Jason Loewenstein is probably best known for his part in the seminal ’90s indie rock band Sebadoh. He joined the band as a drummer in the late ’80s but soon took on larger role as a guitarist/bassist/songwriter once founding member Eric Gaffney left the group in 1993. While Lou Barlow remained the primary songwriter, Jason contributed plenty of his own original songs that have gone on to become fan favorites. In the time between Sebadoh reunion tours and the eventual reforming of the band, he played bass alongside The Fiery Furnaces on tour for five years and produced two of their albums.

Sebadoh’s latest album Defend Yourself was released in September of 2013 via Indiana based label Joyful Noise Records and marked the bands first studio album in nearly 15 years. Since it’s release, Jason, Lou, and new drummer Bob D’Amico (The Fiery Furnaces) have set out on an expansive world tour. Midwest Action caught up with Jason at Lincoln Hall in Chicago before they finished their tour with a string of West Coast dates. We talked the past, the present, remaining humble in the rock and roll business, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.

So, Nathan at Joyful Noise told me before this interview that you had deep Midwestern roots, what exactly is your connection to Middle America?

I lived in Kentucky for a really long time, about 10 years. I was like 23, I made a couple hundred bucks in a band, and I was like “I’m out of here” and went straight to Louisville.

You’re originally from Boston right?

West of it, like 100 miles away from Boston. Sort of this farmland, college town that Lou and I grew up in. But yea, I lived in Kentucky for 10 years, so maybe that’s the Midwestern connection. All my Kentucky friends would drive to Chicago all through their teenage years and rock out.

Did you come to Chicago a lot as a teenager?

I did it a few times but I’m not up for the 5 hour drive for the show. It’s crazy. I love music but not that much. Actually, I’ve done plenty of things. Growing up my thing was to go from Massachusetts to New York, which was 4 hours driving in traffic, so I’m full of shit. By the time I was in Louisville I didn’t feel like doing that.

What was it like working with Joyful Noise on your latest record? You guys had released albums through some indie labels in those early days (Homestead, Domino) but eventually made the move to Sub Pop, a much bigger corporate label. How does putting an album out on an indie label compare to the Sub Pop days?

Karl’s label [Joyful Noise] is a very small label compared to that. They’re super hands-on and trying to navigate a world that isn’t by the numbers anymore. When Sub Pop was coming around the formula still existed: Singles, Radio push, blah blah blah. If you’re looking for commercial success… obviously I don’t think he [Karl] aspires to be a big label. He wants to be more of an artsy label, picking stuff that he really cares about. That’s a big difference. The motivation in the first place is much different, Sub Pop was a total capitalist venture and like I said, Joyful Noise is walking on broken up glaciers instead of a well-worn path. So he’s got to figure out how this all works.

There’s also this backlash against digital formats, people really want records again. It’s a huge part of your market and people who like your band. Joyful Noise was way ahead of that because they started as a purely vinyl record label. It’s a different timeline, he got dropped into a whole different war.

Joyful Noise has been great in my experience, both as a music journalist and a music fan. They send me digital downloads of albums to check out and are always super accommodating. Their roster of artists is pretty incredible too.

Like you said, I feel like the tides have changed in the record industry. Being on a major label doesn’t really work for every band these days, people are realizing that independent labels generally put the needs of the artist first while a major label might not.

If you want to navigate below the very top, the abyss is big now. It’s just like the class divide, there’s the 1% and the other 99%.

Right right, there’s the “Jack White level” rock stars, and then everybody else.

There’s a really big drop-off after that.

That’s an interesting topic, I’ve talked with friends that are in bands and most of them are very interested in being in that so-called “abyss” that lies just below the level of “Rock God”. Where you’d have recognition and success but you could walk down the street and have maybe just a few loyal fans pick you out from the crowd. Not everybody wants to be Jack White or Miley Cyrus famous, but somewhere just below that.

I think Sebadoh and a lot of ’90s bands fall into that group. Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, etc. Plenty of people know who Thurston Moore, J. Mascis, and Lou Barlow are but not everybody is going to have heard of them.

Sort of infamous but maybe not a household name.

Exactly, I feel that’s where you guys have landed. In my book, Sebadoh has been and always will be a huge influence on the music I make, what I listen to, and everything I’ve done in the realm of music, but not everybody may have heard of Sebadoh when I bring you up in conversation.

To me, I don’t have anything else to do. Music is what I’ve got. I don’t have any real strong skills otherwise. I mean, I can engineer but that’s also part of the music business. It’s one of those things that I want to keep doing so you have to be honest and have a sustainable relationship with everyone involved. The clubs you play, the labels… You don’t go in and go “You gotta give me the fucking world cuz I’m gonna be…” you know what I mean? Your chances of that working now are so low compared to what they were.

