Catching Up With: Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett
The perfect pair talk about being alone together and what exactly sea lice are.Photo: Sean Edgar / Interview by Bonnie Stiernberg Music Features Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile make a perfect pair of loners, like two high-school outcasts who meet on the first day of college and become inseparable. The paradoxical idea of solitary collaboration couldn’t be better suited to this duo, whose new joint album, Lotta Sea Lice, takes the signature style of each and absorbs it into a private, speak-sing conversation full of casual wit and a shared indifference to the pace of the modern world. On their own albums as solo artists, Vile and Barnett have made hard rock look easy, with an endearingly slanted perspective on trying to keep one’s feet on the ground while everything around them is cracking up. Put together, they’re like a call-and-response song channeled through a single voice.
When Vile, the Philadelphian, first got the idea that he wanted to record a song with Barnett, the Australian, he started writing one that both could sing. “Over Everything,” the opening track and lead single from Lotta Sea Lice, was a characteristically confessional paean to isolation, only with two voices to volley the ennui back and forth in a kind of Hermits Anonymous therapy session. “When I’m all alone on my own by my lonesome and there ain’t a single ‘nother soul around / I wanna dig into my guitar, bend a blues riff that hangs over everything,” Vile sings to begin the song. Barnett cuts in for the second verse: “When I’m by myself and it’s daytime cuz down-under or wherever it is I live when it’s evening / You know I speed-read the morning news and come up with my own little song also…too.”
“Over Everything” could be a final declaration of exhaustion with humanity, or just a way to visualize the malaise that drapes itself over the modern condition—or both. Either way, it’s a bumper-sticker philosophy for many in their overlapping fanbases, and a good explanation for how this collaboration grew from a single song to a nine-song album that finds each artist covering some of the other’s best work (like Barnett on Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy” and Vile on Barnett’s “Out of the Woodwork”), as well as a cover of Belly’s “1993 single Untogether” (“You can’t save the unsavably untogether”).
Lotta Sea Lice was recorded in Melbourne in just two studio sessions spaced nearly a year apart, giving both Vile and Barnett plenty of time to work out their versions of the other’s songs. It was at once too much time and too little, but those are the kinds of contradictions that these two thrive on—especially, as Barnett pointed out, since “we didn’t know what we were doing.” If that’s true, and Lotta Sea Lice is the result, then there’s hope for us all.
Barnett and Vile, who are currently on tour behind the album, spoke with Paste recently via phone—Vile in Philly, Barnett in Melbourne—about finding proximity in distance, nervously presenting their songs to each other for the project, and what exactly sea lice are.
Paste: You guys started out intending to do a split 7-inch record. How did it evolve into a full-length record with nine songs?
Courtney Barnett: We kind of set out to just do a song. I guess a split or something might work. Kurt emailed, and when he was in Melbourne on tour we booked a studio and we did his song and then I was like, “Oh, I’ve kind of got a song.” So then we had two songs, and then we did a cover. And then a year passed, when we both touring and doing our own stuff and we were kind of talking about, like, maybe it should be an EP instead of a single. And then the next time we got together we just ended up with all these songs. It wasn’t really an intentional decision; it just kind of happened. It was kind of nice the way it just fell into place.
And you did the recording in just two sessions, separated by year in between. Was it difficult to make an album that way?
Barnett: It was pretty hard when we’ve both got our own busy schedules and different cities and all that stuff. We only had these two times here in Melbourne. When he was on tour, he had a day or two off. He might have chucked in an extra day in Melbourne. We kind of had to make due with whatever time was available.
How did that affect the way the music came out?
Barnett: It felt like the perfect amount of time. And because we weren’t working toward a solid goal. We were just having fun and seeing what happened. We’d finish a song and then be like, well I kind of have this other thing. Or like, “Why don’t we try this cover song?” We weren’t ever really stressed for time—we didn’t have like some album deadline looming. It was just kind of floating around.
You guys obviously are fans of each other’s music. Had you talked about a collaboration in the past?
Barnett: I’ve never really done much collaboration. I know Kurt has, with other people. I’ve hardly done any. You kind of look up to other songwriters, but I’ve never had the solid idea that I’ve wanted to do stuff with people. Kurt suggested that he had a song that he thought would work with the both of us. I just kind of stay open to ideas like that. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun. Easy as that.
How did the decision to cover each other’s songs come about?
Barnett: I think….
[A ding is heard, and Vile enters the conversation.]
Kurt Vile: Hey.
Barnett: Announce yourself!
Vile: Hey, it’s Kurt. I thought this one was canceled. I got misinformed. Sorry.
No worries! Let’s backtrack a bit. Kurt, we were talking about how you came to invite Courtney to record this music with you, and what you wanted it to be.
