Catching Up With Kurt Vile
Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile was only half-boasting when he named his official debut album Constant Hitmaker. Though the Paste Best of What’s Next artist wasn’t exactly setting the Billboard charts ablaze when the tiny label Woodist released Hitmaker in 2008, he had been releasing homemade recordings and singles at a marathon pace for years, winning over local fans and vinyl collectors while continually refining his idiosyncratic, “midnight in a smoky dive bar” take on classic-rock balladry. At the time of Hitmaker’s release, Vile was still associated with his friends in psychedelic rockers The War On Drugs. But shortly after Hitmaker he signed with indie powerhouse Matador and focused his complete attention on his solo career, though he remains tight with Drugs buddy Adam Granduciel, who sometimes plays in Vile’s backing band The Violators.
Vile’s recent album Smoke Ring For My Halo, sees him working in a professional studio with a real producer (Dinosaur Jr./Hold Steady helmer John Agnello) for the first time, but the added sheen fortunately doesn’t dilute the nocturnal atmospheric approach he’s spent years cultivating. Paste recently caught up with Vile to talk about home recording, Bob Seger and playing acoustically for Fucked Up fans.
Paste: A lot of people complain that too many young acts get hyped-up through the internet before they’re ready and it burns them out. But you’re the opposite, and proof that there is still that slow burn effect where fans catch on gradually.
Kurt Vile: I think so. It’s not like I was the next hip craze, I’ve just been organically developing my fanbase, because I don’t compromise on my own sort of brand of pop music, more or less, with all these other elements. It’s a slow thing, but I think that’s more rewarding, and way less intense. It’s like walking on steps gradually.
Paste: So you were happy that it took people a while to catch on.
Vile: Oh yeah. I’m especially happy now, because before any labels put my stuff out I was starting to get frustrated, because that part is really hard, actually getting somebody to pay any interest. And once you start getting reviews, if you’re smart and you understand the way the underground works, it’s one step at a time. But I’m happy, especially now that it really has taken off.
Paste: Was there an immediate change when you first signed to Matador, or did it take a while for things to catch up?
Vile: No, because I put stuff out on smaller labels first, so it was like a record nerd, blog thing. I understand to get reviews you had to find the right record label that is pop-esque. Vinyl is important. The right label is important, once you realize what your scene is. So I noticed that with my fans it was small but it was still a positive buzz. They were stoked, because Matador is one of the biggest independent labels you can hope for, so once they start hyping things up you do see a difference. It’s not like my first record sold a million copies, it was still “okay I’m on Matador, and I’ve got some fans” but it was still those fans who follow the underground. This one is more accessible to a whole bunch of different age groups.
Paste: This is the first album were you worked with a big name producer and used a real studio. Did that change the way you wrote the songs?
Vile: It didn’t change the way I wrote the songs, and it didn’t really change the way I record an album. But it was a huge help, and obviously John Agnello, who is a great engineer, is a professional in both those fields, as far as sonically, engineer-wise and also helping to move things along. So he definitely added his two cents. I think I was the least conventional person he had worked with in a while. He had to fly by the seat of his pants with me. I’m kind of obsessive, I tend to shift from one thing to the other.
Paste: Were you trying to hit a balance between something that was bigger and cleaner, but still psychedelic and murky and “you?”
Vile: I just happened to have a ton of acoustic songs. That obviously is a huge side of me anyways, but I never did make a straight acoustic record. I remember way before I made the record, I thought I would make a folk record, and along the way I forgot about that and wondered “why is this record so acoustic?” It’s just that those are the songs I had and it was the direction it was going. The key songs on that I actually demoed—“Baby’s Arms,” “Ghost Town,” “On Tour,” was all of these subtly epic folk songs, basically. It was just the way the sound was going. We recorded other songs that both because of the vibe and physically, couldn’t fit on the vinyl.
Paste: Long before you were making stuff in studios you were recording at home, burning stuff on to CD-Rs, right?
Paste: How long were you doing that before people started to pay attention?
Vile: It’s not like nobody was paying attention, not one person. Even back in the day I had encouragement from my circle of friends, and then their friends, and people kept telling me they loved this song, so I had enough encouragement to know I was talented, even though once it came time to put things out I’d be paranoid. For instance I didn’t want “Class Rock In Spring” to be on my first CD because I was embarrassed by it. I thought it in the small scene that I am in, people were going to make fun of me. So I guess by the time somebody put something out was in 2008, which was Constant Hitmaker a compilation of the best of those CD-Rs. Not long after that I got offers from vinyl labels I was researching, something like Skulltone wants to put on a 7-inch, Woodists, whatever. But it all started around 2008, so I guess a year later Matador put out Childish Prodigy, which is to my standards when it really started rolling.
Paste: Did that early response to your CD-Rs help convince you that what you were making was worth hearing?
Vile: Yeah, I would just pass them along, they all had some really good songs. The earliest ones I wouldn’t necessarily want the whole record to leak on to the internet or something, because I would have edited it. Most of them had at least some good material, and some of them were fine. But it was kind of a gut thing. I didn’t have time to look back on what was good, what makes sense. I would pass them along the whole time at shows, ever since I was young. Even finding someone to put your stuff out is a whole other thing in itself. It’s not just playing music. If you get discovered that’s cool, but where I come from you start small, and for a while there I was really underground, then you just climb. If you’re good people are going to take notice. And labels like Matador, they see that you’re doing it anyway, whether they’re there or not. You’re not waiting around for somebody to put out your big album.
Paste: How long have you been writing songs for?
Vile: Since I was 14. I’m 31 now.
Paste: What inspired you to first give it a shot?
