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Kurt Vile: Step by Step to the Top of the World

on September 15, 2015, 12:00am

On “Pretty Pimpin”, the lead single from Kurt Vile’s forthcoming b’lieve i’m goin down…, Vile sings, “I could be one thousand miles away and still mean what I say.” Hunkered down in his home in Philadelphia, a day removed from a promo tour of Europe, Vile means exactly what he says. On the verge of his latest album’s release on September 25th via Matador, he talks about the banjo and Cormac McCarthy with equal vigor. But for every cultural reference he cites, the songs that make up his new record are strikingly original. From the desert sizzle of “Wheelhouse” to the throwback twang of “I’m an Outlaw”, the tracks on b’lieve i’m goin down… speak to an artist not only in a transitory period of his career, but an evolutionary one as well.

Vile isn’t interested in taking things too seriously, as his often self-demeaning attitude and humble outlook belie. Make no mistake, though: Vile is immensely proud of his songs. Working without producer John Agnello, who collaborated with Vile on his past two records, these tracks are the product of late-night jam sessions, forays into remote desert cabins, and help from a patchwork of talented friends like Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and the ubiquitous Farmer Dave. Together they form an album that paces its lyrical introspection with a fresh batch of the sublime guitar work that has always acted as Vile’s signature.

Speaking by phone, Vile talked to Consequence of Sound about recording at Joshua Tree, referencing Fleetwood Mac, fake album titles, and the stress of touring new songs.

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Your new record features a lot of unique instruments. For a song like “I’m an Outlaw”, did you know from the outset it was going to be a banjo song?

Yes. It was written on the banjo, for sure. That was the one instrument I knew would be on that song, because I wrote it on it. I was really stoked to get back into the banjo.

My friend Nathan Bowles — he plays drums with Steve Gunn — he’s a solo artist and he does amazing things with the banjo on his solo records. He handmade the nicest banjo that I’ve ever seen. A friend of his has a place in Virginia called Buckeye Banjos. Anyways, through him I got the nicest banjo ever. I’ve had my old banjo, which I’ve always loved playing — one from childhood. Especially when you don’t play the banjo in a while, you pick it up and it’s so refreshing. You get the high drone strings, so it’s really melodic and ethereal, especially when you finger pick. You only have to put a couple of fingers on the fret – no fuss. It’s almost like an Indian raga, but American and folk.

So I wrote that song on my old banjo, and I had a good handful of banjo songs. That was one side of the record I thought I’d be making. People think about perfect circles, but my record was going to be a perfect square: banjo songs – that Appalachian folk thing, piano songs, electric guitar songs, and acoustic guitar songs. At the end of the day, I’ve recorded plenty of each kind of song, but the one banjo song is “I’m an Outlaw”. There’s another one on the deluxe version, but “I’m an Outlaw” is the only one that made it.

Speaking of the deluxe version, the title track for b’lieve i’m goin down… isn’t on the album proper, but is actually a bonus track. How did that decision come about?

It came about because it was supposed to be the last song. I really like it. It’s a super vibey track, although granted I’m just saying that one lyric over and over again, but it’s super vibey. It basically came from a vamp off of “All in a Day’s Work”, which is on the album. The original conception is that it would be the final track and tie it all in, but the album was just too long, so we had to take it off. My bandmate Rob [Laakso] says it’s cool because it’s like Houses of the Holy, the Led Zeppelin record, because they did the same thing. I’m sure there’s plenty of other bands where their title track isn’t on the actual album. You gotta leave some things on the cutting room floor, unfortunately.

On “Dust Bunnies”, you have the line “don’t know much about the shape I’m in,” and your lead single, “Pretty Pimpin”, is also about issues of identity. Would you call b’lieve i’m going down… a lyrically introspective record?

Sure, it’s an introspective record, but honestly I think they all are. There’s a current vibe, you know? “Don’t know much about the shape I’m in” ties back to the line “don’t much about history,” which is a reference to “(What A) Wonderful World”. I did that in “I’m an Outlaw” too — cross-references to Pete Green, Fleetwood Mac — tying in all this music together lyrically. So there’s a reference to “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac, and then of course they weren’t the first ones to use that line, so it goes back to old blues and so on.

When a reference like that comes up, are you consciously working to incorporate it into a song ? Do you read or hear something and think, “That would be cool to reference in a song?”

