It’s been six years since Sebadoh put out their last record, so it would seem that the release of this ninth full-length, Act Surprised, is long overdue. But actually, that’s relatively quick for the lo-fi indie rock legends. After all, there was a 14 year gap/semi-hiatus between 2013’s Defend Yourself and its predecessor, The Sebadoh, so really, six years is nothing. Besides, the trio – Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and Bob D’Amico – have a pretty good reason.
“Lou is always being taken away and abducted by Dinosaur Jr. for these fun and exciting next-level rock’n’roll tours,” chuckles Loewenstein, “so when we get him back we have to relight the fire.”
That’s exactly what the trio did, recording 15 new songs with Justin Pizzoferrato, the engineer behind many Dinosaur Jr. albums. Recorded at Sonelab in Easthampton, Massachusetts it marked a change in approach for the band, who had not only produced the previous record themselves, but who also gave themselves a bit more time than usual to get everything finished.
“In the past,” says Barlow, “we would write in the studio and the songs would develop on the road.“
This time, we did some rehearsals a few weeks before recording,” adds Loewenstein, “which we almost never do. So we got a chance to not use the first take and took time to finesse things, which we also don’t usually do, so that was a good step.”
And while Loewenstein admits that the album became something it wouldn’t have done had Sebadoh self-produced it, as they did with Defend Yourself, he learned to just go with the flow while they were making it.
“I’ve done a lot of recording for other bands as well as the last Sebadoh record,” he says, “so it was a little bit strange giving up the science and the tech sides of the recording process. I had to try to leave Justin alone and let him do his thing, trusting that it would be okay. I really enjoyed working with him and he’s a perfect fit for this band.”
“I’ve always wanted to work with Justin on a Sebadoh record,” adds Barlow. “We were able to finish a record as opposed to handing it off in the final stages to the Dinosaur Jr. machine.”
“Besides his technical skill as an engineer,” says D’Amico, “his temperament is perfect for the personalities in the band, and we all were comfortable working with him. He's a musician and he works that way – thinking like a guy in the band and the engineer simultaneously.”
It’s true. As such, this is a collection of songs that recalls the classic Sebadoh sound – that iconic fuzzy, jangle of guitars that’s both joyful and wistful at the same time – but which also takes their sound both forwards and sideways. It sees Barlow and Loewenstein singing and harmonizing together more than ever before to create what D’Amico terms a “real ‘sound’.” Barlow and Loewenstein each wrote seven songs, while D’Amico wrote penultimate track “Leap Year” – a hyperactive mush of angular rhythms that reflects the odd, slightly dystopian world that we all seem to be living in right now.
“To state the obvious,” says D’Amico, “we're living in a surreal time in this country. There are folk tales about leap years and their disconnection from reality – and 2016 was a leap year that won't end.”
Similar themes flow throughout both Barlow and Loewenstein’s compositions, too. The former are slightly more mellow, gentle affairs, all written and recorded exclusively on 4-string guitar – “electric and acoustic 12 string guitars I have modified and use with alternate tunings.” Barlow explains. As such, lead single “Celebrate the Void” is oddly soothing in spite of the fact it rushes off in a flurry of guitars by the end, while both “Medicate” and “Sunshine” shimmer with glorious poignancy and self-examination.
“Those two songs are subjects I’ve been mulling over for a while,” says Barlow. ““Medicate” is about the
two shortcuts to mental-ease and spirituality we try to take: drugs and religion. These have become for- profit enterprises that have little to do with changing the root causes of our problems.. “Sunshine” is about finding beauty at home as opposed to trying to buy it or hiking up a mountain to find it.”
Loewenstein’s focus is similar but his songs are more turbulent, a reflection of the anxiety he says he feels most of the time and which you can hear in the frayed, bass-heavy “Stunned” and “Battery”. That’s something he says is compounded by these days of advanced technology, especially the increasing dominance of mobile phones and the internet in our everyday lives.
“Lyrically, the theme is being overwhelmed by all the inclinations of modern living and trying to find release from it. All this modern technology causes new problems – new social problems, new anxiety problems and new quasi-addiction problems for people. So it’s a whole new dynamic and as an anxious person before technology, it makes me even more anxious.”
Tangential to that is his song “Raging River”. With its reference to 9/11 and tin foil hats, it shines a light on the prevalence of conspiracy theories, but more importantly addresses the double-whammy of constant misinformation and a lack of critical thinking.
While Sebadoh isn’t an overtly political band, that’s something Loewenstein says acts as a metaphor for the America that has a shady businessman and reality TV star as a president. “Somehow, socio- hypnotically, we’ve had the rug of facts and truth pulled out from under us by the actions of this weirdo,” he says. “Which is remarkable. But as chaotic and horrible to question what is true, the fact is we should have been questioning it all along.”
To that extent, Act Surprised is a vital album for the modern age. And while it retains the quintessential hallmarks that have defined Sebadoh throughout their remarkable 30 year career, it’s also a record that finds the band refreshed, rejuvenated, exploring new directions and right up there with the band’s very best.
“I'm really proud of this record,” says D’Amico, “and I really enjoyed how we went about it. I think it sounds different from the rest of the Sebadoh catalogue in some ways, so I hope that we can make the old fans happy but gain some new ones as well.”