Kurt Vile likes to take his time. He says it's the closest thing he has to a mantra for making music: "You just can't be in a rush," he told Gothamist. "As long as you're hypnotized in some sort of groove or just getting off the pretty notes. All those things, just don't be in a rush. Just be there in the moment."
Over the course of his decade-plus musical career, the Philly-based guitarist has crystallized his musical gifts into an unmistakeable sound, one part Neil Young's most out-there solos, one part J Mascis' scratchy vocals, one part Pavement's slackerish vibe, and one part Tom Petty's Americana melodies. His music is defined by his love for long, seemingly improvisatory stretches of intricate guitar lines that seem to stretch out longer than most highways.
His first solo album in three years, Bottle It In, is a perfect distillation of his sound, which as Pitchfork put it "adopts a drifting mind as its emotional compass," which is how you can describe most of his music. In addition to the typically long and winding guitar jams, there's a newfound country influence present in many of the tunes, including a gorgeous cover of Charlie Rich classic "Rollin' with the Flow."
Vile and his band (the aptly named Violators) will play Brooklyn Steel on Wednesday and Thursday nights this week (they'll be on tour through December, then hit the road again in February). "I heard the sound can be sort of metal there, but our sound man, he's really killing it on the tour," Vile noted. "The sound's definitely gonna be good there, for sure." We spoke to him on Election Day about political anxiety, songwriting, playing with Stephen Malkmus, unreleased country songs, and the blues song he once wrote about riding the subway.
Do you consider yourself a political person? Is that something that sneaks into your music? It comes out. The political thing is usually a result of really being affected by the sad things going on, but I never blatantly call people out by name, I don't really do that. I've always been the person to write how I'm feeling affected by what's going on in the world. This isn't even really politics, this is like me reacting to blatantly scary things going on in the world. It's hard to be articulate, I just respond emotionally to things that are scary or wrong or divisive or racist. Things like that.
I posted something on Facebook today [about the election], then you see people get angry back [at it], who are more or less pro-Trump or some version of it. It definitely gives me butterflies, makes me feel. Yeah, it's weird how people are all turning again each other in such an extreme way. Pretty surreal.
It seems like most of your songs are written in the first person. Do you think of your songwriting as an exploration of your own feelings and inner life, or do you sometimes think of it as characters or something removed from yourself? It's definitely more or less me all the time. Unless I'm singing about somebody that I know more or less as well, you know? Yes. Pretty much my immediate life, even if it's psychedelic, you know? It can be psychedelic and funny and all this things. I can play around with rhymes. But more or less, it's my life, which can go in and out of outer space anyway. In and out at any time.
One aspect of your music that I really love, and something I don't think you get enough credit for, is your sense of humor. I always find myself laughing at these weird jokes and random asides. Do you think that’s something people have really picked up on after all these years? Oh, totally. And so these songs like “Cold Was The Wind,” for instance, we're playing that one live every night—and every night, you can say things a little different 'cause there's ad libs in there. So things are a little funnier all the time or not, depending, but yeah. I think when enough people are noticing my sense of humor it starts to become an in-joke. So I'm pretty proud of it, but maybe a couple of records ago, I would be like, "Dude, you don't get my sense of humor!” But enough people are now that I'm happy with it.
I read an interview recently where you said you like to read your own press, which not every musician does. And I was curious, because you're in this unique position. Most people have to rely on their friends and their family and maybe their therapist to reflect them back and check them, but you have this other prism by which you can understand yourself, which is how critics and fans view you and write about you. And I was curious whether that's something you think about, and whether it's something that's useful or accurate or leads to misconceptions or insights about yourself? It's useful to a point, but I'll say I'm always pretty cocky when I put a record out. I know my music is pretty weird. It's not necessarily immediate, but I definitely would say there's reviews for this record. Everything's gone well, but they definitely can be mixed reviews. And I try not to take it personal, but then I do, then I get mad. I'm like, "Who is this person that's reviewing it, didn't actually talk to me, trying to make a point or an argument that I'm saying something when they didn't even check what I mean." They kinda use my words against me, things like that. That makes me mad.
