Kurt Vile Interview
Kurt Vile loves music biographies, which gives him an honorary degree in the history of rock n’ roll. We know this, because lying half-open on the table of his dressing room at London’s Forum is a copy of Fred Goodman’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’, an account of the careers of Dylan and Springsteen and the swindling 70s rock n’ roll industry. A book which seems to be an accurate summation of Vile’s musical influences and, perhaps, aspirations. Since releasing 2011’s Smoke Ring for my Halo, the Philadelphia-based musician has gained a reputation for his classic, and deeply personal, Americana singer/songwriter songs influenced by the likes of Springsteen, Dylan and Petty. Interviewing Vile is like watching him compose chords and lyrics to a song: his fingers moved and paused across an imaginary fretboard in syncopation to his answers, which was the only indicator that he was listening because his long wavy hair was covering his face. Thought for the day: do all musicians sing their responses in their heads?
You cited music biographies, in particular ‘Hotel California’ by Barney Hoskyns, as influencing your next album. Why that book?
I love reading music bios in general and that one, my friend Dorian told me about that one, and she was like ‘don’t be alarmed by the name’, because you know everyone makes fun of The Eagles. Most music books, even if it’s a bio about Neil Young, they are always educational about the scene. But that one is more about the whole history of the situation. And that was cool, whether you like The Eagles or not, it’s more open-minded. You can appreciate it all more.
A lot of the songs were written when you were travelling around America. What was that like as a songwriting process?
I think I’ve always come back to a song. I had more time before, but back in the day I would be sit and play it all the time, but this one I knew I had time and I was playing more gigs and more soundchecks and I was creating these sort of more epic tunes. They are simple enough, but there are so many ways you can play a riff and stuff.
Are there any lyrical themes?
The lyrical theme is always just like, not exactly self-centred, but always a bit melancholic. I always have a certain style. I don’t know how to put it into words.
Has that changed since having children?
I think so, but I think it’s all open-minded. I mean there is a song, like a dad song. But there was a dad song before. I started Smoke Ring for my Halo and then I had a kid and wrote In My Time like ‘snap’ so there’s like dad songs in there.
Your girls are quite fortunate to be around so much music all the time.
I don’t like, sit there and sing to them in a cheesy way, but my daughter is 2 and a half and she is super smart and has favourite songs of other artists.
What does she like?
She just likes weird stuff. My favourite record as a kid was this Rusty and Doug Kershaw album called Louisiana Man, and that’s her favourite record too, and she always wants to play that. And just this random Frank Zappa CD, like B-sides and rarities, actually a lot of Captain Beefheart on it, you know, bizzarro dialogue and like freaky stuff, and she loves that album. She really likes See the Girl Dance by Neil Young.
She has good taste. If a younger version of you saw you now, what would they think?
Like, saw me like that’s who they knew they were going to be? Ah, I’ve been like trying to do this music thing for a while, so I would be relieved, but I guess I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t if I had been all laid back. Like, I’m going to get there and I never would. Towards the end, I thought I wouldn’t make it. You need this drive.
Back in the day, did you have a magazine that you aspired to be in?
This is a weird time. Spin magazine came, and I didn’t realize that it isn’t a print magazine anymore. I think another company bought them and that company has web experience, so now Spin is online. And they do have a good website and I think more people read on the computer on magazines, but I wish it was like the nineties again.
Do you wish that we could go back to a time where websites weren’t they only source for discovering new music and supporting certain artists?
You definitely reminisce about that time, especially now we’re like putting out our own records and you don’t have the same, ‘let’s get on the cover’ type of option. Even Rolling Stone magazine has, I mean, it’s always been corporate, and I’m not complaining, and I’m not trying to call out Rolling Stone, but the people who are on the cover are like massive and on major labels. And it was very likely to be Spin who would support upcoming, non-mainstream bands. I was very impressed to see that Ty Segall was on the cover of Spin, but then I found out that it’s not a magazine, but that it’s on the Internet. They definitely changed the formant. It seemed realistic that I could be on the cover of Spin magazine in the near future.
People describe you as ‘a great American songwriter.’ Are you comfortable about receiving such an accolade?
I like to strive… and do my best. I’m not going to say that I am (a great American songwriter). But I get deep with the songwriting and try to make it unique and its own, It has so many influences. I tried to make it classic and get up in every nook and cranny. It’s not like I write a song and then spit it out.
You strive to go far.
Well, you know, that’s the one thing. I could have a bad show. But once we play a show and we’re on a roll, we’re really good live too. I know at the very least that I go into the albums in a way not everyone does. My producer wants to kill me at the end.
Why? Do you get really focused?
Just because I get so aggressive, not even focused, I get paranoid. I go to far over one way thinking and then only to take it back.
You’re very intelligent, so you naturally over think.
It’s just getting out of control. I’ll have to listen in headphones louder and louder and your ears are like ringing. It’s just intense how far you have to go to make it.
Have you visualised the new album artwork? Do you see it in colours?
Yes, definitely colours. In so many ways we were behind schedule with the last record, and it was an important record for the label. And they wanted it to not look so lo-fi and in the process them trying to get an image across of me that wasn’t so lo-fi and me kinda letting them…somewhere along the line balls were dropped. It’s a cool cover, but it could have been better. I definitely want colour. I actually know what we’re going to do for the cover.
But he’s not going to share.
Kurt Vile and the Violators will release a new album in April 2013.