You need to have a realistic idea of sustainability. You’re not going to get rich playing clubs but you can keep playing clubs the rest of your life. You can live on that.

I saw you guys on tour a couple years ago when you had just released the Secret EP, the first new Sebadoh material in years. I picked up a CD of it at the show and I had been listening to it a ton on Bandcamp. Lou had mentioned that  you guys were hoping that the CDs and ticket sales from the tour would go to help fund the new album Defend Yourself, is that how it panned out?

We kicked around the idea of a completely self-released album. We sort of did with the Secret EP, we pressed a bunch of CDs and put it up on bandcamp. Those were basically our options at the time. So we thought, “Ok, now we’re going to tell everybody on Facebook, all of our pals”, and it worked out really well. Within the first couple of weeks we had 100,000 listens, there was interest. But on Bandcamp out of 100,000 listens, 1% of those people actually bought it.

As fair as Bandcamp is for people that don’t have any record label infrastructure to do their digital stuff, Bandcamp takes a little cut of it and so does Paypal. It’s a better system than iTunes for the lowest tier but it’s not much better.

You were selling it for around $5 right?

Yea exactly, we were trying to offer the square-est deal possible. You probably see about half of that $5 in the end. It’s kind of high when you think about it.

It’s funny to think that that’s considered “high” these days. You’re not making much but it’s something.

It’s better than the old days. For instance, on Sub Pop our thing was the sales of our record paid back what they spent on us. It’s hard to explain but literally our record sales paid back at a much lower rate because what we make off a wholesale record is 15% of it. It’s a miserable “you’re never going to pay it back” kind of situation.

I think something like 90% of albums don’t recoup their costs these days. It’s an industry almost entirely based around failure. Labels are putting too much money behind some of these bands when they probably should’ve opted for a more modest release and promotion budget.

It’s too subtle for them, they’re used to just shooting them out. They don’t know how to finesse and take care of fans. Because social media has made it so easy to have access to each other, you have to take care of people now. There’s more responsibility for artists these days no matter what you’re doing, visual art, music, whatever. You can’t just say “I have a manager, I don’t want to talk to anybody”. People want a little piece of you.

People do expect more from musicians these days.

Yea, which I think is good. You have to be social, it’s part of the whole thing.

So what have these last few tours been like in comparison to the earlier days of Sebadoh?

These last few tours that we’ve done with Bob [D’Amico], just jumping in a mini-van and going for it gives me flash backs of the earliest tours all the time because that’s exactly how we traveled. There’s a similar mellow-ness. Even back then we got to shows on-time without freaking out, we sort of took care of at least the basics of what we had to do, while getting high and driving around and having a pretty non-anxious time. It reminds me of that. Plus now we’re all a little older so little things don’t upset us.

You guys have been through it all already at this point…

Yea and it’s not like we’ve seen it all, but it really frees us up to enjoy the day. We can really concentrate on playing well and meeting people instead of being anxious.

When I saw you on tour a couple years ago, it didn’t even seem like anytime had passed for you guys. I mean, I had never seen Sebadoh back in the day but you guys were always one of those bands that I never knew if I would ever actually see live. I couldn’t get enough of the new material you were working on. When the new LP Defend Yourself finally came out, it was great.

Thanks, we’re pretty happy with it. It’s home brewed as well, and we were going to do it cheap because I had all the recording gear already.

So you guys pretty much recorded it on your own?

We did some at Lou’s practice space and also rented this garage out – we just set everything up there. It was a nice garage, I’ll say. Had carpets.

The possibilities for home recording these days are exponentially better than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

Absolutely. I’ve lived in New York for the last 10 years now, and I’ve never been able to afford a real studio. To set myself up and call it “Loewenstein Recording Company” so that my M.O. is I put as much a much as I can into a backpack… well, not into a backpack, it’s a couple armloads, but nowadays two or three armloads of stuff and I can record all the drums, guitars, etc. That’s including mic stands, cables, monitoring system, speakers… everything. If you spend time getting small components that work well, you can do it. I get away with a lot, I can charge a band almost nothing and still make what I think is a good day-rate and still make a world-class recording. World-class results out of somebody’s jam place.

I got to interview Eric Gaffney back in February and we talked a lot about home recording, among other things. I feel like Sebadoh as a whole are kind of the kings of the lo-fi recording process. How did you get into DIY recording?

I inherited their [Eric & Lou’s] old broken 4-track, they gave it to me in a brown paper bag. It was in a million pieces. These guys didn’t know how to fix anything, and neither did I, but I was so desperate that I put it back together and got three tracks to work. Then somebody gave me a 4-track recording book and I had it next to the recorder, Eric came over the next day and I told him “Oh! I’ve got three tracks working on the Fostex”. He goes, “What’s this?”, and picks up the book and throws it behind his back, real dramatic like. He’s good at the dramatic sweep. He’s pretty fun.

