Kurt Vile: Interview
“I definitely think I belong on Matador – its a perfect fit.”
People lately have been enjoying Philadelphia-based good vibes merchant Kurt Vile, maybe because his skewed easy listening feelings suit spring and summer perfectly, or, alternatively, if you're somewhere where it's not spring or summer, his records transform it as such. Of course, that's not the only reason (though there's nothing better than talking about the weather); over the past couple of years, he's split time between drone-based spirit interludes, acoustic finger-plucked ballads filled with crisp air, spaced out psych wanderers, and, more recently, The Hunchback EP with his full band The Violators (amazing name right?). Throughout his jams runs a distinct sense of euphoria, embracing older sounds as much as new for a gritty-but-casual vibe. Even his folkier sounds are right at home opening for the likes of trashy punk acts like Clockcleaner or Eat Skull.
Vile took some time before a show in Washington, D.C. to chat about his new stuff, being a forklift driver, classic hits, and his forthcoming album Childish Prodigy, which is due in October via Matador.
Like a lot of people who have been getting into your stuff, I've suddenly got my hands on a whole lot of, it and it's all quite diverse; some of it sounds like it's older than others. What's the new record, Childish Prodigy, going to be like? Is it going to be like the denser, band-y sort of stuff you do with The Violators?
Yeah, that's the newer stuff, that Violators EP. Childish Prodigy is like a mix of stuff like that, but even heavier. It's more energetic, I mean -- not like heavy metal, but like Velvet Underground- or Stooges-influenced, never snarling or anything. But then there's some home recordings on there, too. It's a combination, but it's definitely not as lo-fi. Constant Hitmaker has songs that maybe if you don't normally listen to that stuff, you'd think were a bit throwaway because of the recording quality.
On The Violators' Hunchback EP, it's denser and fuller compared to Constant Hitmaker, which is floatier, particularly on the more ambient- or drone-based tracks. A lot of the pop songs on there, though, have a similar sort of feel and backing to those drone ones. Do you find it easy to leave those instrumental tracks as they are, or are you often inclined to add more bits and turn them into pop songs?
A lot of the drone things happen pretty fast. I've been recording for a really long time, so it could just be a little part from a jam or thing that I've done. I don't usually sit there and be like “okay I'm gonna record a drone thing.” It comes out from jamming with friends a lot of the time, but sometimes I'll be playing synth on my own and make a loop, but a lot of those tracks, I'll be playing with friends and all of a sudden some magic happens. And because I have so many recordings, when I'm putting together an album I can just go back through the tapes and grab something that sounds good, you know. I'm trying to think of any drone tracks I have turned into songs, but on The Hunchback EP, there's an instrumental with the drums and stuff and we definitely added more guitars to those. The nature of that track sort of inspires you to play guitars really fast over the top and put more layers on.
"Well, I do get high and low, I mean, I'm not super depressive or anything but I get high and low, and winter definitely takes its toll."
Yeah, it's pretty layered, the more recent stuff; an easy listening feel with some My Bloody Valentine approach. I was thinking there's a lot of diversity in the music that people around you are making, like Meg Baird's wispy folk compared with Clockcleaner [who produce a lot of Vile's stuff], and playing with bands like Eat Skull. Do you feel you get a lot of inspiration from the people around you?
I get inspiration from people around me and just all kinds of music. I buy records all the time, and I definitely look to the staples like Velvet Underground and stuff. I'm into people when there's no question that they influence tons of people, like that first Velvet Underground record -- you just can't beat it, you know. It's so real. And The Stooges, just so good. When I'm at work, I listen to the classic-rock station a lot, but that's more singular songs, like Bob Seger has a few super-great songs, but it's not like I'd listen to a whole record. But yeah, definitely my friends as well, pretty much everybody else, I guess [laughs].
So were you also exposed to a lot of those classic hits from a really really young age, like four years old or something. Do you have vivid memories of listening to like John Denver at that age?
Yeah, mainly my dad had heaps of records and at a young age, well, he's into like bluegrass and roots music, so he'd play Doc Watson and this Rusty and Doug Cershaw record. He also had Beatles records and all that, I used to listen to those, but yeah, I was always just really into music. It just always made me feel real good.
Did you ever rebel against the stuff your dad played, say when you were a teenager with punk or something?
Actually, punk came much later. Oh... actually I did like a lot of new school kind of punk when I was a teenager that I don't like anymore, embarrassing stuff like NOFX and Pennywise or whatever the kids were listening to [laughs].
Yeah, I remember having that phase for sure, pretty awkward.
Totally, I definitely had all those CDs. But then I found out about stuff like Pavement and Sonic Youth and early Beck and fell in love with that stuff. I guess for me, my parents are pretty loving parents, so I didnt have any huge rebellion, but even Beck had some songs that my parents wouldn't like, like that song “Motherfucker” or other heavy weird punk songs. But now I love a lot of punk. Richy from Clockcleaner got me onto a lot of good punk stuff.
It's spring time here now, and listening to Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This To You, I keep wondering if it's just the weather outside that makes it sound so spring-y. I was wondering if your ever preoccupied with the seasons in terms of your music?
Well, I do get high and low, I mean. I'm not super depressive or anything, but I get high and low and winter definitely takes its toll. A lot of people get kind of bummed out in the winter, so once spring starts happening, it's definitely inspiring. I wrote that song “Classic Rock In Spring” when spring started and started feeling good again after winter. I feel like songs are written at particular times, and it definitely comes across as that certain way. In the winter, you can write some darker songs, but it does depend on what's going on at the time.
