For the past decade Kurt Vile has been at the forefront of the indie-rock scene. After beginning his career in 2005 with Adam Granduciel as blissed-out folk-rockers War on Drugs, Vile has gone on to release five solo records. From his jangling, haze-filled debut Constant Hitmaker to 2013's gleefully rambling Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile has grown and developed as an artist, complicating his songs, and experimenting with structure. Kurt describes his latest studio album, B'lieve I'm Goin Down… (out Friday on Matador Records) as a more mature, compact presentation of everything he's done up to this point.
While incorporating the same intricate fingerpicking and soaring leads used in previous albums, in Goin Down… Vile gives an even deeper focus to his instrumentation and lyrics. The songs feel, more so than ever before, like they fit together as a cohesive whole. From the upbeat opener "Pretty Pimpin" to the piano-driven "Lost My Head There" to the low-key quasi-anthem closer of "Wild Imagination," the album moves naturally from song to song.
I spoke with Kurt over the phone from his practice space in his hometown of Philadelphia. The sound of bandmates could be heard in the background as Kurt and I covered everything from our mutual love of Philly to acting cocky and establishing a persona of "chill."
VICE: The new album feels equal parts departure from—and return to—the music you've done before. Was there a conscious effort to balance the two?
Kurt Vile: Yeah, I think it's a polished version of what I started doing, just because I bounced around a lot before. I think it's a more compact, or mature, mixture of folk and electric combined. But yeah, I would say… you're right. [ Laughs]
I grew up outside of Philly, before living in Fishtown [a Philadelphia neighborhood] for almost a decade. Now that I've moved away, I'm struck with nostalgia for the city. Do you miss it when you're gone? Is there somewhere you'd rather live?
I don't miss it when I'm gone because I come back. I live there. I have a house there, a family. It's nice to come back to. Maybe I would miss it if I moved away and cut ties.
Without even thinking about it, I called myself 'Philly's Constant Hitmaker' when I first got a MySpace, before I had any real hits. —Kurt Vile
You're often talked about as a Philly musician, as if the word "Philly" somehow intrinsically describes you. Do you still strongly identify with the city?
I think that I identify with Philadelphia for a lot of reasons. Without even thinking about it, I called myself "Philly's Constant Hitmaker" when I first got a MySpace, before I had any real hits. It was kind of just a funny slogan, basically lifted from the Rolling Stones' first album England's Newest Hit Makers . So I put Philly on the map with myself right away. I think it's a unique enough scenario where it's not quite New York or LA.
Anybody that's from somewhere that's made it in music outside of New York or LA, if it's a unique enough place they'll always say: "Dude's from Minnesota!" Or wherever, you know? So that's how I got the Philly connection. And I think also that Philly has a weird enough accent and enough of a ball-buster [sense of] humor. I have a combination of all those things, but not too much of any of them. I don't know. Philly keeps getting thrown back at me, but that's where I live. So I'm proud to represent.
That feels super-Philly to call yourself "Philly's Constant Hitmaker" before you've put anything out.
Yeah, exactly. I had to do it. I had to own it before someone else did.
In your music there's a character of Kurt Vile that comes off as effortlessly chill. How close is that character to the real-life Kurt?
Well, I can be chill. That's a side of me that I like. But then, I can also be not so chill. I can get a little stressed out. But I think when I tap into my persona—which is sort of like my character—once I get onstage or behind a microphone and I'm really feeling it, I don't know if it's exactly that chill guy that comes out. But it's a certain persona, sure.
Even if it is from tapping into a persona, it comes off as pretty natural.
It's fun to create some kind of mythology, some kind of character. But also it's not as extreme as Keith Richards or something. So that's a plus for me. It would be hard to live up to that level all the time. I mean, he is that way. But even so, I'm sure even if you didn't want to, you'd still have to fall into those dangerous ways. I'm not saying I'm any saint. I like that side of rock 'n' roll, and that can serve as the inspiration for myth-making.
You know that early to mid-20s cockiness? I feel like that went all the way through to my early 30s. —Kurt Vile
When I was living in the city, there was still a mythology around you. It was kind of like a Sasquatch sighting among my friends. They'd be like, "Oh, Kurt was at this show…" Is that weird for you to hear?
I walk around a lot. People come up to me and say hi, but not that often. I mean, I get it plenty often, but sometimes I wish they'd come up to me more! I mean, I'm just a regular guy. I guess I'd be the same way if I was walking around and saw someone I was a fan of. I'd be like, "Oh man, I just saw so-and-so." But, na man, just come and say hi.
So we'll put the word out to everyone to always say hi when they see you.
[Laughs] Oh no, maybe I'm half-kidding! Don't always say hi. Just once in a while.
With the new work, when I listen I hear a sentiment creeping through that's kind of like, "You wouldn't want my job." Am I off base on that?
You are a little off base. I'm not saying, "You wouldn't want it." But, you know, the whole idea of satire is whatever you're saying, the opposite is true. By doing that, I'm also saying that I love my life at the same time. So sometimes it's both sides of the statement. I like the ups and downs simultaneously—that's what I'm all about. Two much of either one is annoying, but that's the ups and downs of life, you know?
When you sing lyrics like "making music is easy," even if that's satire, it must feel nice to be confident in your work and your abilities.
That line—"making music is easy, watch me" from my last record—I was feeling really confident back then. And I think I'm a better musician now, but I had a different kind of confidence then. That was me then saying, "I'm feeling it. And yes I'm being charmingly cocky, but I love music."
I wouldn't say I have the same confidence now, but at the same time I feel like I do play music better if I can tap into this zone. It gets more real if I can kinda get lost. But I feel like that was the very last of my 20s. You know that early to mid-20s cockiness? I feel like that went all the way through to my early 30s.
I think about that song [" Was All Talk" off of Wakin on a Pretty Daze] a lot. I was really into that. But I feel like I'm in a different kind of space now. I was a little on the bratty side.
I once saw you play " Puppet to the Man," and you played it much harder, much heavier, much faster than it is on the record. Do you feel beholden at all to the studio track version of songs when playing live?
It's tricky, you know? I get attached to a record. I build it up in my head, but you can't just do karaoke every night. I feel like you also can't completely disregard the record, which I like to do. I'm trying to reach something in between.
Finally, this is a totally stereotypical interview question, but what are you listening to right now?
I was listening to a ton of stuff that I'm not really listening to anymore. What I kept telling people I was listening to was, like, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Spiritual-era Coltrane. So that's what I was saying, and before that it was like Jon Fine, Randy Newman.
Of newer music, lately I've been listening to Grouper. I've been a fan for a while, but I'm going back to her lately. I [also] like a lot of Courtney Barnett. I love that song " Depreston." I've been playing it over and over again.
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B'lieve I'm Goin Down… comes out Friday, September 25 from Matador Records.