By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Kurt Vile has got to be feeling pretty good. Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile's album from March of this year, is a mesmerizing and calculated shower of sound which, miraculously, also ends up being a great hooky little rock record. In Halo, we see Vile reeling in the fuzz from his earlier home recordings and trading it in for more elaborate construction—construction that somehow still sounds dutifully fuzzy but distinct and intricate. Halo is the mark of a songwriter growing into himself. It's an articulate album, and in it we see the Philadelphia rocker pairing his love of lo-fi guitar and cavernous vocals with strong lyrics and a boisterous, eager energy.
And Kurt Vile's enthusiasm is contagious. He produced two albums and two EPs on his own in under two years before finally signing with Matador records in May of 2009. In April of last year, seven months after Vile's Matador debut dropped, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth called Childish Prodigy her guilty pleasure in an interview with Women's Wear Daily, "guilty because I listen to it too much...." Then, in November of last year, Vile's song "He's Alright" was featured as the closing soundbite for the season two finale of HBO's Eastbound and Down. In our recent phone interview, Vile talked about the boost he got from the Eastbound spot.
Kurt Vile: That's one of my favorite songs that I've written, so for it to come a year after the album came out, and for the TV people to be that cool to put that on there, and the people behind it, that's pretty awesome. I mean, the song "He's Alright" was on Childish Prodigy but it wasn't even listed, it's the A-Side of a 7-inch that's not on the vinyl, so for it to all of sudden be exposed to so many more people, I mean the downloads for that song increased one thousand percent after that. [laughs]
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City Pages: For a child of the '90s, is this tour with Thurston Moore kind of a dream come true?
Vile: Oh totally man, I'm stoked for sure. Childhood dream.
CP: Is there some pressure, though?
Vile: I've gotten to know [Sonic Youth] a lot more, so I'm not exactly shaking in my boots. We opened for Dinosaur Jr. when Childish Prodigy came out and that was before I knew any of them; I mean they live close and they're all tight or whatever, J's family and Sonic Youth, so I remember that when I was touring with Dinosaur Jr. That was how I met them. I met J, and then since then we've played a couple of shows with Sonic Youth at festivals, and we just kept crossing paths and had mutual friends, so now it's like I know [Thurston Moore] and he's a cool person. It's super great, just super great.
CP: Are you and Thurston collaborating or playing anything together?
Vile: No, we haven't written any tunes together [laughing] or anything like that...I would in a second.
CP: Jesus creeps in to make an appearance in quite a few of your songs. Is he just acting as a character within the narrative? Or is there more to it than that?
Vile: I think that the two main reasons are, one, the blues gospel tradition, you know like growing up listening to old-time music and the people who nodded to that stuff, Spaceman 3 or Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt. It's a blues gospel tradition. But I was also brought up exposed to religion and Christianity. My parents are religious, most of my family is religious, so it's kind of in my DNA I guess. But uh, I don't particularly—I'm not particularly practicing.
CP: So more spiritual than actually religious.
Vile: Yeah, spiritual.
CP: A lot of your songwriting seems to exist within this nostalgic pastoral Americana space in the vein of people like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. Would you say that it's a conscious choice you're making musically?
Vile: I'd say it's intentional not in the way that it's a super calculated thing, but it's an influence for sure, it's a feeling. There's a definite American feeling. I used to be like, "Yeah, American music is where it's at." You know, Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, that's what he was saying, you know, kind of against the Beatles who took rock 'n' roll and did their thing. Bob Dylan kind of brought it all back home, and so I would think about American music, you know, Creedence or whatever and Tom Petty, Springsteen, all these different American musicians. But then there's all these bands like the Stones who were totally American-influenced...I was always thinking about Americana.
CP: Do you think that Smoke Ring for My Halo is a big step forward for you musically?
Vile: Yeah for sure, there's a few reasons. One, I've improved, but also, it's the first record I did with a real record producer. I already did a record with Matador, but most of that I recorded on my own and then sent it out to Matador specifically. So, I mean it's the first professional one and I have a lot more touring under my belt, lots more confidence.
KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS perform with Thurston Moore on MONDAY, JULY 18, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222