Music by VICE

The Story of How Lou Barlow and 'KIDS' Soundtracked the Summer of 1995

We talk with Barlow about collaborating with Harmony Korine to create the songs for Larry Clark's groundbreaking film—from the highs of The Folk Implosion's biggest hit to the subsequent major label pressure and fallout.

by Cam Lindsay
Mar 21 2017, 5:15pm

The summer of 1995 was a surprisingly solid time for soundtracks. In a season that witnessed the Battle of Britpop, the artistic revolution of Alanis Morissette, and TLC and Biggie dominated the Top 40, movie music had a real shining moment. The soundtrack to the totally bogus, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring Dangerous Minds gave us Coolio's immortal mega-hit "Gangsta's Paradise" and sold an impressive three million copies. Val Kilmer may have been a lifeless Batman, but the soundtrack to Batman Forever was the exact opposite, boasting a vibrant tracklist featuring PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Sunny Day Real Estate, the Flaming Lips, Massive Attack and possibly the last great tune U2 recorded ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me). Clueless, on the other hand, was truly an awesome flick, and although the album relied on previously released cuts by Radiohead, Luscious Jackson, Velocity Girl, Smoking Popes and Supergrass, at least they picked the right ones. No one but maybe me saw Angus, but the soundtrack, featuring peak-era Green Day, Weezer and Goo Goo Dolls, along with UK indie heartthrobs Ash, was a perfect dose of pop punk to help an overweight geek take down a bullying James Van Der Beek.

All of those albums were the equivalent of the fire emoji in the summer of '95, just as the music supervisors that compiled them expected them to be. But it was the surprising music of an indie film about a pack of disaffected teenagers taking lots of drugs and having lots of unprotected sex that, for me, and a lot of other teenagers who weren't taking lots of drugs and having lots of unprotected sex, soundtracked our summer.

Directed by acclaimed photographer Larry Clark and written by newcomer Harmony Korine, KIDS was 1995's most talked about film. Korine's provocative script depicted the daily life of morally corrupt teenagers who partake in illicit drugs, statutory rape and various crimes. Clark's documentary-style approach to shooting as well as the insistence on casting real life NYC kids and implanting an HIV outbreak into the plot gave KIDS an eerily "too real" vibe. It may have been praised by the likes of Roger Ebert, the Village Voice and the New York Times, but it had far more detractors up against it, some even calling it "kiddie porn." Slapped with a NC-17 rating by the MPAA, the film had to be bought back by the Weinstein brothers after Disney, which owned Miramax, refused to distribute it.

Of course, free from all of the controversy was the film's soundtrack. In 1995, there was no American indie rock artist quite so revered as Lou Barlow (especially in my opinion). The poster boy of lo-fi, Barlow had amassed a substantial library of music up to that point through his many projects: Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, Lou Barlow, and previously, Deep Wound and Dinosaur Jr. Korine was a fan of Barlow's work and handpicked him to provide original music for the film.

"Harmony hadn't done anything at that point," explains Barlow over the phone. "It just seemed like an eccentric fan letter. I didn't really understand if it was for real. But he really liked my solo Sentridoh work I was doing with the four-track, the stuff that shaped early Sebadoh. At the time we had moved away from the lo-fi stuff, but Harmony wanted that. He was looking for this nerdy, bespectacled guy indie rock juxtaposed with this urban landscape, which I thought was a pretty interesting concept."

Barlow became involved from the outset, even before the filming had taken place, which gave him an advantage when it came to composing the music. He was there in New York when casting began. "It was this really young kid and this creepy older dude, and I couldn't believe they were gonna make this movie," he admits.

Of all the different outlets Barlow was juggling, he was able to take his pick. But he felt The Folk Implosion, a versatile and fairly new project with John Davis, was the most relevant. In fact, they were already making music that fit the description of what Korine had him asked for. "As we began to make the film, my friend John Davis and I wanted to actually incorporate more of what would be considered urban music into the music we were making," he says. "That was a decision we had already made before talking to Harmony."

