As disillusioned, weed-eating teenaged punks down on the hardcore scene in the late ‘80s, Massachusetts buds Eric Gaffney and Lou Barlow turned to dirt cheap, bedroom-recorded, pot-wafting, beat up acoustic and warped folk weirdness, and with it, helped birth the generation-defining lo-fi movement. After Barlow got the boot from Dinosaur Jr. in 1989, their focus turned to Sebadoh as a full-time endeavor with a more band-oriented, electric assault.
But while Barlow has collected shit-tons of praise as Sebadoh's allegedly true vision, it's arguable that it’s the criminally underrated Gaffney who propelled the band’s aesthetic into the Amerindie history books. Gaffney provided the perfect contrast to his delicate-as-a-flower bandmate's odes of lost love, churning out the popcentric, druggie ear-bleeders that were the schizoid highlights of Sebadoh's seminal records, III ('91), Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock ('92), and Bubble and Scrape ('93)—and before that, the lo-fi masterpiece, The Freed Man.
Then Gaffney—ever the fiercely independent, born and bred DIY hardcore punk and finest drifter you’ll ever meet—abruptly quit the band he co-founded who, in the age of Nirvana's global domination, were on the verge of ruling the indie landscape in 1993. Sebadoh, sans Gaffney, went on to massive success with 94's landmark Bakesale, and with Pavement and Guided by Voices, formed the indie rock god triplex for much of the '90s. Meanwhile, Gaffney bounced around the States, resurfacing as Fields of Gaffney and playing sporadic shows in the late Nineties and throughout the 00's. Yet, in an unlikely twist, Gaffney rejoined Sebadoh in 2007 for a wildly successful tour but it wasn't permanent—he would depart the band yet again.
Now, Gaffney is back, touting himself under the most amazing moniker ever: Jesus. And Jesus Christ. And Jesus The Lord. The normally reclusive eclectic has embraced civilization: he's on Facebook, has a multitude of Bandcamp pages and. Gaffney has a glorious load of classic Sebadoh-era recordings up for sale but it’s Jesus records like Stop Eating Animals!, America’s Drug and Christ, the Lord that show he hasn’t lost his super-melodic and way toasted bat-shittedness.
We caught Gaffney via email from, honestly, God knows where to talk about joining social media and Bandcamp, Sebadoh, Jesus, and being vegan.
Noisey: You've bounced around quite a bit. You grew up in Massachusetts, were in San Francisco for a while, maybe back to Mass. again and now your Facebook page says Tarrytown, New York. How did you wind up there and what are you doing in Tarrytown?
Eric Gaffney: I wish I could bounce. Seems like it would be fun. Tarrytown exists in my memory bank and for some unknown reason. I tend to be reminded of Washington Irving's stories when I’ve been to Tarrytown. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow…The Headless Horseman…Rip Van Winkle. Sort of a creepy, haunted place. It lies in the Tappan Patent, which my Dutch ancestors had a share in purchasing back in the 1680's. It was also the first land patent in America in which free slaves had a share in the patent.
For lack of a better term, you’ve flown under the radar for a long time. Recently, you've raised your profile a bit. You have Bandcamp pages and you are on Facebook, where you seem to be pretty active. What was your thinking behind joining social media and what not?
Um, actually been playing out, recording, and releasing records since 1983, I never stopped….but have no hype machine to speak of at present. Bandcamp has served as a record label or a place to put my records out or up, due to lack of one. They take only 15% instead of ripping off artists. I don't see Bandcamp as a social media site. Facebook? I waited a half-decade to get a FB page. It seems it depends on who your so-called friends are and what you 'like' as for what you might see on the timeline feeds.
Concerts seem to be a rare occurrence in your world. Maybe because you live in New York, you'll start playing some shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan?
I played a bunch of solo shows in Manhattan & Brooklyn when I lived there Summer, 2007. The last concert I played (Pitchfork Festival, Chicago, 2008) I made over $7,000 an hour, so if I can get that for a show, or maybe 1 thousand an hour, I'd be down for it. I had my shoulder blade and collarbone fractured back in September of 2008, which in result, can slow a person down a great deal. It took half a year before I could even pick up a guitar again. Thankfully, I somehow recouped enough to play drums & guitar again, & record. I suppose if I had a record out and was on top of the charts, etc. that a concert might be in order.
