Home tapes, lo-fi, cassette clubs, found sound recordings… in a way, you can trace it all back to Eric Gaffney, who with Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein founded Sebadoh in the late 1980s. Just a kid at the time, Gaffney started by putting drums under Barlow’s four-tracked Weed Forestin’ in 1987. The two collaborated on The Freedman Man in 1988, the cassette that caught Gerard Cosloy’s attention and landed Sebadoh on Homestead Records. Gaffney’s roommate Jason Lowenstein joined the band a year later as drummer and Gaffney began concentrating on songwriting. His style was markedly different from Barlow’s, a fractured, noise-inflected ballast for his partner’s pop instincts. Yet after III, and just before most people ever heard of the band, Gaffney left Sebadoh. The band went on to make videos and ride to venues in tour busses, while Gaffney continued to make slanted, oddly affecting pop songs, as full of hiss and crackle and found sounds as they were of personal, deeply eccentric craft.
Since then, he’s written and recorded steadily, sometimes solo (as with 1999’s Brilliant Concert Numbers) but mostly under the name Fields of Gaffney. The most recent iteration of Fields of Gaffney included Richard Marshall (from Alice Donut) on drums and Jessica Cowley (of the Run for Cover Lovers) on bass, as well as Gaffney, singing and playing guitar. Although this band recently broke up, the recorded output is well worth checking out, both 2003’s wonderful Nature Walk and last year’s cracked but inviting Cosmic Chicken and Egg.
What with this year’s massive Dinosaur reunion and the truncated Lou-and-Jason-only Sebadoh shows of two years ago, it seemed like the world had forgotten about Sebadoh’s most eccentric and interesting founder. It was time, maybe past time, I thought, to reconsider this often overlooked home-taping pioneer’s history and career. Graciously Gaffney agreed to talk to me via email about his current album, his more-or-less unintentional commitment to lo-fi recording and self-released albums, his history with Sebadoh, and his plans for going forward. Here’s what he said:
So which did come first, the Cosmic Chicken or the Cosmic Egg? (And what does the title mean to you?)
It’s just another one of my titles… in the tradition or style similar to Bubble & Scrape, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, Sebadoh Vs. Helmet, Brilliant Concert Numbers, Lights Up & Spins Around, and so forth. I found the CD art in an Oakland library free pile, amongst some sheet music and stuff… all my flyer and art stuff was in storage so I used what I found that one day including the title. Anyway, I have no idea which came first, so for the record, let’s say they came at the same time?
This record is super lo-fi… Want to talk about how you recorded it?
I guess it is super lo-fi, per my tradition, but not intentionally lo-fi. I recorded us live to two tracks with two left for overdubs on my Tascam four-track with a few mics in our old basement practice space in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. It’s the format we had and could afford and the way I often have recorded for the past 20 years, and to keep my tradition of lo-fi wizardry going. I started using tape recorders 30 years ago, began recording my own songs on cassette in 1981, and learned to bounce/do overdubs using two tape recorders. So, this is something I’ve been doing for a long time and studios are expensive. We didn’t have the Roland digital recorder that we used on Nature Walk, and we didn’t have use of Pro Tools or what have you. Only the trusty 4-track.
Do you record that way because you like the sound? If so, what do you like about it?
There are things I like and don’t like about cassette sound. It’s analog for a start, but has its limitations. I often like the sound of four-track cassette stuff, depending on many variables in each basic track sound and overdub and whatnot, not to mention tape saturation and low or high end, cassette-style. Maxell doesn’t make the high quality XLII-S cassette tapes anymore and those are what I used for years. I find that each type of cassette can often have a different “feel” to it. I prefer tapes that don’t unravel easily, those are the cheap ones. Anyway, if we had a label and/or money for actual analog studio time, the results would’ve been clearly different. In fact, I regret that Fields of Gaffney didn’t get the opportunity to record in the studio. It would’ve been something.
You do pretty much everything yourself, don’t you—not just writing and recording but putting out records and selling them online. Is that a philosophical thing or is it just easier to get stuff done that way?
Yeah, I am a DIY enthusiast at heart. That much is true. It’s a bitch sometimes though, being entirely self-managed, booking my own shows and the Fields of Gaffney tours we did, making the CDs and covers, flyers, mail-order, contacting radio stations and zines. In other words, everything. It’s time consuming but something I enjoy doing and fits the level I’m at presently. By virtue of handling all aspects of my music and business, I’m personally be in touch with the fans, listeners, zines, college radio music directors, and labels. I figured having a website would help, so I’ve had a free site up (http://www.angelfire.com/indie/ericgaffney) since 2002, and very recently activated a MySpace site.
