The name’s Vile, Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile is coming to town armed with The Violators and tunes from his sophomore record, Smoke Ring for My Halo

When he first started playing music, Philadelphia native Kurt Vile’s father got him a banjo instead of a guitar. He said it didn’t take him long to embrace the open tuning and strum the five strings as though they were six.
When he first started playing music, Philadelphia native Kurt Vile’s father got him a banjo instead of a guitar. He said it didn’t take him long to embrace the open tuning and strum the five strings as though they were six.

Kurt Vile makes grandiose, large-scope psychedelic folk rock anthems with an intimately personal vibe. From his releases Constant Hitmaker, Childish Prodigy and Smoke Ring for My Halo one might assume him to have an air of narcissism, but talking to the Journal on the phone from his home in Philadelphia, any preconceived notions of ego were smashed. Down-to-earth, earnest and self-deprecating at times, Vile gave fascinating answers folding into themselves, often driving questions into unexpected territory.

You’re playing in New York tomorrow, are you there now?

I’m in Philly, I was in New York actually yesterday, I played three in-stores. It was the end of a little in-store tour to promote the record. I’m at home right now but we’re going to load up the van today and leave for up-state New York.

Then to Toronto for Canadian Music Week?

Oh totally. Yeah, I’m playing with J Mascis and I’m totally stoked on that obviously. Got some band friends there, I’m friends with the Fucked Up kids, I really like The Sadies as well, I’ve played a few shows with them.

Damien from Fucked Up is the host of The Wedge now, have you been on it yet?

No I’m a little disappointed I haven’t received the call. I’m going to be up in Toronto what the heck? I mean Damien man, we’re buddies, what the heck?

You should show up and crash it.

I’ll just punch him when I see him.

How do Canadian fans compare to other countries you’ve visited?

Well, Canadian fans are pretty awesome, I love playing Canada. I’ve played in Kingston twice, once was opening for Dinosaur Jr. and the second time was me and my buddy, as a duo, it was real small, but the kids who put it on, we stayed at their house and they were super nice.

And Toronto, I love Montreal, Vancouver, all the way on the other side, all really enthusiastic and nice. It’s funny ‘cause you forget … you’re hanging out with people who are allowed in bars when they’re 18 and you’re hanging out with these people and you realize they’re a decade younger than you.

How has it been since Smoke Ring for My Halo was officially released?

It’s been busy, it’s starting to get real busy. But it’s my sophomore album so I’m just taking it very zen-like, I’m not stressing myself too much.

You’ve said a second record is one to adopt a mindset that if you have something to say, say it, if you want to go out there and supply a unique thing, do it.

Did you go into making the record in a certain mindset or with a certain goal?

I definitely went in with a certain mindset. I went in there, I was demo-ing the songs at least for myself, I knew I wanted it to be concise. The way I work is, it’s not like every song will end up fitting but I have a lot of material I’ve recorded that’s not on the record as well.

Once I started honing in on, I guess the two songs that like round the album out, for me in the beginning it was “On Tour” and “Ghost Town.” I knew those would be the two kind of epic folk songs, so they loosely set the format and then the title track, “Smoke Ring for My Halo,” I had that song in the bag for a long time and I decided to try it and it worked.

It’s a simple song so that’s why I titled the record that. So yeah, it came out and there were a lot of mellower vibes going but that was always part of my sound anyway.

I knew I was going to have some sort of concise theme but it evolved through the course of making the record, you never know how it’s going to sound. I think I achieved my goal.

Your songwriting seems to be quite effortless. Is it ever difficult allowing the brain to drift? Even when you’re touring?

I’ve been doing it so long, it took a long time before people put my stuff out so I had a backlog of recorded material and unrecorded material. With these songs maybe two or three I wrote during the record[ing], that’s actually probably too much. Now I’d say by now I definitely have some sketches of songs and some songs written I haven’t recorded yet. I’m more caught up than ever. I’ve put out a lot of material in the last few years so I’m not too worried, I figure the songs will come again.

What do you find you’re most inspired by?

There’s so many things but I’d say the main inspiration is listening to records, music, by others. There are so many things. The Rolling Stones are my favourite band right now, they were back in the day, but they are again.

That’s like a huge broad question I guess but mainly when I pick up the guitar and maybe it’s in a different tuning than it had been in and a song will come out of it, if I have some downtime I’ll go visit my family or something. If there’s a window of not busy time going on but maybe there’s things impending that I’m excited about, like music related, there’ll be this window of time where I can keep writing more music.

Do you feel a sense of Americana and American nostalgia in your music?

A long time ago I did take note of American music, I mean Neil Young, well he’s not even technically American although his music, he came to the States and that’s where he made it. The same goes for Joni Mitchell, she’s Canadian, has Canadian roots but still makes American music or is still considered Americana.

Some of the ones people always say like Tom Petty and Bob Seger, I love them but they’re not people I’d sit down and listen to their whole record. A few hits with Bob Seger I like but I never got too into Bob Seger except the classic hits and Tom Petty had more hits than Bob Seger, but yeah I think being American and listening to classic rock radio and Bob Dylan.