Recently, a Pitchfork write-up highlighted all of your unreleased material. Not too long after the piece was posted, you took to Facebook to express your frustration that it didn't result in more download sales on your Bandcamp pages. What were your expectations for that piece? Are you still bummed?
I never had expectations on that feature or what have you. I was trying to pitch a review of a particular record I have up digitally (Stop Eating Animals!) but they didn't review it, and it ended up being a feature on their blog instead with links to a number of records I have up on Bandcamp. The feature came as a welcome surprise. It was favorable and informative, couldn't be happier with that. Sure, I would have thought it would have brought way more traffic and online sales, but it didn't. So be it. A few thousand people probably read it and then forgot about it a few days later.
On your Bandcamp, you are pretty straight up, indicating in your self-description that you and your records are "not on a label and not in stores. 100% independent & 100% D.I.Y. where proceeds from Bandcamp digital sales direct via PayPal towards utility bills, new guitar strings, drum sticks, bus fare, cat food, etc." and that "I have no other steady income at present so each sale counts!" That all said, what's your take on the internet? I feel like you'd detest it, and all social media.
If I were to detest all online social media, we would be doing this interview over the phone and I would have to hang up on you! Haha. As for 'illegal' downloading, I have no idea. I have never downloaded a record. I have booked shows and tours just through email! In fact, I booked a tour via email around SXSW in 2003, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, California. Email is free too, aside from being useful. But, yeah, the internet is a real-life nightmare in many ways, but in other ways is OK. What I don't like or am opposed to is a digital takeover of music. I get 21 cents for a thousand streams for example; it's a shame if you ask me how cheap many of these digital music services operate. However, that won't stop me from releasing my records digitally and worldwide, even though I don't think music really belongs in a computer. But it's how things have been going the past 20 years; if ya can't beat 'em, join 'em I guess. At present I'm looking forward to releasing about ten records digitally and worldwide in the near future. I'm excited to see how that works out.
One of your records under the Jesus name is Stop Eating Animals! You mentioned that record earlier and you happen to be vegan. I don't recall you being so passionate and vocal about those topics. Is being vegan and animal rights a recent revelation of yours? How did it enter your trajectory? Will you start preaching about it like Morrissey?
Well, I chose to go vegan two years ago for moral and ethical reasons, not to join or be part of a trend or diet. It's because I care, and in result have not only learned a lot, but felt much healthier. First, I stopped buying fish, then stopped eating eggs, then milk, then cheese…The last hamburger I had was fake and that was in 1994, 20 years ago, and was the only 'meat' I ever really ate. I was mostly vegetarian since 1968 so was a lot easier for me than it might be for anyone else. I am not an animal, so I don't need to eat animals, it's really quite simple. Haha. It's wrong to torture and kill animals, period, for any reason. It's sick and shows what you call humanity at it's lowest and most depraved. I consider meat eaters (Corpse Munchers) as 'diseased' and selfish/greedy. Zombies destroying the planet's ecosystem for the taste of flesh is pure evil. It's a fact that every person who eats meat contributes to the de-forestation, the destruction of the Amazon Forest, and global warming. It's scary.
