The Rumpus Interview with Kurt Vile

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You can get a sense of Kurt Vile’s many contradictions the second you lay eyes on his new album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador): there is his name, painted in giant letters across an entire building; beneath that is a lower wall festooned with lyrics, and then the man himself, slouching in the corner. Vile’s star has risen steadily since the mid-aughts, when he cofounded the War on Drugs, and Pretty Daze, his fifth solo LP, hints at a newfound maturity. Despite or because of all this, there he is on the cover, dwarfed by his own words.

Pretty Daze is a 70-minute collection of epically spacey folk and shaggy rock united by Vile’s Lou Reed–worthy drawl. In conversation, his voice speeds up dramatically. His sentences pile up on top of each other, most of them peppered with a Philly-accented “you know?” Friendly and quick to deploy a sly sense of humor, he’s also clearly hesitant to talk about his lyrics or the stories behind them. Don’t worry: the album, full of surprisingly clear-headed reflections on growing up and embracing a baffling world, will tell you everything you need to know. The Rumpus called Vile up in May and learned a few things about his recording process, life on the road, and the all-time best Dead Milkmen song.

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Kurt Vile: [Answering phone] Taaaaalk to me!

The Rumpus: Uh, hi! Where are you right now?

Vile: I’m in the car. My guitar player Rob [Laakso] is driving. Don’t…make me elaborate on that. Just kidding. We have a show in Boston. We just played Bowery Ballroom last night. We played David Letterman during the day, so it was a good day for the band.

Rumpus: Had you done a late show before?

Vile: No, never. It was cool. It was fun.

Rumpus: I imagine those can be nerve-racking.

Vile: It was nerve-racking, but then because of that, playing a show at the Bowery, headlining was like nothing, so we really gave it our all.

Rumpus: Since the new album came out, have there been any shows where you were looking out at a vast room full of people and got freaked out by that?

Vile: No, they’ve all been like five- to six-hundred-people rooms, sometimes a little less. We played Coachella, which was interesting. It was a tough gig. That was obviously more people, and honestly we weren’t as tight yet ’cause we were still getting it together. Our first weekend at Coachella—being critical, which you should be, anyway—I would say it stunk, you know what I mean? And then the next one was better. It just started to gel right when the actual club tour started, and it got better every night.

Rumpus: Did you have time to roam around Coachella and see some other stuff?

Vile: Oh yeah, totally. I saw a fair amount of things, but I mean Nick Cave just put everybody to shame both weekends. It just makes you cry. This is like the ultimate performer. It’s mind-blowing. That’s the realest thing, by miles. He knows it. I love Australians in general. Everybody I know who’s Australian, I can lock in socially, tap into the whole ball-busting sense of humor, [which is] very Philadelphia, too, or East Coast or whatever.

Rumpus: Do you see a throughline or theme to the new album? 

Vile: No. I mean, just in general, there was like a cluster of songs I was writing. You generally write in a particular style or a couple of styles. I started with the song “Wakin on a Pretty Day” ’cause I was working on that song throughout touring in a laid-back kind of way. Without thinking much about it, it was a tone-setter. And there was the rock angle, which was very different. Like “KV Crimes,” that was from me and Rob recording, and him recording us in New York. That was like the rock edge of it. Two very different things, you know—ton of songs, work on them as you go, and you just figure out what works and what doesn’t, you know? Just like talking about touring, it gets more and more realized as you go, like anything else.

Rumpus: You recorded the album in four different towns, right?

Vile: Upstate New York near Woodstock at Dreamland—we started it there. It’s built into this old church. You can stay in the rectory, and you’re in the country so it’s good for concentration and vibes and all that. We did a week there, and then we went on tour all spring and summer and came back and did another week there. The strategy was like: record a little bit so your head doesn’t explode with anxiety when you go on tour ’cause you have a little to think about. And then we came back to the same spot, the same headspace, to do a little more. And then I flew out to LA because I wanted to play with Farmer Dave [Scher] from the Beachwood Sparks. He’s an amazing musician, and it worked out because I have different friends in L.A., but mainly Farmer Dave and Stella—my friend Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint, she was there. She basically saved the record. We were between drummers. And Jennifer Herrema was there, so she sang. Just to go into their environment as opposed to flying people over showbiz style—it’s not natural. Then we went from there to Philly to be close to home, and then we mixed up in New York City. So it wasn’t a clusterfuck. It was very calculated, ’cause I was also about to have my second daughter.

Rumpus: Were there different moods to the recordings that came out of each place?

Vile: Yeah, totally. I mean, you’re always affected by your surroundings. The song “Too Hard,” for instance, this long finger-picker, that was Jesse on guitar, me on acoustic guitar, and Farmer Dave on lap steel playing live. It definitely captures, in a loose way, a Neil Young kind of West Coast thing, like “Ambulance Blues” or whatever, where it’s vibing off of each other. And then in New York, it might be like a little more slick.

Rumpus: Did you ever get nostalgic for the old home-recording days?