It’s conscious in that I’m feeling that inspiration in the moment, but usually it comes fast. It may be stuff that I’m into it in the moment, if it’s like deep in my brain, but it comes out pretty quick, so it’s not really premeditated.

One thing you’ve been asked about in the past is your reading material. You’ve discussed work by Bret Easton Ellis, musician biographies, and with regards to “I’m an Outlaw”, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and the work of Flannery O’Connor. Are there other books that also had an impact on your latest record?

Yeah, totally. Those are like the blatant references, so I distinctly remember reading Blood Meridian and my mind being fucked with hardcore. I revisited it next year down the shore, and there was like a spiritual connection to that song. I go through waves of reading, and when I do read, I obsessively force myself to keep doing it. I have to know which book I’m going to read after the current one to keep the momentum going, because otherwise I drop the ball. I can’t think of any specific titles, but there were plenty of books I was reading. Right now I’m reading VALIS by Philip K. Dick. My buddy Farmer Dave turned me on to him recently. That’s a mindfuck, because it’s partially autobiographical, and he’s like really losing his mind. He thought God came to him in a pink laser beam to his head and sent him all this information, but some of it was valid. Obviously he’s a really smart guy. He found out about some acute health problem his toddler son had that could be fatal, something so obscure, and they told the doctor exactly what it was, and the doctor said, “Oh my God, you’re right.” Obviously he was a special guy.

So yeah, there’s definitely Blood Meridian in there. I actually read a few Cormac McCarthy novels in a row. A little after that, I distinctly remember reading No Country for Old Men, which obviously was a big blockbuster. Blood Meridian kind of melts your mind sometimes — I have to reread whole passages — because I don’t have the best vocabulary, and it’s just so intense and dense. Rewarding, but it’s almost like getting through the bible or something. And then I read No Country for Old Men, and it’s just like fucking pulp fiction but better. I couldn’t put it down at all. Right after that I reread [Flannery O’Connor’s] Wise Blood, and then I read The Violent Bear It Away. With those two Cormac McCarthy novels, I read them right in a row on one of those obsessive rampages, and yeah, it did my mind good. Good and bad, but the good kind of bad. They’re all intense books.

Does a prose style like McCarthy’s — super stark and bare — ever leak into how you go about crafting a song?

With him and Flannery O’Connor, they’re different, but at the same time, they both have that Southern Gothic thing. Obviously, I play music, so I’ll single out a musician sometimes because I get obsessed, and it comes through in osmosis. As far as writers go, I’d say it comes through in osmosis too, but it’s not as singular – they all blend together a little bit.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

You’ve talked about often recording the songs for b’lieve i’m going down… late at night. How did that experience shape the record?

I think if you listen to the record, all the songs have a night vibe. I’ve always been a night person. It’s usually when I write music. During the day, everyone’s waiting on you to deliver, and I have nervous energy, and I also feel like I’m tired during the day. So once it gets dark, I’m wide awake, and those are the hours we work too. I guess I’ve always been a night person, but maybe with this record it reached an extreme because we didn’t have an official producer with us being like, “Dude, we can’t go until seven in the morning!” It’s like a domino effect – you have to sleep in later and later, and next thing you know, you’re up later and later.

That was a bit of a departure for you, not working with [producer] John Agnello this time around.

I wouldn’t say it was a departure. I love working with John — we did two records together — but I just wanted to fully come into my own in a way. I wanted to not rely on people to take care of everything for me, because next thing you know, I’m just sitting back. For instance, I always think about “Peeping Tomboy”. Granted, it’s a good recording, but I wrote that song late at night on my couch, feeling melancholy, alone. I toured all over, and I would always give pretty good performances of it, but then it came time to actually record it, with all the mics set up, and it’s a well-executed recording, and it’s all there, but it’s almost like I was performing it from a stage. I was about to not put it on the record, but everybody was like, “That’s a live staple. You have to include it.” I’m glad I did, but I don’t think it’s my ultimate performance of it.

