“My love for mu­sic, and the way it made me feel good, hap­pened when my dad would play his records, and I’d go into a mu­si­cal trance”

Kurt Vile’s in­flu­ences range from Pave­ment to Bert Jansch to Vel­vet Un­der­ground, but his en­thu­si­asm, creativ­ity and ex­pan­sive sense of mu­sic come nat­u­rally, writes Siob­hán Kane

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -


KURT VILE is much like the ti­tle of his 2009 record Child­ish Prodigy. Yet he is more child­like than child­ish: a mu­si­cian whose in­flu­ences (The Vel­vet Un­der­ground, John Fa­hey, Plas­tic Ono Band, the “hi­lar­i­ous” With­nail and I) and ex­pan­sive sense of mu­sic goes far be­yond his years, and whose sense of en­thu­si­asm fu­els his some­what thrilling creativ­ity. This creativ­ity is some­thing Mata­dor Records har­nessed when they signed him in 2009, af­ter his first two records Con­stant Hit­maker, and God Is Say­ing This To You.

“It was sur­real and won­der­ful for me, be­cause I grew up on a lot of Mata­dor bands. There was a fair amount of in­ter­est by dif­fer­ent la­bels to put out my next record at the time, but Mata­dor was al­ways my num­ber one dream la­bel. It was a time of un­cer­tainty, won­der­ing will I ever find the right deal, and I was sick of the in­dus­try bull­shit­ting game.”

Vile’s mu­sic in­hab­its an idio­syn­cratic world, full of depth, hu­mour and homage, and rock, folk and pop, in some ways re­call­ing Pave­ment, a par­tic­u­larly iconic Mata­dor band.

“Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was my con­ver­sion record. I was 14 when it came out and I fell in love. It was the clas­sic rock of my day be­fore I was old enough to think about the idea of clas­sic rock in any an­a­lyt­i­cal sense. It was all pretty, melodic gui­tar stuff, and heart­felt vibes, mu­si­cally and vo­cally. Range Life, Gold Soundz and Fill­more Jive just come off re­ally pretty, which has al­ways been the most ad­mirable trait in mu­sic for me, and one I strive to­wards. Look­ing back, it re­ally does hold up, thus sug­gest­ing my the­ory to be cor­rect – clas­sic rock!”

The way Vile ex­presses him­self is full of wit, heart and ir­rev­er­ence, some­thing his work sug­gests, par­tic­u­larly last year’s fourth full-length al­bum Smoke Ring For My Halo, and the EP So Outta Reach, the art­work for which sees Vile asleep on a sofa, “pos­ing” with var­i­ous friends, bring­ing to mind the film Week­end at Bernie’s, all the more sur­pris­ing be­cause Vile is so shy.

“I was em­bar­rassed at first, very self­con­scious and para­noid. My man­ager found that photo col­lage on­line which my friend Greg Chow [the pho­tog­ra­pher] put to­gether on his Flickr, of me passed out at a party. Ren­nie [Vile’s man­ager] was like, ‘That’s your cover!” And I said ‘no way’, but he showed Mata­dor, and once I saw the de­sign, and showed a cou­ple of friends who thought it was funny, I eased up and learned quickly to dig it my­self.”

In­flu­ences swirl around the con­ver­sa­tion, and seem to buzz around Vile’s own brain and work like mu­si­cal bees, with The Vel­vet Un­der­ground’s first record as a par­tic­u­lar touch­stone.

“That record is the record. I wish I could ex­press how im­por­tant, in­flu­en­tial, eclec­tic and way ahead of its time it was, and is. Some of my friends say they pre­fer White Light/white Heat, or [the] self-ti­tled [one], but I feel that’s al­most to go against the cliche of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment that, by now, most peo­ple ref­er­ence. You can’t touch that first record. It’s melodic, poppy, ex­per­i­men­tal, jagged, raw, noisy and punk, done in ways no one had ever tried be­fore, and it’s been ripped off ever since. I guess I’m proud that The Vel­vet Un­der­ground hit me hard as early as high school, whereas Bob Dy­lan and Neil Young hit me harder when I got a lit­tle older.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Vile grew up with par­ents who had an eclec­tic record col­lec­tion, from Rusty and Doug Ker­shaw’s Louisiana Man to Harry Smith’s Folk An­thol­ogy and The Bea­tles, and they en­cour­aged him in his mu­si­cal pur­suits.

“I played the trum­pet by fourth grade, the banjo at 14, the gui­tar at 15, got into key­boards around 18, and synths and ana­log gear soon af­ter. I knew I wanted to de­vote my life to mu­sic when I was 15 and I recorded my first song on a friend’s four-track. Hear­ing it back, I was so af­fected by it, but my love for mu­sic, and the way it made me feel good, hap­pened when my dad would play his records, and I’d go into a mu­si­cal trance. Then it was easy for me to pick up any in­stru­ment – trum­pet, banjo . . . it was to­tally nat­u­ral to me.”

This nat­u­ral­ness is also ev­i­dent in his voice, a rich, deep bari­tone. “It’s not like my voice is a beau­ti­ful in­stru­ment in any trained sense, but there’s a lot you can learn about vo­cal de­liv­ery from count­less artists who are mas­ters of the trade. I al­ways wanted to be the ‘front man’. That’s an­other early mem­ory I have, me as a young kid fan­ta­sis­ing about singing in front of a large au­di­ence, but now the gui­tar has be­come equal, and in some ways more im­por­tant to me, than the singing.”

This sense of flu­id­ity and feel­ing has led Vile to many in­ter­est­ing projects, whether col­lab­o­rat­ing with Adam Gran­duciel of The War on Drugs on that band’s early ma­te­rial, to tour­ing with J Mas­cis of Di­nosaur Jr and fea­tur­ing on his new record, work­ing with pro­ducer John Agnello on his last record or through col­lab­o­rat­ing with Jen­nifer Her­rema, pre­vi­ously of Royal Trux, now RTX.

Vile jokes it is be­cause he is a “smooth op­er­a­tor”, but it is be­cause he acts as a con­duit for not only mu­sic, but some­thing big­ger than him­self, a way of con­nect­ing. His is an old soul, and it is en­dear­ing how of­ten he re­lates his own su­perb, lay­ered mu­sic back to oth­ers’ work, for ex­am­ple Bert Jansch’s Birth­day Blues, which he views as some­thing of a com­pan­ion piece to Smoke Ring for My Halo.

Jansch is an in­ter­est­ing mu­si­cian to think of in re­la­tion to Vile, since there is an ob­vi­ous striv­ing for grace through the misty prism of mu­sic, and a sense of au­then­tic­ity, but where Jansch per­haps never re­ally rec­on­ciled do­mes­tic­ity and creativ­ity, Vile, mar­ried with a small baby, views them as com­pat­i­ble.

“It is psy­cho­log­i­cally rough some­times, bal­anc­ing the two, but it is ul­ti­mately re­ward­ing. I’m def­i­nitely lucky to have a record deal, be able to travel do­ing what I love, and come home to my fam­ily, who I love.”

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