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Kurt Vile: Sometimes our shows are charming train wrecks

Kurt Vile: Sometimes our shows are charming train wrecks
Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Kurt Vile is finally rolling through the Twin Cities in support of his terrific 2013 record, Wakin On A Pretty Daze. The record is a psychedelic exploration with an emotional foundation rooted deeper than his previous work. The Philadelphia singer/songwriter/guitar virtuoso is part of Sunday's stacked lineup at Rock the Garden.

During Gimme Noise's chat with Vile, we discussed the writing and recording process for his new album, how those songs have evolved in the live setting, how fatherhood has affected his touring schedule, and just what exactly is in the water in Philly that keeps generating such brilliant guitar players.

See Also:
Rock the Garden 2014 lineup


Gimme Noise: You haven't played Minneapolis since the release of Wakin On A Pretty Daze. What was the writing and recording of the album like for you?

Kurt Vile: It was more epic, but it was slow. It was more about coming back to certain sections of certain songs a lot, as opposed to sitting down and writing a song from start to finish like I did in the past. Certain songs came quick, but other ones were kind of more laid back and more sprawled out -- like I'd be writing it while traveling and not being stressed.

The new songs are definitely more expansive and sprawling than your earlier work. Were they born out of free form jam sessions, or did you intentionally set out to write material with greater scope and depth?

At times there were sections that were open to jamming, like the ending on "Wakin On a Pretty Day" for instance. I'd keep that riff going for a while thinking that I'd play a bunch of solos, thinking that later I'd maybe edit it down or fade it out or whatever. But then the end result felt so right so long, so I just kept it, you know.

You have quite a few talented contributors on the album. How did they each help you realize your artistic vision while adding their own flourishes to your songs?

It was just about getting the right people. Great musicians, sure, but also it's definitely like a personality thing. It's people that I would like to be hanging out with anyway. I generally like to hang out with people who are music obsessives, at the very least, like record heads. A lot of times they are actually musicians. It's about liking someones style, but also as people too. Like Stella [Mozgawa, drummer] or Farmer Dave [Scher, multi-instrumentalist], or my friend Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux. And of course, my actual bandmates in the Violators. Everybody contributed basically on the spot. It's not like we went into a rehearsal room and rehearsed some part together, it was very in the moment. It was more about just trying to capture some magic in the moment.

What led you to release the It's A Big World Out There EP?

I was encouraged by Matador to put out an EP, and I wanted to anyway. If you go back to the EP that I released after Smoke Rings, there are a lot of songs on there that I wanted to fit on the record, like "The Creature." I really wanted to get that one on the record. But this time around, it was a double record, so there's more room to get things on there. So, the It's a Big World Out There EP is closer to a companion piece, like psychedelic instrumentals and the single version of "Never Run Away" with the string synth.

There's a song on there, "Feel My Pain," which I always loved. And we tried to put that on the record, and we added all these tracks to it, making it more in that epic fashion. But something was lost to me, it seemed like more of a ghostly, stripped-down folk affair. So that was something of substance that I put on there. It's more of like a psychedelic journey that's a companion piece to the style of the record, than an EP that just stands on it's own.

Do you feel that the EP completed the musical statement that you were setting out to make with the album?

Well, I think the album itself stands on its own. I think the EP was just an extension. It was for the heads, really. I would say its for the heads, not for someone who is going to sit there and judge it. It's more for people who are superfans, or people who listen to music like I do, which is obsessive. It's for music lovers, really, not for the critics.

You've been touring these new songs for a while now. Have the the songs evolved stylistically or took on an added significance since you've been performing them each night?

Yeah, the songs definitely evolve. It's not like a karaoke thing, it's like an evolution thing. That's the way music is for me in general. Riffs change and evolve, and you get better at playing them every night. Things tend to get heavier, more intense. It's always changing every night, that's the kind of music I'm into.

How has your approach to performing changed over the years? Have you grown more comfortable with the attention and the spotlight?

Yeah, I'm comfortable with the attention. Some people get really professional, and they put on this show sort of like in a Flaming Lips kind of way, where they put on this gigantic production. I appreciate that kind of music, like the National, where they put on this epic show where they have all these things backing them up so they won't screw up. Whereas me, we tend to be in the moment a little more. And sometimes it could be a train wreck [laughs]. Sometimes it's a charming train wreck. But God forbid, sometimes it's an ugly train wreck with lots of casualties. I guess there's sort of a punk edge to it sometimes, it depends on how we're feeling that day. The songs are sort of mellow, but you have electricity backing you and amps turned up, so sometimes it can come across pretty heavy. You never really know until you are up there.