You worked with The Fiery Furnaces on their live album Remember and their last studio album I’m Going Away, both of which sound incredible. I listened to “Even In The Rain” probably 20 times in a row when that album came out.

That’s right, that was the same thing. Recorded it all in Bob’s basement. There are some pretty good tunes on that album. He’s got a real knack for textures and that kind of thing, he put some crazy sounds on that record.

How did you end up getting involved with The Fiery Furnaces?

Bob used to book a club called North 6 – it’s in Brooklyn – and he booked them a bunch of times. I used to go to just hang out with Bob and get free drinks, so I saw Fiery Furnaces the first few shows they played in New York. He got a gig with them and immediately they were like, “I think we need a bass player” so he said “I got a guy”. I tried out, and I got the gig. I ended up touring with them for five years. It was cool to just be a “player” in a band. I mean, I got to do a lot of my own parts, but I also had a lot of direction from the band. It was interesting.

How do you guys feel about touring through the Midwest again?

The Midwest is always good. Chicago is very good to us on this scale, playing Schuba’s and small venues. It’s sustainable, if we could play Schuba’s until I die that’d be great.

Jason_Loewenstein-2-2

You’re definitely not looking to play the United Center or something huge like that.

Not really, no.

I wouldn’t really want to see you guys at someplace that big.

Playing big shows is not that fun, for me at least.

I was at the Empty Bottle recently seeing Man or Astroman? and a older guy that obviously hadn’t been there before was shocked when I was leaning on one of the stage monitors. He asked, “Are we allowed to do that?” I’ve seen a million shows there, I’ve been on that stage, I’ve seen a ton of my friends play that stage. It’s like home. But for someone that probably has only been to large venues, it’s a really weird idea that I was touching the stage.

You breached the fucking stage. That’s a very important point actually. I always feel like it’s a TV show at a festival for the audience. You’re usually literally 40 feet away with barriers in front of you and guys with walkie-talkies between you and the band. It doesn’t seem like a show, it just seems like this big surreal thing like you’re playing at somebody’s football game and you’re not even supposed to be there.

You don’t feel connected to it.

No! You’re more connected to the 6-foot grass walkway that they’re going to beat on people who are dancing. That’s not very inspired.

Has Sebadoh really played many festivals?

In Europe, we played festivals. They have several festivals that are huge, but they’re so spread out. They’re big and well-run because all of the festivals over there are well-established. The earliest I ever hear of festivals in England, Isle of Wight, Reading, etc.

Have you been recording any solo stuff lately?

No, not really. Bob and I sometimes play out under the name Circle of Buzzards but we haven’t really made any recordings. There’s a handful of demos up on the website but that’s it.

I loved your set when you guys open for Sebadoh a few years back, when did you and Bob start up that project?

Thanks, that was about half the songs we know. We started that 4 or 5 years ago.

What would you find on an average Sebadoh tour rider?

Before anyone crosses it all out, we usually put a few things like peanuts, chips & salsa… it’s like a rider we would want if we were at a festival. Every time, every venue crosses everything off except the water and the beer and we get like $10 for dinner. That’s usually how it goes. The full rider is like: peanuts, chips, salsa, beer, water, coconut water, little Starbucks coffees… Diet Red Bull we like a lot. I said coconut water already… towels, apples, bananas, something like that. Just a bunch of stuff. Even if we get it all it’s just this little plate. You might get 1/3rd of your rider every night at the most so by the time you’ve played 4 shows you have a little bit of everything. The van’s got some waters, some coffees.

How did working on the new album Defend Yourself compare to the way you guys made albums in the ’90s? Was the recording process similar?

Recording was not similar because we were not in a studio, we were doing it ourselves. It was pretty different but in a good way it seems, we were all just relaxed.

The chemistry hadn’t changed at all?

It’s hard to tell, it was a different situation. There was a different chemistry. One thing we didn’t know obviously was how it was going to go when we got in there. Here’s half a song, let’s see how far we can get with and make up some parts, blah blah blah. We hadn’t done that in a really long time. It was like riding a bike, like any cliched thing, where you just pick it up again. It only took us a couple hours to get up to speed and talking about music again and building up to “hey what do you think about this…” kind of stuff. So we got really lucky with that which made it so we could actually concentrate on tweaking everything instead of being careful with each other and learning how to deal with each other after 10 years.

A fair amount of the dynamic was different both technically and communication wise.

I know you wrote a couple of the songs on the Secret EP, but how many of the songs on the new album were your contributions?

It was about half and half, more or less.

That’s one thing I always loved about Sebadoh, even when it was just Lou and Eric in the band, there was a great dichotomy between their songwriting styles. And of course, once you joined the band, it got even more diverse. I like the fact that you could play three different Sebadoh songs for somebody, and they might not even sound like the same band.