But then I come out here and I'm playing for an album tour and crowds are sold out and the shows are really taking off. And I see the people who are the believers, and it gets a little stronger all the time. I feel pretty invincible, and then certain people who try to put me down, I'm just like, "Well, I don't need you."
It's interesting to see the normal press to a certain point. And then they start saying the same things just like a bio. People read my bio and then I have to answer the same questions all the time.
But I'm lucky. I like to see different nuggets coming out, or an article in Mojo. It's all pretty exciting. Obviously, it’s what I wanted since I was a kid, finally somebody writing about my music. That's what I used to collect: magazines of all my favorite artists. So it's kinda the dream. I have nothing to complain about, really.
I get that. One of my favorite indulgences is music magazines. Especially special issues for people like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. Yeah. Definitely the bummer is now that it's all online. I've been on the cover of Spin Magazine twice online. [Laughs]
Yeah you can’t hang that up on the wall. So the new album Bottle It Up has a pretty strong Nashville flavor to it, including that wonderful Charlie Rich cover that's just gorgeous. Have you considered, or have you been interested in, doing a more traditional country album or a covers record or anything? I have some stuff like that in the can. I did some Nashville sessions and I'll probably add to them. It's not gonna be blatantly Sweetheart Of The Rodeo thing, but there are definitely roots-y recordings with Nashville musicians I've already done. I'll do some collection like that for sure, and put it out sooner than later.
So I'll do some version of that, but it's important, in my world, to not be too extreme. Baby steps in that direction, otherwise somebody would be like, "What? A country record?" I had different things I could've put out, and then the Courtney [Barnett collaborative album] thing came out. It would've been a little extreme to put out this Nashville EP or something too soon. I feel like there needs to be a few more tracks on there to make it work, to not make it extremely twangy.
It seems like it would still have your very specific vibe, that would separate it from being too much of a really traditional or revivalist thing. That’s I think what I mean. Maybe the stuff that I have right now on it's own might come off just a little too...It just needs a little work I think, but there's nuggets in there that I really like. I'm excited to get it out.
Was country music always an influence of yours, or is it something that grew over time, or did you discover your love for it later? I would say subliminally, the country music and bluegrass music that I grew up on from my dad was first subliminally an interest. But then I got more into all forms of country the past few years. Definitely delta blues and American folk anthology and stuff through my dad like Rusty and Doug Kershaw, and Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. I grew up on all those kinda things and then in the last few years, I got more into the country stars. Like a gateway drug was the George Jones autobiography. But Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, I heard that since I was a kid through my dad.
I’m curious how you view space as working in your music, because it seems like a very important theme both lyrically and instrumentally. There’s space for long stretches of guitar with no vocals in your music, space to stretch out and unwind on long songs like “Walkin' On A Pretty Day” and “Bassackwards.” It seems like wide open spaces are often a theme or recurring image in the music. In my own way, yeah. There's definitely space. I guess I couldn't give you a perfect sum up of that or definition, but mainly you just can't be in a rush. And you also gotta be in a groove, as long as you're hypnotized in some sort of groove or just getting off the pretty notes. All those things, just don't be in a rush. Just be there in the moment. A lot of times I overdub a ton of things and it sounds weird and I take stuff away and put things back 'til they fit right. Yeah, just to make things come off organic and alive as possible.
Do you ascribe to the Dylan school of thought on recording, “don't fuss over the songs, every performance is like a new version of it?” Well, a version of that. That's ideally where you wanna start and then some songs, I do chase after. And there's some good results in that, like “Pretty Pimpin," which is pretty poppy. I like a good radio song, you know, like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. You can tell they start with just a pure song, but you can tell they've gotta fuss at those for a couple days, some of the masterpieces. And I like that, too. With “Pretty Pimpin,” we definitely overdubbed to that for a few days and took things away, put them back 'cause you're working on a little something more, and then other times, just keep things pure, less fuss. And it really depends on the kind of song you're working on.
