No one was more surprised than the Folk Implosion's Lou Barlow when a slinky tune called "Natural One" bounded into the national Top 40. Who would have guessed that a minor art-house film like Kids could yield a smash radio single?
"I have to admit, I was completely psyched when it happened," admits Barlow, calling from his Boston home. "Top 40, who woulda thought? It was fucking great. And it came together so quickly. The record company [London] had no idea they had a hit on their hands, but when it happened, they jumped behind it and threw a shitload of money at it. It was just so satisfying to see something that was basically put together in the same spirit as anything else I've done find a larger audience, with no relation to low-fi or anything like that. Just people who listen to the radio, regular rock fans."
Yes, after years of toiling in the underground trenches with Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, Barlow finally had his commercial breakthrough. It was an especially unlikely crossover, since "Natural One" (as well as a few other tracks on the Kids album) didn't even appear in the actual film. Still, Barlow admits that he and collaborator John Davis instantly realized the track was special.
"Yeah, we knew it. When we did the final mix of it, it was like 'Whoa, holy shit!' I mean, John and I are pretty good at enjoying our own stuff. We compliment ourselves freely when we finish something we really like, and listen to it a bunch of times and get really into it. That song was no exception. Especially because it had almost a serious vibe to it, we knew that we had kinda hit on something. It was a real revelation for us."
Given the Folk Implosion's new high profile, it's a bit unexpected that the duo's latest release Dare To Be Surprised isn't also on London Records (or even another major), rather than on the small indie label Communion.
"Sure, [London] wanted to sign us," Barlow smiles. "I mean, the label president definitely made several flights up here to treat us to dinner, trying to get us interested in signing. But we had already decided that we'd rather record with Communion. We don't have to sign with a major label in order to make money. We didn't want to make a jump that we didn't understand."
"We really scaled back when we did this record," he adds proudly. "We did it with eight tracks, and a very modest recording budget. We recorded it in a tiny practice space, basically. As the project went on, we ended up adding a second eight-track machine and running it in tandem with the other one, but it was still incredibly meager."
Dare To Be Surprised -- the band's first full album ever, following a few hefty EPs -- is a seductively low-key affair. "Insinuation" and "Wide Web" echo the murmured hip-hop of "Natural One," while other tracks shift between skewed indie-rock ("Pole Position," "That's The Trick"), geometric guitar trickles ("Burning Paper," "Checking In"), playful kiddie pop ("Barricade," "Fall Into November") and two brief instrumentals. Davis and Barlow croon the vocals in multi-tracked unison, sketching fragmented tales of melancholy and cynicism. The disc may lack Sebadoh's spunk and emotional tug, but it compensates with alluring grooves and homespun intimacy.
"It's not histrionic," Barlow observes. "It's much more insinuating. A little more threatening, as well. There's one regret I would have about the new record: the lack of a certain vocal push. But at the same time, I do really like the vibe. There's definitely a vibe to this record, but we also know that the next time, we can easily sidestep that and express all this stuff in a totally different way."
Ever the pure artist, he notes that the success of "Natural One" had only a mild effect on the new album. "It influenced certain lyrics. I mean, we have certain formulas and strengths. There's definitely a style to the way that John and I write together, and 'Natural One' is an expression of one side of that style. There's other songs on the new record with that same kind of structure. But musically, until we get into a bigger studio, we're not ever gonna be able to make something that sounds like a follow-up. A lot of what made 'Natural One' sound so great was the fact that we did it in a huge studio, with a nice huge room and fucking great mikes. This album is well-recorded, for what it is. But you can definitely tell it's missing the 'room sound' of the stuff that we did for Kids. It's missing that ambience."
No lyric shows Barlow's independent stance better than the catchy "Pole Position," easily the disc's most Sebadoh-like track. Lines like "I'm no lawyer, you're no judge/It's my right and I won't budge" and "Getting paid to build this maze/Pound that puzzle back in place" clearly spell out his self-reliant outlook.
"The way we approach about half our songs lyrically is sort of the same way that rappers approach their songs," Barlow says. "They sing about themselves and their careers. I mean, 'getting paid to build this maze' -- that's just about how there's all these different projects and all these different vibes to the music I'm producing, and it totally confuses people. People make this judgment that it's undermining my career, or that it's me trying to sidestep success or something like that. But the fact is, I'm doing quite well. I'm getting paid to build this maze. Another line is 'Stop your watch and get off my back' -- that's a big part of it too. It's like, look, we'll pursue success at our own pace. It's us trying to weigh the success of 'Natural One' versus our own creative and personal life pursuits, and trying to find a middle ground where we're happy and doing what we want."
Barlow always stresses that the Folk Implosion is a 50/50 partnership, and explains that the contrast between Sebadoh's ragged rock and this band's subtle funkiness is merely a question of chemistry.
"It has a lot to do with how John and I play together. It's easier for us to let those hip-hop influences show. It's the way that he plays drums, and I play bass. But when I pick up a guitar with Sebadoh, I gravitate toward folk-rock. I don't try to start playing off bogus styles. That doesn't make any sense to me. I believe in finding the natural common ground. That's where the real stuff happens. Trying to assume a style just because you like it is tacky."
Despite the Folk Implosion's chart success, Barlow says that Sebadoh's shadow still hangs heavily over the band. "In a certain way, Sebadoh is still far more popular than the Folk Implosion. It's interesting how that works. It's so funny -- when I'm on tour with Sebadoh, people are like, 'How do you feel now that Folk Implosion is so much more popular?' And I'll be like, 'Are they really?' And they say, 'Oh yeah!' Then when I'm out with Folk Implosion, all the people coming to shows are Sebadoh fans going, 'I really love Sebadoh....' [laugh] There's far less people going to see the Folk Implosion. In Sebadoh, we worked really hard to be a band and we kinda maintained an audience, and it has actually paid off. The Folk Implosion are only just beginning to do that. It's really interesting."
As yet, the studio-based Folk Implosion have played live only a few times. Barlow says the group could tour more in the near future, however.
"We'll have to see what happens with the record. If there's interest or 'Insinuation' does OK on the radio, it would be good to try to preserve any recognition we get. Just to say, 'This is Folk Implosion. This is John and Lou -- we're the guys behind Folk Implosion. This is not a Sebadoh side project. This is something totally different.' Just to maintain some dangling hold on an audience [chuckle], so we can have people who will follow us. Musically, we just have so much left to do."
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