You have to try pretty hard to not fall in love with Kurt Viles music — humorous, self-deprecating, and honest all at once. Viles languid folk, singed with Americana and true blue rock n roll, entrances with every listen and only continues to tighten your heart with time. From his stint with Philadelphias The War on Drugs to his already-prolific solo career, Vile (not a moniker) consistently produces some of the most captivating guitar-driven melodies in modern rock music today.
We caught up with Vile on the cusp of his second release on Matador, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, and chatted about his growing guitar collection, demented party music, and black humor-driven lyricism.
I saw your video for Never Run Away today featuring your daughter donning different animal masks while the record spun. That was great.
Yeah, that turned out funny. I was really paranoid and was secretly drinking wine at the time because it was so awkward [laughs].
Awkward? It looked completely natural. She seemed to be enjoying the song, too. What do you listen to with your kids?
Well, my daughter has a similar taste to me. One of her favorite records is one of my favorite records from when I was a kid, this Rusty & Doug Kershaw one. Its Cajun rock n roll, called Louisiana Man. Shes got different songs she likes. One of her first favorite songs was that Neil Young song, See the Girl Dance, which Crazy Horse covers. Theres a bootleg of Neil Young playing it live, she loves that.
Getting her started early on the good stuff! Has having kids made you conscious of certain creative habits you have, or has it caused you to shift them in any way?
Ive been playing music for so long, and there were a lot of artistic inner battles I noticed. Having music on my mind for so long, and trying to accomplish things. I still have that, but I dont know. I dont get stressed when Im not playing music. Theres so many different mindsets — like touring, and I go up to New York a lot to record, and thats where my band is. I go from being totally focused on my music to coming home and seeing my family, and its inspiring.
I got this new guitar — I havent been playing at home lately, but I knew I would start soon. Its my job to have my guitar in front of me. Its really natural to play at home now. Its like breathing. But anyway, I got this new guitar that I needed to play both acoustic and electric guitar on. My wife likes it when I hang out and play guitar. She wishes I would do it more.
What kind of guitar did you just get?
Its a 1961 Guild Starfire Hollow Body guitar. Its awesome. Ray Davies played one of them. I got it off one of the main drags in New York. I play a lot of acoustic songs, but also a lot of ones on electric. I always felt like I was stuck playing either acoustic or electric live, and it didnt sound quite right. I could probably play my whole set with this new guitar, though. I bought it literally yesterday. Im accumulating a lot of guitars now. I have two more acoustics and a Fender 64 Jaguar, but its very specific. I just got this Fender Mustang, too. I do an electric version of Ghost Town on it.
Which one of these is the guitar mounted on the wall over you in the Never Run Away video?
Thats actually just an old 12-string that my friend from high school, John Newman, gave me. I wrote about him in Song for John in D. He gave me that a long time ago. Its cheap but good-looking. The only time I ever used that in a recording was in the song Overnite Religion.
Whats the last record you bought?
Randy Newmans first record. I think its got, like, some lawn chairs on it. I got a couple of really good used John Prine records. I got it on a press tour. Theres just three heartbreakers in a row on that album. Its Happening to You especially. Mid-period John Prine is all the heartbreakers, but fiddling a little more.
What section do you usually beeline to at the record store?
I was on the search for a new Happy Mondays album when I was in New York. On the road, I dont go as much, because it adds up, but when Im at home, I get a lot of vinyl. I like to get CDs on the road because they sound way better than MP3s. I have this portable little box. Ideally I have something in mind, a plan. I joke that my two favorite bands are like party music, so Happy Mondays or Steely Dan [laughs]. The combination is really weird, but its not that different to a record nerd. Its demented party music.
What is the last thing you listened to that floored you?
Hmm. Stuff floors me all the time. I made this mixtape that Matadors going to release, sort of as inspiration for their album when I was going up to the studio. One song that floored me beyond belief, and somehow I missed, is Are Friends Electric? by Gary Numan. I heard it in a club setting in Amsterdam. Its seven minutes of the best synth melody. Its out there and conceptual.
Especially in that type of setting.
Thats what my guitarist Rob said. I ran into him, and he said, Yeah, its Gary Numan dude. I had never heard it in that setting. Amsterdam, too.
Lets talk about Wakin on a Pretty Daze. It departs from Smoke Ring for My Halo thematically, and its bolder. What changed that prompted this shift?
Basically, we were on tour a lot and infusing rock with the folk. Which I do, but we were doing more of it. Smoke Ring captured an interesting time where I had to grow as an artist, but I was still pretty new to that label. The other I made on my own, which Matador picked up. I had my first child in the middle of making that record, too. [There are] a bunch of unique reasons why that album sounds like that. It is a stripped-down record. Its weird.
But its by no means, even though it blew me up… its not my total personality. Just one side. It was experimenting more, lots of traveling, getting better at guitar, and bringing back my synthesizers into it. A lot of it was having Rob, my newest main member of the band. Hes a synthesizer and engineer whiz, a really good musician and brainiac. Jesses brilliant at pedals in a different way. Everyone kind of helped. It was the first time I worked on a record as a band full-time. Granted, I was the one doing most of the stuff, and we had a lot of friends play, but the process was a lot deeper.
It seems like your creative process is very meticulous. I read that there was much more material you had in your arsenal that appears on the new album.
At the very end… its when it gets very meticulous. But it was nonstop playing, jamming, laying something on top of something else. Its about being soulful and getting the magic down. Thats a process. The routing and logistics of it all was meticulous in itself. We recorded in a lot of different places.
Why “Never Run Away” as the single with the video?
I think because it’s hopeful and has a lot of good hooks. I think we should make videos for a lot of the songs, though. They’re fun. I wish we made 45s with the B-sides, though. Singles like for Never Run Away with a lot of different stuff than what’s on the record. I want to do this 12 of B-sides, too.
Ooh. You should.
As for the lyrics of Shame Chamber, its very dynamic, especially with the yelps. What were you thinking about when you wrote that song?
Over the years, Ive developed this style of writing about black humor, just like satirical things. Everyone thinks that sometimes Im shameful or whatever because of the lyrics. I mean, just another day in the shame chamber just has a nice rhyme to it. Living life to the lowest power. Its all simple. I was laughing like crazy writing it. Its the whole smoke ring for my halo thing, too. Its a halo of smoke. [Laughs.] Its just being human.