Progress Report: Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile will release his new album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, in April … much to the delight of folks like myself who have followed Kurt’s career with a kind of feverish intensity since his Constant Hitmaker days back in 2008. His new record — a 69-minute double album — was produced by John Agnello and recorded at various studios around the country during the latter part of 2012. At the time that we spoke, I’d only heard the record’s first single — the gloriously blissed-out 9-minute jam “Wakin on a Pretty Day” — but it turns out that the rest of the record offers plenty of other similarly mellow pleasure. Given the nature of his music, it’s also not too surprising that Kurt Vile himself is one of the nicest and most perpetually easy-going people you are likely to ever call up to chat with during a snowstorm.
STEREOGUM: It’s been a while since the last time we talked. Are you in Philly right now?
KURT VILE: Yeah I’m in Philly, I’m at home taking it easy.I’ve been staying at home as much as possible, which is nice. I’m basically prepared to be snowed in ‘cause I’m not going anywhere.
STEREOGUM: I just saw you open for Dinosaur Jr. It was the show with all the special guests — Kim Gordon, Johnny Marr, Black Francis …
KURT VILE: That was ridiculous!
STEREOGUM: It was really ridiculous. In the best way.
KURT VILE: I mean, I’ve said before but I still like to say it. Seriously, it was a moment in rock history. You know, who else can really pull off all of those guests exactly that way? [J Mascis is] really the only one. You know what I mean? Everybody was stoked to be there, you know? It’s so cool. I was having so much fun. And I opened so that’s a whole different mentality, so its not like I could sit still and watch the whole show. I was definitely hearing it constantly but like, I was running around backstage, so unfocused. But it was really fun anyway. I couldn’t imagine just having all the nerves to like, open and then, just also like stay put and watch the WHOLE thing, but, you know, I got to hear it the whole time and it was super fun.
STEREOGUM: But you had toured with him in the past, right?
KURT VILE: Yeah, I toured with him in the past — I first met him when Childish Prodigy, the first Matador Record, was out we did five dates with Dinosaur Jr. and I was just getting to know him. He was really quiet at first but we share a producer so we had that connection but then he let us mix certain songs when we were in a pinch at his house in Northhampton while he was away for Smoke Ring. Kim Gordon lives up there too. It’s like this little niche up there and they’re all friends with John Agnello so there was that little connection. So then he invited me to play on his solo record and I went up there with John and I kind of invited myself to tour because our record came out when his solo record came out. He was stoked. He’s the nicest dude. I mean, he and Kim Gordon are both really nice. They’re both just like — they’re not condescending or anything. Not that they should be, but certain people who are that famous can be weird, you know what I mean?
STEREOGUM: The last time I talked to you was just before Smoke Ring was about to come out. Did you tour a lot for that record?
KURT VILE: Yeah, totally. I mean, you could have easily not noticed but basically yeah. That was the one where it was kind of like, you had to. You just kept touring, taking what you could get and then after the end of the year when it got sort of — It got on a lot of “end of year lists” or whatever, so we got a bunch of touring because once you get on the end of the year lists they let you book all of those festivals again. So we toured our longest tour ever right before we recorded most of this new record. Essentially we were just on the road for two years.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by the reaction to it? I mean, people really fucking love that record.
KURT VILE: I guess, Yeah! I knew it was good, but you know just coming out of whatever scene that I came out … I had one foot in some sort of low-fi scene — or you know, whatever. It’s hard to gauge how popular you really are. I knew the sound was a lot different for that record and it was like half and half, people saying they liked it and people criticizing it, you know? So, it was just a test of time, I guess. I’m just happy, you know? I put everything into it that I could. I’m just happy that people actually can relate to it. So I am in some ways surprised and now I’m just relieved. I know my personality and how obsessively I calculated so many moves … so it’s nice that it’s paying off.
STEREOGUM: How do you approach making a new record? Are you someone who’s always sort of just writing songs and stockpiling them?
KURT VILE: It has evolved. Whereas before I was like — you get a little bit more knowledgeable all the time, but also you kind of make your own roles in your head of what you could conceal or not, you know? You just figure things out. And that comes from listening to music, playing it live, reading, or whatever. Essentially, yeah we toured Smoke Ring record like crazy and it’s not like we karaoke-d the album — the songs would evolve and I’d play different licks every night and sing it differently and then, you know, you’re forced to be wearing your guitar all the time so you can either take advantage of sound check and just play around a little … or like, get the hell out of there. And after awhile I would jam my guitar in sound check and just play my guitar all the time in my hotel room or, you know, come back from a tour where you’re playing non-stop and sit down at home and relax and you’re so good at guitar because you’ve been playing so much every day, so it feels good to keep playing. And eventually you go hit the studio tighter than you’ve ever been. And because of the time touring Smoke Ring and knowing eventually I was going to record another record again, I just would really slowly write these songs instead. Like, find a certain riff. I had “Wakin on a Pretty Day” the basic stuff for instance, written, just from sound checks. And then you have these riffs and you put them all together at some point. And in the past I feel like I’ve been a little more uptight about it and I’d fix the song really fast, whereas this one I made enough records where I was like, “Alright well, eventually I’m going to be making another record and this is the kind of music I’m feeling right now.” Which is like sort of hypotonic and — sometimes kind of long. I don’t always know how long. I didn’t even think it would be that long, to be honest. But it just turned out so good that I kept it.