Here is a short list of animals and meats I have never eaten over the course of six decades:
STEAK, VEAL, TURKEY, CHICKEN, DUCK, FOWL OF ANY SORT, FLIGHTLESS OR NON, OSTRICH, LAMB, RABBIT, DEER CARCASS, DUCK, PORK, HAM, OYSTERS, LOBSTER, OCTOPUS, BACON, HAM, PORK, LIVER, WHALE, DOG, CAT, PYTHON, SERPENTS, FROG LEGS, WILD BOAR, CARIBOU, YAK, EEL, SNAILS, SQUID, CAVIAR, KANGAROO, SAUSAGE, BEAR, EMU, BISON, INSECTS/GRUBS, BATS, PROSCIUTTO, MUSSELS, HEAD CHEESE, CATS, DOGS, GERBILS, HAMSTERS, GUINEA PIGS, TIGER, OXEN, MICE, GOAT, HIPPOPOTAMUS, SHARK, TURTLE, MORAY EEL, BADGER, OTTER, BEAVER, WEASEL, ALPACAS, LIZARDS (IGUANAS, SKINKS) MARSUPIALS (OPOSSUMS) KOMODO DRAGONS, SHEEP, VULTURE, EAGLES, HAWKS, BIRDS, CRABS, TURDUCKEN, SPAM, TREE SLOTHS, PIGS FEET, HORSE, BEEF JERKY, BRAINS, TONGUES (LENGUA) MOOSE, SEAL, WALRUS, ELEPHANT, GORILLA, SILK WORMS, ANTS, PUFFER FISH, RATS, HORSE, SPIDERS, CHINESE GIANT SALAMANDER, CHINOOK SALMON, GREEN SEA TURTLES, RIVER DOLPHINS, SEA URCHINS, QUAIL, DORMOUSE, LLAMA, CAMEL
Sebadoh's Homestead promo photo
You've expressed the desire to sign with a record label. Knowing how staunchly independent you are, would a potential label have to meet your DIY ethos in a way that you would approve? What do you think of the "record industry" today, or, what remains of it? A lot has changed since the early 90's/Eighties period. Are there any labels out there that you like what they are doing and what they are putting out?
I have records to put out, I’m a songwriter so... I need a label to get records out. I can't walk down the highway all the way to California, for example—I could try but I'd be good for maybe two miles. As for the record industry, I have done my homework. The music and entertainment business has always been corrupt, and sleazy. One nice thing about not being on a label is having complete control, which is the way it should be in the first place. I'm most own worst critic anyway, so in mixing and editing and choosing songs for my records, I leave out what I don't like for the most part. As for DIY, that doesn't mean my songs sound like they are recorded under wet cardboard. I've been doing cassette recording since 1980. Some of my songs no one would ever know they weren't recorded in a proper studio. Depends on the track though.
As long as I've listened to music I don't think about the label or the band manager or their publicist or whatever…I listen to the music. in result I’ve always been a fan of whatever I like, whether it's on an independent or not on a label (like me, ha ha) or a major label...’cept that I am anti-capitalist, anti-corporation. If I like a band or a song, it doesn't matter to me what label it's on, same with a film, whether it's with Miramax or Janus or Universal. I don't buy anything anyway so I’m pretty much not a consumer.
Let's switch gears and talk about the band you co-founded, Sebadoh. It's been 20 years or so since you left Sebadoh. Why did you leave the band in the first place?
Why don't you ask me why I started the band in the first place? [It's] because I felt like it. I wanted to start a band where I was the songwriter/guitar player and so I did. I also had the garage practice space and booked all our early shows. This was summer 1989, when The Freed Man LP was released on Homestead was when I called those guys on the phone to ask if they wanted to start a band, met with dead silence. Me on the other end saying, "Are you still there?" I only started playing drums when the other guys wanted to play their songs because I didn't want to learn bass lines, and drums are my first instrument. Four years later I let the whole thing walk away from me. It was like The Blob—you want to just run out of the theater! (lest you be consumed by “The Blob.”)
Sebadoh is/was at the forefront of the lo-fi movement. Is there any animosity on your part that you never seemed to get the due credit for your home recording technique and style dating back to 1986?
Well…the Sebadoh lo fi period was 1987 to 1990, recording on 4-track cassettes. After that we recorded in studios when there was an opportunity to do so. Again, been doing cassette recording since 1980. The companies that made Maxell XLII-S 90 minute tapes should take the credit, not me or anyone else. Nobody can claim to have been the first to have recorded something lo fi, other than maybe Alan Lomax, and before that Edison or whomever. Aside from which, my home recording approach was Hi Fi more than Lo Fi. My idea was always to have a clear analog recording, with clarity and punch, not flat and miserable and bumming.
The year after you left Sebadoh, the band enjoyed their biggest success with Bakesale in '94. Looking back at it now, do you regret leaving? Was there a moment you can point to after seeing the MTV videos, TV appearances, press and tours, where you thought to yourself "I really fucked shit up by leaving?"
