Harmony Korine and the
Soundtracking of Kids
I want to get back to 1995. My understanding is that Harmony Korine reached out to you, Lou. Is that correct? Was it a cold call kind of thing, or had you known each other?
Barlow: He sent crazy fan letters. Just these crazy kinds of fan letters. I wasn’t getting a ton of fan letters back then, but I did get some, and a lot of them were funny and crazy, though he was like, “I’m going to be a filmmaker.” He just had this sense. He was totally manifesting from when he was young. And then he started dropping lines like, “I’m going to make a movie with Larry Clark.” I did have knowledge of who Clark was because I had friends at Hampshire College who were photography students who had his books. I was like, “What, are you fucking kidding?” But my partner at the time was like, “I think this kid is for real, and you got to fucking follow up on this shit.” And I was like, okay, and I did. And Harmony, sure enough, found Larry Clark. How this old guy hooked up with this very young man: I don’t know how it happened.
Davis: You know, it makes me think of the Fugs song, “Dirty Old Man”, because I think what happened is that Larry was hanging out at Washington Square Park with these skateboarders, and the song “Dirty Old Man” is about hanging out by the schoolyard.
Barlow: “Communist literature in my hands….”
Davis: I don’t know how he got their trust, but he was this somewhat creepy older guy hanging around these skateboarders. I don’t know how he picked Harmony out of that crowd.
Barlow: So, yeah, Harmony found his way into the art scene, and he had sent me two scripts early on. One was called Ken Park [later made and released in 2002], and the other was called Kids, and they were both totally, super fucking brutal. Very basic. I was like, “This is a script?” It was sort of refreshing in the sense that there was no anybody; there was no complex dialogue. It was just like a series of grunts. There was no character development. There was none of that. It was just obviously this really brutal thing. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted to do with it visually, obviously, and Larry was the man for that. Anyway, I ended up in New York and did, like, a little slumber party with Larry and Harmony at Larry’s loft in Soho.
So, you’re contacted by Harmony Korine, you get the script, you go to New York. Was that before the film was shot, or was it after?
Barlow: They were just beginning to cast the movie. What was cool is that they wanted whoever did the soundtrack to be involved at the beginning of the film.
Did you advise at all in the making of the film, or were you in the background?
Barlow: I had nothing to do with that. They just wanted me to know what they were up to. I think, as artists, they appreciated the fact that if I was around it, I would be inspired by it. It quickly became clear that I was going to be scoring the film or doing the soundtrack, so my first thing was I wanted John to be involved because we were really hitting our stride as collaborators. For one thing, I can’t play drums. Also, everything is about a discussion. It’s a conversation. You know? It’s a conversation that you’re trying to continue.
Musically, John and I had a conversation, and we also had a literal conversation, which was golden to me because, at that time, with indie rock, people didn’t talk about being intellectually interested in the music you were making or being blatantly interested in musical history. It was not considered cool. So, I was thrilled that with John, I had somebody that I was having these conversations with. I knew I wanted John to be involved.
Was it a situation where the film was shot, you watched a rough cut of the film, and then composed the music? Or did you compose the music on your own?
Barlow: We sent things that we just thought sounded good, and then we also did things that were specifically scored for scenes.
Davis: They sent us scenes, not the whole film, like piecemeal on VHS. We had a VHS player hooked up to a TV in a couple of spots in the studio, and one was in the control room, actually, which was really handy. There was one out by the coffee machine. I remember Carl Plaster [the audio engineer] playing Devo videos. That was awesome. But it was more interesting to me to look at Kids in a fragmentary way.
You didn’t have a whole concept of the film.
Davis: I think we knew that it was about this HIV thing. But I think the main thing I would like to know, if I still had my copy of the script, was whether the script indicated the race of the different characters. Because I think that’s an under-discussed part of the movie, that it was this multiracial social space. And regarding things to be critiqued about the film, there was this trio of white buddies that were controlling the narrative, one being me and Louis, Harmony and Larry, and then Telly and Casper. But in the background, there are these multiracial characters. I don’t know whether that was in the script originally. I can’t remember.
But I definitely like the way it was shot. The texture of it reminded me of a John Cassavetes movie, with the handheld camera, saturated film stock, a New York kind of thing. When I was in school, I’d seen every one of John Cassavetes’ movies on the big screen. I just think that Kids showed New York in a way that was so different from, I don’t know. When was Friends on the air? You had Friends and Seinfeld. That view of New York.
How long did it take to put the album together?
Barlow: John said ten days the other day.
Davis: Spread out over maybe three months. They would say, “We shot this scene; we have this scene for you.” And then we would go in and book another couple of days.
Were these tracks just first takes or second takes, like you’re playing along to what you’re seeing?
Barlow: “Natural One” was actually really quick.
Davis: We have a really weird way of working. Going back to our first four-track stuff, we rarely have things written before we start recording, which has driven some people who have recorded and produced us nuts. But I think that does allow a certain spontaneity. We would practice, like when we did “Crash”. I remember we rehearsed in the studio, and I remember writing on note paper, “This part four times, this part six times.” I remember for “Natural One” having to do several takes of the drums, so there’s a certain refinement. But none of it was really written.
Barlow: You start with these basic skeletons, having no idea. That’s what’s really exciting, actually, about doing a film soundtrack. You make these skeletons, and then you start fleshing them out, but just going by intuition and instinct. Then, they become things that you never could have imagined when you started. That’s something that I’ve always appreciated about John, the way that John and I work, and the Kids soundtrack. To be honest, I think all our records are like that. We’re in the middle of another record that’s doing the same thing. I’m like, “What the what? Whoa, where did that song come from? What is this? Where will this end up?”
