Friday, May 29, 2015

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Jason Loewenstein (Sebadoh)

Sebadoh (Jason Loewenstein, center) by Travis Tyler

You guys are just about to head out on tour, so I appreciate your time.

Yeah, no problem, man.  We’re getting ready to go out on these little 10-day long trips, so we’re excited to hit the next one.

By way of background, you and Lou got back together (as Sebadoh) in the early aughts and brought (original member) Eric Gaffney back for a bit, and then brought Bob D’Amico into the fold in 2011.  You’ve been at this for so long – what keeps Sebadoh an ongoing concern for you?

Well, because it’s still fun to play (laughs).  We toured the heck out of the last record we made for Sub Pop, called “The Sebadoh”, and after that we had almost two years off and then Lou and I have kind of been playing ever since.   We were kinda under the radar, but we never really stopped playing for that long.  I think most people assumed that we were gone for much longer than we were because we were playing low-profile gigs.  But we’ve been back at it for a while and we’ve even had Bob in the band for four, maybe five, years now.  Getting him in the band was really a huge boost to the old material and made us hopeful for the future.  Bob’s influence in being here and the fact that we never let it die is really why it’s still an interest. 

He’s a hell of a drummer!  You’ve been with him previously in the Fiery Furnaces and Circle of Buzzards stuff, so I am sure that it’s easy to tour having someone you like as a person in the band.

Wow, I appreciate you knowing all that history stuff!  Yeah, we were in the Fiery Furnaces together and Bob was also in the solo band I had in the early 2000s, and also the Circle of Buzzards thing – so I have done a LOT of playing with Bob. He’s also a good pal as well, which is always a good thing.

Obviously he influenced the writing of the new album, “Defend Yourself”. What change did he bring to the dynamic of playing the older stuff?

You know, he’s really versatile and has a lot of skills he doesn’t let on about.  He’s a great salsa player, he’s good with hand drums and things like that.  It didn’t matter what kind of material we were bringing to him…he’s able to play really crazy, math-y, aggressive beats; he swings really well; he can play really simple Ringo-stuff.  He’s a very song-appropriate kind of player; the older Sebadoh material is pretty simplistic, and I don’t mean in a bad way, but in a way that a musician needs to kind of bend it and push it around to keep it interesting.  He’s really fun to do that with, because he’s really good at pushing the edges of the material and nuancing it into making it more interesting.

You just put out your cover of Rush’s “Limelight” on 7” picture disc with Bubbles from “Trailer Park Boys” on it.  Were you surprised by the reception that cover received when the A.V. Club put it out last year?

Not entirely (laughs).  I’m actually surprised how many “normal” Sebadoh fans were even into it.  Because it was the A.V. Club who put it out and not just our own fans watching it, a lot of hardcore Rush fans (who were not into Sebadoh) were VERY critical about it, and that was kind of fun (laughs).   I kind of expected that, because prog-rock fan mindset is something I’m pretty familiar with.  There are no worse critics of performances than those guys (laughter).

(Laughs) Yeah, they can be pretty exacting about their expectations, and doing something so different with it, like Lou did with the vocals, probably gets their ire up.

I’m really glad that Lou did it the way he did it…it was a nice balance of chaos.  We kept it very Sebadoh-like (laughs).

Rush was never a band I gravitated towards, but seeing what you did with it helped me to kind of understand the fascination people have with that band.  It’s a good song! (laughs)

That’s cool.  It’s the greatest service we could do to Rush (laughs).  Carl, who’s the head of Joyful Noise (the label that’s releasing the 7”), kind of randomly reached out to the Trailer Park Boys’ people….I mean, I’m a huge fan of that show.  When he brought it up, I was like, “Sure, go ahead and try it!”, really pessimistically. But it worked out.  They found some value in maybe the humorous part of the song, and some of those guys are actually Sebadoh fans which is really cool!

Alex Lifeson was in a couple of episodes, so I’m sure that they thought that those guys have a sense of humor about things.

Yeah, absolutely.  They’re kind of a constant theme on that show because it’s Canada!  Fucking Canada, man (laughs)

You guys have been on tour pretty constantly the last couple of years – do you find these shorter runs to be more manageable or enjoyable?

You know, actually I like longer runs.   We’ve been doing these two-week tours, which is really a function of Lou; he’s got two bands and a family, so it only gives us so much time.  I like going out and really getting into “road unit” mode.  After about three weeks on the road you get into a really cool mindset, which I worship.  You never really get into that on these shorter runs, but they are still really fun, you know.

When you are not on tour, you’ve obviously got your recording gig (the “Jakerock Mobile Recording Unit”) – what about production work and being behind the scenes fulfills you?

I’m kind of a geek, so at a certain point during Sebadoh’s recording career we were in studios and I didn’t know what the fuck these engineers were talking about so I figured out that I had to learn the boards a bit just to be able to talk to engineers. It really changed things. At a certain point, it just made sense to help other people out.  So now after 10 years of recording, I have a really compact recording setup that I just take to the bands, because I don’t have a place to record.   We record basics and overdubs in these remote locations and then just bring it back to my studio, which is basically a mixing room.   I have a pretty awesome home studio setup which makes that easy to do.

Have you been able to flex those muscles with Sebadoh as well?  I have to imagine it’s helpful to have someone with that type of knowledge in the band when you enter the studio.