Vile: I’ve always been a music fan. I played trumpet. When I was in 4th grade we were getting demos from the music teacher about different instruments we could play, and I said I wanted to play the trumpet right away. It was easy, it just had three valves. My family was always playing music, I always enjoyed it. My cousin, who is a little older than me, he started playing music, so I wanted to also. I asked my dad for a guitar and he got me a banjo, so that was my introduction to playing. I played it like a guitar. I had a few lessons, learned out a few chords and figured it out right away.
Paste: Your dad got you a banjo instead of a guitar?
Vile: Yeah. He was a big bluegrass freak.
Paste: Were you a bluegrass fan also?
Vile: When I was younger, I liked a few songs. But you know, when you’re younger you don’t want to be a total nerd. You listen to what other people listen to.
Paste: You didn’t want to admit it because it didn’t seem that cool?
Vile: Yeah, it probably didn’t seem that cool at the time.
Paste: Along the same lines, some reviewers have said that this new album shows a Grateful Dead and Bob Seger influence. Does that sound fair to you?
Vile: No, I don’t really listen to the Grateful Dead, so there’s no Grateful Dead influence. The Bob Seger thing, it’s like it’s connected to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. But the real reason they say Bob Seger is because I mention Bob Seger in that song I mentioned earlier, “Classic Rock In Spring.” It’s just the idea of listening to class rock radio. There’s so many FM hits that I love. Bob Seger, there’s two of his songs that I love. I would probably love more, but I don’t sit around listening to Bob Seger records. It’s the same thing with Tom Petty, he writes amazing hits, but it’s not often that I sit around at home listening to a whole Tom Petty album. Even though they’re great too, but you know what I mean? And Springsteen, I’ll listen to a whole Springsteen album. There’s your ladder of Heartland artists.
Paste: It’s interesting. This is one of the only albums in recent memory where some people say they hear an Animal Collective influence and some people hear a Bob Seger influence.
Vile: Yeah, I can consume an artists’ catalog pretty quickly once I’m in to them. I mean, I’m definitely influenced by Animal Collective, I watched them early on. But it’s definitely the thing where these days, people just throw names out there. But they’re contemporaries, and they had it together way before I did.
Paste: Let’s clear something up. Are you also still in the Philadelphia band The War On Drugs?
Vile: I’m not in that band, but I was. I played on two songs on their new record, and their new record is going to be super-awesome, I just know it. (Frontman Adam Granduciel) is one of the greatest musicians, and he’s here right now with me.
Paste: Were you in the band officially, or were you just helping out in the beginning?
Vile: Officially, for sure. We were both in each other’s bands and really involved in the first record. You could drop “The War On Drugs” and “Kurt Vile” for a second, we just really developed a style from just playing together all the time. We can read each other’s minds, it’s just a natural thing to play together. Although I’m stoked about the two songs I played on the record, I’m focused on my own thing. Which is really what I always did anyway, even when I was really involved in The War On Drugs I wasn’t going to just drop everything and play with them. I was just doing my own thing with the CD-Rs. Before, when I was younger I had different aliases but by the time that War On Drugs record came out first of all Constant Hitmaker came out on CD before that record did, second of all I had seven Kurt Vile CD-Rs before that came out.
Paste: Wow, seven? You were prolific for a stretch there.
Vile: Yeah, I’ve kind of caught up now, and I’m a little busier.
Paste: Eventually did it become clear that you couldn’t be in this band and a solo artist at the same time?
Vile: Yeah, I knew it right away. The whole sound we developed was a local thing in Philly. People were getting stoked, and they would come out. There was this vibe, we were playing what we wanted within the song, it’s not like improv but there’s a lot of freedom in there and musical emotion in the playing. There’s this whole thing we developed. But us two were both hungry to make it and go on tour and get our stuff out there, all of a sudden the blog world was saying “Kurt Vile from The War On Drugs” in this way that these people who never knew us were selling me this certain way, like “his day job is the War On Drugs but he has this solo project ” you know what I mean? That fucked with me for a little while. And we were going on tour a lot and I was getting offers from smaller labels like Mexican Summer and Woodist, I just had so much shit I had to get together with getting the records out, if I went on tour with them I wouldn’t be able to do it all. Also, I have this drive. My music was always my focus.
Paste: Matador have the reach to get you to a larger audience. It’s funny, I saw you last year with your labelmates Fucked Up. You did a solo acoustic
Vile: Oh, that was rough. Where did you see it?
Paste: A small Brooklyn venue called Europa.
Vile: Oh, Europa. I was totally solo then. What happened was I was on that tour, we had done a lot of touring, and I was supposed to meet up with a full band in Philadelphia and play with them, but my friend Martin’s guitar that I always borrow got stolen and I couldn’t afford getting a full band. I actually had a buddy with me, playing as a duo, but he went home to regroup, so for that New York show was totally solo. That was a rough time, it was still a struggling time for me.
Paste: How was it opening for such a crazy band solo?
Vile: I’ll tell you, there was some people saying I suck, stuff like that, but I think it’s cool that I did it, and I love those guys. I know them all pretty well now. If the Violators had done it, we probably could have killed it. But because I had to do a stripped down arty thing, and I was still trying to figure everything out, I was almost flying by the seat of my pants. I played a song that was pretty psychedelic, one chord, it was a version of the last song on Childish Prodigy, called “Inside Looking Out” and we finished it and this total idiot screamed “you suck!” right away.
Paste: So what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Vile: We’re touring a whole lot, and we’re working on getting a new EP out, and sometime near the end of the Winter or something, maybe sooner, we’ll get started on the next record. But lots of playing music, playing all over, just keep doing it. I might title it one of the songs that is definitely going to be on the EP, but I’m not going to bother saying what it is, it’s too soon. I might change my mind.