After signing to Matador earlier this year, Kurt Vile is positioned as the latest long-hair millennial to draw parallels from critics to folk-rock and psych forebears Neil Young and Spacemen 3. Further adding to what molds rock mystique in 2009 is the fact that Vile's surname is indeed real, and, as you might have heard, he previously worked as a forklift operator in his native Philly. Manual labor now coos to America's indie set in tones more romanticized than perennial bedrock recordings (from which Vile's career first sparked).
Needless to say, there's a gracious helping of buzz and bangs to haze the identity of this 29-year-old dude. And even on Vile's third and latest album, entitled Child Prodigy, his enigmatic promise doesn't give way to a definitive, fully-realized sound. Instead, Vile continues to revel in soporific jams and lof-fi ballads before intermixing abstraction and stoney repetition. The line between a single and an experimental outtake is usually indistinguishable, much more so than on Vile's output as a member of War on Drugs. Talking with Vile, currently on tour and traveling in a "Budget Rental red van with one fucked up tire," he sounds happy with not having his future and future direction paved out. He's also stoked on Thanksgiving.
And forget the future, anyway: Now, tonight, Vile brings his Violators to Local 506 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So, I thought we were doing this interview on Halloween.
KURT VILE: Yeah, I did too.
But you guys played Dallas last night, an Elm Street party. How was that? Did you carve pumpkins after, all of that?
Nothing like that. I don't really have time to carve pumpkins. [Laughs.] I don't mind Halloween though. It was a free show with costumes—not that many people. Somebody stole my sweatshirt, too.
It was your lucky sweatshirt?
It was my favorite. It was green. [Coughs. Laughs.] It was a good sweatshirt.
Do you ever record without pre-written lyrics?
Not really. Sometimes when I played live in the past, I would. And songs like "Red Apples" and "Beach on the Moon," those are lyrics that I hadn't written down, so they might pop up in different places. Kinda free. But a lot of times, I'll be working on the song before I record it and change the lyrics as I go until I like it a lot. It's rare, but there are, like, "floating images" and I'll record them in a jam setting. I'm always so unorganized. I have a notebook, but a lot of the time my lyrics will end up on a piece of paper. And then I'll put them in the book later. I used to be more organized, but I just go with it.
Like, I wrote "Blackberry Song" a long time ago, maybe 2004, and it came out fast, like the best tunes. And I also don't usually realize where a lot the songs come from at first, but later on I do. "Blackberry Song" was actually inspired by this poem by Galway Kinnell. I saw him read, and it's called "Blackberry Eating." He read the poem and it was brilliant and kind of cute because he's this old guy, like, an old intellectual. Not that I even read much poetry, but I was moved at the time. It's just a real loose kind of Zen, I guess. And "Amplifier," an early version of that came from a CD-R I did in 2005 called Trial and Error, and it was intricate finger-picking and experimental for me at the time. The lyrics to that came out fast and abstract. It's about telling someone that you're alone even when you're with someone...
Yeah, sure. [Laughs.]
When you made Childish Prodigy, did you have the live show in mind compared to the songs on Constant Hitmaker?
Not exactly with touring in mind, but the live show with a rock band? Yeah. Most of my recordings before that were just home recordings, but I did record in the studio with [War on Drugs'] Adam Granduciel and we did "Freeway." My cousin showed up and played drums on that. That was a while back. But the Prodigy session, I wanted to capture the psych rock thing that we have started to do live.
Several of Prodigy's tracks have a wall-of-sound quality. "Amplifier" is one in particular. Was this a conscious decision?
Yeah, that stuff just comes naturally, so I'll add stuff and then sometimes you strip it down. I'm never like, "I want to construct a wall of sound," but maybe, unconsciously, I've gone for that. I think there will be a little bit of that on the next record, but I'm sure there will be stripped-down stuff, too. I have a lot of acoustic stuff. It's hard to say. I'm sure there will plenty of full-band arrangements on the next record. We've got tons of good music, and I'm happy with what we've captured with The Violators so far. We recorded another jammy song for the Siltbreeze comp. That's coming out soon—the Philly label that puts out Sic Alps, the first two Time New Vikings, the Dead C, and the new Blues Control...
I haven't heard the new Blues Control yet. A few of the artists that you are said to evoke are Neil Young, Bob Dylan,and Tom Petty. Do you see a significance in that these are artists who are either outspoken regarding politics, via political overtones in their songs, or were associated with an era of social dissonance, whereas your music and interviews seem apolitical? And, usually, when a younger artist or band today is mentioned favorably in a sentence with these artists, the music is never concerned with social issues.