I will never regret parting ways with Sebadoh. I wouldn't have wanted to be part of what they became or sounded like without me. Why would I have fucked shit up by leaving? It was exactly the opposite. I didn't start that band to have my ego fed. That isn't my trip. I watched them on Conan O'Brien actually and was like, what?! Same thing when I've heard them play shows since I've left—not into it, too loud, too aggressive, not my style or sound or approach. Not the same band without me, but that's fine. Why would it be. I was on MTV Europe at Glastonbury 1993 playing one of my songs “Elixir is Zog” (with a smoke machine) and we were on TV in Paris, France, which I never got to see. We had tons of press when I was still in the group; it wasn't as if I needed more of any of that.
Did you pay attention to the Sebadoh records that came out after you left, like Harmacy? Were you happy when 99's The Sebadoh failed miserably? Have you heard the most recent Sebadoh record, Defend Yourself?
No, I never listened to any of those. There are millions of records to listen to from the past 80 or so years. I don't have the time. I would feather be studying seashells or birdwatching or doing a hundred other things.
What sticks out in your mind as some of your best memories of being in Sebadoh?
Good memories? Hitting a candy machine while waiting for a ferry in France and all the Rolos fell out! That was a good memory. And the first few shows back in winter 1989/1990 before I broke my 1971 Gibson SG Deluxe. Also, the first Sebadoh show I booked, December 1989 at a local bar. We had to play the set twice in order to get paid $150 from the bar manager to qualify for being onstage for two hours. They guy growled at me about it and reluctantly gave me the 150 bucks.
Drinking 50-cent beers with Pavement in Prague until 5 AM after our one big show there with Sonic Youth was a lot of fun. A great tour memory.
A bad memory?
Bad tour memory...being pulled over in Austin, Minnesota by two cops in two cruisers on the highway. My bandmates had bags of weed they got in Seattle and had been chain smoking reefer and eating ephedrines. The thing that saved us was when they searched the van one cop found a bundle of Puncture magazines I picked up in Portland, Oregon. We were on the cover because I had arranged for a photo shoot in the factory building we were rehearsing in and so the one cop asked if we would sign it for his daughter! True story.
Seeing how so many bands have reunited to "cash in," did it occur to you it would be an easy paycheck to rejoin Sebadoh again, or are you so DIY-minded that scoring a payday is not something you're into?
I agreed to the III reissue first, early 2005 and pushed for the reunion tour, which ended up being two years later. Played sold-out venues coast to coast in result. It was almost a stipulation I had to do a reunion tour in order to do the reissues, the first two of which I worked on for months on end out in San Francisco.
What did you like about that reunion?
I liked opening all of the shows on acoustic open D. feedback sound…hummmm. Selling out venues coast to coast was cool. But, I never really liked switching around on instruments all that much, it's a lot of work, I like either playing guitar or playing drums and not jumping back and forth. I re-joined after 14 years, so a lot of time had gone by and I wasn't sure what to expect. I was mildly surprised we got along well enough to tour, but that didn't mean I didn't have to brush off onstage irritability & banter and deal with negative reactions from their fans at times.
What are your plans now? Do you have a full band for Jesus? Are you planning on touring?
At present I have sequenced a bunch of records, new & older stuff at: http://jesuschrist1.bandcamp.com/
That's where new & old fans can hear the music I've been doing all these years, and if they choose to, buy a record. Plus I always write back, "Thanks" and so on. Have had a post-Fields (of Gaffney) & post-reunion tour band since 2008 (with inevitable band name changes every year or two), which features my vintage 1970's Mu-tron Phaser II. No tour plans at present.
Are your expectations more tempered now after that debacle that there won't be tons of DL sales, say after this interview posts?
Are you suggesting that feature Pitchfork did for my music was in any sense a failure? It wasn't. I wouldn't expect anyone who read it to necessarily buy (download) any of the 20 or so records I put up—a few people did, which was fine.
Brad Cohan doesn't have a list of all the meat he's eaten in his life.