Their latest album, 2019’s Act Surprised, is a stunner, with Pitchfork declaring the album “the strongest Sebadoh release since 1996’s Harmacy”. Did Barlow have an inkling that he was on a winner while making the record?
“I kinda did, yeah,” he admits with a laugh. “I felt really good about it. We spent a little more time in pre-production; we spent a week demo-ing the songs outside the studio, just playing ideas for each other, which is not something we ever really do.”
‘The last couple of years have been incredibly challenging but very, very rich.’
Act Surprised was produced by Justin Pizzoferrato, who helmed many a Dinosaur Jr album and Barlow’s last solo album, Brace the Wave. But it’s a bone of contention; Sebadoh guitarist Jason Loewenstein is more a fan of their last album (and first post-hiatus release), 2013’s Defend Yourself.
“Jason recorded that record,” says Barlow. “But with this record, I felt strongly that I just wanted Jason to be able to focus on his songs, as opposed to trying to make the whole record.
“I also had a strong intuition that he would work well with Justin. I thought he and Justin would be a great team and that also turned out to be the case. I knew them both separately and knew that if I could just get Jason and Justin in the same room together that really nice things would happen.”
Act Surprised is an album brimming with life, offering a real sense of renewal, which possibly reflects Barlow’s own reinvention. Between the two albums, he separated from his wife and longtime muse, Kathleen. He has remarried and become a father to a young daughter.
“I think beyond the obvious ramifications of changing your life, there’s just been a sense of focus that has come back into my life that I think I was struggling to find for quite a while … I don’t know if I’d ever really found it in my adult life,” says Barlow.
“The last couple of years have been incredibly challenging but very, very rich. Music became an even more important thing in my life. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs, but now I really embrace things, I don’t have that same sort of crippling self-consciousness that I think kind of hindered my work in the 90s.”
It seems there are also boundaries and expectations that weren’t there in the 90s. In both Barlow’s bands, there is clear songwriting demarcation. With Dinosaur Jr, he gets two songs on each album, while in Sebadoh he and Loewenstein get an equal share – seven each on Act Surprised – and drummer Bob D’Amico gets one. Perhaps such clarity is important for a band’s harmony, with both missing the first time around with Dinosaur Jr?
Barlow laughs. “Yeah, maybe! For me, having such a particular role in Dinosaur Jr is great, I really like that. “With Sebadoh, it’s actually a bit different because we really do strive for equality in the band. It’s a complex thing. It’s complicated and it’s difficult to preserve that, and not for reasons you’d expect. It’s not that everyone’s trying to always take control, but it’s that sometimes people don’t want control. And that’s an interesting thing as well.
“With Dinosaur Jr, I’m the bass player and I write a couple of songs on records and that’s a really nice role. Yes, it’s a clear role and I have to say, the more projects that I do with J, it gets a little richer every time it comes around.”
Sebadoh play January 28 and January 29 (sold out) at the Northcote Social Club; January 30 at Altar in Hobart; January 31 at Crowbar, Sydney; and February 1 at the Foundry, Brisbane. Tickets at https://lnkfi.re.SebadohAU