The mellow master on believing his own myth, tequila sleepwalking – and why you should always travel with at least a guitar
It’s been over a decade since Kurt Vile was known as “the CD-R guy” for distributing his own self-recorded CDs at local shows around his hometown of Philadelphia. Seven albums and critically acclaimed career later, his latest record, ‘Bottle It In, was written on the road; the beginnings of album track ‘Skinny Mini’ were scratched out during a soundcheck, while ‘Hysteria’ was written mid-flight as Vile fought to knock out his fear of flying.
During this time, a testament to his reputation, he linked up with Cass McCombs, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa. The result is a tight, 10-track album that sways and lurches with zoned-out fuzz guitar and pre-dawn beer-soaked storytelling.
READ MORE: Kurt Vile ‘Bottle It In’ review
The first thing you notice when Kurt Vile picks up the phone is that laconic Philly drawl – this is someone who can say “jive-talking” and make it sound just right in 2018. And he is in a good place, despite often being labelled as ‘melancholy’; this album is full of love. ‘Loading Zones’ is a heartfelt paean to his hometown, brilliantly told through everyday exploits avoiding parking fines, and ‘Bassackwards’ pays tribute to to friends he appreciates “to the utmost degree”.
“I feel a lot of love for sure,” he tells the NME. “Also I feel sensitive because there’s a lot of hate as well, so we’ll focus on the love as much as we can.”
There’s this mythical idea of Kurt Vile, the free-wheeling slacker, all crumpled denim and faded band tee, swigging beer while punching cassettes into a well-worn Dodge van. Do you enjoy this version of yourself?
“I kind of also look back and start to believe the myth! And the songs are like the exaggeration, and that’s why I don’t mind the fact that I read rock bios or something where it’s not all true. I’m not Bob Dylan where I’m trying to bedazzle and not let anyone know anything whatsoever about my life. It just depends what mood I’m in, you know? I’ve learned, in Europe especially, that in certain countries they want to know exactly what a song is about. I’m trying to explain it, and then I realise I’m not even explaining it right because in the moment I could dissect it line for line, but the more I talk sometimes, the more unclear it is. It’s kinda weird to analyse all your lyrics for somebody.”
You have previously said that you are sitting on a number of finished tracks. Will we ever get to hear them?
“Well, I’m really excited to delve into my archive soon – sort of inspired by Neil Young’s archive – except it won’t be available to the public, just for myself, so I can just kind of look at it chronologically. But every record has a lost EP in there; the last two records in particular I’ve been sitting on all that stuff. This [unreleased] one, is ready to go, but I’m an obsessive person so I’ll tweak it before I release it. There’s definitely an album-plus worth of material. I’ll put it out at some point – I’m not chomping at the bit to put it out because let them focus on this record first!
Lets talk about the songs that made it onto ‘Bottle It In’, these were recorded in studios across the US while you were on tour.
“Yeah, you know, since I’m out there travelling anyway, I throw in the studio; I was a little more savvy this time with combining more things at once. So, it’s just more of natural thing where I can involve my family if I want, and also have some time to get head space. More vision, fewer things blocking your periphery.”
You spent a lot of time rehearsing your last album ‘b’lieve I’m goin down…’ in the Redroom rehearsal space, named after it’s garish red walls. Was any of this record made there?
“I’m not in there any more. I love that place but it was too small; we outgrew it. It was very David Lynch in there. One time, I accidentally passed out in there and woke up sleepwalking. It was all dark in this warehouse, and I literally thought I was in hell or purgatory for a second until I came to – it was freaking ridiculous! I probably just had a little too much tequila.”
Looking at your dates, I started to sweat looking at the scale of it all. How do you prepare for such a long tour?
“Well, you can never really plan enough, so I just fly by the seat of my pants and try not to freak out. I used to freak out way more. There’s different things I do to calm me down now. My wife really helps – she’s into Ayurveda [an alternative Indian medicine]. I take natural things that make me much more levelled than I used to be. Ideally, as a band, we’d like to rehearse more, but the best practise is honestly just playing in front of people. It comes together, just through the energy of the people, you know? With punk rock, you can get away with a lot if you’re sincere. You can fuck up at first, but as long as you’re not looking pissed off or like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going well’, you’ve just got to just go for it.”
And ‘too slick’ is not fun to watch
“Don’t worry – that certainly won’t be us!”
Is it true you carry instruments with you at all times, just in case you need a quick strum?
“I do. If I travel, I have to have at least an acoustic guitar, because I’ve done it maybe one or twice in my life where I’ve travelled and didn’t have one and it’s very depressing. You don’t even necessarily have to play, but often you will. You should always be able to play a guitar, at least.”
Watching videos of you, your fingers are always moving like you’re playing air guitar.
“Oh yeah! That’s a total air guitar tic, I’m so used to playing guitar for sure, yeah. Definitely, my hands are always moving. I did a song with The Sadies called ‘It’s Easy Like Walking’ on their last album and I sing about that. It goes: “My left hand has got a permanent air guitar tic / But don’t confuse it with a crutch / Because I like it a lot’.
Your delivery is a beautiful mixture of Pavement, Springsteen and Neil Young. Are these conscious influences?
“I’m always listening to other people I’m inspired by – there are so many artists, and so many ways of singing. I like to think so many of my favourite people have their own style of delivery which I, through osmosis, I can sing like. Someone like Jerry Lee Lewis or something. I’m not directly taking from anybody, but at the same time I am taking from everybody! That’s kind of what music is. I like it when writers allude to another story or writer; in music it’s kind of similar.
Who are you listening to right now?
Right this second? I’m listening to the classic Willie Nelson albums ‘Red Headed Stranger’ and ‘Phases and Stages’. And actually, strangely enough, I got this boxset while I was in Germany of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, like the real Kurt Weill [German composer of ‘Mack the Knife’]. I mean, I’m the real Kurt Vile!
You’re an avid reader of music biographies. Have you thought about any book titles for your autobiography?
No, because these times are much more boring – there’s no legend in these modern times. Everything is put on the internet anyway. It’s already like: ‘So, Kurt Vile went on tour, then he went home, then he recorded his next album on Pro Tools, then he went on tour, then he went on vacation.’ It’s boring.
But this is where you could have fun creating all the myths!
That’s true. I’m having a little more fun with interviews. I could definitely make up some stories, you know, be sort of serious, but also make shit up. But not for you – don’t worry, this is all real!
– ‘Bottle It Up’ is out now on Matador on October 12.