Philly rocker Kurt Vile updates mellow classic rock for the 21st century
In a musical world where breathless genre-hopping is par for the course, it's hard to fathom how Philadelphia rocker Kurt Vile has achieved such critical and commercial success. The long-haired, laid-back singer/songwriter drawls in a nonchalant manner akin to North Floridian Tom Petty, while his steady, often noodling guitar riffs hark back to American rock masters like Neil Young, John Fahey and Bruce Springsteen.
The title of Vile's latest album, "Wakin on a Pretty Daze," pretty much says it all about his music: extended jams that stretch their legs for seven or sometimes eight minutes, hitting a sweet spot between stoner bliss and textural spaciousness. Vile's sonic success has built slowly but surely, and it's evident that his family-first life back in Philadelphia keeps him grounded.
Folio Weekly: You're releasing a deluxe version of "Wakin on a Pretty Daze" less than a year after it originally came out. What's the motivation for that?
Kurt Vile: Well, the label is all about putting out more material, especially if an album does well, which "Wakin" did. But it's essentially just a new EP ["It's a Big World Out There (And I Am Scared)"] packaged with the full-length, which has some new cover art.
F.W.: "Wakin" features cover art of a Philadelphia street mural painted by Steve Powers that's thematically linked to the album's content. How did that come about?
K.V.: Cover art requires a lot more work than you would imagine. But I've always been into it. On [2011 album] "Smoke Ring for My Halo," the label steered me away from my own brand of quirky DIY art on the theory that people didn't know who I was. So I got way back into it with the mural on "Wakin."
F.W.: Is it difficult to reproduce your meticulously recorded albums onstage?
K.V.: When I first started recording "Wakin," I was probably even more meticulous, which had me thinking, "How am I going to do it live?" But you can't really make your live show sound too much like your record. [The live show] is this raw version that takes on a whole different life on the road; some nights it's solid and some nights it's loose. Eventually, I would like to pull off an epic live performance with complete control, but right now I'm still doing the Crazy Horse thing.
F.W.: Neil Young and other classic rockers like Tom Petty serve as touchstones for your music. Are you trying to update classic rock for the 21st century?
K.V.: I definitely strive to make classic rock, but not in an ironic or nostalgic way. I just want to write songs of that caliber — songs like [Young's] "Heart of Gold" that sound good anytime you hear them and aren't of a time. I love noise and experimental trippy stuff, but I'm not going to regress and do super inaudible lo-fi music again. I'm never going to write something that doesn't have a classic song structure. No matter what, it's got to have heart.
F.W.: The fact that you're married with kids seems to lead off every Kurt Vile story these days. Has the press made too much of your personal life?
K.V.: Somewhere along the way, enough people put that twist on me. Also, I had my kids touring with me on my last two records, which both have certain lyrical elements that reference my family. So yeah, people do talk about it a lot more than they do with other musicians. Tons of people who play music have kids and a family. They just don't talk about it as much.
F.W.: Is it hard to tour so much when you've got a great life at home?
K.V.: I still like touring. The more you do it, the more your shows become natural. But that's the whole mindfuck of the artist: It's normal to play every night for a couple of weeks and become like a machine. Every night you're getting better. That goes for writing songs, too. One week, you're writing a lot of them, and the next, you can't even imagine picking up your guitar. I definitely don't want to stay home and not play, since that's a huge part of my life. But I embrace my family in much the same way. Those two things are both really important to me.