Hutch Harris on Reveling in the Void with Sebadoh
Most people I know have been living with a low-to-moderate level of depression for the past few years — some in the wake of the elections, others long-suffering. And as we watch our country go from a crawl toward fascism into something that resembles more of a brisk jog, our desperation has kept up at a steady clip.
Still, my friends and I have something else in common: we all are real lovers of music, and music has always been there for us in times of great need. Case in point: Sebadoh is out with their ninth studio album, Act Surprised, this Friday (May 24).
Many of my favorite bands are often described as “depressed,” but deeper listening leads to a more profound understanding of the way these groups cope with their own sadness, thus helping us get over our own woes. Sebadoh tear through their own anguish with a sound and fury signifying everything that scares and saddens us.
Although their lyrics are usually moribund, the accompanying music is often scrappy and ebullient. The band is the musical equivalent of Sour Patch Kids: shockingly bitter on the surface, with a sweet second layer. They are bold, fun — yes, fun — and constantly give the listener something to chew on. As we all cope with our collective depression, we are lucky to have first new LP from the band in six years.
The production on Act Surprised is scratchy yet crisp, reminiscent of the band’s own halcyon grunge days on Sub Pop in the mid ‘90s. I spoke with multi-instrumentalist Jason Loewenstein in advance of the album’s release, and asked him if the band employed any new techniques in crafting what is their best and most exciting effort in years.
“I think there was a conscious effort to be more ‘band-like’ in terms of energy and collaboration/communication,” he told me. “There was a lot more experimentation and tweaking subtleties of the actual performance behind the scenes than is usual for us.”
The energy and experimentation Loewenstein speaks of are on full display on this new LP, but the record is anything but subtle. Act Surprised begins not with a dismal whimper but with a raging bang: “Phantom” kicks off the record with all the fuzz and ferocity we have come to expect from Sebadoh. I am immediately reminded of Bakesale, their classic 1994 LP. Sebadoh’s trademark blend of dirt-pop and garage-metal is back and intact — or as intact as it can be as it gets kicked down a long flight of stairs. The instruments tumble down the steps and out of the speakers as if Sebadoh is smashing their entire ‘90s catalog with the faith that the pieces will reassemble into something coherent.
There is definitely a coherence to be found here, even though it is shrouded in instability: The band sounds strong and confident, but there’s more than a whiff of modern paranoia in the dusty air. The opening lyric simply asks, “What’s that noise?” but soon leads to “You’ve never been so scared/You know there’s nobody there/If you’re all alone/Where could it be coming from?” A benign question leads to a startling answer: We are unsafe. With so many known dangers in the world today, it’s still important to remember there are many unseen monsters out there as well.
The song ends on an even scarier note: “Out of the dark/Your mind is on a mission/Making shit up/Creating phantoms.” Our fears can now be divided into three categories: what we know, what we don’t know and what we construct.
The album quickly gives way to the cold comfort of base despair with the second track, “Celebrate the Void.” The guitars shine brightly, the drums thud oppressively and the words wallow unimpeded: “You never let me near your light/You’re gonna need it if I leave.” But the song does just what the title promises. We are here to praise and party in honor of the eternal darkness toward which we stumble each day. We have traipsed through the muck for so long now that we aren’t just good at it — hell, we enjoy it.
“Free from feelings I don’t feel/Feel to say the void is real/No one wrong and free to be/Demonstrate the space we need.” The void is not some amorphous behemoth lurking in the distance, something to dread and cower from. The void is our guide and protector. It serves us as it awaits us. It loves us and will deliver us from this dream one day. It owns us as we own it.
The celebration and simultaneous destruction of fear continues on “Follow the Breath.” “It’s so slow/But peaceful you know/The darkness that glows.” Loewenstein’s guitar and Lou Barlow’s bass strike in unison like sharpened sonic swords in the black night sky. (I am reminded of Bakesale’s angrily triumphant “Careful.”) Led by the clobbering drums of Bob D’Amico, Sebadoh marches aggressively into a darkness they know and love, a fate they no longer fear: “Follow the breath on down/And rise back up with pure intention.”
Sebadoh sounds not only older but wiser and more courageous on their new LP. When I asked Loewenstein if growing older has affected his creative processes, he replied, “The wisdom of old age is a chariot if you can trust your instincts.” Cryptic, but I think I get it. The members of Sebadoh have been making records long enough to know what they want, and how to achieve it. Truly the masters of their own collective destiny, the band is heading into an unknown future on a powerful chariot built of middle-age angst with the grit and gusto of men half their age.
