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Reluctant Hero

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David Lee

Warming Up: (Left to right) Lou Barlow, Russ Pollard and Jason Loewenstein of Sebadoh bring a harder edge to Palookaville Thursday.

Sebadoh guitarist Lou Barlow turns gritty tone into cult stardom

By David Espinoza

WHEN IT COMES TO the antithesis of rock stardom, few people will give you a better run for your money than Lou Barlow. For well over 10 years, the leader of the low-fi trio Sebadoh has shied away from the more pretentious side of success, preferring to focus on his music instead. The result has been some of the best indie rock albums of the '90s, including 1994's Bakesale and 1991's Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock.

Earlier this year, Barlow, Jason Loewenstein (bass and vocals) and new drummer Russ Pollard released their seventh album, aptly titled The Sebadoh, on their longtime label, Sub Pop. With a much harder edge and all around louder sound, Sebadoh gears up for a summer tour with the Flaming Lips that hits Palookaville Thursday.

Although he's definitely not a poster boy for Guitar magazine, Barlow's simple-yet-distinct fuzz guitar stylings have made him something of a cult figure with many who share his taste for tone. "When I first started writing songs, it was all open tunings," Barlow says by phone from a Seattle hotel, sounding groggy. (Barlow explains that he got up early to watch a film by one of his favorite comedians, Steve Martin.)

Though he uses many different guitars on tour, Barlow says he is partial to one, which he describes as a "shitty SG."

"For playing live, I have a six-string tuned to four strings, where the top two are doubled," Barlow explains. And what about amplifiers? "I use whatever I have until it breaks."

Picking up the guitar during his mid-teens, Barlow says his earliest influences ranged from the basic but catchy tunes of the Ramones to the groundbreaking work of New York's Sonic Youth. "I remember reading about Sonic Youth before I had even heard them and being really influenced by the idea of guitar stratification," Barlow says.

When it came to developing a sound of his own, though, Barlow took his cues from early low-fi bands like the Swellmaps, Young Marble Giants and Raincoats.

"Those bands really influenced me--I mean these guys were recording on whatever the fuck they felt like," Barlow says. "I just loved their noisy textures and found myself gravitating towards it."

Over the years, as Sebadoh has moved from underground status to one of the more prominent indie bands, they have gone through a few lineup changes. In 1994, longtime drummer and friend Eric Gaffney left the band, replaced by Bob Fay, who in turn left in '97. That same year, bassist Jason Loewenstein met Russ Pollard at a club in Cincinnati, and the trio have been together ever since. For Barlow, things have never been better.

"The band is almost the reason for and the extension of my friendship with Jason and Russ. It's a situation where I don't know which came first, the friends or the music," Barlow says. "Our friendship and our music are so intertwined, it's a murky area."

According to Barlow, Sebadoh's overall goal has remained the same even as the lineup has changed. "If there was ever a reason to be in the band, it was to be liberated to write songs, and for us to be supportive of each other."

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From the July 28-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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