I have my opinions, but I guess I'm kind of a space cadet. I don't see myself writing anything political. My music is more personal, I guess. Dylan was political early on, but not so much later. And he was with "Hurricane." Yeah. And I guess Neil Young was. It's true. I think the problem is that there are bands that are political today, but they are usually shitty bands, so maybe you don't even listen to it. There are all kinds of music, so it's hard to weed through it. And I'm sure when 9/11 happened, Springsteen wrote a song that day. But yeah, I dunno. I mean, I love my country. I don't know who would be a political voice in music today.
The fact that your music originated from what are essentially bedroom rock recordings makes it seem friendly to trading. And to clarify, I don't mean as far as kids downloading the hell out of it, but just casually amongst fans. Do you sense this at all?
Well, I think that's cool if that happens. I don't really pay attention. I did see that someone put our Chicago live set online, and somebody else has our live set when we opened for Sonic Youth. And that's cool. It gets it around at different times. I don't know if people download the stuff, but as long they like it, maybe they will buy something later.
Have you had a chance to talk to Thurston Moore?
I met Thurston a few times. He remembered me at the show. That was definitely a goal. I used to get this kid James Tah, who was a fan of mine early, and he was a friend of Thurston's. I used to get him to give Thurston my CD-Rs all the time. So when I finally met Thurston in Philly, I was like, "I'm Kurt Vile," and he went, "Ohh, Kurt Villllllle." And he was like, "Oh, James gives me your stuff all the time." So, yeah, Thurston's nice. [Laughs.]
We played with Sonic Youth before we toured a whole bunch, so we were all totally stoked to do it. And it was one of our most solid shows, one of our best. It was at the Electric Factory in Philly, right in our hometown, kind of the biggest rock venue in Philly. We were really all high spirits. But yeah, "Song For John D" and "My Sympathy" were on [one of those] CD-Rs. They're pretty stripped down, and close to the bone. Heartfelt. I didn't release them on Constant Hitmaker. I put most of the psych-pop stuff on there that I wasn't, you know, paranoid about, even though there were still a couple songs I was paranoid about. But once people liked that, I weeded through the other stuff and put those songs on God is Saying This to You. So, those two are actually from the very first Kurt Vile CD-R in 2003.
With the song, "Overnight Religion," I know your songs are not religious at all, but is there a spiritual aspect to them? And do you see a correlation between making psych and that being a natural extension?
I mean, yeah, loosely, but yeah, not religious or anything. That song, I was into the idea, I was really feeling songwriting, so that narrates, like, a "songwriting religion." It depends. You can be up late at night and you're by yourself. You can just see. You get introspective, and this weird feeling will come out. The music comes out. So, it's like you're own weird little time, your spiritual time, I guess.
Yeah, I can see that. Your dad is said to be influential on you taking up music. What does he think of your albums and does he give dad-like pointers?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I'm sure he likes a lot of it. He has his strong opinion. He even said in the New York Times, "I liked his music. .. but it can get a little loud for my tastes." [Laughs.] So, it's not like he listens to heavy rock stuff. I doubt he's, like, rocking "Hunchback" right now. But, he's real happy, and my family is real happy for me. And he definitely likes when I come home and figure out songs. And actually, when I visit my parents, I end up writing songs a lot. Like, I wrote "Slow Talkers" and "He's Alright" when I was visiting them. My dad likes when you sit and finger-pick. He wishes we were, like, mountain hicks, you know? He plays violin and he just plays for himself, but he took it up later. One time I even told him, "I'm going to bring my recorder over and record you playin'," and he's like, "Please don't."
What's your favorite food for Thanksgiving,?
I like the idea of everything on the plate. I think it's all good. My mom slaves. And there are 10 kids in my family, plus the relatives, so it's a crazy occasion. I think it's because I've been touring and working so much on music, I look forward to that stuff more. So, I guess I just mash it all up on the plate. [Laughs.] And I'll be back home for Thanksgiving, we're coming back [from their tour in Europe] for all of the holidays, except New Year's, because we're playing a New Year's show with The Black Keys [in Chicago].
This is your first time playing Chapel Hill with the Violators. Do you have any connections or thoughts about Carrboro or North Carolina?
This is my first time playing Chapel Hill ever. We played Asheville in the summer, which was real nice. I went to North Carolina for a wedding once. I don't even remember where, and it just was nice to be somewhere else. And they had fried chicken and collard greens—soul food—for the wedding. And we played the Harvest Records Fest, the Transfigurations Fest, in Asheville, and that's just a music town. The people there were really nice. They were kinda hippies, but not, like, super hippies—ust very enthusiastic. And we played Wilmington, too, but that was just a stop along the way. There was nobody there. I'm looking forward to Chapel Hill, for sure. I'll let you know what I think when I get there. My friend Mary, she played harp when we went down there, and she ran into Mac [McCaughan] of Superchunk on the beach, actually. [He] said he liked Constant Hitmaker, so that's really cool.