Kurt Vile: Rollin’ With the Flow
photo by Jo McCaughey
In the last three years alone, Kurt Vile has released an acclaimed studio album, toured the world, teamed up with Courtney Barnett and shared a hometown stage with John Prine. And Bottle It In, his latest slab with the ever-versatile Violators, is a rollicking, episodic and groovy depiction of how far he’s come—and where he’s heading.
“Yo, dudes, welcome to your rehearsal!” Kurt Vile cues his bandmates with breezy aplomb as he launches into a new song called “Loading Zones,” so named for all the stealthy moments of free parking he’s logged in his native Philadelphia. “One-stop shop life for the quick fix before you get a ticket—that’s the way I live my life,” he sings in his near-conversational drawl, encapsulating the devil-may-care ethos he always brings to his music, going back to his early days with The War on Drugs, the band he co-founded with friend and fellow traveler Adam Granduciel.
Vile and his current band, The Violators, are set up on a makeshift soundstage at an old hunting lodge in the Catskills called Big Indian Springs—the perfect, idyllic getaway to unleash some creative mojo. On this day though, as relaxed as his approach might seem on the surface, Vile is also keenly focused. He’s working through a few nervous kinks in his voice, and he can sense a bit of tentative energy in The Violators—drummer Kyle Spence and multi-instrumentalists Rob Laakso and Jesse Trbovich—as they grow accustomed to playing the new material in a live set.
To be sure, there’s some rust to shake off, but Vile isn’t hung up about it. The goal, after all, is to sound well-oiled but not necessarily well-groomed. “I’m still hard on my voice,” he admits, shyly sweeping a thick length of his below-the-shoulder mane behind his ear, “but I do feel like the band has arrived, I have arrived and I can just deliver music. It might come off rusty and raw at first, but it’s still gonna be performed well and accurately in some way. I just feel wise and experienced—sure, also with knowledge, but it just feels realer than ever, you know?”
He’s too humble to drop the word authentic, which is OK because plenty of his peers and contemporaries know the score. In 2011, he toured with Thurston Moore, an avowed fan. J Mascis has asked Vile to share various stages with him over the years, and John Prine invited him to open his show this past spring at Philly’s venerable Merriam Theater. Vile’s musical range as a guitarist is so wide that he can thrash with abandon to Dinosaur Jr.’s sludge-punk riffage, or fingerpick with deceptive ease to Prine’s mystical blue-collar country songs. Kim Gordon has been a fan since she first heard Childish Prodigy, Vile’s 2009 Matador label debut—a rough-hewn dream journal of shoegazey garage rock with a nod to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, which led to the more folk-influenced Smoke Ring for My Halo and the wide-angled Wakin on a Pretty Daze, both produced by John Agnello (known for his work with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth).
In a heartfelt press bio for his brilliantly eccentric album b’lieve I’m goin down…, released in 2015, Gordon wrote: “Kurt does his own myth-making; a boy/man with an old-soul voice in the age of digital everything becoming something else.” That album yielded the quirky single “Pretty Pimpin,” a breakthrough radio hit and a game-changer for Vile and the band. On the ensuing tour, they played to sold-out crowds around the world, honing their chops and tightening a bond that only the hectic circus ride of life on the road can reinforce.
“We’ve definitely turned into a true band,” he continues now, his gaze momentarily intent. In person, Vile is a bundle of fidgety movements and half-finished sentences, almost as though he can’t get the words out fast enough because so many new ideas and tangential connections are crowding his thoughts. He’s recounting the ordeal of getting home with a mountain of gear from his last European tour, which he considers the band’s best, and how one more show in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park segued into the recording of a signature song from his new album.
“I didn’t think much of it, and The Violators hadn’t practiced since [the European tour],” he says, “but then we just show up, and it was like a cheap ticket, this summer thing. Everybody goes to these things in the park, so it’s like nine thousand people. We stepped out, and the crowd just roared, and it was like, effortless— by far my favorite concert. Then I flew straight from there to LA to work with [producer] Shawn Everett, who I hadn’t worked with yet. I had a day off, and then I recorded ‘Bassackwards.’”