Vile: I do listen to old stuff. One of my favorites is the He’s Alright seven-inch. I like the idea of putting a lot into a little seven-inch, you know? But that was from a time of me having a certain amount of knowledge and a certain amount of struggle. There’s an urgency in those. I just recently went to my buddy Adam’s house, my ex-bandmate, from both the War on Drugs and the Violators. I’ll jam with him again any time. He did this home-studio thing, and it was so nice to do that again. I understand the benefits of that, because you’re in the comfort of a home and it’s very real. You just lay it down. It’s not like, check all the tapes, check the mics, sit you down and put all these mics around you, and then the red light comes on. I’ll do that again sometime, but what would be the point of doing it as low-quality as I did, direct into my little digital eight-track or something like that? It’s a different time, you know?

Rumpus: One of my favorites on the album is “Girl Called Alex.”

Vile: Yeah. Me too.

Rumpus: Is there a story behind that? A real-life Alex?

Vile: I’m not gonna tell you the whole story, but basically it’s about my friend Alex, who’s an amazing girl, and she deserves a song written about her. She’s a good friend. It got mistaken as like a jealous love thing, which was so annoying, but what can you do? I wrote it when I was feeling pretty low on the road. It gets lonely on the road sometimes. You can catch long-distance melancholy once in a while. I never was straight literal and put somebody I actually knew in a song, with the name and everything. But I showed it to her recently, I finally saw her, and she was happy.

Rumpus: She didn’t know about it until the album was out?

Vile: No, which is why she’s awesome, she had no idea. I kind of got paranoid that maybe she would have heard it and been like, “That’s weird.” But she hadn’t even heard it. It’s not like everybody is always listening, you know? [Laughs.]

Rumpus: “Was All Talk” also stood out to me. You seem to be talking about two versions of yourself [“Not to be all stalkin’ myself too much / When I got the upper hand / Here in present days”]. Who are these two KVs?

Vile: It’s open, you know? It sounds good, it rhymes, it makes sense a little bit, but it’s open. I don’t want to sit here and try to analyze it right now, because I might not say it right or something.

Rumpus: What was the first song you ever learned to play?

Vile: Probably “Round Here” by the Counting Crows. No, just kidding. Probably some banjo tune. I do remember that my banjo teacher taught me “Fortunate Son” by Credence. He just taught me the riff—you know, bau-neeew. I used to just bring in tapes to him, you know?

Rumpus: Is there a rock album that you remember as the one that set you on this path?

Vile: When I was a little kid, I had U2 cassettes like anybody else, and then I got Smashing Pumpkins cassettes like anybody else. I still sorta like that Smashing Pumpkins Lull EP, but that’s like when more indie-rock stuff started coming out. I always liked the classic rock that my dad played, like the Beatles and Credence, but then I was just at the right age for indie rock, like Pavement and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. That stuff was accessible and cool, you know? So I got extra serious then, probably.

Rumpus: I listened to that episode of Best Show [on WFMU with Tom Scharpling] that you and your brother are on. It was the first time I’d heard of your brother going on tour with you.

Vile: Yeah, yeah, yeah, my brother. I’m probably not going to talk about him that much but yeah, he’s been calling the Best Show. We did a video with Tom, and he just jumped right on that train. He’s funny. He’s a wild kid. He’s my little brother, so you know, sometimes he’s annoying, but all in all, he’s a good kid. But he’s got a lot to learn.

Rumpus: Drugs come up three or four times on the album. Can you talk about your first-ever drug experience?

Vile: No…it’s kind of boring to talk about. Nah. I got kids and stuff. And I’ve never actually ever done a drug in my life, so.

Rumpus: Alright, cool. Any van reading right now?

Vile: I have this Flannery O’Connor short-story book that I always have. I go back to it in between and try to stay on top of the reading, try to do it every day or else I get too ADD. I’ve been listening to music more.

Rumpus: What’re you listening to?

Vile: We listen to the Happy Mondays, and what else lately? I listen to certain dance songs to get me hyped up, like Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance.” I’ve been listening to that on my phone a lot lately. And then there’s funnier ones like Matthew Wilder, “Break My Stride.” There’s also this band called Lime, it’s apparently called “Hi-NRG” music, like a genre. The song “Babe We’re Gonna Love Tonight”—it’s a really funny video too. My friends Russ and Lea from Blues Control turned me on to it. You gotta check out the video, it’s really out there.

Rumpus: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Vile: I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I just on the road got this Ibanez analog effects processor. It has an analog chorus in there, and a Tube Screamer. It has a compressor too. My band mates know a lot more about gear. They tell me the compressor’s not ideal for live, it’ll feed back easier or something. But the Tube Screamer, that’s a sweet boost. [Pause.] I was kidding about the drug thing, by the way.

Rumpus: Okay. And finally, what’s your favorite Dead Milkmen song?

Vile: That’s an awesome question. I love “Two Feet Off the Ground” on Eat Your Paisley. You know that one?

Rumpus: I don’t.

Vile: Dude, you gotta get that album! It gives you chills. It’s got the melodic thing with Joe, and then the chorus is just kind of epic, like, “Light up a smoke! ‘Cause life is no joke!” and Joe is singing in the background, like [starts to sing some “do”s]—I can’t sing it right now, but you gotta listen to it. At the end, they’re just screaming at the top of their lungs, but it’s pretty—you know what I mean?—but also punk rock. Gives you that feeling, chills and epic-ness. Aw dude, you’ll see what I mean, you gotta check it out.


James Rickman is a member of the band People Get Ready, whose first album came out on Brassland last fall. His writing has appeared in Paper, ASCAP Playback, H.O.W. Journal, Jezebel Music. He lives in Queens. More from this author →