 

The last time I saw you live, you opened for J Mascis at the 7th Street Entry -- it was an incredible show. How did that tour come together, and how much of a thrill was it to play with J?

It was a total thrill to play with J, and I still see him a fair amount. In fact, he was in New York when we were working on this Grateful Dead cover for this compilation, and he played on that, and that was awesome. I had played on his solo record, and opened for Dinosaur Jr. before that. Since then, I had worked on my record and J let me use his home studio since we share producers, John Agnello. Smoke Ring and his solo record came out at around the same time, so it seemed pretty obvious. I think I reached out to him, really, and it just worked out. Obviously, it was a big thrill.

He's my favorite of all the people I sort of grew up idolizing, because as awesome as he is, he never talks down to you. Other people that you meet that you grew up listening to, even if they are usually cool, there tends to be at least one little moment where they think they can talk down to you because you're younger. But I don't care, because I'm super Philly style, I can't be fucked with [laughs]. But J has always been like straight up awesome.

I'm a massive fan of Philly's modern rock scene -- you, War on Drugs, Purling Hiss, the list goes on. What the hell is in the water out there to generate such fantastic guitar players and songwriters?

[Laughs] It's been like that for a while, but you wouldn't even know it because it's always been like a local thing. Who was to think that finally people would be putting out all of our records. It's just kind of funny, because we all know each other, and we're all just part of this record nerd, DIY-infused scene that just all of a sudden organically turns into something that gets noticed nationally. It's awesome.

How gratifying is it for you to see your friends and longtime collaborators have success of their own?

Yeah, it's awesome. In the early days, we were all passionate, but we were struggling to get somebody to put our stuff out. And even when they were putting our stuff out, it was so small time. And here we are now, and everyone is finally getting their due. It's like we're almost used to it now, but I still do think about it, like, 'Wow, we're really getting away with this here.' [Laughs]

You all should do a big tour together. That would be a riot.

Yeah, one day. One day.

How has fatherhood affected your approach to your music, and how much time and effort you dedicate to touring and being away from home?

I think that it's hard to find the balance, and to accept the fact that you're going away. Especially when you don't know what the outcome will be, or the payoff in the earlier days. It was harder then, but now we've kind of got it down to a science and we understand that it's paying off, so you can't really say no. But you can't be gone for a year straight, nobody wants to do that now. We're at a point now, at the end of the album cycle, where we can go on tour for a couple weeks, then be home for weeks. And play one-offs and festivals and things. When the record first comes out, that's pretty tough, because you have to be gone for five weeks, come home for a couple days, then be gone for a month again. But that's just the way it is if you want to capitalize. But now it's getting more mellow.

You come from a large family yourself. How did your parents and your siblings influence your musical tastes over the years?

My dad was definitely supportive, and played a lot of his bluegrass and old-time music, and he grew up listening to rock 'n' roll too. He was really supportive in buying us instruments and everything like that. Most of the boys in my family are all musicians, and a couple of the girls as well. Everybody was always encouraging that, and we're all just music obsessives, so we bounce ideas off of each other, which always helps.

You're playing the Rock The Garden festival here in Minneapolis with Spoon and Guided by Voices. Are you looking forward to playing on that bill as much as I am looking forward to seeing it?

Yeah, totally! I guess I've never met the Guided by Voices guys in person, but we played the Matador 21 Festival with them, but that was when I only had one Matador record out and Smoke Ring hadn't come out yet. But it will be cool to meet them and see them play. And Spoon as well, they played that same festival. They were awesome, I remember. I'm totally stoked to play with those guys.

We're all excited here in Minneapolis to have you back here at long last. Do you have good memories of your shows here over the years?

Yeah. It feels like every time I get to Minneapolis, if you're coming from the East Coast you're just at that point of being fried and exhausted, and all the clubs there have that sort of punk rock edge and it's sort of a gritty enough city where the tiredness and the electricity combine so you get this charmingly fried show. It's always been good.

Kurt Vile is playing Rock the Garden at the Walker Art Center on Sunday, June 22, along with Spoon, Guided By Voices, Dessa, and Valerie June.

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