You obviously give up some visibility when you do everything yourself and don’t have a label promoting you. Is that a trade you’re willing to make, and what do you get in exchange?
I haven’t been on a proper label in a really long time, 12 years and going excluding that singles club thing for Sub Pop, the CD for Old Gold, a split-single on Morc in Holland, and the Jandek tribute on Summersteps. In the past, with Sebadoh, we would each get about 4%, more or less, each on a record deal which isn’t so great if you stop to think about it. From my experience, a great many record labels, major and indies both, but not all, are dishonest which should come as no surprise as the record industry is among the sleaziest there is. I don’t want my music controlled or owned by lawyers or creepy record company executive types. The records Sebadoh did for Sub Pop are partly owned by Warner Brothers, which I’m reminded of when I get the statements. I will refrain from addressing any particular issues I’ve had with certain labels, as it’s a headache and would take up far too much space here, but I’ll just say that I’ve learned a few things about the lack of integrity of certain respected labels. Fudging sales figures comes to mind. Regardless of having said that and knowing full well the risks, I might sign with a label at any point. If a reasonably cool and respected indie or major label were to get in touch with me, or vice versa, I am open to the idea considering the many advantages. It just hasn’t happened in awhile so I’m doing what I do to get my music out on a smaller scale and keep afloat.
Tell me about your band—it’s basically the same people as on Nature Walk, isn’t it? Jessica and Richard? I know Richard was in Alice Donut. What’s Jessica’s background?
Oh yeah, it was the same band and era as the Nature Walk CD. That was us in 2002-2003. Richard played guitar in Alice Donut in the ‘90s, and now plays in the Turks, and Heavy Hindenberg, a Led Zeppelin tribute band, which is actually the band Carlos wearing wigs. Jessica played drums in Oakland’s Run For Cover Lovers and is now focusing on Oaklands’ Pillows, a duo in which she plays bass, guitar, drums, sings and writes songs. Anyhow, Fields of is now over and I’m sad about it. Three songwriters + singers + guitar + bass players + drummers were in that little trio, so that was tricky and I guess I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. It was a lot like Sebadoh in that way. Richard and Jessica are both amazing musicians, sang along here and there, brought life to my songs, but they ultimately were happier in their other bands/projects which I fully understand, aside from which we didn’t make any money, just broke even. At least we toured a few times in that period; Brooklyn, SXSW tour, two mini Northwest tours, played shows in San Francisco, including Noise Pop. We could’ve done a lot more recording and touring but it lost momentum somehow and died a premature death.
Is there a concept to Fields of Gaffney ... like you decided you were going for some specific kind of sound or experience or is it just a vehicle for whatever you write?
Definitely no concept whatsoever, nor specific sound as far as I know… I think as a band, we had a specific sound together though which I liked very much. The name Fields of Gaffney? Some people don’t like the name at all it seems, others like it. I have used it since 1998 for the title of the second cassette I made that year. All this time later, I haven’t come up with the new permanent name yet, whatever that may be. And yes, the band was primarily a vehicle for my songs and sound, I suppose.
Do you use alternate tunings—your guitar sounds sort of eastern and psychedelic on some of the songs? How do you do that?
Why thank you. On both of our CDs, it’s standard tuning, and 1/2 step down (D# and so forth) tuning and then open D tuning on my red ‘73 Gibson L6-S with nice pickups, so that’s the full pretty open tuning there. The Mu-Tron phasor II and MXR flanger are in there too. I started using open and atonal tunings early on without realizing it because I wasn’t formally trained, learned rhythm before tuning, etc. and eventually created my own very open tuning that I could use, on a Greyhound bus ride almost 20 years ago. That’s the tuning I used on early Sebadoh recordings and the early live shows.
I really like “Losers of the Living Room”—were you involved in some sort of difficult roomate situation when you wrote that one?
You don’t even want to know, or maybe you do? It was the worst living situation I have ever been in and there have been a few. I lived in similiar living arrangements some 20 years ago when I was younger and rents were cheaper everywhere. It had been a long time since I had experienced living with such losers and freaks, and never on this magnitude. There was an angry crackhead, rumored to have handguns in his room, who placed hairs in various spots in the shower and bathroom, banged on doors at five in the morning for crack money. It was a scary, awful, disgusting, and entirely dysfunctional household. Then another guy also became a crackhead or junkie as well, walked away with rent money and split… it was a nightmare. I won’t get further into specifics. I had a great room with wood floors, big windows, two closets, for $360 a month, painted the room too, tried to make it nice but the rest of the place was a dump. San Francisco can be really tough as far as housing and living situations and is considered just about the most expensive place to live in the US rent-wise. In consequence, there are a lot of overcrowded shared flats/apartments.