I think what was exciting about that period was that it was immediate, you know, and we were also fully funded in the studio, which is not generally what happens, and we were free from any kind of stylistic constraints.
Davis: It was a unique opportunity to have a major label-type budget without signing it long-term, without signing a contract. It’s not like we had to recoup this advance. Just make cool shit for this movie.
Barlow: It was also a drop in the bucket compared to what most people do. It was absolutely nothing.
Davis: They were making fun of us because I would ask, “Can we get some more money for 1 or 2 more days in the studio?” And the producers would be like, “Dude, yes, you pathetic little shit.” Just the idea that you could ask anyone for money was scary.
Barlow: John was pretty young at that point.
Davis: I was 24, I think. But it was fun in that studio just to walk in and see what instruments were there. A lot of the arrangements came out of us just cleaning out the closet. We would use all these things in the studio that most bands either wouldn’t use or you wouldn’t be able to hear because the guitars were so loud. When we started hearing the playback, people would walk out of the Fort Apache office, and they’d go, “What’s going on in there?” It was exciting for the studio because part of being a studio owner is, I don’t really like this word, but it’s curating. You’re creating this sonic playground for people to explore, but it’s rarely explored in an open-ended way. We used a broom on one song. Tim, our producer Tim O’Heir, would pull something out and be like, let’s try this.
Barlow: We would make them prominent parts of the songs as well. That was really cool. Even the vibraslap, we put it loud.
Davis: I thought that studio had really good taste in terms of some of the things they had there. It was fun for the studio owner to see the full run of it get used.
Just to be clear, you didn’t record any demos in New York; it was all at Fort Apache in Boston.
Davis: Everything was recorded in Boston.
Barlow: Even if we didn’t record it at Fort Apache, it was recorded in John’s bedroom.
Davis: “Jenny’s Theme” was done in my bedroom.
With the first soundtrack release, you had a song by Daniel Johnston opening it, and then you had Slint closing the album with “Good Morning, Captain”. Explain those inclusions.
Barlow: That was done by Harmony. Harmony and Larry had very specific ideas. Harmony really wanted to put Daniel Johnston in the movie. They had one of my songs from Sebadoh, “Spoiled”, which I believe was with the end credits. Then they had something I retitled “Raise the Bells”, originally from a cassette that I had put out that Harmony liked. So, they did have things that they wanted to be in there. For instance, there was a cab ride in the movie that they wanted us to score, but Larry had a very specific idea of a classic jazz piece that he wanted there. So, in the end, the jazz piece is there. I think a lot of times with directors, if they have placeholders, they can get very attached to them, and you can’t divest them of that. There are obviously several things on the soundtrack that are not in the score of the film.
I don’t think Slint’s “Good Morning, Captain” is in the film at all.
Barlow: No, they didn’t have it. Soundtracks were such a big promotional tool for albums back then, and they would often have bands on the soundtrack but not in the film. It’s cool that the Kids soundtrack did not have a track listing of all the bands that were currently being pushed to radio by major labels. It was actually curated by Harmony.
That leads to my next question. After the success of Kids, did Harmony approach you for Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, or any of his other films?
Barlow: We were never approached to do another soundtrack ever again. That’s straight up. [laughs]
Davis: Never made us a single offer to do another. [laughs]
Barlow: I mean, we were courted by a lot of major labels at that time simply because “Natural One” hit Number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. So, we did have that, but they were all after another hit song. We were never approached by any other filmmakers. I don’t think we spoke to Harmony again. It seemed like halfway through the movie, Harmony just disappeared. He had done his part. At that point, even Kids, as gritty and independent as it is, there were a lot of fingers in it. We did get a taste of the upper studio. This was not an entirely independent film. We endured a lot. We endured one screening of the film for a lot of the money people who said just insanely stupid shit. And you’re like, okay.
Davis: We now know about Harvey Weinstein. It was the rape scene in the movie.
You haven’t reconnected with Harmony with this new release.
Barlow: We never saw Harmony or Larry again. They moved on to other things. They were very ambitious, both of them in their own ways. I think that Kids was just something they were moving through onto something else. And, you know, us, too.
Harmony is a fascinating filmmaker. I can’t say I love all his work, but he definitely has an interesting personal vision. Maybe because Kids is directed by Larry and not by Harmony, but it’s a better film than some of the other films that Harmony has done since. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Beach Bum (2019), his stoner comedy with Matthew McConaughey, Jimmy Buffett, and Snoop Dogg?
Davis: Certainly, to my knowledge, he’s probably the weirdest person who has made as many movies as he has, and I think that’s an achievement. I just think that he’s really into shock value in a way that I don’t really relate to.
Barlow: I loved Gummo, I’ll say that.
Davis: I should see that then.
Barlow: I mean, it’s totally ridiculous. His ideas were so out there. I just remember that one of the first things that he sent me was a film by Spike Jonze when he was a skate photographer before he had any renown at all. He made this skate film, and that’s one of the first things Harmony sent me, which was like, you know, a lot of skating. Like pre-Jackass (2000) stuff, basically, right? But it ends with all the skaters in a car launching off a cliff and crashing. That was Harmony’s message, “Here, this is what I like.” Kids is a more moralistic piece. But, yeah, Harmony was way more like fucking chaos. When I met him, we walked the streets of New York with Larry, and Harmony was throwing those little explosive poppers at old ladies and cops. He was a total edge lord. “Who’s going to say something? Who’s going to make me stop?” That was Harmony. I didn’t know what reaction he wanted from me.
Davis: I think he had that real sort of bullshit artist thing, and it’s sort of admirable. That was very consistent in every interaction we had with him. I don’t think that we’re really like that as people, you know.