Vile: I betcha Courtney told it right. We’re mutual admirers. I just got really obsessed with her; I was excited about her new record, about certain songs, listening over and over again, like “Depreston.” We were working with similar people. And basically I just had the idea that I wanted to do a song with her. Then it turned into, “Let’s maybe do a split 7-inch.” I didn’t want it to get lost; I wanted it to be an EP or something. And then fast forward one year later, it turned into a full-length.
Barnett: You said that beautifully.
I was asking Courtney about the idea of covering each other’s songs, and how you decided to do the ones you did.
Vile: We had two originals, and then we had this “Blueberry Hill” cover, and then to make it an EP, it was Courtney’s idea. She picked “Peeping Tomboy,” ‘cause it was an early favorite or something. I picked “Woodwork.” But it took me a while to get “Woodwork” down. She did a really cool version of “Tomboy” first, and then when I came back again the next year I got the “Woodwork” down and it really turned into an epic kind of thing.
Were you guys nervous at all presenting your versions of the other’s songs?
Barnett: I was a little bit because I recorded my version when Kurt wasn’t there. And then we did “Woodwork” together, so it was a lot more immediate. But I did my version and sent it off to Kurt, and I was a little bit scared. You want to do someone else’s song proper justice. But then a couple days later he was like, “that sounds so good.”
Vile: And it was amazing. I loved how she raised the key—or something—and it was beautiful. And for me, I was a little more lucky because I had her… At first I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just record backstage that version of “Out of the Woodwork” somehow, and I got my bandmate Rob to record us backstage, in Ireland or something. And that became just like a demo. So she walked me through it there, and in the studio again she sang along with me to “Woodwork.” I actually kind of needed her inspiration. I would have done fine on my own, but especially, like, the chorus—you know, the chorus has the chime-in, and I would have felt weird if she wasn’t singing along. And I didn’t even know there were going to be all these guitar solos and stuff, but that was a similar thing—I wanted Courtney to be in there singing. She was playing percussion, and it just turned into all these guitar solos as I sang. It turned into like somewhere between Alice Cooper and…something else. Only in my head, though.
Apparently the plan originally for this collaboration was an acoustic folk-duo setup. What was the blueprint you were working from?
Barnett: We talked about things with no huge outcome. I think I’m slightly pessimistic sometimes when someone says that something might happen. It doesn’t always happen. So it was like, “oh, that’s cool if Kurt has this song, maybe we’ll get together.” And going into the studio is such a big, exciting thing still for me, so I think I was a bit like, “Ah, it might not happen.”
Barnett: Which is a bit negative… But it did! Maybe we said it was going to be acoustic…
Vile: We knew we’d do some songs together, so the easiest way to do that with two songwriters is to have a couple of guitars, and we never decided that there’d be a band until I invited Mick Turner, who I had toured with. My family was visiting me in Australia after a tour, so I went to visit his family. And Tim White, who I’d just met, happened to be in town too, so it was like a no-brainer. And I used my bandmate Rob on bass, who was there. So it just turned into—it’s definitely got folk in it, but it’s more of a folk-rock, psychedelic scenario.
Barnett: Oh yeah, I forget that the band just kind of happened on the first day we were in the studio. Sometimes I forget that it happened like that.
Vile: Just casual. Well, not casual but like a “who’s around” kind of thing. I’m discovering this method: the less people you impose upon, the better. You just see who’s around and they show up, and it works out.
Speaking of the band, how did you come up with the name Sea Lice? What is that?
Vile: That is something funny [drummer] Stella Mozgawa said. It sounds funny in an Australian accent. We were imitating a lot after she left. I’m not gonna do it right now because I’m not in my element.
Barnett: Yeah it was a silly studio trick.
I read something just the other day about sea lice…
Vile: I know! There’s gonna be bad press now.
Barnett: Yeah, it’s in Australia! But I read that it’s actually not sea lice, they figured out. It’s some other…
Vile: ..some kind of bug. Flesh-eating bug.
Barnett: So we’re safe.
Vile: The headline was like, “We’re not sure what they are, but these underwater insects sure love meat.”
Barnett: Oh, gross. That’s pretty gross.
Vile: They just love to eat meat. Like legs. Human legs. Our band won’t do that.
Courtney, I think you had mentioned that you were in a songwriting rut at the time this thing happened. What pulled you out of it?
Barnett: Yeah. And then on top of that, I felt kind vulnerable in those first studio sessions that me and Kurt had. I kind of had this half-written song, so I had to share, and Kurt was really good in being super-positive and open and supportive in that. It was good for me to sit down and work on this song and watch it come to life and let go of all those negative thoughts that kind of jump up around songwriting sometimes.
Barnett: And because we were so kind of carefree in what were [doing]. Like, our studio sessions were so fun and carefree and not stressful, because we didn’t know what we were doing. Something in it made the whole process different and enjoyable on a different level then to wherever my head had gone about it.
