INTERVIEW

Five albums in, Kurt Vile is feeling his most content in his sprawling jams.

KurtVile

It’s 10am on Saturday morning, Philadelphia time, when I call Kurt Vile. Our midweek slot had been rescheduled, so I’m aware that I’m eating into his weekend, and I’m at pains to make sure I’m as efficient as possible. I needn’t have worried. Vile is in decidedly relaxed form and eager to chat, opening up further with each question and bubbling with enthusiasm, not only for his own output but popular music at large. He lists his tastes like a rock role call, whizzing through the last 35 years’ touchstones with breathless fervour. “I just have a very specific personality that’s very obsessive,” he says, “and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consume, say, the Pavement discography.” His language suggests a ravenous passion for modern music as an art form.

As Vile moves towards his mid-30s, it’s clear that he has found a certain degree of contentment. One of the reasons for my trepidation in disturbing his downtime is that his wife recently gave birth to a second child, and he describes his current situation as the best he’s been in, both musically and personally, in his entire life. His satisfaction, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for hubris, and it certainly hasn’t fostered any complacency in his artistic philosophy. Indeed, it’s clear that as he gears up for the release of his fifth solo album, ‘Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze’, he intends to grab his opportunity with both hands. His third effort on eminent NYC imprint Matador, it’s a collection that oozes sunshine and classic rock pomp, tethered by a roster of his house band, The Violators, that’s so tight it sounds telepathic.

In my initial correspondence with Matador’s UK press officer I’m told of Vile’s industrious work ethic. It isn’t, of course, out of the ordinary to hear such praise heaped upon an artist by his own label, but the sheer scale of his dedication, and the context for his drive, becomes patent early on. Kurt took manual jobs throughout his 20s, working as a forklift driver for a time before eventually signing with the label just over three years ago. Money certainly wasn’t plentiful up until that point, and it required sacrifices to pursue his vision. “It was definitely scary,” he says. “I grew up in a blue collar mindset and had blue collar jobs but right when I got signed to Matador was right when I got fired from my last job.”

I ask if it was tough, then, before that breakthrough moment.

“There was really a sort of struggle for a few years,” he says, “but combined with my wife, who’s a teacher, we always – maybe things got tight, but never too tight, if you know what I mean. And now things are actually pretty good. My wife’s not even working and I have two kids and stuff. Any major pressure, I’ve gone through it and lived through it. Now I’m in my career zone right now.”

That’s all well and good but with a family at home and a plethora of festivals planned for the summer, you would be forgiven for thinking that Vile may be spinning one too many plates. He remains pragmatic, however, and approaches his duties in both spheres with a logical, open mind. “Well, the last record [2011’s ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’] was like the growing pains record. But there are so many festivals you have to take – like, important festivals. If you say no, then that’s fine but you have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

It’s obvious that Vile feels blessed to be in a position where he can do both, family and music. “It was definitely hard, but now I’ve been chilling out at home for a couple of months,” he says. “Moreso, I’ve been serious about music my whole life. I just look at it like I’m lucky – I got it all, you know what I mean?”

Newcomers will be struck by the latest album’s sonic nostalgia, and the songs on ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ repeatedly hark back to ’70s folk and classic rock. It yearns for the sprawling, structural excesses of the era in a way that seems to have been all but dispensed with in modern alternative music – a track like ‘KV Crimes’ sounds more like Steve Miller than Stephen Malkmus. “I was listening to a million things,” he says of making the record. “In my head [‘KV Crimes’] has a kind of loose Neil Young ‘Walk On’ thing and a Stones thing, but also, my multi-instrumentalist bandmate Rob Laakso, he plays the bass in the song. He started that one – he recorded it and put it through his rig. He gave it that sort of heavy sound. I have friends in bands who know exactly how to find their sound but I kind of just go with it.”

In keeping with its stylistic bombast, 7 out of the album’s 11 tracks come in over 5 minutes, with its opener and closer clocking in at around 10 minutes each.

“That wasn’t a conscious decision,” says Vile. “I guess I knew there’d be long songs. Certain ones, I knew would be long. But generally we just tended to jam them to keep the magic going and then we thought we’d edit them later but this wider span dial I was working with – it just felt right, and people might disagree.” Whatever critics eventually make of ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’, then, it sounds as though Kurt Vile and friends enjoyed making the album, and their joy is infectious. It’s a record that radiates pleasure, unapologetically brimming with riffs so carnal it’s hard to find antecedents in the last three decades. “You know what, it was fun,” he says. “I have my two bandmates, who are loyal and really good friends at this point, and I knew John [Agnello, producer] from the last record so there weren’t those nerves.”

