this record was intended to be a mess, a stinking garden of delights… we expected a listener to be as open-minded as we believed ourselves to be… true hardcore…
— Lou Barlow, 2007 (from the liner notes)
“I think everybody should have their own band, and they should get this one big show where everybody in the world plays.”
“Yeah, that’d be wicked.”
“That’d be the best.”
“Everybody in the United States, a whole bunch of hardcore bands, joined together, and we’ll have Woodstock.
“Where, you gonna finance it?”
“Yeah, I’d help.”
— Unidentified conversation, “Julienne”
As I write these words I live about ten minutes’ drive from where this album was originally recorded, about 20 years ago and in an entirely different world. Eric Gaffney and Lou Barlow were Western Massachusetts boys, having spent the majority of the 1980s drifting around the local hardcore scene, doing time in various small and medium sized bands before coming together in 1986 as Sentridoh. Barlow subsequently rose to medium-grade obscurity during his stint with college-rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr — remember when “alternative” was “college”? — before being kicked out at the beginning of 1989. Thankfully, Barlow and Gaffney had signed a contract with Gerard Cosley and Homestead records as Sebadoh just a week or so before Dinosaur Jr pulled the rug out. Gaffney had at the time been working at a Cumberland Farms gas station.
Gaffney and Barlow were living with their girlfriends on the Smith College campus, in the Friedman dormitory (hence the title). (Smith was then and still is now an all-girls’ school, so they kept a low profile.) There were rumors that their housemates were Satanists, which prompted another resident to vacate, leaving an empty room for Gaffney and Barlow to record the four-track master tapes that would become The Freed Man, released in September of 1989. Just a few months later, following Cosley’s lead, they were already trying to get out of their ill-conceived contract with Homestead. After the The Freed Man and Freed Weed and Weed Forestin’ albums (ingenious repackagings of the same material across different formats to get out of their record contract — a rock and roll tradition!), Sebadoh found Jason Loewenstein and convened to record their last Homestead album. III followed in short order, and the first of many tumultuous, traumatic line-up changes ensued soon after that — essentially, business as usual for one of the post-hardcore indie lo-fi scenes’ founding institutions.
I think that a knowledge of the geography of Western Massachusetts — particularly the Pioneer Valely where Sebadoh was born and incubated on these tapes — is necessary to really understand the appeal. New England is Lovecraft country, home to some of the oldest European settlements in America and heaving under the weight of history, filled with lush verdant greenery and decaying masonry from generations of cyclopean red brick factory buildings abandoned by receded industry. These earliest Sebadoh recordings carry a similar quality — decayed, decaying, pleasingly hand-made, but inestimably fragile.
There really isn’t any better distillation of the “lo-fi” ethos than what can be found on these tapes: this is a moment in history, between when four- and eight-track tape machines were made cheap and plentiful enough for home recording to become a serious craft and the advent of cheap computing and the subsequent democratization of hi-fi recording techniques. These tracks make III sounds like Journey. They may not have been “hardcore” in the sense of playing fast and hard, but they were definitely DIY to the core.
To a degree the songs themselves are almost beside the point, and certainly those looking for the eventual blossoming of Barlow and Gaffney’s songwriting skills will have to look further, to III. Most of the material on The Freed Man barely rises above the level of sketch. Certainly, there are highlights: I’m fond of the slacker-Beach Boys harmonics on “Julienne” (sort of an antecedent to Panda Bear’s warped mingling of the lo-fi and electronic traditions) and “Crumbs” is moody and splintered in just the right proportions. “Cindy” barely makes it past the one-minute mark, but there’s a depth and density that belies the origins.
The constant use of looped samples and found audio adds a surprising bit of color to what would otherwise be extremely grayscale recordings. But that, I think, points to the common thread that makes these recordings so interesting, if not exactly essential: this is the sound of learning to make more with less, making a fetish of trashy aesthetics and turning warped sound into it’s own reward. Whether by turning the hiss of a crackling cassette into a moody mid-range, or using clipped dialogue taken from the radio to add psychedelic heft, there are a lot of ideas here that sound daft but are rewarding in execution. Kind of like Sebadoh themselves.