Siobhán Kane chats with Kurt Vile ahead of his upcoming gig in Whelan’s on Sunday 19th February.
The gifted Philadelphian that has produced four records (Constant Hitmaker, God Is Saying This To You, Childish Prodigy, Smoke Ring For My Halo) is as enthused by listening to music, as he is playing it. Influenced by a diverse range of sounds and musicians such as John Fahy, Bert Jansch, The Velvet Underground and Bruce Springsteen; his work is testament to the freewheeling creativity of many of those artists, providing something of a context for his own, which is rich, intelligent, and densely populated with tiny musical signposts such as folk and rock.
It was something of a dream for him, when, in 2009, he was signed to Matador Records, since he had grown up with the label, and many of its bands, such as Pavement (“I like all their records in different ways, which I’m sure could also somehow translate to the same way…ha!“). His last two records shook off aspects of his previously lo-fi sound to channel a fresher kind of Classic Rock, giving it a childish kiss. As upbeat as he is in real life, his songs often inhabit a melancholy world, evident on wrenching songs such as ‘Ghost Town’ and the plucking guitar on ‘Baby’s Arms’, and sometimes it feels as if Vile is confiding in us, the unknowable mass (“Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes, but I don’t pay ’em any mind. Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way” he mournfully recounts on ‘Ghost Town’).
In the last while it feels as if he is becoming (deservingly) more appreciated, from touring with J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, and featuring on his new record, playing at the Animal Collective-curated ATP last year, and routinely overwhelming with brilliant live shows (he was a highlight of the End of the Road Festival last year), but he is just as happy when creating his own music, lingering in record stores, and being at home with his family. Siobhán Kane talks to the lovely Kurt Vile.
Childish Prodigy in particular has both dense songs and some home recordings. It is such a pleasing mixture, were you quite anxious to capture both sides of recording on that record?
I don’t recall thinking of it like that, it was just me doing what I was doing at that stage you know? We started it sometime in 2007, my friend Jeff Zeigler did a great job of recording most of that record, he has a home studio in Philly called Uniform Recording with lots of great gear, a 16 track reel to reel, pro tools and things. Two songs were recorded at his place, and the two that weren’t recorded there are ‘Overnite Religion’ and ‘Blackberry Song’ which were home recordings in the actual ‘DIY’ sense, but the DIY aesthetic is throughout the whole record when you really look at it – I didn’t have a label yet, I funded the sessions myself, and didn’t have an actual full blown “producer” or anything like that. So the record’s really punk in that sense, we didn’t have a boss or anyone “higher up” in any form, Jeff and me and the rest of the band just really went for it, and figured it out as we went along. It was lots of fun, Jeff did an awesome job. It’s certainly a more ballsy record in ways. and definitely noisier at times, yet it’s still pretty, and it’s the one I shopped around, and that ultimately got me signed to Matador!
You create most of the songs on your acoustic guitar, then see how they stretch their legs, have any songs changed beyond recognition from when you first imagined and created them?
I wouldn’t say they’ve ever changed “beyond recognition” but they never turn out the exactly way you imagine they would. At least not for me. It will be nice if I can express what’s in my head a little more in the future, for certain songs anyway, but I think the element of surprise is what music is all about.
Have you been writing a little of your next record?
Yeah I’ve been writing a lot. A lot on the road and a lot at home, plus I’ve got songs I haven’t used yet, stuff like that. I think I’m ready to get back on the road and get my guitar chops up a bit more again, that’s when the riffs really start flowing, and then I’ll come back and hit the studio hard. I’ve been in the studio a little bit, but i’m feeling that I’d like to, and am ready to, take it to the next level.
Growing up, your Dad liked a lot of bluegrass and roots music, Doc Wilson, Rusty and Doug Cershaw, can you see elements of that in your work? Can you remember any other gems from that time?
Definitely. Some records that stand out would be Rusty and Doug Kershaw ‘Lousiana Man’, any Doc Watson, Harry Smith’s American Folk Anthology, John Denver’s ‘Country Road, Take Me Home’, and all of The Beatles.
Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, John Fahy, Bruce Springsteen, and younger artists like Pavement, and Dinosaur Jr all have some hazy common ground, not least that they are all influences of yours.
Sure there’s common ground, or some underlying thread of like-mindedness in most artists that are genuinely great for their own unique reasons – speaking of all the artists you mentioned above. I’m not really one to be able to put my finger on something like that either, but all those bands you mentioned are surely “classics” in their own right.
You went on tour with J Mascis, and then played on his latest solo record, how was that experience? He seems like a very generous man and musician.
It was incredible to be able to tour with J – with both Dinosaur Jr, and J solo, and likewise to play on his record – and also to give my music props in the press, surely. It was generous of him to include me in those things.