That’s not to say it wasn’t tough, however, and the pride bristles in Vile’s voice as he speaks about the fruits of a difficult labour. “The hours were insane but you would have to just do whatever you had to do to stay awake, and I guess the reward of hearing it back – cranking it through the headphones and getting to the umpteenth hour where you’re totally delirious. The musical returns were definitely rewarding right away.”

As well as its aural aesthetic, I’m interested in the title of the album’s most out-and-out classic rock track, ‘KV Crimes’; what misdemeanours has Vile committed? It turns out that it’s a reference back to one of many heroes from the rock canon. “It’s actually a nod to Rowland S. Howard from the Birthday Party,” he says. “As a placeholder the song used to be called ‘Pop Crimes’, but there’s a Howard song with that name and I was never gonna keep it that way. It fit with the general theme, so I thought ‘KV Crimes’ was a good nod to him.” The title also displays a playful sense of humour that listeners may not initially detect. “I tend to say it’s a nod to him, but it could also be its own thing. I find it amusing when people use their own name in a song.”

Vile’s recorded sound has moved increasingly towards higher production values and increased fidelity, slowly getting away from the Drag City-inspired lo-fi of his earlier years. I ask if he has rejected the raw, cult qualities of the music he once aspired to emulate?

He says: “Basically, that kind of music – not that I still don’t love some of those Drag City albums, and it also has that sort of nostalgic thing – I was at a certain age where this other kind of indie rock was coming out that was more accessible for me. I could never pull off some of that slick indie rock that was going about. I did like some of it, like Modest Mouse or something, or Pixies, but some of those Drag City bands, it was sort of like the punk rock thing for other people, where someone like the Germs – they couldn’t really play but it just gave you chills.”

At this point his catalogue-like knowledge of and love for music once again shines through, as he paints the picture of his teenage self sifting through record crates in order to quench his thirst for new sounds. “At the same time I did like classic rock and stuff when I was a kid, but the more serious and more knowledgeable I got about music, just studying the greats one at a time – after a while you consume all the staples, but nowadays I’m consuming stuff like Steely Dan – stuff that, when I was younger, I thought was the cheesiest stuff of all. Now I’m like, ‘This is fucking amazing!’”

When I speak to artists I often ask what it’s like to be on a certain record label and the answer that I receive more often than not is that it doesn’t matter, that they’re concentrating on blazing their own trail, regardless of current label mates or the phantoms of artists who have been and gone. Matador’s back catalogue, however, is critical to Vile and it’s refreshing to hear. “Growing up being obsessed with Pavement, and then bands like Sonic Youth all of a sudden being on the label when I get signed, is incredibly important,” he says. “Obviously they have such history and credibility in that regard. They’ve put out records by Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, Cat Power – so many records on there compared to records on other labels that I really liked as a kid.

“I’m friends with Fucked Up and all those people, and now they’re on my label and it’s amazing. Now it’s my time.”

Vile has a strong collaborative bent, too, and at Dinosaur Jr’s 25th anniversary celebrations of ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ he joined the band and the likes of Johnny Marr, Kim Gordon and Frank Blank in paying his respects. Unsurprisingly, he’s positive about how it went, and his satisfaction at the show of recognition is evident. “It was awesome,” he enthuses, “and I was the band that was asked to open so that was an honour. I’ve got to know J and he’s super cool with me. Everyone was stoked to be there. It was even more exciting because I’ve done enough stuff with J to be invited to that, and I felt part of it in my own little way as opposed to being this hired opening act.” His summary of the night? “It was fucking amazing.”

On his involvement with The War on Drugs, however, he’s a little more circumspect, keen to set the record straight on a role that’s a lot more minor than he’s been given credit for. “The War on Drugs is Adam’s [Granduciel] band. I was involved because we were best buddies but my solo stuff is always my focus. The web makes things really confusing because people write your Wikipedia for you and you don’t know who does it, and I don’t really sit around and change my Wikipedia too much. It’s been confusing that people think I have more to do with that than what I actually do.”

I get the feeling that Vile is also careful to avoid taking any of his friend’s plaudits, and on that note I bid Vile adieu and wish him all the best for what will be a hectic few months, both at home and abroad. He doesn’t need it; he’s got 11 brand new, free-wheelin’ folk rock pearls.

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