Vile: I’ve gone through all those kinds of things too. If you’re just always writing alone, and there’s all kinds of people around, people around who are just asking you questions all the time. So there’s plenty of things you can think about. I bet it’s all about time, too—you have lots of songs, and you just are, like, second-guessing them. And you just go out there and play, and you forget how easy, sometimes, it is just to play the music. And even if you don’t have all the words right then, you listen back to everything you do have, and it’s inspiring. You step away from something you’re having problems with and go mess around with something else—just, like, walking away into a different scenario. Etcetera.
You two seem like such a natural fit, creatively. Did everything go as planned?
Vile: I mean, I don’t think…
Vile: Yeah, totally. Everything went as planned. But you never know exactly—things always turn out a little different. I definitely get a little paranoid in the studio and think, “Is that OK?” If I didn’t have somebody like Courtney there, who’s like an equal and a great songwriter and singer—she’d just say one thing, like, “It sounds good,” then I’ll be like, “all right, fine.” But anybody else, like a bandmate, or whatever. My bandmates will be like, “I like it like this,” and I’ll be thinking they’re just like trying to get their way. Like, “So what’s behind this—you’re just trying to get your bass part up?” (laughs)
Did either of you learn anything as individual songwriters from working together?
Barnett: Yeah. I probably can’t really verbalize exactly what, but I definitely walked out of the whole thing—I think every experience in music-making should kind of change you in some way, change some of your ideas and you learn different things. Most of the stuff I do is kind of my own thing, so I love working with someone else and seeing how they operate. Just seeing how Kurt thinks and where his brain goes—you’ve got to be learning new things.
Vile: It was super-positive for me too. I had been wanting to make sort of like organic [music], as live as possible, and sort of soulful. All those things—pretty and all that, but not too… It was a limited amount of time, but it was still a good amount of time. There were enough things going on, like playing shows in between. But we still did it pretty quick. I like the epic prog-related music, or processes, but I wanted to get to a place where you’re making things pretty quick but not spending too little time. It was just a combination of two people writing things and bringing solid friends in and out that was needed and kind of new for me.
How did you guys choose the cover songs on the album?
Barnett: Kurt suggested the Belly song, which I had never heard of but then totally fell in love with when he showed it to me. You had it on a cassette or something, did you say? As a kid?
Vile: Yeah I got it as a kid on cassette and I had been listening again to that song in particular. The album is, you know, it’s fine. I got it when it came out out, but that song in particular, I remember back in the day I would put in on lots of mixtapes. I just started listening to it again. I was falling back on some nostalgia things, and I kind of fantasized that I could get Courtney to do it. And then when it came time for final session time and I was about to fly to Australia, I sent a few ideas her way—one original, one more original, and that. I can’t remember what else. But it just seemed like it would be a good song to maybe close the record. And it exceeded all my expectations. I love how it turned out.
On the tour, you’re playing songs from the record, plus your own material and more covers?
Vile: I don’t know about more covers are not, but that sounds like a good idea. Why not? I’m open to all of that. We’re gonna do a cover of “Shout.”
Barnett: Of what?
Vile: Remember that joke? We were doing all these covers in the studio, but then when I completely lost my mind I was like, I want to do a cover of “Shout”—you know, “You make me want to shout,” where I’m like, “Now stop! Now waiiiiit a minute!” Like, completely ridiculous.
Barnett: I wouldn’t be surprised.
Vile: You were like, “You’re out of your mind.”
Well given the whole Kurt and Courtney connection, you guys could do a Nirvana or Hole cover.
Vile: Yeah, I think we’re gonna do a lot of that.
Barnett: I don’t know about that.
Vile: Yeah we’re gonna do tons of that. I’m gonna sing “I’m Miss World.” No. We’re not gonna do that.
Barnett: Imagine if we just did a whole set of Hole and Nirvana songs, and everyone was like, “What is this?”
I think people would definitely pay to see that.
Barnett: I don’t know about that.
Do you guys have any plans to work together beyond this record?
Vile: I would do stuff with Courtney anytime. It’s very casual. I’m sure I’ll randomly do something with Courtney. But we didn’t sign some contract or something like that. I’m really excited. I love the record. I knew I’d like it. I knew I’d love it, but I love it more than that. (laughs)
In the end, what’s the upshot for this project? What would be mission accomplished?
Vile: I want people to like, and I think they will. It’s pretty open; it can mean whatever to them. That’s where I come from. That’s why I play music in general.
Barnett: Yeah, I think I’m learning more and more as I write more songs that the whole songwriting process and recording and whatever the song means to you—I mean to me as the songwriter—is kind of irrelevant by the time you put it out because the song becomes everyone else’s, their own interpretation. We had so much fun making it. I just hope that comes across, and people pick out whatever they pick out from the actual songs and lyrics.
And individually, what’s next for the two of you?
Vile: I’m always working on music. At some point I’ll have another album out of my own stuff. You know, I’m just chugging away. (laughs)
Barnett: Yeah, me too. (laughs)