Barlow was in between albums with his indie rock band Sebadoh, his most lucrative project, but that didn't even matter. In 1995, it was The Folk Implosion that had his creative juices flowing. "We'd started collaborating about a year before and we were on a tear as a songwriting team," Barlow admits. "That's kind of why I brought John into it, because I knew he would be the best person to work with conceptually. It was great. We were just constantly talking about music, brainstorming and experimenting. He was a very inventive and I was really embracing the bass."

The Folk Implosion had only put out a few slapdash releases of scratchy, wandering indie before Korine came knocking. To make the most out of the experience, they played around with different ideas they hadn't yet tried. "We wanted to incorporate sampling, which was a step we hadn't really taken yet," Barlow says. "For us it was like, 'If we're gonna do this urban film, well then this was a good opportunity. We were also given free studio time. They hooked us up with this guy Randall Poster, who is a huge music supervisor now, and he became our liaison. And so he booked us some studio time in Fort Apache in Boston, and then we basically had this amazing studio at our disposal. And there was a guy there named Wally Gagel, who was into newer technology at the time. That was the beginning of our relationship with him, and he went on to record the next two Folk Implosion records."

What Barlow and Davis came up with was just the right balance of dingy, beat-driven sound collages that fit the range of emotions and depraved activity Clark's visuals displayed. "What I really liked was the stuff we did on four-track," Barlow says. "The four-track gives the music a lo-fi, spooky sound that immediately becomes timeless for me, and I loved the way it combined with a big screen image. That was awesome. But I think 'Jenny's Theme' worked really well. John's guitar on that was amazing: the sound, the style, the way it worked with my bass and his drumming. There was something really cool about it."

The movie is book-ended by its two most shocking scenes, and the songs used weren't by The Folk Implosion, but two other Barlow projects. The opening scene, where protagonist/antagonist Teddy (Leo Fitzpatrick) coaxes a 12-year-old girl into losing her virginity uses an explosive punk rock jam called "Daddy Never Understood" to segue into the credits. The band is the Deluxx Folk Implosion, a hybrid consisting of Barlow and Davis, along with Sebadoh drummer Bob Fay and Mark Peretta.

"It was a really vital time for me—I was writing all of the time," Barlow says. "Sebadoh had put out Bakesale and we started to well. Bob and I didn't have to work, so we had a lot of time on our hands. Just for the hell of it Bob, Mark, John and myself were jamming and we just called it Deluxx Folk Implosion. That happened before KIDS, and then when we needed a punk song for the soundtrack we were like, 'OK, well, we have a punk band called Deluxx Folk Implosion.' And I thought 'Daddy Never Understood' would sound great on the soundtrack, so we re-recorded it."

For the final shot of the film, where Casper (Justin Pierce) awakens the morning after raping the HIV-positive Jenny (Chloe Sevigny), a haunting, lo-fi acoustic number by Sebadoh called "Spoiled" plays out the end credits. That was one of a five tracks—including the two Daniel Johnston contributions, "Mad Fright Night" by rap outfit Lo-Down, and Slint's "Good Morning, Captain"—that Korine hand-picked for the album.

What no one predicted or could have predicted was that KIDS would spawn an actual hit song. Up until this point, Barlow was very much a hero of the independent and underground music scene. Sebadoh were one of the biggest indie rock bands around, however, outside of college rock radio, they barely existed on the airwaves. Ironically, the song that became a hit didn't even appear in the film. But "Natural One" benefitted from all of the attention the movie garnered and found its way into MTV's Buzz Bin. "When we recorded the song I thought it was cool and interesting," he confesses. "We recorded it at Fort Apache and when we did the initial playback, my reaction was, 'Ooh, this sounds really good. Wow!' At that point, everything was moving forward for me. Sebadoh was doing better with each record, and I felt like I was kind of hitting a peak with this song."