Yeah, it’s always helpful to have someone who knows a bit but also who knows enough to shut-up sometimes (laughs).  You can always learn new things.  There is definitely a language to the technical side of recording, and if you don’t speak it, it can be very challenging to get your record to sound like it does in your head.

I’m sure.  Shifting gears a bit, are there any songs that you find particularly rewarding to revisit and play or that mean something special to you?  “Careful” (off 1994’s “Bakesale”) has gotten me through some pretty dark times, so thank you for putting that out there.

Wow, thank you for that.  What comes to mind immediately is a song from that same record called “Got It”.  It’s always a little bit emotional to sing.  Sometimes we do it really fast and it sounds unemotional, but it brings me back to a certain time in my life every time we play it.  And many of them do, you know.   We have been lucky to be playing some of these songs for twenty years, so sometimes the meaning changes for me much in the same way it probably does for you as a listener.  I keep going back to them and they mean something a little bit different…it’s cool how your perceptions about things continue to evolve.

Oh, sure.  The song means something different when you are an angst-ridden 16 year old than when you are a more-resigned feeling forty-something.   Or, in some cases, it just DOESN’T connect anymore.

Yeah, or it reminds you of that certain time and you can pit where you are at now against that, which is also kind of useful.  Taking a sort of emotional stock based on your own timeline. 

You’re a pretty busy guy in general and I am sure that Sebadoh keeps you busy – do you have any plans to do more solo work?  Will there be a follow-up to (2002 solo album) “At Sixes and Sevens”?

I have a lot of time coming up in these summer months because Lou is really busy with Dinosaur (Jr.) stuff, so I am going to hunker down and try to make that follow-up sometime between now and August.  I’m starting to get some momentum – I have a lot of songs kicking around and now I just have to divide them up.  I think Sebadoh is going to record come the fall, so I have to write a bunch of tunes (laughter). 

You have your homework to do (laughs).  How do you determine what goes to Sebadoh and what stays a “Jake” song?

It hasn’t been much of a sorting process so far, because if I have a bunch of stuff kicking around I just pick what’s the best (laughs).  A couple of the tunes that ended up on the last Sebadoh record (2013’s “Defend Yourself”) have been around so long that I played them with Bob in the solo band 10 years ago.  Many of them are much newer, but I always feel like, “Well, I better put my best foot forward, whatever that is!” 

So what’s next?

Sebadoh’s the primary focus at the moment.  After this tour we have a lot of time off where Lou will be busy, so I can hopefully get something out for the fall. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

FIRST IMPRESSION: Insect Ark - Portal/Well

Dana Schechter – the one-woman, multi-instrumental whirlwind behind the Insect Ark moniker – makes music ready-built for rumination.  “Portal/Well”, Schechter’s full-length debut is a beautiful, droning mass of sound. Having served time as bassist in M. Gira’s Angels of Light, the easy logline in would be to describe her as a “one-woman Swans”, and there are certainly some similarities.  Quiet passages thrum and build to walls of Swans-like noise, and the percussion is plodding, hypnotic and cymbal-heavy like Gira’s best work.  What sets this apart, however, is Schecter’s masterful lap steel.  Wielding the sounds it makes like a weapon, her fluid lines buzz and sweep, creating a swelling counterpoint to the claustrophobic arrangements.

Other than the brief punctuation of two 90-second long interludes, the album is filled with long, brooding “songs” that highlight Schecter’s compositional prowess.  Songs stretch and contract (a trick one is wont to assume she picked up under Gira’s tutelage) and evolve from rumbles in the darkness to full-on wails of terror, sometimes slowly and often not. The titular opening track is likely the most user-friendly way in, and that ain’t saying a lot…unfolding over 7 minutes, it’s a harrowing and beautiful summation of everything that Schechter is capable of.  Contrasted to that is the serenity of album-closer, “Low Moon”, all sustained orchestration and buzzing strings punctuated by a couple of simple electronic bells. It’s kind of breathtaking. Give yourself over to Insect Ark’s doom-laden explorations and you will come out the other side a believer.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

FIRST IMPRESSION: Duke Garwood - Heavy Love

Duke Garwood has a pretty cool CV: he played guitar on UK electronica godfathers the Orb’s debut album, has provided woodwinds to folks as disparate as the Archie Bronson Project and Savages, and even worked with famed artist Shezad Dawood on a continuation of the “Dream Machine” project that the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones started and subsequently abandoned in 1968.  Garwood is probably best known on these shores, however, for “Black Pudding”, a 2013 album he made in conjunction with Mark Lanegan (himself no stranger to left-field collaborations!).  That album pitted Lanegan’s whisky growl against Garwood’s more honeyed rasp to great effect, and it’s this record that “Heavy Love” uses as a jumping off point.

It’s easy (and reductive), to compare Garwood with Lanegan – both favor slow burn atmospherics over straight up “rocking” and share a certain low rumble in their register – but where Lanegan breathes the blues, Garwood has more of a soul man’s cadence.  Most songs find him wrapping his voice around spindly finger-picked guitar lines, delivering mantras like “make me strong, make me strong, snake honey from your tongue” like a man possessed.   Album standout, “Disco Lights”, finds him dueting with Savages’ Jehnny Beth to stunning affect – guitar lines tangling together and heading skyward, while centerpiece "Sweet Wine” could be mistaken for a lost Richard Buckner song.  “Heavy Love” is full of such delicately and finely rendered moments.  It’s an album that could only be made by someone with a musical pedigree this developed, and a nice second step for anyone who came aboard looking for the next Lanegan.