Didn’t you record “Wanna Be With You” before? Was there something you didn’t quite get the first time or do you just really like the song?
It was recorded around the same time as the previously released version. Nothing too special about it, just an alternate take, I suppose. I’m always rehashing stuff or re-learning and re-recording songs but it isn’t always the matter of course.
That “Precious” cover is so good, so different from the original. How’d you pick it? What appealed to you about the original and what did you want to do to make it yours?
I always liked Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders… especially the first album because it sounds good. My dad even liked that first record. Anyway, I like the song and Jessica’s vocals and Richard played maracas, kick and snare only on it. We closed our shows with “Precious” a few times.
What’s your favorite song on Cosmic Chicken (or one of your favorites) and why?
“All Alone Again”, because it’s in standard (E) tuning which I rarely use. I also like the new versions of “Crisis” and “The Other Day”, both of which featured Jessica and I singing together.
You’ve been home-recording for a long time… has the change in technology made it easier or changed the process in any way?
No, it hasn’t made it easier for me personally because I don’t have my own computer at present, nor Pro Tools or anything else. I have resisted the whole digital recording thing until recently, based upon a studio experience in which Pro Tools was used and it ruined a record I was trying to make. I have done some Pro Tools recording stuff this year, which is a first for me. I didn’t like anything digital for the longest time because it’s samples of the sound and can sound somewhat sterile as a result but not always. The one thing that has changed is that I no longer make and sell cassette tapes, which I did for fifteen years, from the early 1980s to late 1990s. Of course, I make CD-Rs of my own stuff now, which wasn’t as easy or as possible ten years ago so certain things have become easier in that respect.
I recently saw Brilliant Concert Numbers down in the local record store, and it had a hand-written note on it that said, “Whoa, this dude was an original member of Sebadoh.” Does that follow you around wherever you go? Do you mind?
I don’t mind at all. Some years ago when I left the band I kind of wanted a break from the hype and fame and whatnot surrounding my old band. I readily acknowledge my past involvement these days. After all, I started that band in the first place. We’re re-issuing III on Domino Records in a few months so we’ve all been back in touch with each other to work on this reissue, which has taken well over a year to put together. It is supposed to be released March 2006. It’s now 100 minutes, on two CDs and has bonus tracks that we added.
How did you get involved in Sebadoh?
That’s a long story… I’d been playing drums and some guitar at home since around 1980 and always starting bands for fun and recording, learning to play, writing lyrics, and home recording since 1981 or earlier. I met Lou in 1983 at local hardcore shows. We were both in bands. I knew Dinosaur… they practiced in Northampton when I was a senior in high school, and I used to stop by frequently and went to their early local shows and even auditioned on drums at one point when Murph split to Cape Cod before their first tour with Sonic Youth in 1985. Lou bought my Gracefully Aging Hippy Soloists with Fountains Turned Backwards tape in 1986 and we then exchanged tapes, and I booked shows for Sentridoh, Lou with ukelele, and me on percussion in early 1987. I brought the Weed Forestin tape to give away as a bonus with the second Dinosaur LP at Main Street Records. We collaborated on The Freed Man, the first tape together the next summer. I made the tape cover, duped a bunch one-by-one, and sold it for $1 in a box with Dr. Seuss art at Main Street Records in Northampton. We sent a few around… Lou sent one to Sonic Youth. I mailed one to Thalia Zadek with a spider in it… Gerard Cosloy reviewed it for Conflict, after which we singed to Homestead for three records in early 1989. We did a few split-singles, then The Freed Man LP and everything else. Jason was living at my house and in the band a few months before The Freed Man was released.
