Lou Barlow and John Davis
Photo: Michael Galinsky

Just ‘Kids’: Lou Barlow and John Davis of the Folk Implosion Return

John Davis and Lou Barlow revisit the song, album, and soundtrack that helped make the Folk Implosion a seminal trip-hop-indebted indie-rock success story.

Music For KIDS
The Folk Implosion
8 September 2023

“We got here unfashionably early,” John Davis deadpans as I log on to start our Zoom interview, running unfortunately late. Through my laptop’s screen, I can see Davis sitting with his erstwhile bandmate, Lou Barlow, at a suburban kitchen table in Greenfield, Massachusetts, appearing like two ordinary guys taking a break from yardwork on a Sunday afternoon. The Folk Implosion are back (!), as it were, if in a more subdued manner within these domestic environs. The occasion is the re-release of the songs they recorded for Kids, the divisive 1995 film about unruly, skate-punk adolescents in New York City. 

A zeitgeist moment at the time, Kids debuted with controversy at the Cannes Film Festival. It was noteworthy for being the first film directed by Larry Clark, the legendary photographer whose gritty first book, Tulsa (1971), depicted youth and drug addiction in a fashion that built upon the legacy of Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958) and foreshadowed the later work of Nan Goldin (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986). Kids also marked the cinematic debut of Harmony Korine, le enfant terrible of 1990s film, whose subsequent career includes films like Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Trash Humpers (2009), and Spring Breakers (2012), which have polarized critics and audiences alike. His most recent film is Aggro Dr1ft (2023), which stars hip-hop artist Travis Scott and is shot entirely with infrared photography. 

The legend roughly goes that Clark and Korine met in Washington Square Park, where the still teenage Korine sold him on a screenplay about a day in the life of a gang of skaters. The film that resulted is a stark document of youth culture during the early 1990s. With the social and cultural effects of HIV/AIDS still present, along with the ever-presence of alcoholism and other substance abuse, a bleak vision unfolds in Kids of a world without adult supervision and limited future opportunity, compounded by the predatory sexual violence of young men toward young women. Plotwise, not much happens beyond the two main characters, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Casper (Justin Pierce), seeking to score sex and drugs. Unsurprisingly, the most compelling and sympathetic figures are the female characters played by Rosario Dawson (Ruby) and Chloë Sevigny (Jennie), whose careers were launched by the film. With its amoral existentialism, Kids depicted a dystopian, allegorical milieu with no exits or solutions. 

Despite this grim vision of hopelessness and despair, Kids produced a surprise hit single for the Folk Implosion, “Natural One”, which peaked at #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in December 1995 (Billboard, March 22, 1997, page 12), among other rankings, despite the fact that the song did not appear in the film. It put the Folk Implosion in the spotlight. The collaboration of Barlow and Davis had previously been a lo-fi, low-ambition recording project with only two albums under their belt, Walk Through This World With… (1993) and Take A Look Inside… (1994) – an improvised duo of stoner bedroom hootnannies comprised of trippy, psych-garage numbers. Similar to Korine et al., Kids brought wide attention to Barlow and Davis.

Barlow’s career and reputation had preceded and have since far exceeded this moment of contracted film work. He has become one of the most prolific musicians of his generation. Ethical non-monogamy as an artistic credo might be the best way of describing his multiple projects and collaborations. Since the late 1980s, Barlow has fronted several bands over several decades – namely, Sebadoh, Sentridoh, and the Folk Implosion – in addition to being a founding member of Dinosaur Jr., along with J Mascis and Murph (Patrick Murphy). He has also released solo work under his own name. More recently, Barlow has started a podcast, RAW Impressions, with his wife, Adelle, for which they have hosted 94 episodes and counting. The man is seemingly tireless.

Davis, for his part, has been a committed educator and activist over the past two decades, mostly in Durham, North Carolina. His writing and recording projects have also continued, including collaborations with Dennis Callaci (of Shrimper Records) and with a backing band, the Cicadas. Though the original Folk Implosion split up in 1999 after two more albums – Dare to Be Surprised (1997) and One Part Lullaby (1999) – amid corporate pressures for commercial success, Davis and Barlow alike have never lost their artistic ambitions. (Barlow did assemble a new band after Davis’s departure to record a fourth album, The New Folk Implosion, released in 2003.) Their recent four-song EP, Feel It If You Feel It (2022), assembled during the pandemic has marked a new chapter in their collaboration, with an LP forthcoming.

Against this backdrop, Music for KIDS is something of a non-sequitur in their catalog. Indeed, some factual clarification is in order, namely that this release is not a re-release from 1995. Though Barlow was involved in supervising and compiling the movie’s soundtrack, the LP issued at the time, Kids [Original Soundtrack] (1995), included songs by Daniel Johnston (“Casper, the Friendly Ghost”), Lo Down (“Mad Fright Night”), Slint (“Good Morning, Captain”), and Sebadoh (“Spoiled”), in addition to the Folk Implosion. In fact, of the 13 tracks on that original album, only seven are by the Folk Implosion, plus one by the so-called Deluxx Folk Implosion due to the inclusion of Bob Fay, an occasional member of Sebadoh.