In a way, the song is emblematic of how Bottle It In, Vile’s seventh album, came together. It’s a nearly 10-minute odyssey with lyrics that are fraught with existential uncertainty and stress (“I was standing down, but I was also on the run in my mind…”), and yet the soothing melody and backward-tracked guitars send it into a spaced-out netherworld of meditative calm. Vile has never been one to succumb to so-called “conventional” methods of making an album, let alone writing songs, especially when his self-styled, no-rules approach has served him so well.
“It’s like everything combined, you know?” he explains. “Sometimes people say they’ve gotta compartmentalize, but I feel like everything should be happening at once, almost, for it to be as organic as possible. That’s the music that I was going for on this record. It’s reacting in the moment, sort of like jazz, but obviously this isn’t—I would say I was more into spiritual jazz on the last record, but it’s still the basic concept of early rock-and-roll, just to get the most honest performance. I have the words, I have the basic song, but the possibilities are really endless, so you’re just trying to capture something real in the studio.”
That meant collaborating with three different producers, including Peter Katis, who mixed b’lieve i’m goin down…, and ducking into the studio whenever a busy touring schedule allowed it. The Violators convened at Katis’ space in Bridgeport, Conn., to record three songs, while Vile himself booked separate sessions with Everett and Rob Schnapf in LA, with various guest musicians on board, among them Gordon, Cass McCombs, harpist Mary Lattimore, lap-steel guitarist Farmer Dave Scher, and drummers Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) and Barbara Gruska (The Belle Brigade). Laakso also produced several tracks and plays bass throughout the album.
Despite so many chefs in the kitchen and such a disjointed timeline behind it, Bottle It In is remarkably cohesive—a testament to Vile’s singular versatility as a musician, as well as the trust he places in the people around him. The countrified lope of “One Trick Ponies” pivots on the line “I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” a moment of self-awareness where Vile seems to poke fun at his own penchant for hammering an inside joke to death, while at the same time showing how he and the Violators can rock a lush, hypnotic groove that percolates from the inside out. Sometimes the music sounds so loose, it’s almost easy to forget how well produced it is.
“That’s why I always need multifaceted people in my band,” he says. “They’re all gear nerds and tech nerds. I’ve been good at self-producing, like in the early days when I had a little digital 8-track. I definitely made some cool things and I’m trying to get back to my roots with that. I’ve got all kinds of mics and mixing boards. I’m always setting it up so it looks good down in my basement, and I’m like, ‘This looks awesome!’ But actually, once it comes to technical stuff, my brain goes out the window. I’m gonna get there.”
For now though, Vile has indeed arrived as a working-class hero on the fringes of indie-rock, even if he is still a restless soul. He’s a voracious reader—Nick Tosches is a personal favorite—and a bit of a modern Johnny Appleseed-type mystic. He’s also deeply in touch with his feminine side and finds a fulfillment in collaborating with women that insulate him from the caustic layers of the typical “rock star” spectacle. A few summers ago, after bumping into Courtney Barnett on a string of festival dates, he suggested working on a song together (“Over Everything”) on his next visit to Australia; that led to last year’s full-length Lotta Sea Lice. Gordon brought her inimitable “acoustic-guitar feedback” to the mournful ballad “Mutinies” on Bottle It In shortly after Vile spotted her at a show headlined by a former Violator, singer-songwriter Steve Gunn.
“It was a very specific style she was working on at the time,” Vile says, “an acoustic guitar with a pickup in it, [overdriven through] an amp.”
And then there’s the slow-building guitar epic “Skinny Mini,” where Vile free associates with reverence about the special women in his life, punctuating the story with devotional power chords and feedback washes.
“I love my two daughters and my wife, and I definitely depend on the feminine side of things,” he says candidly. “I get self-conscious, too—because I know there’s an uprising, which there should be, of women’s [movements], like feminism. But still, when I have to pull my favorite music, I get self-conscious in a way because most of my favorite singers are white American country dudes. Obviously, I like a lot of things—I love the Delta blues—but these days, I’m kind of rollin’ with the flow of the white American male.”
