KURT & COURTNEY
Q plays gooseberry in California as Vile and Barnett reveal their artistic chemistry.
If you value
your lunch, never type “sea lice” into Google Images. Unless, that is, photos of flesh-eating saltwater parasites and raw, bloody feet particularly stoke your appetite. It is some consolation to hear that neither Courtney Barnett nor Kurt Vile suffered this agonising indignity in the run-up to naming their full-length collaboration album Lotta Sea Lice. The story behind the title is hard to explain, says Vile, sitting in what is apparently the only bare-bones room in Downtown Los Angeles’ extravagant Orpheum Theatre in mid-October, a few days into their month-long tour for the record. The day that drummer Stella Mozgawa (also of Warpaint) flew from Byron Bay to Melbourne for the second of two recording sessions this past January, she took an early morning dip in the sea before her flight. “Just her and some tall, aged hippy lady,” says Vile. Mozgawa warned her impromptu swimming partner that she was getting stung by something. Unflustered, the woman responded, “‘Woo, a lot of sea lice this morning!’” Vile recounts. “We just kept imitating it and then…” “It was just one of those things that was really funny at the time,” says Barnett. “One of those things that was really funny at the time,” is the vibe between Barnett and Vile, who seem to be in on some perpetual private joke. They don’t just share hairstyles thick enough to lag a boiler, but an intimate language made up of song fragments, exuberant vocal ticks, and a delight in the mundane. The artwork for Lotta Sea Lice is almost a perfect mirror image thanks to the hair, matching plaid shirts and Barnett’s left-handed guitar. Vile discovers that this also extends to their tourbus sleeping preferences. “Middle back left,” says Barnett. “That’s funny because I’m middle back right!” says Vile, sounding genuinely delighted. The few days since this tour started in San Francisco is the longest the pair have ever spent together, yet time in their company feels a bit like hanging out with the frogs in the old Budweiser advert – impenetrable yet charming. Neither Barnett nor Vile is given to explaining their dynamic or analysing their work. Barnett politely requests that their dressing room remains off-limits, not to conceal any excesses (hardly anyone is drinking) but to let their band feel at ease. Fair enough. But their easy camaraderie radiates through Lotta Sea Lice, which welcomes you into their “you had to be there” bond. Comprising four originals, a few of their own songs, Belly’s Untogether and a track by Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher (also the tour support), it finds a groove between Vile’s trademark spaciness and Barnett’s Crazy Horse-meets-Britpop freakouts. They quietly celebrate the comforts and frustrations of songwriting, and the small, sweet moments at home away from the intensity of the road. Modern pop songwriting credits are a dog’s dinner of guest stars, producers and featured artists aimed at gaming streaming services and piggybacking towards success. Lotta Sea Lice couldn’t be further from this opportunistic mess. “It’s nice just being able to complement,” says Barnett. “We took turns being the complement-er and – the whatever, the other thing.” For Vile, the collaboration was a chance to honour the country duets he loves: Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. For Barnett, it fell in the lineage of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong records of her childhood. Despite its esteemed creators, the record obeys the strange physics of side-projects and collaborations wherein two heavyweights get lighter together, taking the pressure off being a marquee name: in the split-screen video for single Over Everything, both acts gradually recede in the frame until they’re specks in widescreen shots. “Definitely I felt more free to just do things,” says Barnett. Vile agrees. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I’m really interested as to why that is.” Though the beauty is in the mystery; it’s hard to imagine him actually interrogating why that is.
Barnett was depressed, unemployed, and reeling from a break-up. She wandered into a record shop and bought Vile’s fourth album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, without having heard a note, took it home, and wallowed. “It felt really beautiful,” she says in LA. “I hadn’t heard anything like that for a while.” Despite Barnett’s bleak early associations with the record, it came to represent the start of a new phase in her life. It’s around then that she started dating Jen Cloher, already an established Australian songwriter and champion of independent artists. They started Milk! Records together, and Barnett started to release her own music through the label. In summer 2013, her now classic song Avant Gardener propelled her out of their cosy Melbourne scene and into the public eye, kick-starting a global tour that lasted over three years. Vile had started hearing her name from friends. Coincidentally, Barnett was booked to open for him during a rare moment at home in Melbourne in 2014. “I liked her as a person,” says Vile of their brief first meeting. “She was kind of shy, just on the periphery, just over there.” The show was the first time he’d actually heard her music. “I could see why everybody loved it.” She gave him a vinyl copy of her The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, which he listened to once he got back home to Philadelphia.
