We’ve Got A File On You: Kurt Vile
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Kurt Vile — the beloved and reliable purveyor of a hazy, zoned-out, weirdo brand of classicist rock — is back with his first album in four years. His first release for Verve after a fruitful stint with Matador, (watch my moves) finally arrives this week, supplying a whole of Kurt Vile-ness after that long wait. While Vile’s stuck to the same core sound he’s been refining and turning over a few years, there’s something about (watch my moves) that feels quintessentially him. Maybe it’s that he made a good chunk of it at home, thus returning to an older style of recording for him; maybe it’s the fact the album languidly sprawls out over 15 tracks until it feels like a long, deep hang.
On the occasion of (watch my moves), we caught up with Vile about his new album, and lots of other odds and ends from across his career — from voicing cartoon squirrels to collaborating with peers and heroes alike to getting a goddamn parade thrown for him in his hometown of Philly. Read our conversation below.
(watch my moves) (2022)
(watch my moves) is your first full-length album in several years, and it’s also your major-label debut. But at the same time you also made a lot of it in your new home studio, and you’ve spoken about how it was a return to an older style of making music for you. Was there any sort of conscious mindset going into that, knowing it was a set of firsts?
KURT VILE: Definitely a new chapter. The beauty was I was also — before I knew we were going to be stuck at home, etc. — I was working towards this anyway. I think the new energy from Verve… it wasn’t like we were shopping around to the highest bidder. They were genuine fans and they approached us about making a record. All those things combined, I just wanted to come out swinging. I always want to come out swinging. But something about all those natural elements coming together and thinking of the best way to build my studio up into hi-fi and put all my energy into being comfortable at home. Just being able to have access to the way I used to work, but in more classy hi-fidelity. Being happy in my new neighborhood. All those natural elements. All natural energy. Just keeping it organic and positive.
But it was a challenge, too. When the studio was finally built — things always take longer than you think, you know? I was working on music the whole time and learning ProTools and basics. Once I finally had people over, I felt physically ill. I didn’t have the balance right. It’s like, OK, now my studio is in my house, which means I don’t know how to relax. It’s just finding the balance. We got some great material here. The latest single, “Mount Airy Hill,” that’s one of my favorite songs of mine of all time, and it was all done at my house. The record was half here and half with Rob Schnapf in LA. Flash forward to now, I do now feel 100% comfortable here. It’s not like when someone comes over to work I feel insane again. It feels completely natural. It was just built into my life now and it’s awesome.
You have some very cool guests on the album: James Stewart from Sun Ra Arkestra, Cate Le Bon, Chastity Belt.
VILE: I saw James Stewart play with the Arkestra and I thought it’d be amazing to play with him. I told my manager I wanted to get in touch. Sun Ra’s in Philly, turns out James is in Jersey. He came in very much like a session, very friendly but he came in and played and left. He agreed to be in the video. So surreal, he agreed to wear the Sun Ra outfit. I can’t wait to hang with him again.
But other people I play with are usually people I meet along the way on the road. Like Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint, I met her when I started hanging with the Warpaint girls and I needed someone to help me play drums on “Wakin On A Pretty Day.” She just kinda becomes a member of the band, a friend that comes in and out. I met Cate through Stella. It’s really just people you connect with on a personal level but you also have to love what they do. I toured with Cate and I realized she produced bands — like I didn’t know she produced Deerhunter. I just loved being around her and I loved that record Reward so I just went for it.
Similarly, on that same session — Chris Cohen. His music is unbelievable, he should be more known. He has these three perfect albums. They just break your heart. I was turned on to his music through Julia [Shapiro] from Chastity Belt. I was turned on to Chastity Belt through Courtney [Barnett] when I went on tour with her. Chastity Belt, I love that record. I liked it right away because it’s immediate, and at first the lyrics are sort of funny, like they’re singing about being bored or whatever. But it has more significance. It’s smart music, but it’s so catchy. We became friends.
It was during that time — Cate and Chastity Belt and Chris — in my life I was getting excited about current music again. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention as much, I was listening to more old music. I was really inspired. I just get obsessed and I’ll see if they work with me, basically.
I’m a big Springsteen fan, and I remember years ago when you did your “Downbound Train” cover. So when I saw the tracklist I sort of thought… “No way.” “Wages Of Sin” is a pretty deep cut. Which, on some level, makes sense — everyone’s done “I’m On Fire” to death. I think the big seven-minute arrangement here of “Wages Of Sin” is really beautiful. Had you thought about doing it for a while?
