Q plays goose­berry in Cal­i­for­nia as Vile and Bar­nett re­veal their artis­tic chem­istry.

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Jo McCaughey

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.

in 2011,

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.”

Across two

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.

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