Strange Daze: Kurt Vile comes of age

Philadelphian troubadour Kurt Vile waxes poetic on rock biographies, giving up drugs, and why loving your couch doesn't make you a slacker

Feature by Sam Briggs | 04 Apr 2013

When born with a name like Kurt Vile, you’d assume his destiny as a star-spangled punk rocker would be a formality. That, or a career as a lauded super villain. Delving any deeper into the now-decade long musical exploits of this particular Phildelphian reveals a trajectory that might not quite reconcile with the pugnacious threat of his moniker. He revels more in a distillation of his myriad influences, channeling Stateside guitar traditions into his inimitable brand of hypnotic, magnetic Americana.

The Skinny catches up with Vile as he unwinds back home in the aftermath of a whirlwind UK press trip to promote Wakin' on A Pretty Daze, his fifth solo album in as many years. Surrounded by what he calls the “beauty in the general urban decay” of his hometown, he strikes a witty, endearing presence, at once humble and amusing, and speaks with a sensitive awe about his progression from forklift driver to father, and introspective troubadour to international touring success.

Vile initially entered the spotlight through his role in Pennsylvanian indie rockers The War on Drugs, but speaks of his occasional frustration at the lip service paid to it. “In the blogosphere people say I was a bigger part,” he explains, “but it was always Adam [Granduciel]’s thing. He’s involved in every one of my records bar the new one. He’s my favourite person of all time. But I just remember people started calling me Kurt Vile from the War on Drugs, when I had so many CD-Rs of my own, and I knew I couldn’t be in this band anymore. It didn’t bother me, it was just that the illusion was that I came out of this band. But my music was my own focus.” His friendship with Granduciel and their mutual influence is something Vile is keen to pay testament to, that without each other, “neither of us would be making the same music that we do today.”

While he was paying the bills as a forklift driver, Vile's DIY CD-Rs attracted the attention of the prolific Matador label in 2009. Critical acclaim and a cult fanbase soon followed, hallmarked by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, who described Vile's second album of that year, Childish Prodigy, her “guilty pleasure. Guilty because I listen to it too much!”

Vile is no stranger to the details of musical histories besides his own. A self-professed rock biography nut, he speaks with vigour about the musicians he idolises himself. “I can read into my own life, it just inspires me to keep making music. It’s the same effect for me as listening to music,” he says, “I just start idolising them even more.” He remains refreshingly humble when talking about his own career, and how he might be remembered in his own biography. “Things just aren’t as exciting as the 70s,” he jokes, “I feel like it would be a pretty boring book. I think there’s so much static in the air nowadays, but hopefully I’m still remembered and perceived with much love and respect. My career is still a bit young. I could still fall out, I could start sucking. Years would have to go by. The whole mystique of not having been there, you know? Things weren’t always as glamorous as they seem when they’re described by somebody.” 

“Things just aren’t as exciting as the 70s” – Kurt Vile

In the context of his discography, Vile can be viewed as no stranger to nostalgia. His records feel filtered through the lens of an older age, as if the psychedelic haze of their delivery is inherently hued with reminiscence. Though he talks of being aware of his older influences, he resists that his music never “comes out retro. I still think it’s music of today, if not some hip style.” Similarly, his reverence for American folk greats is undermined by his insistence on having “a million influences all the time,” from his homeland or elsewhere; that “these things pound through your brain from constant consumption.” He elaborates on his recent shift in perspective: "Maybe for a while I was influenced by the loose idea of ‘Americana,’ you know, the heartland music… for a while, I had this idea that it was the purest, that the general idea came through osmosis into my music, my own version of it.” 

Vile jokes about the music media's portrayal of his persona as the wistful slacker, content on the couch: “They get really literal. It’s more that when you’re affected by some parts of the world that smush your brain and weigh down on you for a sec, and that it’s just in the moment. I think the way I write about that kind of stuff, like wanting to lay down, is because I’m never allowed to do that. It’s not like I’m making a million albums and touring all the time to prophesise – ‘we should all just be laying down.’” The misty melodies of his previous albums might suggest that their inspiration came from cannabis-induced reverie, but Vile maintains that the influence of the philosopher's blend is currently negligible. “I’ve been anti myself smoking pot for the longest time, because I just get kind of... weird. I definitely won’t accomplish anything and just get really paranoid that people are laughing at me.” 

Instead, it's an entirely different seismic shift in Vile’s recent personal history that comes to bear on his current state as a songwriter. The mixing of his latest release was interrupted by the early arrival of a new addition to the Vile family, when he and his wife welcomed their second daughter into the world. As a result of his status as family man, Vile admits to having “all kinds of pressures with this record. My daughter had just been born, I had to better myself. Ultimately that pressure is a good thing, even if it does eventually kill me.” With two children to take care of, Vile notes a change in his outlook. “It's the opposite of looking back, I'm watching them move forward.” The video for latest single Never Run Away, distributed as an advert on a local Philly TV channel, is a three minute insight into the Vile living room, and the heartwarming effect his adorable daughters have on him.

This lightening in mood is abundantly clear from the very cover of his new LP. Moving from the grit of the black and white introduction to 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile is now pictured in saturated colour against the clear blue sky. It's an overall indication of the album’s feel; whereas previous records came soaked in a lo-fi smog, here we see Vile in a higher resolution, on a grander scale carried through to the closing bars of the album’s closer Goldtone. “I had these songs that dealt with more epic proportions,” describes Vile, “and I wanted to explore every kind of nook and cranny of space; filling every gap with a kind of hypnotic, pretty vibe. Once I stopped bobbing my head, I knew when a song wasn’t working. Lyrically, it’s very comfortable with itself, and very me.” 

Wakin' on a Pretty Daze is a bold recording, one which sees Vile take another assured step towards staking out his own turf within the great heritage of classic American songwriting. Would he venture that it's the realisation of that cheeky confidence he has consistently offered snatches of throughout his career so far? “I go through being super confident, and then paranoid,” he replies. “I just aim towards what The Band did, where ego is always a good thing. It’s still just the idea of the early days – coming out swinging, and aspiring to be one of the greats. Making the ultimate pop song, making it totally unique, that’s always been something I aspire to. You change a little bit, the older you get…but I’m still the same guy.” 

Wakin' on a Pretty Daze is releases via Matador on 8 Apr
Kurt Vile plays Field Day at London's Victoria Park on 25 May