VILE: Funny that you ask it that way. I attempted a cover, or we did do a cover, around 2007 with the Violators back when Adam [Granduciel] was in the band. I always wanted to uncover that version. I haven’t heard it in a long time. Springsteen, people ask me lately… at this point he’s a member of the family. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t. I’ve paid my respects. There’s a reason he’s called the Boss. When you get deep into him for the first time, he is the Boss.
I was on the road a lot, Springsteen had come out with Western Stars. I thought it was his best record in a long time and it just resonated with me. I’d listen to it on the plane. That first song, “Hitch Hikin,'” it’s so good. That first single, “Hello Sunshine” — I could hear what he was drawing from. I was picking up what he was putting down, this American travel thing. Between listening to that a lot mellowing me out on the plane, and I was back into certain songs on Tracks. I just loved how “Wages Of Sin” is a masterpiece, and a dark masterpiece at that, but it’s an outtake. I love how he’s got whole albums of outtakes — like Darkness On The Edge Of Town has that whole other CD that’s like the best record that never came out.
Have you ever heard back from Springsteen about these covers?
VILE: I never heard back, but I think it would be in his best interest to check this one out. It’d be weird for him to ignore it. It’s like, “Wow, somebody covered ‘Wages Of Sin’…” I have a funny impersonation of him. [Bruce Springsteen voice] “Why did he do that track maaaan?” Sure, people cover him all the time. But I think I would spook him out in a good way. He could talk to Obama about it, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
Ten Songs (2003)
It’s interesting you’ve spoken about the new album being a bit of a return to the way you used to make music. Your “official” debut, Constant Hitmaker, came out in 2008. But your first release is almost 20 years old actually. Where did you think this was going to go back then?
VILE: In early 2003, I had moved back from Boston. In Boston, I’d really gotten a lot of life lessons, really cut my teeth working ball-busting forklifting jobs. I was making good money for the first time in my life. I bought digital 8-tracks and all this stuff. I met some college kids there that were cool, but ultimately I was living the blue-collar existence — which was cool, but I was definitely depressed at that time for various reasons without knowing. I came out of that. I learned to fingerpick, I met some great friends, I moved back home.
I was at my parents’ again for a second, not having to work. I was fingerpicking like crazy. All the best stuff on those CD-Rs, “Song For John In D,” I put it on God Is Saying This To You…. “My Sympathy,” that’s from that time. I love how there was serious urgency and rawness in that music. I was always trying to get back there in some way, but you’re never going to get totally get back there. There is this calm, laidback thing. I can be myself right here and get as close to that as I’m going to get. But I’m not 23 years old anymore, I’m 42.
The War On Drugs (2000s)
So during this reentry to Philly, you’re working on your own music and then you also link up with Adam in the War On Drugs. Constant Hitmaker and Wagonwheel Blues both arrived in 2008.
VILE: Yeah, Constant Hitmaker came out in February and Wagonweheel came out in the summer.
Within a few years, the Drugs go off on their own trajectory and you had a big breakthrough with Smoke Ring For My Halo. Did you learn lessons during that time that kind of crystallized what it was you wanted to do with your own music?
VILE: The whole time, I was chasing my own thing. Me and Adam met in 2003 and we played in each other’s bands but then it was around 2005 — he took off a couple weeks of work and we recorded a couple songs that made it on to Childish Prodigy, like “Blackberry Song.” “Overnite Religion.” It was just me and Adam realizing we played so well together. There was stuff happening in the world in general, cool music, psychedelic music, but we also knew we were tapped into this thing in Philly. A sort of psychedelic thing combined with classic whatever. The War On Drugs thing came out of that. I was stoked to play with Adam, but honestly as soon as it was apparent he got a record deal, I already was like, “Oh shit, how am I going to get my own thing off the ground.”
I went on one tour with him and he was gracious enough to let me open, to do my own thing. I’m glad he let me do that. He kept going as the War On Drugs, I stayed home. Constant Hitmaker came out, and then Mexican Summer was asking for something, and that became God Is Saying This To You…. I got a deal with Matador, and then Smoke Ring came out. I was just grateful, though. Adam, he came back around — Matador encouraged me to do a proper followup record and get a producer. It was cool, but then Adam showed up and it was like the old Violators back on the road again because he toured with me for Childish Prodigy.
Smoke Ring came off so good, and I didn’t know if Adam was going to come on tour with me. He was trying to get a record done, and then he decided he was going to go out on tour with me for Smoke Ring. Somebody else would’ve been like, “Oh, you’re not playing in my band, I’m not going to play in your band.” But I honestly needed Adam. Not only because he’s my best friend, but the music thing — we were just locked in. Then Slave Ambient came out and he had to go on his way. It’s been amazing watching him keep doing his thing.