I thought maybe I should fake myself out into being more vulnerable, without so many of the professional studio people around, setting stuff up just right, that maybe I could capture songs without thinking. The same thing would happen even in the smaller studios with friends. Eventually your guard is down. Keeping it insular with the band and with myself, I think generally the record is a little bit more sad at times, a little more melancholy. I wanted to have my guard down completely. I could deliver songs like that with John for sure, but I think I wanted to just take care of things myself: not book things far in advance or make exact decisions. Just be like, next week it’s happening and just do it. Also I wanted to buy some of the gear myself, instead of paying all of these professionals right out of the gate. I wanted to have the home vibes, to feel like I was in a house playing on my couch.

That home vibe brings to mind the music video for “Pretty Pimpin”, where we see you walking around your house and on your couch, very low-key but still poignant.

That’s cool, but it’s really more of a happy coincidence. That director [Daniel Henry], I sought him out. He’s worked with this kid Luke Roberts — he’s not very well-known, but he’s got some of the greatest songs — and they directed his “Unspotted Clothes” video. There’s another video that you can’t get anymore, but you should check out this kid. He’s doing some East Coast shows with us. That was the director’s idea, to film it in a house. It wasn’t my house. It was an LA-area AirBnB.

In her liner notes, Kim Gordon calls your new album “a handshake across the country.” Was your choice to record in places like Athens, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles reflective of a desire to ensure your album’s sound wouldn’t be rooted in one location?

Not necessarily. Sort of, I guess. I’m used to bouncing around. I’ve been doing that for the last several records. For Smoke Ring for My Halo, I was bouncing around the east coast. For Wakin on a Pretty Daze, I went out to California to tap into that sunshiney cosmic vibe, but also it was because some of the people I wanted to have play on the record lived out there. As opposed to flying them out to the east coast, which could’ve been contrived, I went to their world. Also, I like LA. So I went to Farmer Dave’s world and Stella’s world, and all they had to do was wake up and show up in their own houses. I got to be in a new place with a new perspective. It was just an extension of that idea that caused us to bounce around even more on this record — to get near people. It wasn’t like I’m going to get all these people and we’re going to fly to Colorado. There was a logistical inspiration, and also I wanted to check out the vibiest places. I do benefit from the changing of atmospheres.

You’ve spoken a lot about the recording time you had at Rancho de la Luna at Joshua Tree and described “Wheelhouse” as a “desert track.” How directly did the location of Rancho de la Luna influence that song when you were recording it?

It influenced it in a lot of ways. The first major recording stint was down in Athens. I did do “I’m an Outlaw” in my practice space months before then, maybe a couple of summers ago, but then all the Violators went down to Athens. The first thing I recorded was “That’s Life tho (almost hate to say)”, and some other ones I can’t remember. Then I flew straight from there to Joshua Tree to meet up with Farmer Dave and Stella.

I knew I wanted to record at Joshua Tree because I wanted to play with them, and I also knew myself, and I knew if I did everything all in one location, at this point in my life, I knew it would be too one-sided. I knew I had to try out different options. I had such a good track record with Farmer Dave and Stella, but then I extended it by bringing my bandmate Rob along, who’s a really good engineer. He’s in the band, but he’s also an engineer, so we didn’t have to have anybody around except for us in the house.

Also, we’d been talking on and off with the manager for the band Tinariwen. They wanted me to be involved in playing with them in some way, and just by an awesome coincidence, the time they were talking about to record was when Stella hooked me up with Rancho de la Luna. Tinariwen had asked me to play with them before, but it fell through, and I was thinking of the studio, and it’s near LA, and obviously it’s beautiful, and then I was talking to David Catching, the guy who owns the studio, telling him about how I was going to jam with Tinariwen and it fell through. He says, actually, it is happening, and he told me the date, and it was like a week before I had time set to record there, so I left straight from Athens, and I had a week in the desert with myself. My family met me out there.

I jammed with Tinariwen, and they taught me some tricks. As a direct result of jamming with them, I wrote “Wheelhouse”. A week later, when I was finally playing with the band, Farmer Dave asked me, “What about the new jams?” I’d been falling back on old jams a little bit, to ease into it, and I wasn’t sure about them. It was still fresh and new, but that’s why I like it so much. It was a brand-new song inspired by the desert and recorded in the desert. We all played it live, and it just captured this moment of pure, real music. Real for me, at least.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

In the last handful of years, a lot of musicians have lent their talents to recording film scores. Is that something you would ever consider taking on?

