Music

All in a Day's Work: The Kurt Vile Interview

In the midst of supporting new album b'lieve i'm goin' down, Kurt Vile talks about family, inspiration, and blue-collar life (Philly style).


Kurt Vile

B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down

Label: Matador
Release Date: 2015-09-25
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Few modern-day songwriters capture the feeling of being stuck, or of witnessing the quick and inevitable onset of time as Kurt Vile. He's written enough character sketches that you could almost coin the term "Vileisms" when capturing any of the following scenarios:

"I woke up this morning / Didn't recognize the man in the mirror / Then I laughed and I said / 'Oh silly me, that's just me.'"

or

"I don't wanna change, but I don't wanna stay the same / I don't wanna go, but I'm running / I don't wanna work, but I don't wanna sit around / All day frownin'."

His latest album, b'lieve i'm goin down..., on Matador Records, is full of "Vile-isms". It's also one of his most musically varied, incorporating instruments like banjo and "call and response" vocals. The album took him almost a year to finish, and it was recorded in Athens, Brooklyn, and at Rancho De La Luna (Joshua Tree). Even though the album took almost a year to make, it's still a fairly quick follow-up to his 2013 release Wakin' On a Pretty Daze.

Vile is currently touring with his supporting band The Violators to promote b'lieve i'm goin down. PopMatters caught up with Kurt Vile just outside of Boston, where he officially kicked off his tour on 2 October. In a phone interview, he talked about returning to Boston (where he lived for about two years in the early aughts), recording his latest album, and striking up a friendship with Kim Gordon.

* * *

How did you like living in Boston?

No offense to Boston, but I was glad to get out of there. I think it's just because I'm from Philly. Honestly, the blue collar side of each are pretty similar in ways, but something about the makeup of your brain, Philly versus Boston. It's a lot different, in weird ways. But that said, it was a good time.

I hung out with these kids going to college who were a lot like me. I sort of got the college experience being their age, doing the college party, psychedelic music thing. And then, I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning to go to work on Monday.

You have two little kids. How is going on an international tour like now as opposed to a few years ago?

It gets a little more understood and refined, the scenario every time. It was even more crazy last record in ways, because everything was literally non-stop. Once the Wakin' touring finally stopped, I almost had a full year off. My oldest is old enough for kindergarten now, but we [him and Suzanne, his wife] are going to home-school her. The kids are free, to be able to bounce all over the world. They're going to meet me in Australia at the end of that tour in January.

It took you almost a year to record b'lieve, but overall, it was a relatively short turnaround time from your last album. Did you have a lot of material to record for this album?

I had a lot of material. It's not like it took a year to record those 12 tracks on the album. There's over an album's worth of outtakes. I had theories, and I knew songs I definitely wanted on the album. And I had ideas on how I wanted the album to sound, but the second half of that is to actually start doing it. Then you really know how the album should be sounding. That's kind of the fun part. To figure out the direction as you go.

What were the recording sessions like?

"Pretty Pimpin'", which is the beginning [of the album], and "Wild Imagination", which is the end were both 100 percent recorded and mixed with [producer] Rob Schnapf, who I worked with at the end of the record. When he reached out, we had just hit a wall. My bandmates and me were working on the record, and finally, I was just over-consumed. I wasn't a good leader anymore. It was too insular.

So, Rob Schnapf reached out to work with me at just the right time. I had happened to be in L.A. on the last one of the sessions where it was just me steering the ship. I was just ready to crash. I needed help from the outside. Someone who was professional. I just thought Rob Schnapf was going to help us go through the record and mix it, maybe overdub. But the first thing I did with him was record "Pretty Pimpin'". At the end of the mixing session, I wrote "Wild Imagination" really quick. They're the beginning and the end. It's just interesting how the record grows.

Was the finished product different from how you originally envisioned it?

I thought it was going to be some kind of heavy folk, spaced-out blues record with all the other parts of my sound that are obvious, like my voice, [some] sort of dreamy rock thing. I did want it to be some kind of folk statement, I guess it still is. I try not to envision it that much. I assumed there would be more stuff going on, but I kept coming back to a stripped-down thing. Every time I added things, it just didn't sound honest to me.

But I look forward to doing a lush thing with more instrumentation [for a future album], but still, I'm going to make sure that's honest too.