He cracks the joke with a light-hearted laugh, but he’s also archly referring to his cover version of Charlie Rich’s ‘70s country-schmaltz hit “Rollin’ with the Flow,” which comes across as largely faithful to the original, owing to Vile’s obsession with the song’s unabashed cheesiness. If anything, it’s yet another window into his quirky sense of humor—a quality that endears him to everyone in his orbit. During a lull in the recording sessions with Katis, he presented the idea to the Violators, and they jumped in with abandon.
“It just had that weird swagger of a tune that I knew nobody would cover any time soon,” Vile observes. “So I was like, ‘Alright, let’s just play this and get it as close to the recording as possible.’ I knew it was weird, but it came together. Peter loved it, and my manager Rennie [Jaffe] loved it. I wasn’t sure if it would make the record, but I’m glad it did.”
As Vile preps with The Violators for yet another world tour, set to kick off in Europe, he’s equally amped about the future. While his lyrics often belie a quest for meaning and reassurance from his chosen path (“Singing, playing all the time now—hey look, lucky me, always been in touch with reality, you see,” he sings on the blues-rocking “Check Baby”) or a need to transcend past heartbreaks (from the summery highway jam “Yeah Bones”: “When nobody calls you on the phone, don’t break your bones dying dead in a black sea of tears over me…”), he’s also allowing himself more moments to bask in the fruit of his labors.
From his seat behind the drumkit, Spence knows the terrain, having been a fixture on the high-octane music scene in Athens, Ga., most prominently with the band Harvey Milk. After falling off the radar in the late-‘90s, the band’s radical mix of sludge metal and experimental noise-rock reemerged in 2006 as a cult curiosity and they released a few more albums and performed a steady stream of gigs through 2012. Along the way, Spence played in the Atlanta hard-rock trio The Tom Collins and toured with J Mascis + The Fog, where he spent time holding down the lowend with Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. He also occasionally subbed on the road for Dinosaur Jr.’s Murph on drums, though he’s been a full-time Violator since 2013.
“One of the reasons I like playing with Kurt a lot is because it’s not bombastic,” he reveals with a laugh. “My benchmark of how good a show used to go was whether I could stand up at the end of it. You play 90 minutes with Dinosaur—there’s a reason Murph is so great. He’s built like a tank. It’s not as easy for a smaller dude like me. But I dig playing lots of stuff, and with Kurt, he casts a real wide net. I wouldn’t say that we’re the tightest band in the world, but I don’t think we’ve ever tried to be, because if everything’s too scripted or too regimented, it can be like going through the motions. You have to read each other, read the crowd, read the feeling in the room, and that’s definitely something we’ve gotten better at over the past few years. I guess there’s gonna be room to open stuff up on this coming tour, and we’re looking forward to that.”
Vile feels a similar sense of anticipation—a state of mind that often used to fill him with conflicting feelings of dread, which is certainly part of what makes his music so down-to-earth and accessible. There’s a humanity and an underlying vulnerability in everything he’s recorded, as though he’s been aware since he picked up his first instruments (fittingly, a trumpet, then a banjo and then a guitar) that the rug could be pulled out at any moment. But now, at a still-young 38 years old, at last, he seems able to relax enough to feel sure-footed and secure in what he’s doing.
“Yeah, I feel like I’m in a place,” he says again. “Maybe there was a moment when I wasn’t sure. There’s a bullshit hipster music world, where—in theory—for a second, you could think that you’ll be washed up. But I’m excited. I’m pushing 40, but I know now that I have the kind of music that I can do until I’m dead. There’s a cool quote from Neil Young—and I’m not comparing myself—but he said, ‘When I retire, you’ll know because I’ll be dead.’ He inspires me all the time but, lately, I’ve been listening to a song on the album Life called ‘When Your Lonely Heart Breaks.’ I don’t know if he’s singing to a friend about a midlife crisis, but it’s really beautiful and the harmonies are awesome. In some ways, you’re always wiser. I’m gonna be making music at whatever pace, but I’m not gonna quit making music. I just wait until it comes to me.”
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.