Folk Implosion

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Joyful Noise Recordings
Apple Music

the Folk Implosion

Joyful Noise

“How the fuck are we going to turn this into a song?” That’s the question Lou Barlow and John Davis have asked themselves since co-founding the Folk Implosion in the early 1990s. Beginning with improvised jams featuring Barlow on bass and Davis on drums, the duo develop their beat-driven pop collages from the ground up. It’s the process they used on their debut cassette, Walk Through This World with the Folk Implosion, and one they’ve returned to 30 years later on their spellbinding, self-referencing reunion, Walk Thru Me.

Back in 1989, Davis sent a tape to Barlow. The shaggy-haired songwriter had been kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. one year earlier, and was just getting started with his band Sebadoh. Inspiring countless DIY-ers to record albums in their bedrooms, Sebadoh even coined a name for the genre with their song “Gimme Indie Rock!” Davis and Barlow’s collaboration stayed subterranean until they recorded the soundtrack of Larry Clark’s landmark 1995 indie film, KIDS, launching the Folk Implosion above ground with their hit single, “Natural One.” The band’s third album, One Part Lullaby, was released by a major, before Davis departed in the early aughts, and Barlow carried on with 2003’s The New Folk Implosion.

Two decades later, the seeds for the duo’s reunion were planted on Facebook. “It was the middle of the pandemic and we were old guy musicians commenting on a lot of the same things,” says Barlow. Davis had recently returned to the Folk Implosion songbook during a solo tour of New Zealand and Australia, where fans encouraged him to reconnect with his bandmate. “There was a moment when I was worried one of us might kick it, or never talk to each other again,” Davis says, “so I decided we should pick it back up.”

Separated from their homes in Massachusetts and North Carolina, Barlow and Davis collaborated remotely with support from producer Scott Solter (St. Vincent, Spoon, The Mountain Goats), who Davis had worked with since his 2017 solo album, El Pulpo. The distance took the Folk Implosion members back to their early friendship as penpals. “We decided to make a pair of songs without telling anybody we were back together,” Davis recalls. “That way we didn’t create any expectations, and no one was looking in.” The Feel It If You Feel It EP bore the fruits of their labor, followed by several years of recording Walk Thru Me in fits and starts. A sweaty July 15th bass and drums session went down in Barlow’s attic before booking studio time in both MA and NC, where the trio fleshed out song sketches with lush arrangements as their lives swirled around them.

“There are lots of mature themes on this album like divorce, your parents dying, and coming to grips with your country’s place in the world,” says Davis. “I work with the teacher’s union here, and I’m interested in lots of leftist politics.” As the band’s resident father, Barlow took the lead on “My Little Lamb,” a tough yet tender ode to parenthood. “That’s my first stab at articulating what it’s like being a dad,” he explains. “So many wild and heartbreaking things happened to me during the pandemic, and I wanted to put them all into that song.”

“My Little Lamb” flows into “Bobblehead,” a song that Davis describes as “Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent meets ‘Beautiful World’ by DEVO.” Originally based on an intimate relationship where someone preferred to be propped up instead of listening to opposing perspectives, Davis rewrote the lyrics 15 years later to make them more broadly political. “I like sports, but I think the culture around it has become very militaristic,” he says. “We see facile representations of it like a fighter plane flying over a football game. ‘Bobblehead’ also fits with ‘Water Torture’ in my mind, because they are about different sides of empire—the violence abroad and the selling of it back home.”

Contrasts and comparisons are the keys to unlocking Walk Thru Me, and the Folk Implosion as a whole. Beyond the audible differences between Barlow’s soft voice and Davis’s urgent, reedy proclamations, their approaches to songwriting are strikingly distinct. Both musicians are concerned with fatherhood—but from different angles. While Barlow approached his lyrics from a protective paternal perspective (“My Little Lamb”), Davis paid tribute to his late father, shining a light on their complicated relationship (“The Day You Died”).

The duo also dipped into bags of tricks developed while working on their separate solo projects. Barlow brought in Ryan Jewell on additional percussion after they collaborated on a film score, while Davis welcomed Justin Blatt from his solo backing band the Cicadas on strings. Finally, Davis’s Persian music studies in weekly Zoom lessons inspired him to integrate traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as the setar, oud, saz, and tombak.

“Because we’re so separate, part of this album is me desperately trying to telepathically communicate to John and Scott, who are 700 miles away from me,” Barlow concludes. “It’s always ‘here’s this,’ then the response to that, and the response to that. A big part of what I consider to be the Folk Implosion is taking disparate things and turning them into pop.”
– Jesse Locke