Jason Loewenstein (Bass/Vocals) (Sup Pop/Sire Records)
By: Alex Steininger
Being one-half of the former MTV buzz band Folk Implosion, Sebadoh front man Lou Barlow has seen his fair share of success. But he keeps coming back to Sebadoh, which seems to be his main priority. With a new record out on Sire Records (through a deal with Sub Pop), and their indie fan base going strong, Sebadoh seems to be on top of the world. I sat down with Jason Loewenstein and we talked about the band's current tour, how it feels to be on a major, and other issues pertaining to the band.
Alex: Describe your sound on the record, and then describe the live sound. How are they similar and how are they different?
Jason: I usually try to think of how things are going to sound on stage later, and not get too advantageous, because then we won't be able to do it. Like, if I put tambourine on the record, we can't do that live, so I better not do it. But on this record, we put tons and tons of shit on it and then figured out later as to whether or not we'd be able to pull it off. The difference is now we're not able to make as much noise, but we can allude to a certain amount of noise. We know there is supposed to be tambourine there, so we play our respective instruments to show that, because in our heads the tambourine is there. So, in a way, it makes it a little bit different. We're sort of assuming a lot more is going on, so it makes it bigger than the sum of its parts. At least to my ears, and that's the difference.
Alex: A lot of bands will incorporate strings, horns, acoustic guitars, and a variety of other instruments on the studio version, creating a very poppy style, and then they'll transform the song into more of a rocker live. Do you try to go for the straight conversation and try to pull the song off live the way it is on the disc?
Jason: Well, I think I used to be more concerned with that. Now, at this point, I realize it's going to have to be different. Some of the songs that Lou wrote, that are really rocking on the record, we're doing really quiet now. Like what you said, you're just changing the dynamics of the song to keep things interesting for yourself. I mean, you're going to be playing the song five hundred times a year. Things do change like that. If we get good at playing it a certain way, we'll throw a wrench into the plan, like "Let's play it quiet tonight." That way, for people who see us a few times, they won't be like, "They do this every fucking time I see them."
Alex: Your press material describes your live sound as being like a snowflake, no two are alike. Is that pretty much hold true for you guys?
Jason: Yeah, but it must be like that for any band to some degree, unless they're really like throwing down the same set list every night. Well, we're doing that too, though. We have a certain body of songs we're playing, but we'll change the order every night. But, no two venues are alike and no two audiences are alike, so it's not really our faults. We try to switch and change to the environment. There are too many bands that will come into any situation and try to act the exact same way, and it makes them look ridiculous. So we kind of decided, although we never said this to each other, but it just became a band ethic, to be a good musician you have to completely adjust to the new environment each time. If the audience is giving you nothing back, it might be because they're trying to be insanely respectful. Or it might be because they're completely bored out of their tits. It's hard to tell. You have to react to the non-reactions, too. It's really weird politics.
Alex: Do you think the break-ups, side-projects, and all the other band history has helped strengthen you and make you a stronger band today?
Jason: The fact that we're still playing together after Lou has had hits with Folk Implosion, and he still works with John Davis and stuff, the fact he keeps coming back to Sebadoh and takes it as seriously as he does is a testament to the fact that he doesn't really try anything else. He knows what else is out there for him, but he keeps wanting to come back and play rock music with me and Russ, or me and Rob or, at one point, me and Eric. That affects me and makes me feel good, because I know he really wants to be here; he could be off doing whatever he wants and he wants to be here.
Alex: What are your band goals for 1999?
Jason: Keep our attitudes straight. We have enough good songs to keep going, so our goals are kind of basic. Try to keep learning songs at soundcheck and trying to make it through the year with a clear head. Also, staying happy and making it through the tour with everybody still good with each other, because with the band and the people we have touring with us, one of the most important things is to make sure one person isn't unhappy and spreads it throughout the bus. I mean, it's going to happen a few times this year when someone is unhappy and starts to drag, but I believe it's very important to pick them back up and make sure everyone on the bus is happy.
Alex: When someone gets down, is it contagious?
Jason: Wicked contagious! The thing is, it is contagious, but it breeds other things. When someone is bummed out in a traveling crew, especially this one, because we're so insanely sensitive of each other (in a good way) because we're so sensitive of each other, if someone gets bummed out eventually someone will be like "Are you OK?" and then it turns into "Is it me?" It's a bunch of baby shit, but it is a part of human nature. So, when one person does that, it's like, "Now there is a depressed person, a jealous person, and someone is angry that those two people get to play that game." It's retarded. It's like a bunch of monkeys in a big cage that gets to roll across the country.
Alex: Since the road is so hard, and is a lot of work, what do you do to alleviate some of those pressures and just kick back and have fun on the road?
