At 38 and set to release his seventh solo album, Kurt Vile is comfortable in his own skin. The Philadelphia rocker dropped the most successful album of his career with his latest solo LP, 2015’s b’lieve i’m goin down, and last year, he released an acclaimed collaboration album with Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett.
Vile has become known for his unmistakable nasal drawl and classic rock and folk sensibilities, but his musical origins leaned on a more lo-fi, psychedelic sound with records like 2008’s Constant Hitmaker and 2009’s Childish Prodigy. Now, a decade later, Vile says there’s another clear distinction in his mind between then and now. “The one big difference now is my religion is literally ‘Don’t force it,’” he says in a phone interview as his band is currently in rehearsal for his upcoming tour.
His forthcoming album, Bottle It In, certainly doesn’t sound forced as it’s got plenty of breathing space. The tracks that make up the album’s hour and 20 minute length are chill, melodic and perpetually locked into a head-bobbing groove. Mind you there’s still distorted and twangy riffs on tracks like “Loading Zones” and his Charlie Rich cover, “Rollin With The Flow,” and these riffs often interact with his measured grooves, but the grooves humbly take center stage, and it doesn’t take very long for them to become fixed into your mind, body and soul.
Four tracks fall around the eight-to-10-minute range and unlike many songs that long, Vile evades bombastic, over-indulgent territory. Rather, on tracks like “Bassackwards,” “Check Baby” and the title track, he leads these seemingly simple grooves that sneakily weave their way into the listener’s consciousness and lull you into a misty dream with each additional musical element snaking in and out of the song’s strong melodic foundation. “I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” sings Kurt Vile on the compassionate “One Trick Ponies,” and these songs reflect that with their hypnotic, circling instrumental interplay.
Vile says he wasn’t concerned about the length of the tracks as he’s got a pretty good feel for when to pull the plug. “I know when not to cut something down if I’m still bobbing my head into the track,” he says. “As opposed to all of a sudden thinking about something else and not paying attention anymore—that’s when I know you gotta cut it out or try again.”
According to Vile, it wasn’t a conscious decision to make this kind of open, free-flowing record. “I guess you kind of figure out the sound and shape of a record as you go,” says Vile. “Certain songs were undeniable. Those are just the type of songs that made it, you know? There’s a whole album’s worth of outtakes. They didn’t fit on the record, but there’s still contenders for another album or EP. I would say the one song that maybe I didn’t expect would make the record because I recorded it a little later was ‘Come Again,’ the banjo song. That’s a lot of people’s favorite.”
In addition to his backing band, The Violators, this album is chock full of guest musicians: Kim Gordon, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, Mary Lattimore, Lucius and Cass McCombs. Gordon, who’s become a good friend of Vile’s, contributes ephemeral guitar feedback on the outro of “Mutinies.” “I went to see my friend Steve Gunn who happened to be playing at the Echo in Los Angeles,” recalls Vile. “So I went and saw him. Mary Lattimore was actually opening up. I saw Kim in the audience and we were hanging. I told her what I was about to do and she said, ‘Let me know if you want some acoustic guitar feedback,’ which was her words. It came together nicely for sure.”
While Lucius contributes backing vocals to “Come Again,” the other three musicians all guest on the album’s centerpiece and title track. “Bottle It In” includes drums from Mozgawa, harp from Lattimore and vocals from McCombs. The nearly 11-minute track is the album’s most striking cut with its simple yet breathtaking keyboard riff that mingles with Lattimore’s harp for a divine, melancholy effect.
“That’s one of my favorite tracks,” says Vile. “I wrote it on this weird keyboard at my house. The same keyboard I wrote ‘Cold Was The Wind’ on. You can hear it’s really kind of scratchy and weird. I prerecorded the basic track, which was 11 minutes long and I definitely thought I would cut it down. We listened back and it was very hypnotic and beautiful, just the right amount of all the things—a little bit sad, a little bit beautiful—sort of a song about rejection. A song about getting your feelings hurt a little bit. Normal human emotions.”
“It’s only a few chords really. It’s sort of open to reacting melodically, vocally, all those things, as long as you don’t overplay, as long as you’re in the groove. That’s basically why it’s the title track because I don’t want it to go unnoticed or I don’t want it to be taken too lightly like, ‘Oh this is a weird, minimal orchestral song.’ It’s so much more than that. That’s definitely a different type of song for me. Not out of left-field really but something special.”
