A founding member of ’90s lo-fi indie rock pioneers, Sebadoh, Eric Gaffney’s unique songwriting has helped shape not only his former band, but independent music as a whole.
Since his departure from Sebadoh in late 1993, he has pursued a number of projects including Fields of Gaffney, and a slew of bandcamp pages that house everything from newer recordings to demos and outtakes from the Sebadoh days. His latest solo project has taken on the simple moniker “Jesus Christ”.
The best part is that it’s all pretty damn brilliant. Even without any sort of record label representation to speak of at the moment, Eric hasn’t stopped producing amazing home recordings. His online catalog is truly massive and growing more and more each day.
We were lucky enough to catch up with him via an email interview and talk about his recording process, the 2007 Sebadoh reunion, being vegan, and most importantly his music.
You still record onto a 4-track cassette recorder, has that setup changed at all over the years or has it remained pretty much the same even with digital recording becoming more sophisticated?
Well… I started recording on basic tape recorders in the 70’s. I got on the Radio Shack mailing list, built a handheld metal detector from a kit… and got my first tape recorder early 1976. Fast forward to ten years later; Started learning 4-track recording Christmas, 1986, a Tascam Porta One with one SM57 mic. I started out recording guitar and then overdubbing drums until i figured out works best the other way around.
However, I didn’t actually buy my own 4-track until 1994, a Tascam Porta Two, and had to pay to get it fixed back in ’99, and shipped it back across country since. got a bunch of use from it but it finally started breaking down which involves opening up the entire thing to release the cassette. (i recorded ‘Go Vegan’ a year ago this month and had to open the thing up with a screwdriver, and then duct tape the cassette back together to add vocals and mix it quick before it broke again, which it did.
So, at this point i’ve used it only once in three years, it’s been pretty much broken since i did a ton of 4-tracking 2009-2010. I’ve recorded on pro tools a few times (puzzle piece, leave me alone, goodbye true love, gone wrong, de-escalation) in San Francisco, and also sequenced the Sebadoh reissues using Pro Tools. I don’t own or have a computer or any digital recording device.
Seeing as though you record straight to tape and that the cassette format is making quite a comeback lately, have you considered releasing your albums on cassette?
Yes and No… i’m trying to make a meager living from music still.. and so putting out tapes on cassette-only labels isn’t a priority, might happen though. I always liked cassettes so it would make sense to do a tape release, although if i had to pick, would do vinyl releases over Cd and/or cassette. High Quality cassette tapes have pretty much disappeared… at this point i’m still harvesting my cassette mixes to CD and continuing to release records digitally, that were recorded on 1/8″ cassette tape and mixed to cassette.
I really admire how prolific you are when it comes to writing and recording, how do you stay motivated and keep up the pace at which you work?
Thanks… i was recording well before i was writing songs (except for stories i typed back in the 1970’s) and before i could tune a guitar. I write songs infrequently, i wrote and recorded a lot in 2009 to 2010, and before that, a lot in 2001 to 2006. I can go years without writing a song but not years without playing out for the fun of it. I did a lot of recording from say 1986 to 1989, but then not as much in the early 90’s. Without a label and deadlines/release dates, etc. i’m not always motivated to write songs… i have enough. It’s that i’ve been revising and releasing a bunch of records on Bandcamp, and now with an outside digital distribution company, which i’ve been working on the past month.
When you were with Sebadoh, I always felt your songs balanced out Lou’s perfectly. His songwriting was often very personal and a bit melancholy at times while your songs always had this unbridled enthusiasm and freeness to them; Was this juxtaposition intentional or did it just work out that way?
Um… i’ve always just played in my own style, own tunings or not tuned, and sing and play however i feel like, so not sure how to answer this question… a lot of what you might hear on early Sebadoh records that i did weren’t songs, they were recordings that i had no idea what to do with (fantastic disaster, telecosmic alchemy, no way out) and had to figure out what i did and what to overdub for guitars and words/vocals.
Your catalog of solo recordings on bandcamp is extensive, what would you say is your favorite album/collection of recordings?
America’s Drug, my most recent record which i wanted to release on a label, which didn’t happen, and now it’s four years since i finished it. I put together at least three collections of cover songs which i had a lot of fun doing… (The World Turned Upside Down, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Invisible Hands) i like most of what i did for those, and also, The Gracefully Aging Hippy Soloists was like 27 years old when i compiled the cassettes to cd a year ago. that was fun to put together.
