Vile is as Vile Does
Philly’s Kurt Vile on writing about his life, making a living, and keeping up with Guided by Voices
Published: October 23, 2013
Kurt Vile’s music has that rare ability to sound simultaneously familiar and unique to its own time and place. The spacey guitars and conversational lyrics give off the air of a psychedelic singer-songwriter, but they are uniquely Vile. Before Vile and his band, the Violators, launched a tour that will bring them to the Ottobar on Oct. 27, we talked to the Philadelphia native about the humor in his music, being a family man, and the day he was honored by his hometown.
City Paper: One of the things a lot of people note with your music is the unhurried and easygoing qualities. Does songwriting come to you as naturally as those qualifiers would have us believe? The lyric in “Was All Talk”—“makin’ music is easy: watch me”—seems to indicate that it does.
KV: I think it’s also about in the moment, like when I would write a line like that, that’s when your mojo is going. At times, yeah, you’re really a receptor to that—you can tap into that thing and you’re just on a roll. But it’s not all the time. Sometimes I pick up the guitar and play riffs and I’m feeling that, or sometimes I don’t feel anything.
CP: That line, and that song in general, there’s a bit of swagger there, which sort of belies the laid-back image often associated with you. Is that something you were trying to convey?
KV: There’s a part of me that’s laid-back, but there’s a part of me that’s intense, driven to take it to epic proportions, go big. You can be both of those things. But I’m not always laid-back, honestly. I prefer to be, but you can’t always be that way. That’s the hippie utopian dream that never came true.
CP: How would you define “epic proportions”?
KV: For instance, the last record, just going for these long songs with a lot going on, but not in a Yes or King Crimson kind of way. Still sort of making it as simple as possible but big. So that’s an example of laid-back and epic at the same time. Or just the artwork, having Steve Powers, who is an epic person in his own way, just kind of really going for it with the album art and stuff like that—putting it on a giant wall, yet the wall is still covered with some other graffiti and there’s trash around so it’s sort of laid-back in that sense too; it’s not like we shined a wall.
CP: Lyrically, on Wakin on a Pretty Daze, there are references to familial responsibility, it kind of reminded me of Noah Lennox’s work both as a solo artist and in Animal Collective. It doesn’t seem like a topic that comes up as often in “indie,” or whatever you want to call it, but there’s a certain beauty and sincerity in its earnestness.
KV: It just depends on what kind of artists you want to be. If you want to write songs in character, somebody like Randy Newman or the Kinks—Ray Davies always had the most interesting subjects—or you could just let it come out of you. I’m not sure, but I think Noah just feels that and it just kind of comes out, maybe without him even writing it down and saying, “I want to write this song.” It sort of comes out in the moment. It’s just your life. We’re by far not the first. Because even though, for instance, John Lennon’s first wife was a secret, then he became 30, which both me and Noah are, or older, and wrote songs like “Beautiful Boy.”
CP: You theorized how it just sort of comes out of Noah that way. Is that how it comes to you?
KV: Just in the moment you feel what you feel, you just feel that way at a certain time. I’ve never said, “I want to write a song about this.” It’s just all these emotions and some inspiration, and somewhere it just happens.
CP: Back in April you told Larry Fitzmaurice at Pitchfork that a lot of people miss the sense of humor in your writing. Was there as much of that on this album?
KV: Probably. Somewhere there’s always a little dark humor. I’d have to think of where that was. Maybe there’s more of that on the Smoke Ring record.
CP: For me, “Shame Chamber” seems a bit tongue-in-cheek.
KV: Yeah, there you go. Totally.
CP: And the phone ringing off the shelf in the first track. It’s kind of like the way Morrissey has these little winks or wordplays peppered in. Why do you suppose that humor gets lost on your listeners?
KV: I don’t think it does all the time. There’s just been certain reviews. I remember coming out of Childish Prodigy, when Smoke Ring for My Halo came out, some people said I was in the doldrums. They misquoted—either misquoted or not, they just read too much into it, just [were] so literal all the time. “Oh, that dude won’t leave his couch. He, like, won’t take a bath, it’s so sad.” [laughs] That’s so annoying.
CP: That’s happened throughout the pop canon, like when you look at Bruce Springsteen and “Born in the U.S.A.” or going back to Morrissey. Either the intention or the humor gets lost.
KV: Yeah. But honestly, it’s humor and it’s serious too. People get up and down. It’s pretty common to write songs when you’re low, like Joni Mitchell Blue style—totally blue, pretty devastating record but beautiful. My personality, most of the people I like to hang around with, is dry, deadpan humor. You can be sincere and toss off a little extra-dark kind of joke, just to give it a little humor so it’s not total despair. A lot of people are kind of just down for a while and they beat you over the head with it. Sometimes it just seems more dramatic than others, and some people get it, some people don’t.
CP: This summer your hometown of Philadelphia had Kurt Vile Day. How rewarding was that for you?
KV: It was a kind of funny little surprise. It was a nice honor. I was a little shy about it, especially the Day thing, but that’s just part of when they give you the award. I remember when I saw them actually say “Kurt Vile Day” I was kind of freaked out, and I told my manager “That’s a little [much].” And he’s like, “Guided by Voices had a day in Dayton.” I was like, “Oh, then I should have a day if I’m offered it.” [laughs] Just because.
CP: Did you get a certificate? How does that work?
KV: They give the Liberty Bell Award. They don’t give a key to the city, per se, but I guess that would be some sort of equivalent. It’s a little Liberty Bell. It’s nice.
CP: Where is it right now? Does it have a place of prominence in your house?
KV: It’s on my refrigerator.
CP: On the subject of Philadelphia, you’ve talked in previous interviews about how much it means to you to be able to support your family as a musician, which comes with plenty of touring. This record definitely seems grounded in your relationships in Philadelphia. Is it getting harder to leave home and continue to play shows at the rate that you do?
KV: It’s not hard for me to leave to play. Music is what I do. Honestly, just once in a while it gets hard to organize to go, but then once you’re going it’s like the laws of inertia, it’s pretty easy and natural. It’s funny how, in between, you’re sort of “in the office” when you’re not, your job is to do a million things before you can hold your guitar again. It’s not always like that, maybe I just need to get better organized in general.
CP: When the record first came out, a critic friend of mine mentioned it was a nice, natural step from Smoke Ring for My Halo, but he also said it felt you were just hitting your stride, and that this was the start of something good. Do you feel like that describes the space you’re in creatively?
KV: Everybody’s always getting wiser, in general, I think. You know, it takes a while to figure out what to do next. I have an idea in my head, concepts and how I want the new record to sound, and I have songs, but it’s like a sort of slow evolution. Just from touring and always thinking about music and playing, you just get a little better, unless at some point something happens where you get a little disenchanted or something. I want to say that every record is going to be better somehow. Some might have taste for a different one, but I think as a person and a musician, me and everybody in my band is always growing. We’ll see what that translates to. We’ll see if everyone likes it more or not. I’ll like it more, I know that. I get excited to change and evolve and fine-tune and get better.
Kurt Vile and the Violators play Ottobar Oct. 27.
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