In short, Music for KIDS is an entirely new album of archival material, some of which appeared on Kids [Original Soundtrack], but not all. This LP has 18 tracks and clocks in at 62 minutes. These tracks include new remixes of the hit single “Natural One” by the British trip-hop group U.N.K.L.E. and “Insinuation” by the Dust Brothers. There are also compositions not found on the original soundtrack – “Burning Paper”, “Checking In”, “Wide Web”, “Park Dub”, “Nasa Theme”, and “Cabride”, among them. Plus, there is an instrumental version of “Nothing Gonna Stop”. The upshot is that this LP provides a more complete sense of the vision and recording process that Barlow and Davis undertook at the time. 

Listening to the album almost 30 years after the film’s release, it is remarkable how contemporary its music sounds. The hit single, “Natural One”, still has an addictive, trip-hop/lo-fi vibe with a haunting vocal production that makes Barlow sound like a Nick Drake for the hip-hop era. Meanwhile, “Wet Stuff” samples what sounds like an Erik Satie piano melody along with corrupted vocals against insistent percussion. The tracks “Jenny’s Theme” and “Crash” are guitar-driven compositions that are post-rock in orientation. “Simean Groove” samples howling wolves against a horror soundtrack synth line and a methodical drum part – a reflection, perhaps, of the male sexual predation found in Kids, as mentioned earlier. “Cabride” is essentially a jazz number. “Raise the Bells” has an ambient musicality that approximates what you might hear on a 1970s nature program on PBS. 

Taken together, Music for KIDS can be listened to independently from the original film. Indeed, it retains the spooky aura of music for a film never actually made, a film that you wish you could see. The idea of unfashionably early again comes to mind. Furthermore, there is much more to this album than “Natural One”, even though that single remains unimpeachable. “It’s licensed a fair amount,” Barlow replies when asked about its enduring quality. “It gets placed here and there, and it has been over the years. Not excessively, but it’s always surprised me that it does still get placed.”

PopMatters had a chance to speak to Barlow and Davis about this endurance and the release of Music for KIDS, which, unusually, is unfixed to any anniversary or any similar connection to the film itself.

The Return and Musical Prescience of the Folk Implosion 

Tell me about the circumstances for the release of Music for KIDS.

Davis: It’s an archival release, and it was something that we had made an agreement with Domino Records quite a while ago. Many years, like, what, five years ago?

Barlow: We got the rights back to the masters, and we sold them to Domino about six or maybe even seven years ago. I think that was 2016. You’d have to ask them why they’re releasing it now as opposed to then. Us reuniting as a band and making new material might have had something to do with their decision to put it out there. But, you know, it may also have to do with things they’re working on as a label. They said they were going to put it out, and they just put it out in their own time.

What was it like for both of you to revisit this music? Did the release of this past material, much of which hasn’t seen the light of day before, prompt a reflective return to a certain period in your careers and lives? 

Barlow: I’m very fond of our back catalog. I was pleased when we were able to come together to do the reissue. It was sequenced years ago, but this was the first time John and I had come together. That, to me, was pretty cool on its own. We had broken up in 1999 for personal reasons, and we both went our separate ways. Then, during the pandemic, we made a decision to start collaborating. Coming out now, the timing works really well for us because of the album that we’re working on. It dovetails nicely with that, that’s for sure. But in our eyes, this is not part of a master plan. It just happened to work out this way.

Davis: Domino came to us with this idea of wanting to compile the music that we recorded for the film without the other songs from the soundtrack to shift the focus to what the musical juncture was at that time, the different genres the film was influenced by, and the musical context for it, rather than focusing on the movie. We’ve gotten a lot of questions about that. I think that if we look back, some of the things we were trying to do to influence the scenes around us did happen.

We wanted there to be more of an open exchange of ideas between different genres and less of a “Disco sucks!” mentality among indie rock and post-punk musicians, where anything that doesn’t sound like punk rock is, you know, lesser music. We just wanted to fight this idea that there is one pure music, and we were very conscious of being influenced by hip-hop without appropriating it or imitating it. I can’t remember when Portishead’s albums came out, but that changed a lot of people, and, you know, Beck’s first record came out, and we liked that, but we wanted to do something less jokey. 

When Lou and I started picking back up and talking about music, one of the first things he asked me was, “Were you listening to groups in the aughts that were using techniques like sampling and electronics combined with an indie rock sensibility?” It was cool to see people being more open-minded and inclusive about what they think is important.

Barlow: I love the 2000s for that. I thought the way indie rock completely split wide open was awesome.

It’s interesting to hear you say that. I was a college radio DJ in the early 1990s, which was a crazy, perfect time to be a DJ because everything exploded. Being a DJ today, I don’t think, has as much meaning. I could be wrong.

Barlow: In the early ’90s, you got all the records for free, and people cared. People really cared about college radio and what you were playing. A program director at a college radio station was important. A lot of those people went on to work in the music industry in much larger capacities. It was a cool time for that.

I completely agree. Regarding the post-2000 landscape, as fertile as it was, are you suggesting that in the mid-1990s, you were already experimenting with approaches that manifested more fully later on?