Oh, sure. I love that idea. I have some friends that work in film, and I definitely want to do that at some point. I can say, “I will do that,” unless for some reason I don’t get the opportunity, but I’d definitely love to do that.

There were rumors that the title for b’lieve i’m goin down… was actually called All Over the Place, based roughly I think on how you’d described the album in an interview. To me, your record has a very strong cohesion between tracks, so I’m curious about what aspect of the album seemed “all over the place” to you?

Well, first of all, when I did those interviews, the record wasn’t done. We have like an album’s worth of outtakes, so the album was all over the place at that point. I also never, ever, ever said the name of the album was All Over the Place. [In announcer voice] Kurt Vile’s new album: All Over the Place! [Laughs] That would be the worst title ever. But like your first question about all the different instruments, and the tracks you didn’t hear, the banjo songs – all over the place. You know what I mean?

Watching you jam with your former band, The War on Drugs, when they came through Philadelphia last fall, one remains hopeful that there are future collaborations in the works between you and Adam [Granduciel]. Is that something you see happening?

Yeah. I mean, we’re definitely going to play music at some point in some form, for sure. We always talk about it, but we’re both pretty busy, but definitely at some point. You know, the way people ask the question, I guess if we wanted we could package it that way and hype it up – collaboration again! – like a Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion or something. Whatever it is, it’s going to be natural and awesome, but I don’t know what form that’ll take. It’ll probably take every form that you can imagine. I’m sure one day I’ll play on a War on Drugs track, if he wants me to, and he’ll definitely play on one of my tracks. There were different times where we were in New York together, and I asked him to come over and play on this record, and he was stoked, but then it didn’t happen. We talked about playing together, so we definitely are going to at some point, in some form and every form. I just don’t know when that’s going to be. I don’t think it’ll be that long.

I wouldn’t be honoring your Philadelphian roots if I didn’t ask you what your favorite Tastykake is.

I don’t eat as many as I did as a child, but they are really good. I would say the best is the Tasty-Klair Pie. It’s just delicious and gluttonous. It’s filled with yellow cream, like an eclair.

You’ve had somewhat of a break from touring, but with the new album coming out, you’ll soon be at it again this fall. When you look at the dates you have ahead of you, including the likelihood that you may be hitting some festivals next summer, is it like, “Here we go again,” or do the new songs refresh the process for you?

No, it’s like “here we go again,” and I do have anxiety about delivering the songs. I mean, they’re never going to sound exactly like the recording — they never do — but this one in particular, it’s so vibey, that I’ve thought about getting an extra bandmate. I do want one. I’m on the lookout, but also there are different styles within the record, completely different bands. I’m just going to have like an open-door policy and accumulate some kind of pool of musicians or something. I’m going to figure it out as I go. Maybe it’ll start out raw, or maybe it’ll start out really great. I’m kind of elusive to technology in general, so it is pretty daunting. Next thing you know everyone is plugged in, and everything is exploding; all my equipment is exploding. Ultimately it will be fine. Maybe not right away, but definitely eventually.

Well, there’s something charming about seeing the first shows of a tour for a new record. You’re seeing the artist feeling it out, and if you’re going to see live music to actually experience a musician do their thing, that’s as much a part of it as anything else.

The casual fan could come out to hear “Pretty Pimpin”, and if we have a bad show, they’ll think it’s going to be this polished affair, and then it’s not. The world’s a fickle place, and they’ll say, “Oh, I saw him, and he’s terrible.” Having said that, with my type of music in general, you can sometimes get away with being fried and delivering it a little frail and kind of fucked up. The music, I mean. In the past, I’ve completely crumbled and awkwardly bit the dust because it didn’t sound right, but I think if you just truck through it, there are a lot of things you’re noticing that other people aren’t noticing. It’s still all yet to be seen.

Neil Young comes up quite often in your interviews. Do you see his career as a general blueprint for what you’d like to accomplish as an artist?

He’s always one to look at because he always stays true to his vision, no matter what. He’s all about feeling the music in the most natural, organic way. No compromise. We both have long hair. [Laughs] No, but I love him. My career is never going to be like Neil Young’s because during the ’70s there was such an explosion of rock and roll. It was all deserved too, but there was also just this moment where they were like on top of the world. I more so have to climb step by step to the top of the world. Either way, I think about his music as an inspiring reference point all the time.

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