We like it, too. We listened to a lot of college radio – we like the radio format. We like when bands get up and switch instruments mid-set, anything that’s confusing and fun and even dangerous because you don’t know how to play guitar that well or something. When I first started getting on the guitar is was purely for the sake of scaring myself to death because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.

Hey, you have to step out of your comfort zone sometimes.

It’s kind of fun to be scared sometimes.

Were you a bass player first before you got into other instruments?

Drums, actually. I was supposed to be the drummer for the band. I was pals with Eric and he was already working with Lou after he left Dinosaur Jr. I was already jamming with Eric, just fucking around, getting stoned, and playing all the time. I think I even lived with him for a while at that point. Eric came in, they had just finished their second record, and he said “Oh, Lou’s out of Dinosaur and he wants to start a hardcore band, do you want to play the drums?” I said, “Fuck yeah, sign me up”. It [Sebadoh] ended up not being a hardcore band of course. It was pretty confrontational and fucked up for songs that started out as kind of heart-felt. It was very punk.

These two guys were kind of intimidating, Lou was a really angry young man, and Eric was weird, and clever, and a little bit confrontational, and they fed off each other. It was a weird band, it wasn’t punk… it was punk rock but it wasn’t like hardcore. It was this new way of singing about love with this weird dichotomy of also “Fuck you”. It didn’t make any sense in a way, but it was off-putting. It was exciting to be in a band with those guys because they made the shows a little tense for people, which makes them pay attention. That’s what I got into music for, the surprise, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Rock and roll is dangerous, people do crazy things at rock shows.

There should be a little sense of fear and danger at any good rock show. I’ve seen some of those old videos of Sebadoh in those days and you get a sense of the tension even through the filter of a YouTube video.

There’s lots of irreverent jamming. We had the songs to play a very straight set if we wanted to… but we never wanted to.

Even when I saw you guys just a few years ago it seemed very casual.

We would have nights where we decided the audience was “against us” even though they weren’t at all, we were just stoned. We started being real dicks to the audience, like dick-y punk rock guys. With the idea that if people came back at us it would become an exchange. It wasn’t to alienate them just to get some kind of communication going even if it was negative.

I guess you have to just do something like that sometimes. Getting an audience to do anything but just stand there with their arms folded is like pulling teeth.

It was like what you were saying before, you put your elbows on the monitor at Empty Bottle, that’s the stage, that’s the Narnia. You can’t go into there, that’s the fantasy world. But it isn’t, you’re this close to getting fucking hit with a mic stand, you’re there. People don’t realize they’re a participant just by being there.

That’s what I love about a band like Man or Astroman? I’ve seen them a few times now and every time I see them they’re IN the audience. You lose them for a while and all of a sudden they’re coming up behind you dancing. They’re all about the experience.

Yea, they were fully about the experience and putting people in a weird environment. Bringing all of those props every time. We played a handful of shows with them and even when they were really late to the gig, like “We have to go on in 10 minutes” late they would unload every damn bit of their stage set. At the time I didn’t understand that, I was like “let’s just play”, but now I understand how important it was for them to put people on the surface of the moon for 40 minutes or whatever it was and just crank it out.

One of those guys owns one of the best venues in the country – it’s called The Bottle Tree, and it’s in Birmingham, Alabama. I forget which one of them owns it, but for bands on the level we’ve been talking about, the sort-of “sub-commercial” level, it’s the most comfortable place to play, because it was made by guys in a band. Dressing rooms are airstream trailers, there’s all this kitsch shit that people collected, ’70s playboys, weird toys, thrift store junk. There’s stuff to do, there’s food there, the club is great, it’s small. Anyway, I just wanted to give a shout out to that guy cuz it’s the best club in the country and it’s not “fancy pants”.

The Bottle Tree in Birmingham, AL

The Bottle Tree in Birmingham, AL |Photo by vinzcha via Flickr

We’re just lucky that guys in bands were like “We can do it better”, and they did.

Rock and roll was built on the sub-commercial “little guys”. You need those guys.

We’re always the ones that made it happen. Damnit. There are so many worker ants for every one guy standing up and saying “I invented this”. With everything, from the light bulb to a blog post. You didn’t invent the light bulb, you had 40 people working with you.

UPCOMING SEBADOH TOUR DATES:

Oct 08 The Catalyst

w/ THURSTON MOORE
Santa Cruz, CA Tickets
Oct 09 Soho Restaurant and Music Club

w/ THURSTON MOORE
Santa Barbara, CA Tickets
Oct 10 Echoplex

w/ THURSTON MOORE
Los Angeles, CA Tickets
Oct 11 Constellation Room

w/ THURSTON MOORE
Santa Ana, CA Tickets

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LIVE PHOTOS BY DAN JARVIS