We spoke to Kurt Vile following his triumphant performance at FIB, about his first love: music. Going by his growing train of admirers, it seems clear the feeling is mutual.
“Music”, Kurt Vile tells me, is “not like a hobby; it’s a need, a first love.” The passion with which he speaks is substantiated by good, old-fashioned, graft. The man knows his stuff: from Charlie Patton to Pavement, via Prince and Patti Smith.
However, Vile’s enviable understanding of his influences does not muffle his own voice. Rather than impersonating them, Vile allows his idols to infuse and inform his musical explorations. Yes, he values the virtues of a three-chord hit; but his distortion-drizzled delivery of it is distinct.
Accordingly, Kurt Vile has earned the support of indie-rock royalty. Following his amicable departure from The War On Drugs, he has toured with the likes of Thurston Moore and J Mascis and signed with Matador (Kim Gordon cited his first release on the label, “Childish Prodigy”, as her guilty pleasure: “Guilty because I listen to it too much...”). Vile’s fourth solo-album, “Smoke Ring For My Halo”, won him critical acclaim and a fan-base hungry for a fifth.
We spoke to him following a triumphant performance at FIB, about his first love: music. Going by his growing train of admirers, it seems clear the feeling is mutual.
Your back-catalogue embraces a wide number of musical styles and genres; has signing to Matador affected your output? Or did your change in output lead to you signing with Matador?
Well, I think I’ve always been making these songs, I usually start acoustically. The last record that came out felt really stripped after a bunch of psychedelic records; which was mainly the result of having access to a studio. I am sure I’ll be a little bit more psychedelic on the next record; I still have a bunch of those kind of songs. The first record on Matador was pretty heavy, psychedelic. The EPs were kind of the same, but had more of a classic rock and folk feel running through. Part of that probably had something to do with me coming out of making a load of psychedelic records and going in with a regular producer. In a way the record was rushed, so we left it pretty bare, we didn’t add anymore because it was fine as it was. I think in general it’s a more classic songwriter kind of mode.
So how was the process changed by working in a recording studio, as opposed to the more lo-fi techniques you have employed in the past?
You can just go in there and record into a really nice mic; just an acoustic guitar sounds good as it is. You don’t need to put a whole load of stuff on it to make it sound cool. It all depends. I worked on it a while, but song for song the last record was still kind of rushed in a way. We were on a deadline – which we are this time as well – but I still think we’ll play around more. Mess around with tones and far out sounds and stuff. It’s not going to be overly weird – that would be an odd thing to do, to follow on this record that way!
For me, it has brought the lyrics into the forefront. Was that a conscious decision?
I think they just came into their own. I’ve always thought about them, the fact that they couldn’t be heard before didn’t even occur to me. But it’s turned out to be an extra lyrical record I guess. I think us getting better at lyrics, there being more of them and including a lyrics sheet has brought them to the forefront.
You often perform alternative versions of the same songs, or repeat phrases on different tracks. Is the process of re-visiting important to you? Do you subscribe to the idea of a definitive version of a song?
No, I don’t subscribe to that. In the early days I had certain lines that I really liked but no-one was putting out my records, so I’d use it in another song. When I first started releasing multiple versions I felt paranoid about it, but then it became like a thing that I do. To try a lyric out in a different song for me could almost be like a running joke, or it could be just like running theme. Self-referencing, referencing yourself; there is all kind of reasons.
"When I was a kid I grew up listening to Pavement and Sonic Youth, sort of indie music that was influenced by rock and roll"
I find the delivery of your lyrics interesting. The manner in which they are delivered seem as integral to the meaning - or perceived meaning - as the lyrics themselves.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. Delivery is everything. It’s like a sincerity. Sort of dramatic, but not overly dramatic, more just about getting the feeling across. Like Townes Van Zandt or – obviously - Bob Dylan, David Byrne, Mick Jagger, delivery is everything. Patti Smith, she started out writing poetry but she got a call from rock and roll. You can say one word over and over again … it could mean everything if you delivered it the right way.
In regards to that, you often use unusual combinations of words, really pushing the sounds of the words.