With "Natural One," the soundtrack's label, London Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music, latched on to the song's potential and pushed it hard. Barlow, who up until this point had exclusively worked with independent labels, was more than happy to see how the major label machine worked. "London at that point had some success. Our main contact at the label was the guy who'd signed Salt 'n' Pepa, and had just done the first Portishead record, which was a hit," he explains. "When we gave them 'Natural One' they handed it off to their radio promo guy, and this was during a period in the'90s when there was a heavy, alternative radio promo scene. You hire your independent promoter and they go to these elaborate, disguised payola things and get airplay for songs. 'Natural One' got added to all of these radio stations because we had a really good promo guy."

Lou Barlow

Barlow isn't all that surprised that "Natural One" is still the most successful thing he's released. It received far more exposure on radio and MTV than anything he's been involved with—including the music he's made with Dinosaur Jr. "The song was in a film. The film had national distribution. The soundtrack was on a major label. And there was the radio thing, we made a video for it, MTV played the video. It was the most promoted thing I'd ever done," he says. "Sebadoh was well promoted, but this was another level. There was a lot more money involved. It was my first real chance, but also possibly my last chance. There was a lot of corporate juice behind it, but I felt really good about it also. It was just a nice little moment."

The KIDS soundtrack went on to sell over 150,000 copies in the US alone, a respectable total for an album of its kind. With all of the support from radio and MTV it received, however, Barlow appears a little underwhelmed by the corresponding sales. "Later on there was actually an article in Rolling Stone called 'Radio Hits That Nobody Buys,' and right in the forefront of the picture was the 'Natural One' single," he says with a laugh. "That song was a really big hit. It topped the alternative radio charts and dance charts, and I think it went to number 26 on Billboard, but there were no corresponding sales."

The success of KIDS made stars out of actors Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick, as well as Harmony Korine, who remains to be cinema's enfant terrible. And although they never returned to the Billboard charts, it also raised The Folk Implosion's profile. Not long after the band were courted by major labels and eventually signed a short-lived deal with Interscope.

"Expectations afterward were a little unmanageable," says Barlow. "We weren't really a live band, so because we did have a radio hit we were offered a tour with White Zombie in Asia. And we were like, 'That's not gonna happen!' It was a really idiosyncratic project. I was certainly road worn through my years with Dinosaur and Sebadoh, but John certainly wasn't comfortable. He had never really toured before at that point. We both had our other projects, so we couldn't really follow up on what was expected of us.

"What we did do was go with Wally into a smaller, cheaper studio and work on another record that came out later called Dare To Be Surprised. Based on 'Natural One' we signed to Interscope Records and did our final album, [1999's] One Part Lullaby. [Barlow went on to release a final album in 2003 without Davis called The New Folk Implosion.] By that point the weight of the expectations and signing to a real major label—because we weren't really signed to London—where we spent a lot of money led to way too much pressure. While we were making that album, it was just on the eve of the record industry collapsing. As far as the label was concerned the album was a total failure. While I was working on a follow-up to the record Interscope dropped me."

Two decades after its release, the music of KIDS resonates just as strongly as Korine's script and Clark's images. The music Barlow and Davis created has also found new life in the work of others. Girl Talk sampled "Natural One" for his breakthrough album, 2006's Night Ripper, while last year The Avalanches used a snippet of "Raise the Bells" on their comeback album, Wildflower. Although the album's reissue would have made more sense when the film celebrated its 20th anniversary two years ago, Barlow is still fond of talking about it.

"I really like it still," he says. "My favorite records, I swear, are mostly compilation records. And this record is a compilation. We do have the majority of the tracks, but I think the addition of the others totally works. It's really good. The rap song [Lo-Down's "Mad Fright Night"] was unknown to me but I really like it. The Slint song was excellent, as were Daniel's songs. I like records that have a lot of variety on them, both sonically and texturally, and that record definitely has a variety of textures."

The KIDS Original Soundtrack vinyl reissue is available on MVD .

For more KIDS related goodness check out this piece where we tracked down the skate crew from the film to find out what was up, 20 years later.

Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.