I think of that generosity in terms of you as well, and the spirit of collaboration you hold so dearly, not only with The Violators, but with Adam [Granduciel] and The War on Drugs, because that seemed like a moment in time, two equals creating. And you have helped each other out at different turns, which is so pleasing to see. How would you describe your relationship with Adam?
I’m stoked for Adam, that he’s getting the recognition he deserves. It’s weird to both be doing our own things now though, to this extent I mean, so we don’t get to see each other as much, and hardly get to play together because it’s more an adult-minded and career-oriented scenario going on these days with both of us. I’m sure we’ll end up jamming together again somehow, someday, maybe sooner than later, maybe not… but it’s weird how now the press wants us to describe our “kinship” so much when we’re both so busy and forced to be on our own. We’ve played together for so long. It’s safe to say that without each other neither of us would be exactly where we are now, but it’s kind of hard to explain to people who weren’t there, who’re trying to catch up, who most often get the story wrong and scatter it all over the interwebs, haha! But bottom line is, we’ve certainly made a shit load of cool music together.
Openness seems like a huge part of what you do, and lends itself to that from others, like Beach House, who were huge fans and early supporters of yours – imagine doing something with them – it would be lovely.
Oh yeah, surely. They are sweethearts and make sweet music. There are plenty of people I’d jam with…
You once said that your dream collaborator, or one of them, would be Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux (now RTX), then you did collaborate with her new band Black Bananas, covering the Rolling Stones – it must have been a musical Christmas Day for you.
Haha! When I said that in the interview, I already knew it was gonna happen, because I’m a smooth operator like that!
In terms of The Rolling Stones, I believe you have read several books relating to them, which have you found the best, and why?
The Victor Bockris biography on Keith Richards is great to start on Keith, I think, and then read his autobiography Life, because first you get a textbook historical document -albeit with a massively entertaining story line, and then you hear it from Keith’s mouth with all the extra-inside-gossip and showbiz tidbits, but safe to say occasionally it leans toward being self-serving….basically Keith’s side of the story. Keith, who is The Man – don’t get me wrong, a hero to millions including myself, but also an hilarious character. STP is a good Stones book about the ‘Exile on Main Street’ American tour, but it has a lot of debauchery. The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones is amazing, it goes up until Altamont, and there are some nice Gram Parsons moments in that one. I could go on…
You have a great relationship with the producer John Agnello, and have said you will be working again with him on your next record, could you expand a little on that?
He’s been doing it for a long time so I get the luxury of him understanding references to Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, but also to classic rock shit, you know? I never was looking for a young hotshot indie producer or something like that, I wanted someone who could span music history a little. I think that’s why I have alot of friends that’re older than me. I get to sit back with them, throw a record on and pick their brain about the “good ol’ days” haha! But a natural progression would be to delve more into the recording process, and the powers of more “hi fi” recording,
Your lyrics are so simple and full of depth, I keep thinking of the way John Lennon, especially later, wrote lyrics, moving and simple – would he be something of an inspiration?
Sure. I love Plastic Ono Band through to Milk and Honey, I got ’em, and love ’em all. He’s the greatest. I picked up a used copy of Legend in Scotland and almost cried in the van listening to it in my headphones. I was also exhausted!
I think in terms of nature and seasons passing when I think of some of your songs, are you very sensitive to time and seasons? I am thinking of ‘Classic Rock in Spring’, which sounds so spring-like, after the dark hibernation of the soul that winter can be, but also ‘Freeway’ is so summery, and ‘Overnite Religion’ sounds so autumnal – what are your thoughts?
All those you mentioned do indeed fall in with those seasons. It’s not always a reaction to the seasons, but as you’ve pinpointed, sometimes it is. I find I write alot over the holidays. from Thanksgiving to Christmas, there is something about having all the family around, and visiting places surrounded by your loved ones. I tend to pick up a guitar at night and the chords start coming. I only recently took note of this, and I wrote a bunch over the holidays this year. I wrote ‘He’s Alright’ several years ago over the holidays, actually.
Are there any musicians that you can recommend that we might not have heard yet, and also any books or films you have been consuming?
Fabulous Diamonds, Blues Control, Sore Eros, and Supreme Dicks. And I’m currently reading Junkie by William S. Burroughs, it’s so well written that it scares me!
I read that you love Withnail and I – one of my favourite parts is when they are in the tea shop “We want the finest wines known to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!” – it’s how it should be.
That’s hilarious! That’s the part that really made me and my wife Suzanne shit our pants with laughter. That and the part about the “randy bull”. By the way, we didn’t really shit our pants, haha!
Kurt Vile & The Violators play Whelan’s on Sunday 19th February.