Yeah, totally. And you can bend words to make them rhyme. Not overdo it, not try too hard, but you’d be surprised how many words sound the same [ laughs]. As opposed to what you think they’d sound like when you look at them on a piece of paper.
Similarly, I enjoy the distinctive way you play the guitar. You may be playing an age-old, three chord progression, but the delivery is informed by any number of musicians from over the last 100 years.
Yeah, I mean I’m definitely into a lot of different stuff. If you go from more modern: when I was a kid I grew up listening to Pavement and Sonic Youth, sort of indie music that was influenced by rock and roll. Then you go back to Prince or Neil Young and then you go back further to the 60s, to The Stones. If you go back further, I like stuff from the 50s but a lot of my early influences came from stuff before the war, blues: Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Delta Blues. So there are some examples of guitar based music from different times that has influenced me. Oh, and John Fahey! There are all sorts of guitar influences in there. I know it’s influenced by all that, but it’s also its own thing. I have my own things to say.
"Every time I pick up a guitar, wherever I am, I am writing"
You mention Sonic Youth. You’ve been embraced by some pretty revered musicians – touring with J Mascias and Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon singing your praises. How does that feel? How did it come about?
It felt awesome! I aim to please those types of people first. I was passing out CDRs before I was putting out my records. It was murmured that Thurston Moore would listen to every demo people gave him. To finally get recognised by somebody like that, or someone like J, it definitely seems like something which is unreachable when you are trying to make it. And all of a sudden you see those people all the time, they know you as a person. It touches on euphoric to know those people and to be accepted in the same sentence or whatever.
So do you see yourself fitting in to that lineage?
Yeah, totally. I’ve been doing it for so long now; I know how to create a chord well, I know how to write a song. That comes from it being all I’ve ever wanted to do – music – whether that be buying it, buying records, playing it, performing it. It’s not like a hobby; it’s a need, a first love.
I find the interplay between acoustic and electric instrumentation interesting – how do you see that going on the next record?
I think there is going to be a lot of everything on the next record. More often than not, I’ll still start the writing on an acoustic guitar and chances are we will start the recording with an acoustic guitar. But not always, I’ve been playing the electric just as much on the road. It’s going to be very well rounded; everything you can imagine. Whereas “Smoke Ring” was definitely dominantly acoustic driven, this one is going to be and all round musical hodgepodge.
You’ve been playing live a lot. How does that affect your output? The cohesion of the band for example?
We are playing all the time, more than ever, we are all better players. When I first started putting records out on Matador I was busier than ever and it was hard to find a balance, but now I am writing all the time. Every time I pick up a guitar, wherever I am, I am writing. I mean a lot of that has to do with the fact that I know we have to go back into the studio, so it’s always in the back of your head. But it’s more than that. It’s one and the same now.
The band you play with, The Violaters, can you tell me a little bit about who are they are? I understand some of them are old band-mates from the War On Drugs.
Actually Adam, who was definitely in The Violaters until recently, he’s super busy with the War On Drugs, so he’s not playing in the band anymore. I’m sure we’ll play together again at some point. I don’t know whether that will be on this record or not, because he has a very unique style. But I am not saying that he won’t be. Pretty much every record Adam has been involved in in some way, he’s definitely like my go to guy, my best friend, we play very similarly. But now it’s different because we have our own musical careers. But anyway, my newest member of the band is Rob Laakso, who I’ve known for longer than anybody. He plays all kinds of instruments. Then there is Jesse and he plays saxophone on “Freight Train” and a bunch of guitars, he’s like a pedal nerd. My drummer Mike Zanghi, he played with the War On Drugs for a little bit. That’s the band at the moment, but we’ll see. I think I am going to have different people on the next record, but ultimately it’s going to be a Kurt Vile and The Violators affair. Kurt Vile first [ laughs] and then The Violators.
Finally, I understand that you’ve recently picked up a nice Fender Jaguar, have you found that inspiring?
Yeah totally, that’s the one thing about touring – sound checks – but playing something that is that old and that quality. I also got a good flight-case for it, that helps, they’re very delicate. I am not having it getting destroyed on the road and having to get it fixed. It’s staying in good shape. A good case is priceless, I’ll say that much.