How did Sebadoh change when Jason Lowenstein joined the band, and how did you’re eventual departure effect the band?
well, it wasn’t a band before then, it was just me and lou as a duo. i woke jason up one morning where he was at… asleep on the floor of some house, hair down to his feet, waited for him to get up, and explained i was bringing him to my house where he could have a room for $75 a month and be in/drum for Sebadoh full time. So, i had a lot to do with bringing him into the band initially. As soon as we had learned a set of my songs (mean distance, stars for eyes, supernatural force, violet execution, holy picture, drifts on thru, limb by limb, nest, made real, loosened screw, elements, etc) in the garage, i started booking local shows and it went from there. My departure? i hadn’t entertained the thought of it being a career. it seemed like a phase instead, late teens through early twenties. i let go of it same as i would any other change… such as relocating or just making a change of some sort for whatever reason.
How do you feel about the reunion of the “classic” Sebadoh lineup back in 2007, was the “magic” still there or did it feel forced?
i’m not sure… it wasn’t as if 14 years hadn’t passed. what i didn’t like is how extraordinarily loud those guys practiced, seemed like there was something wrong there. Ears don’t last forever if you abuse them. But after the first few shows (which were horrid) we started playing well together i thought, with all due consideration, and i liked opening the shows on open tuned acoustic which is how we started in the first place. we played some of the songs that we practiced & played out back in ’89-93 so there was at the least, that nostalgia.
With 3 different bandcamp pages, how do you decide where to put your recordings? Are there thematic differences between each page?
well, in hindsight, i should have just made one page, but at the time, seeing as i had a ton of stuff to sequence to Bandcamp, i made three different sites, one of which was my work/exclusively solo (1988-2010) another one more related to the band (Fields of Gaffney) i had going in San Francisco ten years ago, and the other more rare tracks i did with Sebadoh… as well as The Gracefully Aging Hippy Soloists retrospective.
Do you see yourself working on any other Sebadoh related projects in the future; Compilations, reissues, etc.?
Not at present. I worked for months and months on the three reissues, especially the first two, III and The Freed Man. the only reissue left was Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock.
You’ve expressed interest in being backed by a record label in order to put out physical copies of your solo work, are there any indie labels out there that you think would do your music justice?
I would hope that any of ’em would. It’s nice to have an actual record coming out on a label, with album art, and some sort of promotion, buzz, hype, anticipation, and response/reaction, favorable or otherwise, instead of me just putting the records up digitally on Bandcamp and twiddling my thumbs. I’m looking for a 50/50 deal or something to that effect. i wrote to almost 100 labels the past two years, with not much luck. since i end up doing everything, as a one-person operation, i have to be my own ‘go to’ contact and manager and legal consult, or what have you. All i really want is to properly release some of the records i’ve made.
How has being vegan for a few years now influenced your songwriting and your life in general?
No, it hasn’t influenced my songwriting… it was something that was sorta waiting to happen for me personally for decades, as i was mostly vegetarian since the age of two. (1969) i did eat fish, and cheese (which i was hooked on until two years ago, because it has traces of morphine in it, and casein. (Casomorphins) Quit eating hamburgers twenty years ago, and never ate any other land mammal meats. Anyway, becoming vegan has been good for me personally and i would recommend becoming Vegan to anyone who cares about animal rights, not to mention the environment and one’s own health. We could feed the world if everyone would go vegan, which is enough of a reason. Having said that, it was my own choice and a rather good one, same with having quit drinking distilled spirits (liquor) for good.
What were some of the first records you got into in your younger days? What kind of influence did they have on your songwriting style?
Most likely what my hippy parents were listening to… Sgt Pepper’s, Jazz (Coltrane, Monk, Free Jazz, Billie Holiday, Ella) Blues, (especially Chicago and also Delta blues) Tim Buckley, who we went to see play back in 1969, when he was in Cambridge, folk-rock scene. The Pentangle LP’s which i liked, We got The White Album & Abbey Road when they were new releases.
The first record i ever picked out was Revolver (on Apple) when i was 2 or 3. The Byrds ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ was the first record i memorized lyrics from back in 1970. what else, Bob Dylan… Joni Mitchell. So, as a kid i listened to a lot of 60’s music, as well as Top 40 in the 70’s. (Abba, Wings, Queen) I would buy singles at Bradlees & Caldors or Woolworths back then. Started collecting records in 1977.