So you used to be a forklift driver?
Yeah [laughs] I was. It's funny how interesting this is to everybody. It's hilarious though. I hope very soon that I can quit my day job, but I actually have a job now where there is a forklift involved [no longer true]. I'm the most skilled there, so they ask me to drive it. But when I lived in Boston, I drove a forklift in a much harder job and I drove it like crazy, so now it's a piece of cake.
Are you living in Philidelphia at the moment? How is the music scene there?
It's a pretty cool music scene. A few years ago, they opened up a lot more venues and it's just started kicking off in a big way, there are more bands. People like Jack Rose, Meg Baird, Clockcleaner -- and even though they're broken up they play in other bands and stuff, we're all good friend, so it's definitely always fun.
With Childish Prodigy, that's been in the works for a while, is it gonna be similarly springtime-y and upbeat?
It's way more of a full-band-style arrangement, and I think at timess it gets a little darker. I think it's gonna be more of a fall kind of feel, with some pretty psychedelic rock numbers that are pretty catchy, then just some good rock songs. You probably couldn't say it had such a sunshiney feel per se, but there's definitely a lot more electricity, a lot more rock. There is this one song called “Overnight Religion” which could be more summery; it's droney and strumming and jangly, but it's definitely more... serious, not quite so happy. We've been working in a studio with my friend Jeff Zeigler who actually recorded that Clockcleaner Babylon Rules record. It's pretty raw, though, and there's two home recordings on it. I actually said in one interview that it's my Loveless, but I only said that in comparison to my more stripped-down home recordings. It's all relatively simple, even if there are a lot more tracks on each song.
"And because I have so many recordings, when I'm putting together an album I can just go back through the tapes and grab something that sounds good, you know."
So, Childish Prodigy will be coming out on Matador? Do you feel like your stuff fits into any particularly Matador lineage of indie music?
Well, I've been talking about this a lot I guess. I grew up listening to Pavement obsessively. They were like my favourite band. I bought all their albums, CD maxi singles, 7-inches, bootlegs, etc.; whatever I could get my hands on that had new or alternate songs by them. I thought it was super cool that they could/would put out so much material. Convenient for me being that I was such a fanatic. Beck was the same way early on, with all his singles and multiple albums released on various labels, tons of stuff coming out all the time, and I bought all that stuff. I know he wasn't on Matador, but looking back, that Lollapalooza that Pavement, Beck, and Sonic Youth played captures that era for me -- my obsession of those three bands and others like them. But it continued after that, and it's quite awesome that Sonic Youth now have an album on Matador as well. But yeah, I have bought and dug a bunch of Matador stuff that came out through the years. I love Mission of Burma, dig Cat Power, early Guided By Voices, etc. So yeah, I definitely think I belong on Matador -- its a perfect fit. They were my number one choice. I don't really consider my music indie rock or think that Matador cater only to indie rock, but I still feel I can relate most to Matador, more than any other label. Not to mention the fact that they are way on top of their shit.
Do you think signing to a larger label will change your approach at all?
Sometimes when people ask me this, I question myself, but ultimately no, not really. Not the music part. You have to strive to not let things go to your head and stay true to your inspiration, whatever drives you to make quality music, not try to go too sensational. Just enough. I do however plan to record in bigger studios at times and am looking forward to help from the label which makes this ions more possible. I'm sure I'll go back and forth with studio recordings, home recordings, recording at friend's houses, etc. but never overproducing either is important. I don't think that has to do with fidelity per se. I guess I mean I won't try for too much, without taste. Stay true to the tune itself, see where it goes, where it should go and do it "for the sake of the song" as Townes van Zandt once sang [laughs].
Do you feel like you're honing your [songwriting] skills more?
I have been striving at this for some time and hope to continue and get better all the time. That has been the plan anyways, and so far so good. Maybe stay away from too many Grateful Dead bootlegs [laughs].
Do you feel any pressure at all with more people hearing your stuff?
Maybe there is a little pressure in some ways. People do like to talk shit on message boards and in the blogosphere and "hate on" artists as they get more popular. But I've always been one to set goals and try my best to achieve them, overcome obstacles and whatever, and I'm sure I'll find a way to ignore those types and keep cranking out the sweetest tunes that I'm capable of, once again striving to hone in on my true sound and all that stuff.
"Overnight Religion" has that Fall-style feeling you talked about; it has this time-passing kind of vibe. I like the pace of it and how it sort of slows life down. Feels more methodical than something like "Freeway," for instance.
Yeah, it's definitely not as sunshiny as “Freeway,” you are correct. But come to think of it, “Freeway” was recorded in the summer and “Overnight” was recorded in the fall, maybe that's why.
I was wondering about the track "Summer Demons," too; is that a good example of the newer directions you've been taking or a more one-off experiment?
Yeah, it's more one-off. "Summer Demons" was recorded the same summer that "Freeway" was, in '06. I remember I worked as much as possible to save up for the studio session where I did "Freeway." We recorded that in Philly on July 6, and about a week later, I went to visit my friend Rob in L.A. for a week, and we had a wild and crazy time that whole week. Then I flew to visit my wife in hawaii who was doing a residency there through school. I wrote the chords to "Summer Demons" there. When I got back, I was pretty wiped out yet inspired and recorded "Summer Demons" in my living room. I feel it emulates our time in LA. Funny too because it's a complete 180 from "Freeway" almost, and they were recorded so close together.