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Interview: Kurt Vile on his serious (and funny) new record

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

Former forklift driver turned current indie darling Kurt Vile is the kind of guy who you feel like to you could have a beer with. Fusing folk balladry with six-string prowess, the Philadelphian singer-songwriter confronts the rigors of adulthood with earnest, endearing wit. On his new record, b’lieve i’m goin down…, out September 25, Vile expands on this formula, offering up tracks peppered with deep musings and clever quips. We spoke with Vile about his road warrior mentality and his favorite song on his latest album.

The new album was tracked in Georgia, Los Angeles and Joshua Tree. Why all the traveling?
I like to be a chameleon and tap into all kinds of different perspectives. It wasn’t just random—my drummer has a home studio in Athens and I went out to Joshua Tree to play with Stella Mozgawa [of Warpaint] and Dave Scher [of Beachwood Sparks]. That’s where they live, so I like to go into their zone, as opposed to bringing them to me. I think if you just travel in general, it allows you to step outside of yourself and whatever you’re familiar with.

Do you ever get tired of being on the road?
I like the idea of making my next record in Philly, in my practice space, where I have all of my own gear and my own recording setup. When you bounce around, you record all different kinds of music, but because you’re setting up somewhere else, you fully let go in different ways… everything has its benefits. Because I haven’t stayed in one place for a few records, I like the idea of staying in one place.

The new record is more acoustic record than your last. Why did you strip back the instrumentation?
I didn’t really think about that—it’s just sparse, but there’s more electricity than you would think. We were trying to capture the moment as opposed to really layering the tracks. A lot of it was recorded live, just bouncing off each other instead of really building it up in a [My Bloody Valentine’s] Loveless kind of way. I always have a big idea to produce the hell out of [my music], but I want to do it in a way that captures the real vibe.

Did you do any writing in the studio?
I think the best song—my favorite song—is “Wheelhouse.” I wrote that after I landed in the desert and I jammed with Tinariwen [at Joshua Tree]. I immediately got inspired and wrote that song and the next week I was recording it with the band. I was probably holding off because I felt like it needed more work, but I was encouraged to whip out a brand new one. That’s why it sounds so real and vulnerable, because it’s so brand new that you don’t know what’s going to happen.

You play some banjo on the new record. What drew you to that instrument?
The banjo was actually my first stringed instrument—my dad got me one when I was 14. Part of the appeal is nostalgia and part of it is the drone string and the ethereal, drifting sound you get from finger picking. When I first started making this album, I wanted to make a blues record, but along the way the songs took on a life of their own.

There are some very dark, personal moments in your songs, tempered by plenty of humor. How do you strike that balance?
Humor is important. Nothing against bands that are always a downer, but the reality is—it just becomes theater. I’m joking all the time with my friends, even when we’re talking about serious things. Life is so beautiful, but there are all these scary things you can’t deny. If your serotonin is low or you’re just being realistic, you can see all the fucked up stuff going on in the world. You can sing about it and be sad about it, but at the same time you’re cracking jokes.

Do you ever worry that people take your lyrics too seriously?
It’s convenient that in this world, everyone has a say—there are so many haters, which is fine. I remember when Smoke Ring For My Halo came out, people were telling me I was in the doldrums. But that’s where inspiration comes from, when you’re feeling down and you write about your best friend being gone. Ultimately, I am serious even when I’m joking—and I’m always serious about what I’m doing.

Kurt Vile and the Violators + Waxahatchee play Thalia Hall on October 22 & 23.

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