Philly’s Kurt Vile Parade And Receiving The Liberty Bell Award (2013)
VILE: [Laughs] It was trippy. It was also funny. I don’t even know how it came about, but it was nice. I think somewhere between the label and Philadelphia, the mayor. I don’t know. That was a funny time. What I liked best about it, it reminds me of the coolest part, which is that Tom Scharpling directed a video for “KV Crimes” which parodies that. There’s a parade and people are pushing me around on the throne. My friends pushing me around like the King Of Philly. But it was nice, I got to play at City Hall and I have that award.
Did you have friends who grew up in or around Philly who were kind of like, “What happened here?” or were ribbing you a bit?
VILE: Nobody gave me shit. In reality… I’m vindicated. I feel good I never left Philly. Especially now. I just love where I live. I’m in the trees and stuff, but I’m still in the city. At the end of the day it’s Philadelphia. It’s not like I’m the King Of Hollywood or something. [Laughs]
Lotta Sea Lice With Courtney Barnett (2017)
You talked about meeting people on the road and wanting to work with them. What was it about Courtney that you locked in for a full project together?
VILE: We didn’t know it was going to be a full record at the time. Before that, when I was touring Wakin On A Pretty Daze, I was seeing her name all over and she opened for us in Australia. She gave me a copy of her one record at the time, the double EP. She was really nice, really sweet. When I finally listened, the song — the one I ended up covering, “Outta The Woodwork” — I really liked her laconic delivery. She had a special voice, for sure, but then similarly I heard “Depreston” and it was back to the roots of songwriting. I got obsessed with that.
I was doing press for b’lieve i’m goin down, so 2015. I was doing a cover shoot for Magnet and they had me play the guitar, and I was writing the “Over Everything” chords just imagining her playing on it. I knew she was a little bit of a fan and we had friends in common and different music biz relations in common. I just wanted to do this song with her, like a country duet. When I got to Australia touring b’lieve i’m goin down, we agreed to do a session. She wrote a song too, which was “Let It Go.” That was all we did at first. We decided to make it an EP, because it was so good — if it was a 7″ it would just get lost. I came back for a solo tour the next year and my label wanted to put it out and we decided to record some more songs and see what happened. It went so well, we ended up recording nine songs.
Working On Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It Into Space (2021)
The Courtney Barnett collab is a situation where someone might’ve looked up to you a bit. More recently, you were involved in Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It Into Space. What was it like stepping into their world?
VILE: Well, honestly, I think I looked up to Courtney more than she looked up to me. Honestly, anyone I work with, it’s because I look up to them — even if they’re younger. [Laughs] But with J? Well, OK. I know J through John Agnello, who did Smoke Ring and Wakin On A Pretty Daze. He worked with Dino a long time. Farm was the one out when I met J. We got the tour opening for Dinosaur Jr. It was the first of my heroes to acknowledge me — he put Childish Prodigy in his best of 2009 list and invited us on tour. I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe this.” He was real nice and cool. Quiet, J style.
I was invited to play on J’s first solo album, Several Shades Of Why back in 2010. He sat in when I did “Box Of Rain” [for the National’s Day Of The Dead Grateful Dead tribute]. Kyle, my drummer, used to play in Dinosaur Jr. when Murph couldn’t make it. It was a family thing anyway. That must be why they asked me to help produce.
It didn’t come together the way anybody thought, because the pandemic hit while we were working together. So it was cut short. I think at the end of the day, it really inspired me and I got to be there and see J working and shredding guitar solos every day and picking his brain about gear. To keep the vibe upbeat. But at the end of the day, J was the producer of that and I got to hang out and add some falsetto background vocals and some guitar. It was amazing.
Voicing A Squirrel On HBO’s Animals (2016)
You had this and Portlandia in the same couple years. What entices you to say yes to a TV project?
VILE: Back then, I was obsessed. I thought any TV or movie would lead to… I don’t even know. It’s funny how much people worship TV. I just like joking around with my friends and I’m good at impersonations in the moment, and then I think on TV… I’ve had experiences trying to be on a movie or a TV. Once you’re in front of the camera and there’s all these people waiting, it’s not the same as you hanging out with your friends, let’s put it that way. [Laughs] There were some borderline disasters. But for a moment there, I really thought I could make it in TV.
That was fun to do with those guys. I got to write that song. They said, “We want you to write a song about eating nuts and having a good time with your friends, a stoner-y song.” So I basically just put those exact words into a stoner-y song. I did a voiceover. I didn’t see the art, but we had fun riffing.
Meeting Ghostface Killah (2021)
Last year you posted a photo with Ghostface, though the circumstances are shrouded in mystery.