Jason: As much humor as possible. No matter where or who this band travels with, we're always trying to keep the humor level up. There is only so far you can go with that, but we try to associate with people who are really funny. We have a friend named Mike Flood who always travels with us in the states, and I think he thinks it is his job in life to be a really funny guy. And he is, he is one of the most creative, funny people I know. When we first hired him it was a few years ago -- he was a friend of ours for years before that -- and when we got a real tour manager she asked us what his job was and we just didn't know, except that he was the guy that was funny. I mean, he did a lot of stuff for us, and always knew what to do, because his job was all over the place, but there wasn't one thing he was there for. But I think his technical title now is guitar tech.
Alex: Is there any particular bill you guys prefer to play to another? Like, do you prefer playing with indie rock bands or pop bands over anything else?
Jason: It doesn't really matter. Integrity is the only thing that counts. I mean, even if I don't get it, if the integrity is there, we'll play with them. I don't even have to enjoy it for it to have integrity. I'm not saying that I know it all, because I don't, but what I'm trying to say is that even if I don't like it, but the integrity is there, I would much rather play with them over a band that has no integrity but everyone loves them. I'd rather torture the shit out of an audience with the people that really believe in what they're doing. We sometimes bring really noisy bands on tour with us. There is this band called Hairy Pussy that we brought on tour with us because we love them. But they're one of the most antagonistic bands out there. They have two guitar players with two strings on each guitar, and are making this weird sound that you can't really tell they have songs until you see them two nights in a row. And they do, so it is amazing.
Alex: Does your crowd get into them?
Jason: Well, half will be like, "I didn't believe this is happening. I thought they'd have some ding-ding-dong singy-songs." Then the other half is like, "I don't believe this, I'm being ripped off." So, everyone gets a little life experience out of it.
Alex: Is there any big road story that stands out in your mind?
Jason: Big road stories, let me think...
Alex: Maybe witnessing a murder in Florida, having terrorists plant a bomb on the bus, some far out thing like that?
Jason: I've seen a dead body on tour. I've been nearly thrown in jail for months on tour, back in the old days when we...It was actually a long time ago. We came out here and our last gig was in Seattle, and we had a really long drive back home, so we asked someone to get us some weed. We got some weed and got pulled over in Wisconsin. Eric and I were asleep in the back and we got pulled over. Lou was very apologetic. We didn't have that much weed, it was just something to do at the hotels at night. So they searched the van and it was so dirty they didn't find it, or they just didn't want to look anymore because there was so much rubbish everywhere. But I was standing by the side of the road, and I was nineteen at the time, and kept thinking, "I'm going to fucking jail and I'm only nineteen. This is my first cross-country tour, what the hell is going on? Oh wow, I could run through those bushes over there." It was like 1991, and it was the first time we had been featured on a magazine. It was called Puncture, and it had our picture on the cover. So we were all wowed, so we asked to get a stack of them and had them in the van. And I literally had pee running down my legs I was so scared; I really thought I was going to jail. I kept asking myself is Wisconsin was one of those zero tolerance places. Then the guy comes back from the van and has something behind his back. I was about ready to confess everything, because I thought we were busted, and at the last second he pulls out the magazine and goes, "Can you sign this for me?" I almost fucking fainted.
Alex: Was he a fan or had he even ever heard of you guys?
Jason: No, he had never heard of us, he just saw us on the cover of a magazine and thought we were famous or something, so he probably wanted to get the magazine signed for his daughter. But we were like, "Yes sir. Thank you sir." I hate the drug story, but it is also a good lesson. Do the speed limit if you're going to...(laughter). Lou was doing 82 or something like that. He kept apologizing. He was so freaked out. He thought he had put us all in jail by speeding.
Alex: What do you guys enjoy and hate about the music industry?
Jason: I love being able to make a living at it. It's become my only job. And that we can do it on this comfortable bus, and we can afford to have some extra people with us to help us, is great. It's funny because it's so interdependent. The things I enjoy can't happen without the things I hate. Like on days when we have three or four interviews, have to do soundcheck, and then go and do a radio show, there just aren't enough hours in the day to sleep, do all this shit, and set your own stuff up. Those obligations are kind of a pain-in-the-ass, and I don't really understand what they do for us in the long run, except that we have met the station, and they have face recognition, so maybe they'll play our single. Then the next station looks at their play list and it becomes this copycat city. Then, the people who really helped us out in the beginning, the college radio stations, even Sub Pop ignored them. I mean, we're working with Sire now, and I'd expect them to ignore those stations, but Sub Pop did it too. Yeah, I mean, most of our radio obligations from the last record were all KROQ style, commercial/alternative things. That's confusing to me, because the people who really helped us out in the beginning, and the fact that we don't sell a shit load of records, yet we can still afford to play a place as big as La Luna or a 500-600 person place in Seattle is weird. We're not selling a million records, you know? College radio and our ethic for touring did that for us, I think. And now we're ignoring college radio stations. It's just adjusting to someone else's ideas of what your band should be. I'm not really fighting it, because I don't think it's a big calamity, but I wish I understood it better. Why do people think we need to ignore the college stations? That's what got us here.