The lyrics on this album are up in the clouds—sometimes literally (“Hysteria”) and other times metaphorically. The album is a generous, thoughtful dialogue with himself as he reaches for both abstract musings and level-headed professions. While the bittersweetness and ruminative nature of his predecessor, b’lieve i’m goin down, still lingers, Vile’s playful side is still apparent, most visibly on the lead single, “Loading Zones”—perhaps the most epic rock ’n’ roll song about the humdrum exercise of parking. In fact, the song was actually written during the b’lieve sessions, but Vile felt he wasn’t ready to release it yet.
“It was just I’ve been more one with playing it on the guitar,” he says. “It came off more confident. I had the basic chords written but you know how the words spew—it’s pretty psychedelic and humorous—definitely not absurd, it’s just a little weird. I didn’t think I earned the right to put out such a weird song. I don’t think it would’ve made sense. I’m glad I waited and put out ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or something that people would connect with more.”
The album was written and recorded over roughly a two-and-a-half year period at multiple studios, mostly between touring and family vacations. It features a clown car of guest musicians and producers and it also includes a plethora of instrumental elements: various keyboards and synths, banjo and harp. To the non-musician, it sounds like a steep task to make a cohesive body of work in such conditions, but Vile wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve really always been doing that,” he says. “That’s just me having a little experience to take it a little further,” he explains. “Even in the old days, I was at least recording at different people’s houses and various studios. You’d be surprised. I think things would sound weirder if you recorded all in one spot. I think it’s better to record all over the place because you get all kinds of different dimensions and perspectives as opposed to just the same sound of the same room. The same exact guitar and drum sound. That’s not really me.”
Vile’s guitar playing on this record truly runs the gamut. On “Loading Zones,” he uses the same wah-wah pedal as Sonic Youth on their 1995 single, “The Diamond Sea.” “Bassackwards” sounds straight out of Kevin Shields’ playbook. “Yeah Bones” has a cascading, acoustic country jangle. And on “Rollin With The Flow,” Vile’s guitar cries out and reverberates with flare. “I’m kinda like a space cadet,” he says. “I’ll usually never fully master a pedal—use it to its full possibilities, but I’m definitely into them. I like filters, warm, analog, weird synthy kind of tones. Vintage guitars for sure—the more beat up the better. Tremolo bars. Anything that kind of bends but in a really dreamy, melodic way. I like vibrato a lot too.”
Though Vile doesn’t consider himself a gearhead, he has a certain level of appreciation for vintage instruments. “I’m into old synths that look cool or keyboards that sound fucked up and guitars, weird amps and old pedals—vintage things. Of course they have to sound good, but they also have to look cool. You have to be drawn to them,” he says.
The album artwork for Bottle It In also reflects Vile’s love for all things vintage. The cover features a worn-in black background, a square rainbow border, ’60s typography and a photo of Vile with an Elvis lip curl—though Vile’s retro vibe is, hilariously, nearly sabotaged by his Planet Fitness t-shirt. “You’re dealing with modern fonts,” says Vile, “I always thought like a real typewriter looks better or something beaten up a little. I basically found an old record that I liked and had it morphed and used the wear of that record. I wanted it to look used and worn in. I always think things look a little strange, when they’re super crisp and modern.”
Some artists consider their earlier work immature and are quick to run away from their previous sound, but Vile doesn’t align with those sentiments. Like his lo-fi beginnings, he’s planning to go back to home recording some time in the future and he’s not fearful of repeating himself. “I’m in a super nostalgic phase right now,” he says. “I’m listening to a lot of things that I love in the ’90s like Drag City music and stuff like that. I think that I’m always trying nostalgically to get to my roots. I think I’d be really into this record as a teenager because I’m just trying to sound like what I was into in my teens. Ideally, I think I’m always gonna evolve and fine-tune my craft, but it’s always going to sound like me.”
However, what does set him apart from his early days is his approach to writing. “I can still write songs the way I used to but maybe I’ve developed a style over time that’s a little more laid back,” says Vile. “I’ll be writing little pieces and not worry too much. I used to suspect if I hadn’t been writing a song lately that I’d kinda lost my knack. I bounce around in music enough in life where I can just pick up a guitar at my house or on the road or be in the studio or on tour and things will come out if I’m inspired. I’m casually writing multiple songs at any given moment.”
On his 2009 track, “Freak Train,” Vile evokes his blue-collar past as he sings, “One day I’m going to get me enough dough/ To get where I’m going comfortably,” so with Vile’s recent success, I ask him if he’s reached that level of comfort yet. Vile responds, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t mind getting even more comfortable you know! [laughs]”
Bottle It In is out on Oct. 12 via Matador. Click here to preorder.