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The Eleven PDX Interview & Profile of Kurt Vile

The Eleven PDX Interview & Profile of Kurt Vile

Philadelphia-based Indie rock guitar hero Kurt Vile expertly creates nuggets of modern psychedelia, often striking the perfect balance between breezy ‘70s Americana-tinged rock with a decidedly 21st century psychedelic propulsion. Vile has released five solo albums, and also recorded one full-length as half of the duo forming the War On Drugs with fellow Philly rocker Adam Granduciel before splitting to focus on a solo career with his backing band The Violators. 2011 was a breakout year for Vile, with the release of his 4th solo album Smoke Ring For My Halo, which found critical acclaim and ended up on several year end “Best Of” lists, making Kurt Vile a household name in the indie rock world. With 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Kurt Vile made complete the transformation from lo-fi pioneer (more like “medium-fi”—Kurt accurately corrected us during our interview) to hi-fi, studio-rock craftsman that he had begun suggesting with the sophisticated textures of Smoke Ring, and the music world took notice. Wakin was received largely with critical acclaim, with critics and fans noting the ease in which Vile assumed the role of classic FM rock connoisseur. The circumstances of recording Wakin were not as breezy as the resulting album suggested, however, with the goal of capitalizing on the success of 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo providing added pressure to release a follow up within the two-year mark as well as the stress of Kurt and his wife having their second child right as Kurt was wrapping up recording on the record in New York. Plus, Vile and his backing band The Violators didn’t find the process of recording in major studios to be without drawbacks. Vile states that while working with professional engineers and producers helped him expand his sound, it also proved to be tedious at times. Vile and his band spent too much studio time doing relatively little, while the expenses for paying the studio and the engineers kept on piling up. The at times tedious recording sessions also impacted the record in ways where Vile felt that he couldn’t adequately capture a certain spontaneity that existed on his previous records, where the song he’d write on the couch was easily translated in the studio.

After a lengthy tour, the last half of 2014 found Vile back in the studio where he’d begun work on a new album. While Vile insists he quite likes the slick, radio-ready results he got with Wakin, he’s made sure the recording environment allows for a more organic sound. Though Vile isn’t yet ready to spill all the details on what we can expect for the follow up to Pretty Daze, he is willing to say that the upcoming record will be bluesier and folkier. He also informs us that he’s made much more of an effort to keep the recording process within the band, relying heavily on a regular stable of musical collaborators like Violators members Rob Laasko and Kyle Spence—as well as himself—to perform much of the engineering and recording duties. He also made sure to make some time for himself, his wife, and his two daughters, as Vile has found himself at home perhaps more than he ever has during his career. And after six years and five albums (which is remarkable by today’s standard) and constant recording, the downtime is well deserved.

But Vile has been making an effort to keep himself mentally engaged in the recording process before the release of his next solo album, in particular by recording a side on the second edition of indie-psych label Three Lobed Records’ anniversary box set with long-time friend and former Violator Steve Gunn and his go-to harp player Mary Lattimore. The project came about after Steve and Kurt were both commissioned by Three Lobed for the recording (the first edition featured Sonic Youth, Sun City Girls, and Bardo Pond among others) and they decided to “up the ante” for the box set’s other artists by recording their sides of the record together. It gave Vile the chance to play with “his old Philly buddy” and to a couple of “deep cut” covers he had been looking to get on tape—including one by Nico and one by Randy Newman! We sat down with Kurt over the phone to discuss the future solo album, how he likes to work in the studio, and touring. »

– Casey Hardmeyer

ELEVEN: What have you been up to between Wakin on a Pretty Daze and starting the new album?

Kurt Vile: We toured a whole lot. We only have one more show. We have more shows starting in the summer again, but this is the last show, in Portland. I was recording in Joshua Tree with my friends Farmer Dave and Stella, and my bandmate Rob Lakso was the engineer and also my main drummer Kyle has a studio down in Athens, Georgia—we went down there and recorded a bunch of times. We’ve been jumping around in New York. Mainly me and Rob have been the constants in the album, because he’s a good engineer but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and he’s good at keeping track of everything because that’s what I’m bad at doing.

11: So, mostly focused on the album? Any free time to yourself?

KV: Yeah, I’ve had that too. I’ve been home more than ever. I feel like every album is pretty back to back, but this one there’s definitely more down time, [but] starting to not be. [laughs]

11: Regarding the sound of the album, what are you doing differently now compared to Wakin or Smoke Ring for my Halo?

KV: Both Kyle and Rob are totally competent engineers, but the one main thing is that, at the moment, we haven’t had an outside producer there the whole time. Part of that reason being, the last record in particular, I have these songs and it’s hard for me to relay them to the band because there [are] so many options or maybe there’s a lot of parts and I don’t feel like sitting around and explaining them to everybody. I’d rather get the feeling down on tape while I’m showing people. Even when we were doing that on the last record, where people would have to learn it as we went, we were paying massive studios and top engineers to wait around. Not always, but a lot of times. I’ve done that a little bit on the last record and previous records where it’s just me and Rob and we would take it to the producer. But also I think that, the vibe and feeling that you’re at home, in Kyle’s home studio, and just the band is there you can kind of not feel like the clock is ticking and hopefully capture a more organic thing. Certain songs are real folky or bluesy and rootsy. In the past I’ve recorded folky songs (on the last two records), but they still come off somewhat slick and poppy. I wanted to capture this very real, very raw thing where I’m not paranoid by an outside. . . somebody waiting around until you got the take. I appreciate that kind of thing too, but basically. . . you almost feel like you’re home on your couch.