It's one of your most musically varied albums. One thing that instantly stood out in the song "I'm an Outlaw" is the use of the banjo. Has that instrument always been with you, or is this the first time you've had the opportunity to really put it to use?

I picked up the banjo a lot. I go back to it. It definitely brings back the nostalgic childhood thing. There's a little bit of banjo in my first Matador record [2009's Childish Prodigy]. There's a little bit of banjo in "Life's a Beach". I've written songs on the banjo.

Every time since Smoke Rings for My Halo, I was trying to capture some sort of ethereal, Appalachian jams. But I kept going back to the banjo. Especially these two times down the shore in Ocean City where I vacation sometimes. I had my old banjo, and I wrote that outlaw tune and a lot of songs. I knew I wanted to capture it on this record.

Your latest album was recorded in Athens, Brooklyn, and Rancho De La Luna (in Joshua Tree). What led to the studio choices?

[Drummer] Kyle Spence lives in Athens, and was building a home studio. We hit it off, and had a equal obsessions with Steely Dan and weird stuff like that. Everyone in the band, they don't just play music. They got to have certain charming, geeky qualities and be into weird things like fixing amps or whatever. Rob [Laakso] lives in Brooklyn.

It's all logistics, but I benefit from it. I just get used to bouncing around. I just utilized the time in between gigs.

b'lieve definitely has a late night feel to it. What are some of your favorite albums you like to listen to at night?

The obvious night record is [Neil Young's] Tonight's the Night, which is the ultimate night record. He had that concept down in his mid-20s. On The Beach could be that way, too. I should start thinking of more clever late-night records.

For the longest time, I was just listening to instrumental jazz records, like John Coltrane, or Thelonious Monk, and just sitting on my couch, and reading. That's another big part of songwriting. There comes a time when you've toured a ton, and a time to be inspired again. Listen to awesome jazz records that are mellow with no words, and just sit there and read a book, or space out on your couch. And eventually, all that inspiration comes.

Kim Gordon wrote your bio on the Matador site. The two of you originally met at a Dinosaur Jr. concert, correct?

She was at my merch booth. I gave Thurston Moore CD-Rs of mine, so I knew he was aware of me. But J Mascis invited me to be on tour, he said Childish Prodigy was his favorite record of the year that year ... or one of them. Then, Kim Gordon's there, saying she's a fan. She said she liked the record then. I hooked her up.

I remember when we were making Smoke Rings For My Halo, which was with [producer] John Agnello, who worked with Dinosaur Jr. He did the last two Sonic Youth records. At one point, Kim Gordon emailed John, saying "I heard you're working with Kurt. His last record's my favorite one. We loved that record. The pressure's on, you better not fuck it up." [laughs] That was a joke.

Since then, I kept running into her. And finally, we're actually playing some shows together. So we had formed a friendship, for sure.

In your lyrics, there's an overlaying sense of blue collar-like exhaustion in the characters. You worked at a warehouse, and on a forklift. Do those experiences still find ways of getting into your songwriting?

The last blue collar job I had, I was 29. Even Childish Prodigy I had a day job that whole time. Those early ones, they feel like psychedelic, blue collar records. Especially God Is Saying This to You, there's such urgency in that album. Even though it's all over in eras, because I was just picking from my back catalog. I would be exhausted. "When am I going get out of this fucking blue collar world. I want to be a rock star." [laughs]

But I think because I still live in Philly. I look at it all fondly. My last job in Philly was a pretty good last job to have, even though I wanted to get out of there. I still live in the same neighborhood where that brewery is.

After working those jobs, what does it mean to you now, to be able to be a musician full-time?

It's awesome. I'm stoked, but I don't feel like I won the lottery. When I first got the record deal, I thought it felt like I won the lottery. But I always worked hard at it. I know it's naturally what I'm good at: playing music. I guess I could have got unlucky and never got anybody to put my stuff out. That would be tragic. Obviously, once you get signed, you get exposed to the public, and you sort of grow. That's a different kind of inspiration. You grow in a different way. This is all I ever wanted to do.

When you're on the road, do you start thinking about forming your next album, or do you wait until you've managed to decompress from touring?

Right now, I'm already thinking about my next album. I'm always thinking ahead. I find better ways to compartmentalize that in a way that's not stressful. That's the fun of playing music. I've been collecting a lot of new material. I don't think I'm going to take that long. We'll see.

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