You know, I’ve gotten into all the greats, Bruce Springsteen, at one point or another. Or John Fahey … that’s got all kind of influences in there but it’s super American music, influenced by the delta blues and it’s also influenced depending on what album you’re listening to, like Indian raga. I guess that’s a good metaphor, because his music is very American but it’s not just being formed listening to American music.

What about the sense of religious imagery in your material?

There’s two reasons I assume there’s the religious imagery that always comes up, or comes up a lot. One is like the gospel musicians, being influenced by that kind of music like the folk anthology etcetera and Spacemen 3, any blues, anybody who looks back at the roots tradition.

Also I do come from a religious family so I was exposed to it a lot, I don’t necessarily practice it myself but I’ve been exposed to it my whole life. They both have to do with it I’d say.

I’m sure you’ve been asked about your handful of siblings and family to death, but I read your dad’s a bluegrass aficionado and that he gave you a banjo before a guitar?

Yeah I got a banjo first, but it didn’t take me long to figure out how to strum it as if it’s a guitar. Also because it’s tuned to an open tuning, I never got stuck in a box thinking you could only play guitar a certain way.

You know they teach you standard tuning first but I’d find myself using a friend’s guitar and trying to tune it like a banjo, there are six strings instead of five, that’s confusing at first. I got a guitar soon after, I had a banjo teacher for a little bit.

First he taught me banjo-style music but man, I think I practiced it like once or twice and then I’d just go in there and would’ve clearly not practiced it and I’d have all these tapes of songs I was into and tell him to teach me those.

When did your gift for songwriting first display itself?

The songwriting was pretty easy to me, I never thought about it too much because it’s actually pretty easy. If you know a couple chords, you know? I did take those lessons so I learned chords right away and so I made up songs with the chords I knew. Right when I started playing the banjo and I was 14, I wrote songs right away, it was easy.

Do you think Philly contributed to your writing?

Just from living here, my experiences and friends and surroundings, they show in my music in ways that me being here, I can look at it as maybe, everything has an affect. Your surroundings have an affect on you for sure.

My first album cover The Constant Hitmaker or the Hunchback EP it’s like urban decay, image wise that was always an inspiration. In a more artistic abstract way, sonically the urban decay and stuff like that, walking around must have some kind of affect on the music but I can’t say exactly, I couldn’t pinpoint it to an exact second in a song.

What’s your work ethic like? Do you think it’s pushed you farther?

I would say I’ve always, if I want something, I figure out how to get close to it as opposed to waiting around… don’t wait for the opportunity to come to you. If you can, go for it. I’m not real eager, or maybe I am, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to be nonchalant about it.

Do you have any advice for acts starting out?

Yeah I would say earlier on in my pre-career trying to make it I would, and that’s what you should do, pass your stuff along. Pass your stuff along to anybody, any bands that you like but also at first you know I would give stuff to Animal Collective and they knew it but they were real busy guys.

I think I got that idea because Ariel Pink did that early on, he gave his stuff to Animal Collective and they obviously put him out. But I think he kind of sealed that door, how many people can get through that way?

I’d say put vinyl, vinyl and stuff out on smaller labels first and slowly climb. If your stuff is good it’ll create a buzz in the underground first. That’s what labels like Matador are looking for, that you can do it yourself and you’re not waiting around for someone to do it for you, do it yourself, DIY, I guess.

Any bands we should check out?

Yeah you should check out my buddies Purling Hiss from Philly, shredding guitar, guts. I mean other people that I’m friends with I guess I’ll just mention some friends, Meg Baird, she played in Espers but she has a solo record out and one coming out on Drag City … Some people know these people but they’re still somewhat underground.

You’ve said your future is going to be on the road, is that still true?

I’m not going to be on the road 365 days a year but I’m going to be on the road, I mean I guess I do have a choice, if I want to, this is prime time that I really have to push the record and my music in general.

I have good backing right now with the new record I’m going to be touring the States a lot, Europe, festivals, for a year straight at least. I’ll come home in between it won’t be non-stop but it’s definitely a part of it, a very necessary part.

What’s the most challenging part of all this?

I guess to stay true to the music, that’s not that hard in itself but just to push yourself. You have to think about other things, not sell-out things, but there’s pressure to keep being good at it, in the market, that sounds stupid to say … it’s not hard but just challenging to keep pushing yourself to the next level and not get lost in some of the bullshit involved in the music business or whatever.

It’s also challenging you know to subject yourself to criticism, it’s good because you’re getting more and more exposure all the time but the more, I guess, popular you get, the more some people in the underground are quick to criticize you at any point. You kind of have to become bulletproof with that kind of thing.

I know Smoke Ring for My Halo just came out but what’s this I hear about the next record possibly being recorded outside?

Yeah not like a live jam band thing but I know we’ll be touring a lot and since we’ll be touring relatively non stop, the band’s tight anyway, but when we’re on the road we just get so tight and the real way to capture a song with energy on tape is to first do it live and then you can overdub or do whatever, but I just want to capture the full energy of a rock band but I don’t want it to be rock, I mean it’s too far away to say for sure, but I know I’m probably going to do some sort of a rock record, not like in your face rock like Black Sabbath, but electricity will be involved.

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