Alex: Yeah, that is kind of weird. Especially since you can't get a video on MTV these days or anything like that, so you need the grassroots approach to keep you alive.
Jason: No, we can't payola a video on to MTV. For the last record we did a video that cost 125,000 dollars and it got paid twice. We're talking professional, expensive Hollywood video.
Alex: 120 Minutes?
Jason: (Laughter) Yeah! The middle of the night on Sunday. Tour Manager: Filled with a bunch of characters that who knows who they were. Some people falling in love, a bunch of retards in a bowling alley...
Jason: We had a total walk-on part in it. It was one of those things that are totally fucked up, expensive film story line. The guy was good at what he does, but it was very impersonal. That was our fault, though, because we told them to stop bitching at us for making our own videos and to make the kind of video they wanted to make. And now we're paying for it, and will be for the next eight years with our record sales. It's funny, you have to do that first to bitch about it later. Now if they ask us to spend $120,000 on a video we can say "Absolutely not! Give us a reason." And we can be totally straightforward without being a jerk. We can ask for an explanation before anyone spends a dime on another video. But, before you do it, you can't really say because you don't really know from experience. Its just politics like that that I'm not psyched about. We had to spend $120,000 before we could tell anyone not to do it again. Even though we could have told them that before, we didn't really know from experience. That much money in advertising space could have gone a lot further. Although I don't understand it as well as they do, apparently!
Alex: Is there anything in the band's past you would change? Like the making of the $125,000 video?
Jason: I don't know if I would want to change that, because now I know what it is all about. I wish the lesson came cheaper, I wish we made a $55,000 mistake, but now I know the impact of that. That video could have made us, in a way, but it's less than fifty/fifty. Way less, because it goes through a panel of people who pretty much pick whose going to go and whose not.
Alex: What are the highest and lowest points the band has experienced so far?
Jason: That's a tough one. We'll start low and go high (hopefully). Whenever there is a fucked up, petty argument, that is a pretty low point. There hasn't been too many of those, though. There has to be a lower point. For me, the lowest point was early on when I first joined the band we'd practice for a couple of months and then Eric would get us a gig in New York and tell me I wasn't in the band anymore. The money goes better two ways then three, and I thought he was the biggest creep. Now it sounds creepier to me than it felt at the time, I was just like, "Whatever. But you want me to come and practice next week, even though you just told me I can't come to the gig?" It was really weird. I was just disappointed. I was wondering what kind of guys they were. But I was so psyched to be there, I just let it go. I just did not want to play in a ska band, and didn't want to just have to take what I could get, so I went after these guys after I heard them. It wasn't really in a social climbing way, I was just like, "This is turning me on," and it wasn't happening in my area. I thought it might just keep me alive a bit longer and make me excited about life. And the other low point probably came from Eric as well, because we finally booked a two-week tour of the East Coast and I was so happy to be going out of state to be playing music. I thought I finally had become a pro. Then two days, or maybe a week before we left, Lou came over to my house with a letter that said Eric had quit the band and was moving to Portland. It said, "By the time you read this I'll be midway between here and Portland on a bus." I was just like, "Fuck!" I had almost gotten to go on tour. But it worked out, and became one of the better things to have happened in my life, because I had to learn bass and now I'm making a living out of doing it.
Alex: What made you want to be in a band?
Jason: I had always been playing around with music, and I was not liking high school at all. I really wouldn't go very much, and had started to play music with a few people. Then I was talking to a friend of my mom's one night and they were all drinking. He came into my room, and this guy was a huge jazz head, and I don't know much about jazz, but he was a big time music fan. He worked at a record store and he was forty. He came in and asked me if I wanted to take drum lessons, because he knew these great jazz guys, and I wasn't really into the idea of lessons. Then he asked me what I wanted to do with my life and why I was being so non-committal about it, because he told me I could get something out of this, and I was like, "I don't know. I'm young, it doesn't matter." Then he asked me what else I had going for me, and I sat there and was like, "I can skateboard." It really turned the lights on in the bar at 3am, and I realized I didn't really have anything else going for me. This was something I really loved doing, and there was a slight possibility that, even if it wasn't making me money, it would keep me happy while I was making money some other way. I thought it was a really good question and was like, "Thanks for asking me that."
Alex: What goes into good music making for you?
Jason: Trying to finish what you start. That's my new lesson. I used to not finish. I would get really embarrassed and just stop. As evidence has shown from the last five records.
Alex: What inspires the band to write songs?
Jason: To try and make sense out of our surroundings. If not that, to do at least something. Sometimes I'll write a song and have no idea what I'm going to get out of it, except that I know I need to get out of this situation. I'll go into a music mode and just block everything else out. It's like doing drugs. It's a denial mechanism but, in my opinion, something good comes out of it. With drugs though, something good rarely comes out of it. Not that I'm against drugs, my perspective is just very different on them now compared to when I was 17. History repeats itself with those types of things and it just gets boring.