Sebadoh is a grunge band at its core, so no one should act surprised when I say that Act Surprised is a grunge record. In the first half of the album alone I am reminded not just of Nirvana but of Pearl Jam and even Alice in Chains. The song “Vacation” proves this perhaps better than any other track on the record. The band stomps in the dirt, pounding the ground like an ageless being: an angry child, drug-fueled adolescent and enraged old man all at once. The lyrical imagery is full of wet, dirty death: “Irrigate the frustration/Something that’s cold/Knock the dust right off you/Leave me alone.”
There are three main beats in a grunge song — 1) I’m angry and sad 2) I’m high as fuck 3) I’m dead — and “Vacation” hits them all: “By the time you find your vibration/Deep in your bones/Be time to go home.” Angry, high and if not yet dead, Sebadoh are certainly on their way, at least metaphorically.
A few truths are to be found in the title track of the LP, and within the short chat I had with Loewenstein, he shone a light on them for me. “Ignorance really is bliss I see,” he sings in “Act Surprised,” and, “I am a very anxious person with depressive tendencies,” he tells me via email. “I almost never watch the news, and I try to keep in mind that everything except love is complete bullshit.”
It is here that Sebadoh’s true quest is revealed: although the band dives headfirst into the void, the celebration of said void is not an end in itself. Sebadoh seeks to conquer emptiness by finding love — and hopefully happiness — in facing and destroying heartache and hatred.
Sadness and anxiety are timeless symptoms of simply living, regardless of who is running the world. And even if we do our best to avoid the non-stop drip of digital information, most of us still are wired in with our tiny computers we never seem to be without. In “Battery,” Loewenstein reckons with our constant companion who is the source of our affliction and addiction: “You’re just too fucked up to ever focus/All of that buzzing in your pocket/How would I know there’s no one home?”
Act Surprised, and the band itself, is anything but delusional. Harsh realities are confronted head on, even if they are at times disguised. In the same way that “Vacation” is no holiday, there is little sunshine to be found in “Sunshine.” The drums bruise the ears as gathering storm clouds darken the sky, stringed notes dropping like tender water droplets, then heavy stones of hail. “I need sunshine to ignore,” Barlow sings, “Need a room with heavy curtains/Double lock up on the door.” In Sebadoh’s world, even if there is warm light to be seen and felt, it is unwanted.
It’s safe to say the record doesn’t get any cheerier as it careens through its 15 tracks, each song shivering over a new jagged cliff of frightful apprehension. My final question to Jason was if he felt any hope for the country, the world, or himself. He had a few solutions: “If we can bring empathy and compassion into fashion everything would take care of itself. Until then, I will be getting stoned and listening to Van Halen.” An answer far more positive — and humorous — than I had expected from a member of my generation’s gloomiest rock band.
Act Surprised ends on somewhat of a high note, or at least as high of an emotional note as the band is able to conjure. “Reykjavik” is both beautiful and ugly, soft and hardened, wearily intelligent and endlessly distressed. These are all of the qualities Sebadoh always has and always will contain.
“Live the way you want/Do anything you want/And when they say you do/You don’t have to.” Barlow’s lyrics could be Sebadoh’s true motto: keep living, or start dying. Over the years Sebadoh has consistently been a mouthpiece of and medicine for depression. But if there’s one thing surprising on their new LP, it is that there is a glint of hope, or the idea that hope is a choice. If you can choose to keep living, you can choose to hope for a better future.
Lately, I am finding myself in a hopeful mood. I have accepted my own level of depression with the knowledge that it is treatable. Knowing there are artists whom I cherish and respect and whose music keeps me going feels like more than a blessing. Hearing the words and absorbing the sounds of Sebadoh isn’t merely a temporary remedy for any sadness I feel, it is necessary sustenance that keeps me not just entertained or distracted, but alive and full of love.
There are days I need sunshine to ignore, and there are nights I need to remain blissfully ignorant of the world’s horrors. It is in these days that I know Sebadoh will always be there for me. Staring into the darkness has often helped me to embrace the light; and every time I emerge from the void with a heart more full of love, I never act surprised.
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