STEREOGUM: “Wakin on a Pretty Day” is a beautiful song … and it doesn’t seem that long, even though it’s nearly 10 minutes. I didn’t think about it until afterwards I was like, “How long IS that?” You know, it could go on longer, even.
KURT VILE: Yeah, that’s the whole thing. I think about that too, I don’t ever want it to get old and it evolves enough throughout the song that it’s not so drastic.
STEREOGUM: Yeah it’s not jarring at all. Lots of subtle transitions.
KURT VILE: It’s still in this weird way very pop-sensible, but it’s also hypnotic and pretty and trance-y enough that you kind of forget how long it’s been playing …
STEREOGUM: Is that sort of characteristic of the rest of the songs on the record too?
KURT VILE: A lot of them. But I definitely made sure there’s some shorter jams. There’s a Stones-y, rocky, sort of four minute ones. There’s another acoustic-y pop song. There’re some three and a half minute songs and I definitely made it a point to put some pop songs on there. I mean, not in a sell-out kind of way. I mean, I have those in me too. It’s not like I force them, but if I had only really long songs I’m not sure how well it would do. People might zone out. Maybe it would do fine anyway, but it’s good to have some singles. Or you know, you can also add single edits, which we’re also planning to do.
STEREOGUM: Did you have all of the songs pretty much together when you went in to start recording? How long was that process?
KURT VILE: I had — it was all — I had all the lyrics and just lots of parts. Certain ones were more together than others but it’s all just kind of one and the same with me just playing live and recording. I feel that I’m just at this place now where it’s all just, like, kind of like breathing or something. So whatever you don’t have … you just never know when you get there anyway. Even if you had the set song, once you play the parts they still might not sound right. It’s just intuitive, and it’s all about feeling and getting lost in it … so they’re all generally written but there’s definitely experimentation. I’d be lying if I said it was all planned, you know? I get to the studio and then just see what happens.
STEREOGUM: Where did you record at?
KURT VILE: We recorded a lot of places actually, we started at Dreamland. It’s in upstate New York. Hurley, New York. It’s right by Woodstock and built into an old church, it’s a beautiful space. Early Dinosaur Jr. records were done there like Where You Been and Without a Sound. Beach House recorded there. I did some at Vacation Islands in Brooklyn. And Magic Shop in New York City and we did a good week in LA in Echo Park at a place called Five Star and that’s where my friend Stella from War Paint played a lot of drums. I wanted to catch the West coast vibes too, and then once we were away too long I had John come down to Philly where I could be close to my family and we worked at Minor Street in Philly. So, all over the place really.
STEREOGUM: Thinking about your earliest material to now — there is a nice movement in terms of the production and the way that they sound. I was thinking about that listening to the new song from this record. Given your lo-fi roots, do you find yourself being more fussy or more particular the more you do make music?
KURT VILE: I’m fussy in a paranoid way, I’m not fussy like, “Oh this sounds weird it’s too this.” You know, which I’ve always been. But it’s not like I have much on an engineering knowledge where I’m like, “How is that mic placed?” It’s gotta feel natural, I’m always into that and after awhile if I am working on a song too long and trying to make something out of it that it’s not … it’s best just to stop and move on. I’ve learned that from different artists, you know, Neil Young or whatever. It just shouldn’t be that difficult. And if you find yourself going back to a song too much and it’s difficult then it’s not like, real, you know? It’s too forced.
STEREOGUM: The last time we spoke you were about to have a child.
KURT VILE: Yeah, I had just had a kid.
STEREOGUM: I mean, I have a fair amount of friends who are in bands and have kids and have had to navigate the balancing of those two worlds. How did that experience influence your mindset when it came to making music? Or did it?
KURT VILE: Yeah, totally. And I guess you don’t know this, but I had another kid, you know? I have two! We were making this record and she came like, a week early. Everything was timed just right. That was another reason I knew I had to bust my ass with this record and just go for it, cause like, once you have two kids — or even just one — with the kind of schedule I have, if my wife works too it’s just too much. It’s just really hard to come back and forth and switch over. So — the idea is just for me to work. So when I’m home we’re a family, and when I’m gone obviously we’re a family too. But if we were trying to have babysitters, plus two kids … it just doesn’t feel right. So, it is crazy making that balance. It’s all kinds of new levels and tensions but I think we have it figured out now cause it’s like obviously this is what I’m supposed to do and I can bust my ass to make it perfect. I just try to make as much money as possible. However I can do it. With as much integrity as I can have.