VILE: It looks cooler than it was in reality, but it still is cool. One, that was the first concert I’d seen back [after the pandemic]. It was the anniversary of all those seminal first solo records from Ghostface, Raekwon, and GZA. I was obsessed with all of those. I loved Wu-Tang Clan. On the bus, when it was happening, I’d hear it every morning going to school, and I liked it then, but I got heavy into it and different hip-hop over the pandemic. I’m glad I had missed those in my teens. Anyway, there was a concert in Philly and there was a meet-and-greet at the end and I got to shake his hand and look like we were hanging.
If only he made it to Mount Airy for (watch my moves).
VILE: Maybe someday.
Longstanding Relationship With The Best Show (2010s)
You have all your impersonations–
VILE: Mainly Neil Young though. Just Neil Young all the time.
You have this on-and-off thing with Tom Scharpling and these bits you can call in with. How did this develop?
VILE: I’m so glad I have that, because he’s like my realest friend, and I just admire him. He’s so funny, and I get to call him up, and we get to catch up on the air, and we’re just riffing. What I said before about how I’m always joking with my friends but it’s different when you’re on TV — Tom would be the example where you can do that and people can hear. A friend of mine turned me on to some of the classic Scharpling and Wurster calls, like the Gorch, the real-life Fonzie from York, Pennsylvania. Hippy Johnny. My buddy Rich I worked with, he gave me some of those tapes.
I turned War On Drugs Adam onto them when he was in my band. We had a bunch of music impersonations and we opened for Big Star in 2009, at the end of our tour, which was surreal. We got wind that Scharpling was there hanging backstage, and we just scared the crap out of him by giving him all these impersonations of all these calls. He said he was sure we were making fun of him. You know, we were pretty loose. But he realized after a while we weren’t making fun of him.
I toured with Fucked Up, and they were friends, so I got to see him again. We played Maxwell’s and I was like, “Hey, did you hear Tom Scharpling is coming?” and apparently he was sitting right there just laughing. He knew I was a real fan, and he invited me on his show a little before Smoke Ring came out. He heard the first single and that’s the first time he had me on. He was there the time I met Neil Young backstage with my wife. I said [Young] was like in outer space and the underground at the same time, and he said, “Oh yeah, we can go to outer space whenever we want.” I got to call Scharpling and talk about it. It always seems like he’s there at important moments.
“One Trick Ponies” Ending Up On Obama’s Favorite Songs Of 2018 List, “Pretty Pimpin” Ending Up On Jeopardy (2016)
When Obama puts you on his favorite songs list, is that something you get a warning about or you just find out when everyone else does?
VILE: No, you just find out when everyone else does. Yeah, that was cool, that was weird. It’s an honor. I’m a fan of getting accolades, you know? [Laughs]
Was that a particularly special one for you?
VILE: Yeah, of course! I felt really good about that.
Another random one was a Jeopardy prompt revolving around “Pretty Pimpin.” It made me think about that song and its broader popularity. I hear it around a lot still. Do you ever have a sense of when you have that song that’s going to become one of your key songs?
VILE: I didn’t know what would happen, but I could tell “Pretty Pimpin” sounded like a hit. But I’ll tell you I thought “Baby’s Arms” sounded like a hit too. It was definitely a hit in some ways. It was a hit on the radio for a second. It wasn’t like a Miley Cyrus hit. I knew it was special. Then there’s still certain songs now. I always try to make a hit, but “Pretty Pimpin” is probably the most polished hit I have. On my new record, “Mount Airy Hill,” I know that’s a special song.
But I like the idea of chasing… I feel like I have some more hits in me. We’ll see, with being part of Universal, if I can weasel my way into the pop charts in some form, whether it’s through my music or collaborating. I’ve always thought about that. The old days, what a hit song was, Tom Petty or whatever. I have that in me too. I feel like somewhere along the way I might tap into some sort of other kind of hit.
Smoke Ring For My Halo Turning 10 (2021)
This was how I got to know your music first, and it feels like such a pivot point. Do you reflect much on those kinds of milestones or anniversaries?
VILE: My family would have that one CD in the car a lot a few years ago and I would listen back. I’m proud of that record. It is melancholy, and it’s sort of my own version of a conventional, classic album. It opens with “Baby’s Arms,” which, yeah, should’ve been a hit. I also remember playing festivals like Primavera for the first time and seeing it resonate with people on another level. Yelling things out like, [British accent] “Come on Kurt, make me cry!” or whatever. [Laughs] I’m glad it exists.
(watch my moves) is out 4/15 via Verve. Pre-order it here.