Were there any songs from the new album that you had to pursue in that way? Well, the title track "Bottle It In” is an example of a “don't fuss so much” song. Don't add too much. Everything was pretty laid back and just fell into place. And then, “Rollin With the Flow,” we got the initial live thing, but we overdubbed a bunch of that, to do what I said. And that one's hard to play live because you do hear all these things that were going on in the recording, that at least with a four piece band, it's hard to fully replicate.
You’ve recorded with Courtney Barnett, Hope Sandoval, and obviously [War On Drugs frontman] Adam Granduciel. Who would be a dream collaborator now? Who's someone you'd really love to get in the studio with? Well, definitely somebody like John Prine. Neil Young's a hero—I’m not holding my breath for that, but you never know. One day. I have jammed with Dean Ween.
Ooh. Guitar virtuoso from Ween. I have done some recordings with him, I would like to go back in and do some more of those. Hopefully, I will. I haven't talked to him in a while, but hopefully he'll be into that. Oh, I really like Grouper, I really like Liz Grouper. One day I would love to do something with her. There's probably other people that I'm just spacing out on.
Have you met Neil, have you met some of these heroes of yours? Is it weird to meet, and suddenly realize you’re playing music with your musical heroes? Yeah. Oh, actually, just the other day, speaking of meeting my heroes, one of my ultimate heroes in my teens and still is is Steve Malkmus, and we jammed together. I played on his set and he played on mine when we both were in Amsterdam and it was really fun. I'd love to do some kind of guitar thing with Malkmus someday. Some kind of psychedelic guitar soundscapes, et cetera. I like the idea of starting with not even thinking about vocals at all. Just get really lost in the guitars and no pressure. That way, sure, maybe there will end up being songs, but let's start with the just playing guitars and synths and things. And in the studio would be incredible. I know that would be incredible.
But yeah, I've met tons of my heroes. Not sure who's left, you know? Nick Cave is the superhero. He's a kind of recent hero honestly. The past few years, watching his thing explode. It's always exploded but it’s even beyond now. Honestly, certain people scare me in a good way. I've met Neil Young multiple times, and he definitely scares me because he's intimidating. 'Cause he's just amazing, you know? Neil Young and Nick Cave, I'd say I'm pretty afraid of both, but in the best kinda way.
You live in Philly full time with your family right? Did you know that Philly is considered one of the sixth boroughs of NYC? Oh wow. I love Philly. But I’m glad it’s so close to New York, and now that people are having to flee from New York, I’m glad I can go up there, benefit from it’s resources, and go back to Philly. And I can claim that I had foresight now to know because now everybody's having to leave, and I'm like, "Well, here I am with a house by the woods."
I think the goal of every New Yorker is to have a place outside of the city that they can run away to on the weekends. You've clearly gotten to spend a little bit of time in the city. What's your weirdest subway experience that you've had? Well, now they have that Instagram, Subway Creatures, you can just see weirdos on the subway all day on that. Don’t even have to live there. But, man, I've had plenty of subway experiences, I can't tell you. When I was younger, in my teens and twenties, going all the way to the other end of the line in the wrong direction. Not knowing where I am, being a nervous kid.
I don't know what I saw weird in the subway. But I'll tell you what. One of my favorite songs to laugh to is “Super Subway Comedian” by Suicide, it's on their second album. I wish that was my experience, seeing that subway comedian, whoever he was, whether he was real or imaginary.
I actually have a blues line that I wrote a few years ago that went, "I used to come in on the subway, I was the lowest of the low," and then you repeat it like a blues song. And then I’m like, "Now I'm coming down on the chopper, doing it proper." Yeah.