ‘indie’ record stores. “I did it for myself, primarily, but with the understanding that other people would find it. It immediately made sense to some people, like Eric Gaffney.”
Gaffney, a singer/guitarist/drummer Barlow describes as “a musical terrorist””, would form the yin to Barlow’s yang in Sebadoh for their first two self-released cassettes, ‘The Freed Weed’ and ‘Weed Forestin’. Together, they’d collate impenetrable experiments, fucked-up songs, confessional folk fragments, and collages of ambient and found sounds, bouncing off each other, trying to outdo each other in this explosion of errant creativity.
Theirs was a productive, if fraught relationship. Jason ‘Jake’ Loewenstein, a teenaged musician and home-recorder who’d already purchased Sebadoh tapes, joined the group, and they began to tour. “It was all about freedom and democracy, this chaos,” explains Barlow. “I think Eric and I were both tortured, dragging Jason along. I was thrilled to be doing it all, to be touring. We played England, and I was so excited - after Dinosaur, I never thought I’d be able to tour England again. The minute we got off the plane I was grabbing Jake, buying cider and getting shit-faced!”
It’s hard to choose a ‘definitive’ Sebadoh album - everyone has their own favourite from the dog-eared, beloved discography . But ‘III’’ is, perhaps, the key Sebadoh release, a transitory album from a band ever in transition. It furthered their ‘many ideas from all directions colliding at once’ aesthetic, adding Loewenstein’s contributions to the mix. It maintained the lo-fi, personal intimacy of the ‘Weed’ tapes, while also taking determined steps out of the bedroom, mixing their trademark jumble of self-recorded experiments and fragments alongside tracks recorded at Boston indie-rock studio-of-legend Fort Apache with Sean Slade (Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom). It caught the band at their iconic height, a messy jumble of a power trio, swapping instruments as often as they could, carving the most striking, personal and idiosyncratic songs along the way, with a deceptively careless abandon. Its 23 tracks offered enough space for the various fractured multiple-personalities of Sebadoh to sprawl out, in their randomly confessional, free-spirited way.
The naked honesty of Sebadoh’s lyrics were key. There was no pose or posture involved, just the sound of three overcooked locked in merciless self-examination, positing what they found. The songs were brave, unself-conscious; ‘The Freed Pig’, Lou’s ecstatic declaration of post-Dinosaur freedom, opened with the conciliatory admission, “You were right”; the tender, cautiously-joyous ‘Kath’ offered one of the less-fraught, more-cherishable episodes from his relationship with now-wife Kathleen Bilius that Barlow committed to song; Gaffney’s sublime ‘Supernatural Force’’ wrought something profound from a spidery angst.
Elsewhere, their playful punk-rock spirit flailed with abandon; The Minutemen were covered, reverently; Johnny Mathis, less so. Young Jake pitched in with a lo-fi jazz odyssey in praise of Sebadoh’s sacred past-time on ‘Smoke A Bowl’’. Black Haired Gurls bewitched from a distance, potshots were taken at Rock Star foolery, and for every hushed acoustic sliver scattered among the tracks, a gonzo blast of mischievous noise was guaranteed to follow. In its random, scattershot lo-fi kaleidoscope, ‘III’ offered a detail-perfect mosaic-portrait of three hyperactively-creative, angst-fuelled, sensitive guys and their obsessions: girls, pot, and rock’n’roll.
They were hella productive boys, too. This remastered re-release of the album comes bolstered with a disk swollen with tracks recorded around the time of ‘III’’’s sessions. The bonus disk opens with the group’s ‘Gimme Indie Rock!’ EP, it’s sardonic title track an ecstatic homage-to/deconstruction-of the burgeoning indie-rock genre, complete with shout-outs to Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore and even Dinosaur. “I felt the music of the underground had become one-dimensional, noisy, and I wanted to fashion my own response to that,” Barlow told Mojo magazine, last year. “I knew I was on the right track, when people said I was a ‘pussy’ for playing an acoustic guitar. I’d found my new passion: quiet was the new loud.”
Along with the EP’s abstruse, inspired companion tracks, the bonus disk offers a bonanza for Eric Gaffney fans, including earlier takes of ‘III’ standouts ‘Supernatural Force’ and ‘Holy Picture’’, the hypnotic mantra ‘Design’, and the music box-accompanied buzz saw trash ‘Unseen Waste’. There’s also a satisfyingly-crunchy 4-track demo of ‘The Freed Pig’, and Barlow’s deliciously charming ‘Never Jealous’.
For many Sebadoh fans, ‘III’ is the group’s defining statement, the Sebadoh they fell in love with. A puzzle of an album, a disorientating and seductive rush of ideas and voices and unaffected, adventurous fun. They really could be a totally different band at a moment’s notice, could encompass the multitudes of their personalities armed with only some bashed-up instruments, a four track tape-recorder and a tonne of weed (disk two’s closing drug-trip narrative ‘Showtape ‘91’, declaring themselves “Your new favourite dope-smoking renaissance threesome” confirms the importance of the latter ingredient). And they could make you giggle as sure as they could break your hearts.
Later, the band’s focus sharpened, they bid extended farewell to Eric Gaffney, the freakouts became more occasional, and the spotlight shifted to Barlow and Loewenstein’s maturing songwriting chops. And ‘Bubble & Scrape’, ‘Bakesale’, ‘Harmacy’ and ‘The Sebadoh’ are all fantastic albums. But there never was, and never will be again a band like Sebadoh were when they recorded ‘III’, so free and fearless, so curious and familiar. Sparing the varnish, ‘III’ helped inspire the early 90s lo-fi boom that gave us Beck and Guided By Voices, and stands as a landmark, classic album - while remaining as endearingly intimate as a love letter, or a stolen diary.