Take a trip inside the mind of guitar-shredding, banjo-playing, slacker and ultimate dude, Kurt Vile.
Kurt Vile is laying flat on his back, precariously stretched out in the shape of a star on the roof of a ramshackle tin shed. He’s been warned he’s technically trespassing and that he might fall right through it, but he’s chosen to throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of mischief. An hour ago, when Vile first rocked up to the studio, he’d made a beeline for the corner of a couch, where he sat cross-armed and cross-legged, as if he was trying to hold himself in or, perhaps, to keep the rest of the world out. The Philadelphian musician, whose name is for reals Kurt Vile, has come to hang tough and talk about his eighth album, Bottle It In—that is, if I can get him to uncross his arms and open up.
Vile is the third of ten kids and lives in his native Philly with his wife and their two home-schooled daughters. Before he was a solo success story he drove a forklift and unloaded tractor-trailers. At that time he played in an early incarnation of Adam Granduciel’s band The War on Drugs, with Granduciel returning the favour, playing in a formative line-up of Kurt Vile and the Violators. Vile’s own work channels his love of Pavement and the greats, like Neil Young, but occupies its own unique space, bridging the old and new schools of rock. His legendary guitar playing instills his sweet, slacker rock, with a kind of glorious, open-hearted, unpretentiousness—not to mention that via tracks like “Come Again”, Vile has all but single-handedly been responsible for making the banjo grunge.
Basically, he’s a dude.
“I grew up as a teen in the 90s so it sounds kind of cool to me,” says Vile about his slacker king title. “I’d rather be a slacker even when I’m not, y’know? I work hard but still a big part of my MO is: don’t force the songs—they should never sound forced. If you try too hard and it’s taking too long to get the track right, it’s because it’s not right to begin with, it’s got to be natural. If that comes out a little laid back, it’s because I’m a slacker,” he laughs, slapping his leg.
It’s not long before Vile has loosened up and we’re properly shooting the shit. Vile laughs a lot—he’s basically a goofball, in the best possible sense. Vile says he’s not had a beer or any alcohol in a couple of weeks, even though “drinking beer numbs things” and helps with his anxiety when he’s feeling overloaded. “It’s funny, I can get a lot out of a can of beer, it used to take multiple things to get me into outer space.” Vile admits that after a while the drink only exacerbates his anxiety, but right now he feels pretty good—though he did take a valium on the plane over from the US to UK.
Despite his slacker rep, much of Vile’s work deals in the emotional ups and downs to which he can be prone. Beneath the surface-level calm and charm of many Vile tracks, there’s a definite preoccupation with anxiety and existential fear. Take lines like “Like everybody else I’m afraid to die / Did I mention that I’m afraid of dying” from “Cold Was The Wind” or Bottle It In’s opener, “Loading Zones”—a track built around Vile’s dad humour delight at cruising through his day-to-day life running errands, parking for free in designated loading zones around Philly, cos that’s the way he rolls. “Get my shopping done, laundry too” he sings, before the whole thing descends into talk of wanting to “rip the world a new one”.
Vile says living in America right now, with Trump as commander in chief, is “psychologically, such abuse”. Though he acknowledges that he doesn’t even feel the full brunt of the far right Trumpism himself, being a middle class white man and all, saying, “It’s a nightmare, stirring up all these whackos… Now everybody’s just so spoilt and dumb, complacent.” Vile says a lot of his songs are low-key political in that they’re reacting to what’s going on in the world, like “Continental Breakfast”, the track he did with Courtney Barnett from their joint album Lotta Sea Lice. “There’s all kinds of fucked up people in power all over the world,” Vile sighs, “You got to just try and be positive and hope that the next generation and you combine—it just takes one Ghandi type of person to change the world.”
His latest full-length offering, Bottle It In, was recorded all over the place, in-between shows, because Vile is always working on music wherever he goes. “Some people, they’ll tour a whole record and then disappear and then work on a record and come back and I can’t do that because I go out there, I play for people, and that’s the purest sense of music I guess, just playing live and ideally you want to come across the same way if you can, recording.” Vile prefers heading to the studio for just a day or two at a time, instead of doing marathon 20 day style studio sessions, because doing things this way stops him overthinking everything. “It’s never gonna quite go where I think or other people think ya know?” Vile laughs. “That’s just the way it is.”
Unpredictable is a good descriptor for Vile’s songwriting. He’s prone to ridiculous lyrical turns that’ll make you smile (check “Bassackwards”), the next minute he’ll be hitting you with the most genuine, heartfelt, pure lovin’, like on “Baby’s Arms”—which Vile describes as a “classic”, saying he doesn’t think he wrote a song as honest since, “There’s been some spinning some yarns since then” he laughs. He’s got a few songs from a few Vile eras he’s proud of, including “Baby’s Arms”, “Freeway” and “Pretty Pimpin”—”I try to come across honest,” he says, “You can make things psychedelic and a little ridiculous and at the same time still come from an honest place.”
Vile is a pro when it comes to waxing philosophical. Although his cosmic meanderings typically lead to unfinished sentences and descend into chuckles, they’re delivered without pretension and laced with Vile’s unique humour. “My songs have always been contemplative,” he says. “Now I feel older and wiser and sentimental—mortal. Less thinking you’re immortal more realising you’re mortal.”
Dipping in and out of different head spaces is Vile’s speciality. “I can be in my head or out in the real world at any time,” he says, before launching into a half baked thought on the laws of inertia. “I’ve always been confident in my own way, but then I could shattered like a little flower,” Vile says openly. “I could be real confident and be sensitive and maybe read a bad review or something early on and think that I suck. But now I don’t, I know I have a thing that I do and I know it’s solid.”
When I ask Vile what’s the furthest he’s been out of his mind, he laughs a conspiratorial laugh and replies, “Shit man, it’s hard to say, I’ve been on the road many times. I can’t like… I don’t wanna promote drug use y’know.” Vile says he’s been having crazy dreams lately, the kind of cool and weird dreams that are hard to explain, he launches into a story about his all time favourite dream.
“When I was a child my mom said she’d be right in. I was going to sleep in my parents bed, and she was just going to take a shower and all of a sudden I woke up—this is in my dream but I didn’t realise it. She was walking around the bed and I looked closer and it was a werewolf in like a nightgown and a shower cap and I was like aaahh [laughs].”
Talk turns to family and love, which Vile says he has various shades of in his life, “I got all levels of love y’know. I got my wife, I got my kids, completely different kinds of love, I got a lot of friends, family that I love,” he says. On the flip, Vile says he doesn’t really hate anybody but there are people who do really annoy him that he secretly trolls. “I’m not perfect”, he says. “I got like a handful of people I troll as a hobby, like in my mind, maybe verbally to my friends, but I don’t like literally troll them on the internet. It’s mainly people who are so blatantly full of themselves,—his is the era for that and you see people and you’re like ‘you are unreal’. I mean. you wish you were unreal.”
When it comes to his signature locks, Vile doesn’t have a haircare routine as such. Before he heads off on tour his wife will put some oil on his hair and scalp, so it’s pretty oily today, but after he washes it one more time it’ll be good for awhile. “It’s more of a pain to maintain than it used to be and I’m getting greys,” he laments. “Probably eventually I’ll bite the bullet and dye it but I won’t be proud of that day because it’ll definitely look weird—no matter what you’ll never get the colour right, everybody’s gonna know. Some people look cool with salt and pepper hair though. I worked hard these past couple years and drank a lot of alcohol so I definitely aged myself a little faster than I could’ve had I been an angel, but how fun is that?” Exactly—long live Kurt Vile!