“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
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.”