“It was pretty and confident, and deadpan, but relatable,” he says. “Reachable, in the Velvet Underground kind of way: it’s inspiring, and it’s great, and she’s super-talented, but it’s just like you can touch it, you know? Really good imagery in the lyrics, very floaty, kind of seasick in a way.” They ran into each other again on the festival circuit, and properly hung out. “I remember when I first started doing those big festivals, and it’s so intimidating at that stage because everyone’s real buddy-buddy and it feels a bit cliquey,” says Barnett. “Then you slowly start to meet people.” “I knew she was special,” says Vile. “Like…” “…Your future best friend,” Barnett jokes, perched on a stool and pointing her feet in his direction. “Well, I hoped that,” says Vile, who’s taken the tatty sofa. “We actually didn’t see each other again until we talked about making music.” Vile is a seasoned collaborator, and describes music as “the source of my deepest friendships.” He used to be in The War On Drugs, and has released singles with Hope Sandoval, Meg Baird, Steve Gunn and Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema. During a promo photoshoot for his 2015 album, B’lieve I’m Goin Down, he started imagining writing a song for Barnett: “the most classical approach to doing a song together that I’ve done,” he says. Even before he sent it to her, he says, emailing to get a feel for whether she wanted to be mates felt like a vulnerable moment. “I said a joke about, ‘I know we only actually hung out once, but I feel like we’ve been friends this whole time.’ It was stupid,” he shrugs, underplaying it. She said yes, and his song became Over Everything, which opens Lotta Sea Lice. It traces a simple routine: waking up, reading the paper, then going outside and trying not to let what you’ve just read in it ruin your day. Vile tried to put himself in Barnett’s shoes (a tattered pair of Australian Blundstone boots), and wove tidbits from their emails into the track. One line works as a good summary for their common bond, and their ability to say something in song that they can’t in person: “Don’t wanna talk about it/Simultaneous, I shout it,” Vile sings. (Barnett calls the originals on Lotta Sea Lice “some of my most favourite songwriting,” but when asked why, says that she can’t explain those “intense feelings.”) They recorded the song in Melbourne in January 2016. Initially the idea was to just make a seven-inch, but as their friendship flourished, so did the project. In January 2017, they reunited to finish the record, bringing in Mozgawa and Dirty Three’s Mick Turner alongside Vile and Barnett’s regular collaborators. They credit the experience with loosening their frustrations as
“I knew she was special. Like…”
“…Your future best friend.”
they attempted to write the follow-ups to their respective last records. “What comes first, the chorus or the verse?” Barnett sings on another original song, Let It Go. “I’m a bit blocked at the moment,” Vile replies. “They say the more you learn, the less that you know,” Barnett sings back. Understanding each other’s routines and neuroses has been healthy. “I can get stuck in my own little weird thing, and it’s just nice to break out of it and see it from a different view,” says Barnett. “I used to be a real perfectionist,” says Vile. “But now I get all superstitious if I spend too long [ on a track], I just go berserk. She’s really good at the opposite, fine-tuning things.” “But you can fine-tune too far,” counters Barnett. “It’s like eternally trying to find where that fine line is because I get too perfectionist and drive myself crazy.” “Sometimes you just have to fucking walk away,” Vile drawls. “That was a good lesson to learn from Kurt,” says Barnett. “To just get over that a little bit.” Their collaboration saved her at a time when she felt like a “fake songwriter”, despite the acclaim she received for her 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. “I try to ignore it,” she says, “but I guess it’s just one of those selfcritical things that you do. There’s so many songwriters in the world, so many poets and so many words. What do I have to say that’s more important than someone else? I’d walk to my warehouse every day and sit there by myself writing, and go deeper and deeper into that hole, which is not good. So this project was like a little ray of sunlight.” “A little derail,” Vile riffs. “The derailing.”
nights playing live in LA, Vile and Barnett’s dynamic comes into view onstage, and expands beyond the sound of Lotta Sea Lice as they add extra songs and covers to their set. The woolly guitar of Over Everything floats up into the rafters of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown on Saturday, their cover of Cloher’s Fear Is Like A Forest has a hangdog, grizzled vibe, and they skirt the piercing high note on their rendition of Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues. When they play Barnett’s Depreston, about house hunting in a Melbourne suburb, Vile gives her an awed, appreciative look as they kick into the middle-eight. They say it was important for the band to feel like a touring family rather than a group of hired hands: Vile’s regular bassist Rob Laakso plays bass. Barnett made friends with Sleater-Kinney when they toured Australia; their Janet Weiss plays drums, making Barnett’s Avant Gardener feel like it could crack right open, and S-K touring keyboardist Katie Harkin adds sweet organ trills to Continental Breakfast. The night ends in a pub called HMS Bounty, which is decked out in Halloween decorations. Barnett sits with Cloher, Harkin and the Broad City comedian Abbi Jacobson. Vile goofs around by the bar as an inebriated Lucinda Williams plays with his waist-length ringlets. On Sunday, Vile is concerned about whether Q’s photographer was taking photos in the bar (she wasn’t), evidently concerned about their relaxed endeavour being spun into something starry. He and Barnett will both release new albums next year: Vile is still working on his, plus a film score that he’s due to record with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy when the Sea Lice tour stops in Chicago (details, unsurprisingly, are not forthcoming). Barnett’s second album is finished, and she hopes to release it in the first half of 2018. Until then, much as the duo are still hard at work together, it’s clear that this tour is a respite from the spotlight, and a gentle reminder of the things that musicians value that can get overlooked in a big, gaudy promo cycle – writing, playing, intimacy – by two musicians who couldn’t be further from the dysfunction of their accidental namesakes.
“It’s nice just being able to complement.” Courtney Barnett
“This project was like a little ray of sunlight.” Courtney and Kurt relax in C athedral Sanctuary, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, October, 14 2017.
Two of a kind: recording Lotta Sea Lice in Newmarket Studios, Melbourne.
Going toe to toe: Kurt and Courtney kick back before their show in the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, LA.
Holy communion: Kurt and Courtney entertain the faithful at Cathedral Sanctuary, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, October 2017.