11: Does that make it feel more real?

KV: That’s the idea anyway. I like both [processes]. Eventually I’m going to get somebody to help us through the stuff for a more professional wavelength, but for whatever reason I just wanted to keep it to myself and within the band for as long as possible. There’s songs on my earlier records that are really homespun, in the moment—songs like “He’s All Right” or “Overnight Religion” or “Blackberry Song” that are just, like, you in a house, just living my life and breathing the music in a way that is more natural as opposed to once you sort of set everything up [and say], “Okay, Go”—it feels not quite as natural. So I wanted to get back to my roots in some ways, but even naming all those songs, they had all their urgency in there and whatever. . . we’re all better players by now and stuff like that, so I’m not regressing to a lo-fi thing or anything like that, but sort of somewhere in the middle and I still want to come off really pro. That’s the idea. I spent a whole lot of money last time and I’m sure we’re still going to do that, but I feel like we will get more [efficient] time in studios if we do it this way, [rather than] hire somebody off-the-bat.

Photo by Alicia J. Rose
Photo by Alicia J. Rose

11: Do you have any producers in mind to work with? Is there a short list?

KV: I have people in mind, I guess, but I’m still not quite thinking about it.

11: Does the album have a working title?

KV: I think it has a few, but not anything I’m going to say right now.

11: A simple but maybe not so simple question: why make music?

KV: Yeah. That’s just what I do. That’s like, why you write, everybody has their thing that they do. Me and everybody in my circle are music-obsessives. This is what we do [laughs]. It’s who we are.

11: Is that the same for all musicians?

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images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

KV: No, I think some people are natural heartfelt musicians and just have it—someone like Steve Gunn who is just an incredible guitar player, and then other people want to be in bands for other reasons. They all have their merits, I guess, but more like hipster type bands might just want to strike a pose, but you know, not everybody.

11: Speaking of Steve Gunn, you recorded with him recently on a collaboration album. What can you tell us about that?

KV: That’s coming out on compilation on Three Lobed and it’s like a bunch of twelve inches with some pretty awesome sort-of big names like Thurston Moore and stuff, but the sides are strategically placed on the album so my side is backed with Steve Gunn’s. So we decided to sort of up the ante and play on each other’s side and collaborate. But it’s just an EP. I have a couple cover songs on there, and Steve does. There’s some jams and some sort of epic, orchestral type songs.

11: Back to your new solo album—does it tell a narrative or is it just personal experience? What’s the content?

KV: I’m sure it’s got a story. I think every one of my albums has a story. I guess Smoke Ring was kind of melancholy and Wakin was more expansive. I think this will have all of those things—rock and folk—but there’s a sort of a folk-blues edge, and I think it’s got some melancholy songs and such and a melodic thing, And then, lyrically, it can be sort of melancholy, but it’s definitely going to tell a story because it’s just the me of the now. I think at this point I have so many good friends who are great musicians which I’ve used on other records, but on this record I’m just going back to my favorites. I sort of have a thing I can tap into on the West Coast with my friends Stella (from Warpaint) and Farmer Dave (from Twin Sparks), and then I can go down to Athens and it’s a Violators vibe—all of us going down to Kyle’s house. I have friends in New York as well, and there’s a lot of studios to choose from. Me and Rob can really nerd out and take control of the situation on our own and fill it up where need be. I think in the past, I feel like I’ve had the whole band around the whole time, and it had its benefits for sure. But a lot of the time [they are] just sitting around waiting for me, and I sort of learned my lesson that sometimes I can’t have the whole band around—maybe I just need one person around to help me get it down. I’ve come to that decision. In that way it’s definitely more of a solo record. It’s collaborative with the band. Rob is usually around, but it’s me just following my path. I include everybody when I can, but I can’t just wait around for the “group” to be there. But it makes the time that everybody is around hopefully that much more the authentic Violators thing.

11: Last question—what’s your favorite venue setting: Mega-stadium, small festival, intimate indoor venue, or your living room?

KV: I think all those have their merits. I remember the first year I played Primavera, there was an electricity in the air. It was this smaller stage, but it was packed. I was sort of a newly buzzed or around just enough during Smoke Ring that people were really excited. I like to play small venues if you really rock hard, and you can’t touch that in the outdoor arena—[or when] I play my home town, [at] The Union Transfer. It’s sold out, like 1200 people, a medium sized room that’s electric and it’s your hometown so it just depends on the situation. All those styles have their merits and duds when you tour the world, you know? »

– Richard Lime