Best of What's Next: Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile—yep, that’s his birth name—has had a pretty good year. In March, The War on Drugs’ lead guitarist released his God is Saying This to You LP and Hunchback EP, plus reissued his 2008 album Constant Hitmaker. In May he signed to Matador Records, which put out his new album, Childish Prodigy, on Oct. 6. Prolificacy is one thing, but what makes this self-assured 29-year-old so compelling is his psychedelic sound, which takes as many cues from Neil Young as the Velvet Underground and filters it all through a distinct, homemade aesthetic to which the label “lo-fi” hardly does justice. Paste recently called a very groggy Vile at home in Philadelphia to chat about genre allegiances, his banjo and the beauty of Psychedelic Horseshit.
Paste: Where are you right now?
Kurt Vile: I’m at home. I just woke up. I keep sleeping in later and later.
Paste: You’re still based in Philly, right?
Vile: Yeah, I’m in Northern Liberties, just on the border of Fishtown. I guess it depends on the street, but I think Northern Liberties is really nice. It’s getting built up, but I just like the streets and stuff. It’s been up and coming for a while, and I guess it’s there.
Paste: Any favorite local bands in Philly right now?
Vile: I’m friends of a lot of bands. I like Pissed Jeans, Birds of Maya, Meg Baird.
Paste: Over the past two years, you’ve put out a fair amount of songs. Are you always writing songs, or does it come in spurts?
Vile: When I’m getting busy, sometimes I’m not writing as many songs. But that’s just because I’m super busy. When I was banging out all of those vinyls I wasn’t doing as much writing. But then all of a sudden there’s like an open window, and you start writing all these songs. Inspiration comes in spurts, but I have so many songs at this point… I’ll probably learn to write songs a lot on the road. I got enough for the next record, and then some, plus songs that are [already] recorded.
Paste: You sometimes re-use certain phrases in different songs. Do you write alternate versions of most of your songs?
Vile: That “Beach on the Moon” lyric, that line took me by surprise. I didn’t have anything put out yet, so I was just working on these songs, and I’d put it in another song. “Beach on the Moon” is intentionally a snippet from a lot of my other songs, but “Summer Demons” has that line in it that’s at the end of “Hunchback.” I kind of recorded them all while nothing was put out. I wasn’t necessarily knowing it was gonna be put out. I was kinda working that line around. But I think the main one that gives that impression is “Beach on the Moon.” I definitely do snatch up lyrical phrases from songs, maybe a sketch of a song, and I’ll remember it and put it in another song.
Paste: Your catalog seems like it has its feet in two different worlds. You’ve got this Americana/folk side—I’m thinking of songs like “My Sympathy,” “My Best Friends” and “Blackberry Song.” And then you’ve got this noisier, experimental, psychedelic side. And sometimes those styles overlap in the same song. Do you have an allegiance to any genre or aesthetic?
Vile: I have an allegiance to the staples. I have an allegiance to the Delta blues, American folk and Bob Dylan—the greats. But I just have an allegiance to the stuff that’s real sincere. I’ll just be able to see something and see it’s the real thing. Some people might argue that some things are the real thing, but I feel like I know enough about music that my opinion is correct. I think the Swell Maps are super amazing, and it’s, like, really raw. Somebody else could say it’s noise, but I can see through it and I think it’s really great. I can tell you why it’s really great. I guess I just have an allegiance to the real shit. It’s hard to explain.
Paste: It is a hard thing to explain. So, if someone walked into your place, would they be more likely to catch you listening to Bob Dylan or the Swell Maps and Psychedelic Horseshit?
Vile: I think there’s a good chance of any of those three… When [Psychedelic Horseshit] played not this year but the year before at South by Southwest, at the Siltbreeze showcase, they were really good. I was really impressed. They were like my favorite live band.
Paste: Are you tired of people describing you as lo-fi, or is that a badge of honor for you?
Vile: I mean, I’m not tired of it. Some people just use it as a genre, they just toss it around. I can understand where they’re coming from with the home recordings, even though I never knew they were lo-fi. I think the quality is a little different from lo-fi. But I don’t really mind it. The new record is out on Matador, and not too many people can call it lo-fi. I guess I find it more annoying [when] people are lumping me in with Wavves or Blank Dogs or something. I mean Blank Dogs have some cool songs and stuff, but I feel like my music is way different. I’ve been involved in playing music way more than just being a lo-fi punk or something. The music side is way more involved.
Paste: I guess that’s one of the problems of using lo-if as a genre. You listen to a Psychedelic Horseshit record and one of yours, and calling them both lo-fi and having that mean the same thing is so misleading.
Vile: Yeah. The difference is—Psychedelic Horseshit though, they really mean it, they’re confident. Something about it, you just watch them, and it’s like, “Wow, this sounds like, insane.” But you just look at his face and you know he means every word. I guess that’s back to the punk thing.
Paste: What songs from the new record are you most looking forward to playing live?
Vile: I’m excited to play even newer songs. I’m excited to play “Hunchback.” It always sounds cool because it varies from night to night. I’m excited to play “Heart Attack” with my other guitarist because there are multiple guitars in there. We rehearsed a good version of “Blackberry Song” the other day, kinda took out the ending.
Paste: I’ve read that you know how to play the banjo. Do you ever plan on incorporating that into your live stuff or recordings?
Vile: Actually, this summer was the first time I took out the banjo in a while. I took it on a small West Coast tour, and I would open with a variation of that “Red Apple” song. I might take it this time, too.
Paste: How literal should we take your album titles? Do you see yourself as a Constant Hitmaker and/or a Childish Prodigy?
Vile: There’s definitely humor in both, being that Constant Hitmaker came out on a tiny label, but my feeling is that I try to make these hit songs, and I am proud of them, and I do want to come out challenging that they have hit potential. Same with Childish Prodigy. You gotta come out swinging in a way. You gotta be confident, and I wanna let people know I am confident about these songs. But I mean, Childish Prodigy is humorous, too, because obviously I’m not a child, so you know, there’s humor in there. But it just kinda challenges people. I definitely do take it a little seriously.
Paste: Can you delve a little bit into the album title and song “God is Saying This to You_”?
Vile: Somewhere down the line people thought it had a question mark on it, and there’s no question mark on it. “_God is Saying This to You” is actually just this newspaper clipping, the one on the back of the record. It’s just a headline that I found years ago. A lot of my art is found objects. I didn’t even know it was going to be titled that, and when we were doing the artwork I found that piece and put it across the back, and I was like, “Oh, I guess that’s the title of it.” And it just worked. It kinda fits in with those titles anyway, just by chance.
Paste: So the 30-second song “God is Saying This to You” that kicks it off, did that come right at the end, too?
Vile: That started out as a CD-R I made the first time I went to Europe called Overnite KV. The whole first side is from Overnite KV. I was just trying to put a CD-R together real fast. I was just going through my 8-track. I have tons of recordings. I dubbed a whole bunch of things down, and that ended up there. It’s this mono/poly-synth crazy sound, and then right into another song. It’s just like a mood piece, I guess.
Paste: Is the War on Drugs on the back burner for now?
Vile: Yeah, I mean that’s Adam [Granduciel], my best friend. We’ve been playing music side by side—he’s in my band. As far as me playing in the War on Drugs anymore, I’m not saying I would never jam with them again, but my music has always been my focus. I was doing it before there was the War on Drugs. It was just more underground. But this has always been my main thing. It was cool being in the War on Drugs because my job in the War on Drugs was just to play guitar, or anything I wanted, but it was different every night. I definitely became a stronger lead guitar player from that.