The Beatles, early Rolling Stones (1965-68) The Who, The Clash, Those were the bands i collected every record i could find. i got into Punk early on, New Wave. (Blondie, Devo, The Cars, B52’s) Used to watch The Midnight Special or see popular artists on The Muppet Show (Alice Cooper) i went to see the Ramones in 1978 which almost ruined my hearing for life. then the hardcore era which is when i put an actual group together (Grey Matter) and played hall shows. which after 3 months started NOT being a hardcore band and was something else. I was influenced by just about everything that i ever liked listening to.
How often do you record?
At this point, not so much. i’m focusing on releasing records worldwide via a digital distribution deal, and also keeping my eyes open for some sort of record deal or a 1-off, and not recording at present. i’m not on strike, just have been doing this for thirty years and would often rather just sleep, or dream, or drink beer, or write or draw, or go for a walk.
You seem to be a master of lo-fi 4-track albums; do you have any tips on home recording for the young musicians out there?
Yes, search for Maxell XLII-S cassette tapes, which they don’t make any more. I always used headphones to mix with, as far back as 1981, so that’s how i mix, with headphones instead of speakers. Mic placement and all that is important, try different things, record an electric guitar with the volume turned down to 5-7 instead of 10, direct into a 4-track. (instead of mic-ing an amp) Record the drums with one mic placed a few feet back pointing down slightly towards the kick drum instead of overhead or direct. That’s how i’ve been recording drums the entire time, with one mic. It might be good to use three though. Adjust both the volume/input control levels, and the trim, top dial, for the desired sound level. My favorite thing about my 4-track recordings are hearing birds singing or fireworks or trains going by, all the things that are often avoided purposely.
Do you intentionally avoid certain online music services like Spotify and iTunes in favor of Bandcamp or are they just the one that screws you over the least?
Bandcamp takes only 15% so a great deal…. As i mentioned, i’mdoing a worldwide digital distribution project, have ten records upon iTunes, Amazon, E-Music, HMV, and a bunch more to follow. So in the past few weeks, officially releasing my records to a bigger audience. I would have to say that i don’t understand how the music business got to the point where you can have a song streamed or played 10,000 times and only get 21 cents in result. It’s mind boggling. Depends on the company/service i suppose.
With the drums being your first instrument do you still play them live or are you more or less confined to being the singer/guitarist these days?
Well, i’ve had a band in which i play guitar since 1998, so sixteen years as my main on and off gig. I do miss playing drums, especially my kit (made in japan early 70’s oyster shell no name 3-piece kit w. 20″ kick drum) which isn’t set up at present. I had my first drum set in 1973, a red-sparkle muppet style drum set for tykes. Started putting together drum parts (timbales, chinese wood blocks, slingerland snare, zildjian cymbals) back in 1979, but didn’t have a kick pedal until 1983.
I got my first acoustic guitar in 1980 (which i broke the bridge off tuning it too high with heavy strings i guess that were on it) I played drums for various bands in and after high school, and not so much guitar until the Hippy Soloists (1986) i had finally got a playable electric after high school (Royce Les Paul copy) which i played through my 1959 Silvertone Amp. Then bought a 1971 Gibson SG Deluxe which was when my playing took off, in my opinion.
Which album of yours would you recommend for someone that is new to your music?
America’s Drug, (most recent record, a throwback to the songs i was writing songs in typing class for hardcore bands i was in 30 years ago as well as newer songs, and stories i typed out in the mid-70’s set to spoken word/music. Stop Eating Animals, (what i was doing in San Francisco before the Sebadoh reunion tour, the most acoustic record i’ve done for the most part) Uncharted Waters (also representing my time in San Francisco) Sore Foot Weirdy and Face of Man, from same time period as Sebadoh The Freed Man, early 4-track era.
These are up at: http://www.jesuschrist1.
And on the other Bandcamp sites, Eric’s Leftovers (rare & unreleased recordings i did in the Sebadoh days) and the Gracefully Aging Hippy Soloists’ retrospective. I’m still a fan of Nature Walk and Cosmic Chicken & Egg as well. The World Turned Upside Down (a collection of various covers i enjoyed playing)
All of these albums are available via bandcamp and now on iTunes, Amazon, & many other online music services. Keep your fingers crossed for vinyl/cassette releases to be announced in the future (I know I am.)