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. But because we’re an old school band we figure that we have to have an album if we want to go out on the road.”
That’s exactly what the trio did, recording 15 new songs with Justin Pizzoferrato, the engineer behind the last three 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.
“We did some pre-rehearsals a few weeks before recording,” Loewenstein explains, “which we almost never do, and then we took our time a little bit. 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 Lowenstein 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. The record sounds a lot different than if I had done it – in neither a good nor bad way. It just sounds a lot different. But I really enjoyed working with him and he’s a perfect fit for this band.”
The result is a collection of songs that recall 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. Barlow and Loewenstein each wrote seven songs, while D’Amico wrote penultimate track “Leap Year” – a jittery, hyperactive mush of angular rhythms that reflects the odd, slightly dystopian world that we all seem to be living in right now. That’s a theme that also flows throughout both Barlow and Loewenstein’s contributions, too. The former are slightly more mellow, gentle affairs, whether that’s lead single “celebrate the void” – an oddly soothing, calming song in spite of the fact it rushes off in a flurry of guitars by the end – “medicate”’s self-reflecting rumination on sobriety or the glorious poignancy and self-awareness of “sunshine”. ‘I need sunshine to ignore,’ sings Barlow knowingly. ‘Need a room with heavy curtains, double lock up on the door.’ It’s a perfect expression of what it takes to be an artist who sings from the soul, who writes songs that truly and honestly reflect who he is.
Lowenstein does that too, but for him the focus is slightly different. His songs are more jittery and turbulent, a reflection of the anxiety he says he feels most of the time, and which you can hear in the jittery, bass-heavy nerves of “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,” he says, “and being a bit overwhelmed by it and investigating anxiety and where it comes from and trying to find release from it. All this modern technology is wicked fun and everything but it causes new problems – new social problems, new anxiety problems and new quasi-addiction problems for people. So it’s a whole dynamic over the top of normal life, and as an already 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 address the more everyday problems we face these days because of that anxiety-inducing technology – namely the double-whammy of constant misinformation and a lack of critical thinking.
“We’ve all had the internet around for a really long time now,” explains Loewenstein. “My first searches were for UFOs and things of that nature because I thought that finally we were going to get the real story, not realizing what it meant to have information with no sources, because it was a new thing. I’m a skeptic and I don’t think that I buy everything when I go and watch all these conspiracy theory videos, but sometimes there are very compelling holes in the official stories for official situations. I don’t trust my government and I don’t trust authority. And every once in a while these paranoid things turn out to be true, so it’s a pretty scary world for someone who is attempting to be intellectually aware of the dangers around them. It gets you in a real tailspin.”
And while Sebadoh isn’t an overtly political band, that’s something Lowenstein says acts as a metaphor for the America that has a shady businessman and reality TV star as a president. It is, he says, a lesson that we should be thoroughly examining and engaging with everything that comes our way, not just the seemingly outlandish stuff.
“Somehow, socio-hypnotically, we’ve had the rug of facts and truth pulled out from under us as a world 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. Sure, it sounds somewhat old school – as every Sebadoh does and should – but it serves as an important antidote to the modern world. It’s an album which finds the band refreshed and rejuvenated. That might not be for the best reasons, but it makes for an album that’s right up there with the band’s very best.