You may have heard of Kurt Vile — his presence on the Philadelphia music scene (he’s a native) is undeniably significant, and his woozy folk–rock jams have made him a mainstay in the indie scene at large. We caught up with Vile after his show at Pitchfork, where he opened up about rebellion, Jim Jarmusch, and his excellent 2010 album, Smoke Ring For My Halo.
Street: First of all, how long have you been growing your hair? It was waving around like crazy on stage.
Kurt Vile: Well, I’ve had long hair for a bunch of years. Like the second half of my life or something.
Street: Your lyrics have this stream-of-consciousness quality to them. Do you write them in that way, or do you work over them more…
KV: Sometimes it comes out fast, so it’s sort of stream of consciousness, but it’s never gibberish, you know. And I also edit it, later. The best things come out fast. It’s more just like a natural kind of feeling. I want it come out kind of simple and natural. Obviously it’s just the way I feel, and maybe it’s simple enough…[for] people [to] relate to this kind of feeling. And you can’t always explain it, you know what I mean?
Street: Sometimes it sounds like the feeling that you are communicating is kind of unhappy, and there’s a lot of melancholy. Would you say that you’re an unhappy person?
KV: No, I don’t think It’s unhappy. Some people are just straight up happy but I think I’m equally happy and sad. Life is beautiful. For instance, say you have a family and you love them and you call them on the phone and you are excited to talk to them. And you’re like ‘Why aren’t they answering the phone?’ The world is crazy, man. Shit happens all the time. Bad things happen to amazing people and that’s just the way life is. I think life is 50–50, you know. I express both, I feel like. And there’s also sarcasm in there. Some black humor. I’m a funny person, too. I think that if somebody is too intense [and] dramatic, without any humor, I think that’s not true, basically.
Street: What do you think is the funniest line on your recent album [2010’s Smoke Ring For My Halo]?
KV: What do you think is the funniest line on my recent album?
Street: I didn’t see the humor that much.
KV: There is definitely humor in there.
Street: Do you think there is an ironic aspect?
KV: Definitely. Irony, sarcasm, black humor. No hatred. Frustration, confusion. And there’s love in there, too.
Street: You play with a lot of rebellious themes — you have song titles like “Society is My Friend” and “Puppet To The Man. ” Is there earnest rebellion to these songs, or do you think it’s more ironic?
KV: It’s never rebellion, it’s more like surrender. You could even block things out. You can live in a bubble, just live your life. It’s never political, you know. “Puppet To The Man,” is like, someone would say ‘rebel against the man’ but whatever, everybody’s a fucking puppet to the man in some way, you know?
Street: You’ve described your music as mid-fi before, what qualities would you associate with mid-fi that differ from lo–fi?
KV: Well, I actually got it from [producer, engineer and mixer] Jeff Zeigler, who did my Childish Prodigy record. It’s like, kind of a dirty record but it’s not recorded on a four-track or shitty GarageBand or something. He’s got great gear, it’s not top-of–the–line, but there’s obviously a lot of distortion and delay and effects and it’s kind of hot, like the beat is almost in the reds sometimes. So it gives [the music] this kind of mid–fi vibe. It’s not lo–fi and it’s not hi–fi, but it’s higher than low.
Street: Would you say that you got that sound from somewhere or is that something you crafted yourself?
KV: I think that [the sound comes from] liking effects and liking psychedelia … and weird sounds and interesting tones, and then taking it to the next level with Jeff, who also likes all kinds of crazy effects. So it’s kind of a psychedelic thing.
Street: What bands in particular inform your use of effects, or do you feel like its more your own experimentation?
KV: Well, certain people I’ve met, like one of my newer bandmates [bassist] Rob Laakso. I’ve known him longer than any of my other bandmates and he is into all kinds of crazy effects, like Lovetone pedals — he turned me onto those— and synthesizers. Certain bands utilize that stuff. Like he used to play in this band The Swirlies and they used the shit out of weird stuff like that, or My Bloody Valentine [used similar effects].
Street: Do you think there are other local Philly bands that are like you in that regard?
KV: Like me? Not exactly like me but the closest to like me is Adam who’s in The War on Drugs, just because we’ve been playing together for so long. There’s other great people, like Purling Hiss, he’s an amazing guitar player. He played on my new record a little bit. Meg Baird is an amazing folk musician. I play folk, so we’re similar.
Street: Do you still play with the guys from The War on Drugs [Kurt left the band in 2008], besides Adam?
KV: Kind of. Me and him are the original members, and Adam plays with me now. He’s not with me on the next few tours though because his record’s gonna be out, [but] he’s coming to Australia with [me]. Mike Zhangi was my drummer first, then he was in the War on Drugs. But he’s no longer playing with them, because he’s playing with me again. Really just Adam and Mike. It’s really just a family.
Street: Do you feel that the Philly music scene is pretty cohesive then?
KV: Yeah, sure. It’s smaller, but yeah.
Street: On [2010 EP] Square Shells you have a song that’s dedicated to [filmmaker] Jim Jarmusch. Can you talk about that choice?
KV: It’s funny. I have an early EP my buddy Richie put out, called The Hunchback EP, and there’s a song called “Losing It” on there. The record is 45 RPM, but it doesn’t say it on there, so people were playing it at 33, and tons of people were coming up to me [saying], like, “Dude, you should listen to that at 33.” So I did. And the instrumental “Losing It” is “Losing Momentum” [the song Vile dedicated to Jarmusch]… it’s the same song, just recorded from 33, and it sounded really slow. It sounded like it belonged in a film. Right away, I was like, “Man, this belongs in a movie. This belongs in a Jim Jarmusch movie.” Eventually he’s gonna see it, and then he’ll have to hear it, and then he did hear it.
Street: Did you meet him?
KV: I met Jim because he curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties [New York music festival], and he was like [doing his best Jarmusch impression] “I heard that, Kurt. Thank you. But I want you to know that’s not why I invited you to this.” He’s a fan, so that’s awesome. That’s the same reason you cover “The Monkey” by Dim Stars, which is Thurston Moore and Richard Hell. You know that eventually they’ll hear it. It’s a way of reaching out to them.
Street: Cool. That’s sick.
KV: Playin’ the game.
Street: You have the potential to make these very intimate acoustic songs, and also more amped-up rockers. Do you feel like you’re moving in either of those directions in terms of your future work? Or are you going for a balance?
KV: In the past I’ve gone from one extreme to the other, which I always thought was cool. This new record is more on the acoustic side, for the most part. I feel like I’m going to make my next record a little more electric, but there’re gonna be some acoustic songs on there.
Street: Have you already started recording?
KV: No, but I’ve been writing. I’m gonna take it slow this time. I’ll probably start recording in the spring. I probably won’t do anything in the winter. Just hang out and play.
Street: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you had a more unifying vision for Smoke Ring For My Halo than you had for other albums. Did the album end up differing from your original vision?
KV: It differed a little bit, just because…a long time ago I said I was going to make a folk record, and then I forgot. Then all of a sudden it was super acoustic. Matador [Vile’s label] did say, “It’s great, but there aren’t any rockers on it.” So I [went] back in and recorded a couple rockers, which I’m glad I did. “Society’s My Friend” and “Puppet to the Man” — I recorded them at the end. And I have a whole EP coming out in the fall of stuff that didn’t make it on the record.