Barlow: Yeah, I would say that John and I were. Even though Sebadoh and my history with Dinosaur Jr put me firmly with indie rock, John and I actively wanted to react against the homogenization that was happening at the time. We wanted to bring together post-punk, new wave, the emerging trip-hop, hip-hop, and R&B. In the ’90s, there was such incredible R&B, modern R&B, just really creative. Like Timbaland producing Missy Elliott, that kind of stuff. That was a little bit after what we did for the Kids soundtrack. But that, to me, was really interesting. It seems odd, but I was not a huge indie rock fan in the 1990s. 

I did love indie rock in a live setting. We lived in Boston, and you could see a lot of great bands play, but the bands making the really great records at that point were a lot of English bands, things that came out of shoegaze, things where people were really experimenting with German influences like Neu! and Can. When John and I came together, we just wanted to mix everything together. We were living in Boston, for Christ’s sake – at that point, indie rock ground central. We were encouraged by hearing things like Beck because this guy’s obviously pulling from different sources, understanding that great music is made through cross-pollination. 

It seems like a really difficult needle to thread, though. For every great experiment, there were other experiments, like blending rap and metal, that just didn’t work. 

Barlow: I’ll also say this. I don’t know if anti-masculine is the correct way of saying it, but we absolutely wanted to undermine any kind of macho approach or style. You know, we really loved Nirvana. There were a lot of great things about indie rock in the ’90s, like the riot grrl stuff. 

Davis: Kurt was so supportive.

Barlow: But we wanted to undermine it in a sexual way, too. We wanted to sexualize the music a little bit because indie rock wasn’t sexy. I’d spent most of my adulthood on the road at that point, you know, being in bands with guys and playing in clubs. John and I were having what I found to be very refreshing conversations about sexuality in music, masculine versus feminine, combining all these things, which was really crucial to what we were doing from the beginning. Even when we were making our kind of garage rock, four-track, new wave recordings.

Davis: I think that there’s a formal part of it that a lot of people don’t really tend to look at with hip-hop by focusing on the rapping and that stuff. We made an agreement not to do any rapping because we thought that would be inappropriate, you know. But the production is really fascinating, and I think some people, though they were influenced by that, didn’t really take away the same lessons we did. I think it has to do with gender. Certainly, as someone who is doing most of the guitar playing and the drumming, a lot of that is about restraint. I think some white people are very oriented to like, “I’m going to play this guitar solo; I’m going to dominate you. The song’s going to stop, and I’m just going to shred for a while.” [laughs]

I was listening to a lot of the Star Time (1991) box set of James Brown, and the guitar playing on those records is brilliant. Or Fela Kuti‘s records because it’s so minimal and it’s not distorted. And Lou is such a unique and brilliant bass player, not to embarrass you, but I just think the first things we did, playing a lot of stompboxes, really loud distorted guitars, and bashing away on the ride cymbal … Basically, obliterating the frequency ranges that are dominant in funk music, which is like, you know, how A Tribe Called Quest made The Low End Theory (1991). But it’s not just that it’s low. It’s very danceable. The bass was really important to what we were doing, and I think also just to have space left for a lot of sampling. 

What is so cool about sampling is that you can’t really predict what kinds of sounds are going to come next, even though we were doing a lot of this stuff with real instruments, even if I was restraining myself as a guitar player. On “Natural One”, there’s a bar chord that comes in every once in a while and a riff in the chorus, but that left space for the vibraslap to be heard, for the harpsichord sample to be heard. So, there’s this removing of things that are dominant in rock, which are in this high, mid-frequency range, so you can hear things that either would be too quiet to be heard in a Boston indie rock record of that time, for example, or, on the low end, with the drums and bass and not doing a lot of drum fills, not doing a lot of cymbals. We were influenced by the way hip-hop made certain frequency ranges that were really exciting to us more audible in music.

As a listener, I completely agree that what makes this album work and why it lasts to my ear is that it’s very elemental and stripped down in a sense, even though it has these layered elements that you’re talking about. The hip-hop experiments that bands like R.E.M. on Out of Time (1991) with KRS-One and Sonic Youth with Chuck D on “Kool Thing”: those were noble experiments, but they didn’t quite come together musically.

Davis: I think there’s one way hip-hop is perceived, which focuses on the lyrical content. People love that phrase from Chuck D that hip-hop is like CNN for Black people, with hip-hop only interesting for its sociological content. But that’s really disrespectful to the producers that made that music, who are artists. They have formal ideas in addition to content. It’s not just talking about “the ‘hood”. They’re engaged in record production. With the genres they are sampling, the production is very sophisticated on those records and very interactive with the audience. 

We wanted the instruments to interact with each other. At indie rock shows, no one really is dancing, you know? I went to see Carl Craig last year, the Detroit techno master and it’s so interesting in that genre. They don’t introduce themselves. You can’t even see their faces. They just come on behind the decks, and they’re just doing this stuff. It’s all about the dancers vibing on each other. There’s something punk about that because it’s not about hero worship. It was so much fun. It was so refreshing to hear these different sounds that could emerge and be fully heard without being drowned out.