STEREOGUM: That’s a very honest thing that a lot of people won’t ever talk about. Knowing so many people in bands I hear about this a lot — even if your band is successful, even if your record gets on a million top ten lists, that doesn’t necessarily equate money.
KURT VILE: Yeah, not necessarily.
STEREOGUM: I mean, I think it’s a very healthy, honest thing for people to admit. You’ve gotta do shit to make money when you’re a musician. It isn’t easy.
KURT VILE: Well there are so many years of not doing it — there’re so many years of blood, sweat and tears and not making anything and there’s so much passion in there and pain and urgency and fear that its not gonna break through. And then, it does. But having good management, or licensing songs, as long as it’s not for McDonald’s or something. But like, whatever. If somebody else wanted to do a song for McDonald’s, that’s up to them. I wouldn’t do something like that, but whatever. How much do you want to do things like that? All that shit. It’s a lot to figure out.
STEREOGUM: Well someone was telling me recently — he is an older person in a pretty famous band — he was saying that when bands start writing songs about being on the road it’s a good indicator that they need to get off the road. You know, it’s time to live some life and write about something else. Do you tend to be a person that deals well with having downtime? Or do you ever really have downtime?
KURT VILE: Well this is the most downtime I’ve ever had and I do love it. I’ve been busting my ass for the last bunch of years so — I do feel a difference, you know? So that’s an interesting — whatever your friend said. And it’s true, after awhile, there’s road songs and this is kind of a road record in terms of the writing process and then you’re like, living in the studio. And then you’ve got living in the studio songs, which can be really boring.
STEREOGUM: I think the point he was trying to make is that if the only thing you can talk about in your life is just talking about touring itself, then it’s time to take a break from touring maybe.
KURT VILE: Yeah, totally. I like a well-rounded life. All of this work is kind of useless if you don’t have something good to come home to.
STEREOGUM: I mean, now that the record’s done and you can sort of look back on it as a finished thing, what are the songs about, vibe-wise? I mean, how do you feel about it or how does it seem in comparison to the other earlier ones.
KURT VILE: It seems good. It seems really deep and a little epic and it still sounds like me. It’s my voice and my songwriting style but there’s definitely an evolution and an attempt to take it kind of far, going for a double record. Also, the artwork came out awesome. The whole package, I’m totally proud of it. It’s still raw at times, you know? I say different things at different times about this record —for instance I recently said it was my Tusk and everyone was like, “So this is Tusk!?” So I feel like everybody takes every comment so literally. It just means I got a little more experimental this time. It’s definitely its own thing.
STEREOGUM: How many tracks?
KURT VILE: Eleven. Yeah, there was gonna be twelve but I took one off at the last minute.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you?
KURT VILE: It’s gonna be more touring — we’re gonna push the record for sure. It’s gonna be a lot of playing, you know? So, you know. We’re definitely gonna kinda seize the moment and take advantage. You don’t have to do it, but it’s the way to make things happen. You gotta run with it.
STEREOGUM: Do you like touring?
KURT VILE: I do. It’s true that it’s sad to be away from home, but I’m always listening to music and thinking about music which makes it easier … I mean, it’s hard. I get sad about it, I feel so good being at home I’m just like always with my family or over-stimulating myself by reading and listening to records non-stop it feels — I’m lucky to be home with my family. I had to really bust ass and be on the road nonstop for so long, I think you can take your breaks a lot differently the longer you’ve been doing this. You get smarter about planning things. In a way, we’ve already gone through the growing pains touring life — we’ve experienced it. Once you get into a groove it kind of goes by fast. But it gets better and easier — festival offers get better every time. Hopefully people are still into coming to see us.
STEREOGUM: Will you be playing with the same dudes?
KURT VILE: I’m playing with Jesse and Rob. Adam, he plays in The War On Drugs, his record came out a little after mine did so at first he toured and now he’s obviously busy with that and now he’s working on his new record but Rob Laakso is the newest member and Jesse has been a member forever. They’re steady members. Our drummer is no longer with us, but other than that, different friends played drums on the record and we’re doing rehearsals with that right now. But other than that, the Violators are me, Jesse, and Rob and we’ll see how it evolves.
STEREOGUM: When does all the touring start for real?
KURT VILE: We’re playing Coachella which is like, a little early. That’s like a first gig. That’s in mid-April. The major touring doesn’t start ‘til the beginning of May, and then we’ll be around for sure.
STEREOGUM: Awesome, well thanks for doing this. I played the wheels off the last record, so I’m excited to spend some time with this one.
KURT VILE: Oh cool, well I think this one will grow on you. It’s definitely a little different but there’s plenty of textures and different vibes on there to keep on givin’.
“Wakin on a Pretty Day”