If laid-back rock ’n’ roll needed a patron saint, Kurt Vile would be the first man up for coronation. Starting around 2009, when he released Smoke Rings for My Halo on Matador Records, the indie cognoscenti has revered this Philadelphia native for his meandering guitar jams, his slacker-philosopher take on modern life, and his quirky, blue-collar eccentricities.
Over the last year or two, however, even the mainstream music scene has warmed to Vile’s tranquil, paisley-tinted sobriquets paired with gently psychedelic, classic rock-infused noodling. Last summer, he even appeared on the venerable show CBS This Morning, sending up his “sweet bubblegum harmonies” and laughing with host Anthony Mason about the pitfalls of increasing stardom: “I notice middle-aged stewardesses come up to me once in a while now.”
That nugget encapsulates the best thing about Kurt Vile: He takes his art seriously, yet he can be wickedly funny. His songs can scan as bleak and as uplifting. Yes, he loves meandering nine-minute jams — and he can write concise instant classics like “Pretty Pimpin,” the foot-stomping, earworm hit that really broke Vile big in 2015. On paper, lyrics like “I woke up this morning / Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / Then I laughed and I said, ‘Oh, silly me, that’s just me’” might sound, well, silly. When Vile delivers them in his elongated half-slur/half-twang, though, the words come off as downright prophetic, exposing the pretty little lies we tell ourselves each day, while acknowledging the human need to build ourselves up.
Critics might say Kurt Vile’s six full-length albums all sound strikingly similar, when you hear that voice and that perspective and that guitar all wrapped up together, you can feel instantly at home — just like Folio Weekly did when we spoke with Vile last week at his Philadelphia home.
Folio Weekly: You haven’t toured in Florida much, have you, Kurt?
Kurt Vile: I’ve only been down there once, at the end of the tour for [2013 album] Wakin on a Pretty Daze. I liked it a lot, though. It has warm vibes, and it’s on my same coast, the East Coast. So I’m looking forward to tapping into your world as much as I can. Plus I’m coming late in the cycle again.
So you and your band, The Violators, won’t be focusing strictly on 2015’s b’lieve I’m goin down… then? Is that a plus for you?
I write music on an acoustic guitar on my couch, and then in the studio, it’s built up into something else, so it takes a little bit to make certain songs sound right onstage. For that reason, I’m not as confident touring at the beginning of a record. And yeah, I like the fact that we jump around. I have enough albums now that I don’t have to think too much about the new album. Beyond songs you have to play, like “Pretty Pimpin,” of course.
Taking a longer view of touring, was it hard to navigate the jump to larger venues like theaters, along with the many festivals you now headline?
It has been really hard. I used to think I was only good at small clubs. Festivals were a real struggle. A big theater, same deal. But our show is so organic now — really, truly, an organic, epic rock show with peaks and valleys. And that comes from being on the road so long. There were a lot of growing pains on this last record. We went through a lot of ups and downs. But now we can sustain. We got pro.
Has your writing process changed significantly as you’ve gotten more professional?
The process of writing has changed in that I’m rarely writing a song front to back these days. That’s been going on since Wakin on a Pretty Daze, which had this psychedelic, laid-back fog. I’ve got a bunch of lyrics and a bunch of riffs and I’m always open to the songs growing and evolving, over a week or a month or a year. You also have to be open to spontaneity once you go in the studio, too.
After b’lieve I’m going down…, you told PopMatters that you wanted to make a “folk statement” with the record. Do you feel like you achieved that, or do you now need to make a statement as a more high-profile artist?
My music all stems from my own personal experience. I just figure it out as I go. I’m not thinking too grand.
Or you’re just really good at making your personal experience universal and relatable.
Subconsciously, that’s what I always wanted in other music. So I have my own style, but it’s also informed by classic, relatable influences like Neil Young or Lou Reed. It’s a combination of this laid-back human thing, my natural musical ability, and the style that comes out with my personality.
Has that personality undergone a discernable change as your career grew?
I’ve always had a few sides. I have a crazy, wild side and an introspective, shy side. Now, I like to embrace the whole rock-star persona thing, without taking it too seriously or dealing with the negative parts of it. But I think I’m growing and evolving. Having kids obviously changes you for the better. For the realer, too. Change for the realer! I like that. Hopefully my songs get realer all the time.