We met Jason sometime after he called us up on the phone during one of my college radio shows; I had just played a cassette of a local band called Dissident Voices, which turned out to be Jason’s band. I said something over the air about the sound quality so Jason called in and I spoke with him for the first time, then handed the phone to Lou. The actual story of “How the band came to be” is pretty cool. A full year before we all got together at my space, I had been playing drums for a band and had a show at a Smith College dorm. I brought Lou along. Jason was playing his 1967 multi-colored Ludwig drum set barefoot, with Dissident Voices. The singer of the un-named stupid band I was drumming for was hiding in the basement because he wasn’t allowed on campus. After their set, I polled the girls in attendance and asked if they wanted to hear a band, (which was Lou, Jason, and myself) or the DJ? They voted for the DJ! That’s the true story of how Sebadoh, the band, originally began. It just took awhile to get us all together and comfortable which was my responsibility. I started the band at my house, Summer ‘89 and booked almost all of our first shows until 1990 when Lou moved to Boston, started getting shows for us in Boston and New York and sort of took over as band leader in some respect.
You were a drummer first… do you ever still play drums? Did you learn anything from playing drums that has influenced the way you write songs or play guitar?
Yeah, I’ve been playing drums more than 25 years, since the late ‘70s, and I still do, unfortunately only a few times a month usually. I have a practice space I can take the bus to and play but it’s a drag getting there and back. I use ear protection I might add. Yes, playing drums or any instrument can be helpful and inspirational, with understanding other instruments, music, writing songs, playing guitar.
You left Sebadoh just before they hit it big. Do you have any regrets about that?
Yes and no. I kind of thought we were big when I left ... but yes, they went off in tour buses, made expensive videos, and sold many more CDs for the next few years. I watched them on the Conan O’Brien show a year after I quit. Sebadoh was something I was very involved with and a huge part of, from Jan. 1987 to fall 1993, so that was more than seven years, which is a good stretch. After I left, I spent a few grand and acquired my first own Tascam 4-track, mic, and a bunch of new guitars and stuff and stared working on new songs, acoustic and electric. I had plans to be solo for awhile and figured I would end up on a label… it fell through with Sub Pop because I made changes to the contract they offered me, which was only a few weeks before Cobain died and things changed after that, I guess.
How did you feel about that “boombox” reunion tour a couple of years ago? Was that, in any sense, Sebadoh?
I was still involved with Fields of Gaffney at that time. We went on our last little tour in May 2004, between when Lou and Jason went out in the rental car on their US dates. This was shortly after Lou got back in touch with me regarding us doing reissues of now out-of-print stuff we did, which we’ve only started at this point.
You’ve done some shows with Jason, haven’t you? How is that, picking up again after all that time?
Easy because we were old friends and band mates. After all, we lived together at my house and partied a lot together on the road. Jason is a very talented and very fun person, so picking up after 10 years wasn’t weird at all. We played two duo shows in New York a year ago and four shows in 48 hours in Brooklyn and Manhattan (with Jessica on bass) last April… and those were amazing, really fun shows. We’re talking about doing more duo shows in Brooklyn and NYC again at some point, maybe this year.
You’re the one who did all the weird stuff on the early Sebadoh records, the tape manipulations and sound effects and stuff. Are you still interested in that? What do you find interesting about it?
I did a lot of the weird “found sound” stuff, I guess. I still like the sound collage I did for Bubble & Scrape, with a cheap organ, marching drums, human snoring and, whatever else. Earlier on, for The Freed Man tape, Lou and I both added all sorts of sounds: walking through K-Mart… tapes slowed down, sped-up, snippets from TV, movies, whatever… sure, it’s fun and interesting and annoying all at the same time. I suppose I have avant-garde influences, and appreciation for sound collages, even if just for having listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9” as a youngster, and a lot more avant garde, experimental stuff also. Anyway, I always like getting street sounds, cars, birds, various noises, whatever… on tape, whereas that’s something that is typically avoided in “proper” recording. But it’s not as if I sit around making tape collages in my spare time but have in years past.
Are you writing new songs now? Is there anything new you’re working on—like an approach or style or project or anything—that you want to talk about?
Yes, I do write lyrics and songs, when inspired. Sometimes often, sometimes rarely, but I’m just doing the same old thing as ever as far as approach and style I suppose but I have refined my sound over the years or so I think. I record something new once in a while or when I can, and book whatever shows I can get, solo at present. I flew to New York twice last year to play shows, once to L.A., and have been getting a few shows in San Francisco again which hasn’t been easy in comparison to anywhere else it seems. Also, I have another possible solo album in the works, comprised of five years worth of recordings I’ve done sorta where the last one [Brilliant Concert Numbers] left off, which was when I moved from Massachusetts to California. Maybe I’ll get it on a label this time around, not sure. Also, I’m starting to get to the point where I’ll sell a bunch of my recordings online which is a whole other thing altogether. So I now have some new, otherwise un-released recordings up on Insound as of very recently. Updates on my web site. Ok, signing off.