Kurt Vile Is All Greased Up
The Philadelphia musician speaks on his new album ‘Bottle It In,’ meeting Neil Young, computers, Donald Trump’s bullshit, staring age 40 down, a mental breakdown, and whatever the hell his future holds.
The last time I interviewed Kurt Vile, he had me help him move a stand up piano that he’d bought out in the Rockaways. This time, when I arrive at his workhouse in central Philadelphia, he remembers. “You’re the one who did me last time, right? Cool. You can still ask me whatever you want.” For the next month or so, I would, and we’d speak both in person and over the phone, each conversation going a little bit deeper into his psyche than the previous one.
The Philadelphian is 38 years old, but he still laughs like a kid. He’s always cracking jokes (“I love Mexican beer; I’m a Modelo-holic!”), and he follows them with a quick snort. His whip smart brain moves quickly—at one moment, he’ll be telling you a story about playing with John Prine, then he’ll reference a specific moment in a Grateful Dead documentary, then find a way to shit on Trump, and somehow make a reference to Steely Dan along the way. The overall effect isn’t jarring or dizzying, though; it’s effortless and absorbing. His hair might be stretched down to the middle of his back, but that’s the closest Vile gets to a rockstar cliché. You’ll quickly realize that he’s, quite simply, a lot like you, and a lot like me, and that’s why his music feels like it’s made for all of us.
His new record, Bottle It In—his seventh solo studio album, out October 12 on Matador—is classic Vile style. You know it when you hear it, but words I’ve written and deleted while trying to describe it include “introspective,” “psychedelic,” “funny,” “epic,” “drone-y,” “heady,” “weird,” “gritty,” and, my personal favorite (for being bad), “kickass.” What this evolving, fumbling process—along with his own fucked up, endless (and at times, oblique) descriptions of his music—taught me is that Vile’s art is essentially a reflection of the way life always rolls onward, a process you’ve gotta cruise on a bit before you can even begin to grapple with its ups and downs. Tracks like "Bottle It In" or "Come Again" demonstrate his ability to find a groove and let it ride, amplifying whatever your current mood is. In Vile’s view of life, everything’s a circle: The more you live, the more you understand, and the more you understand, the more your live. “It’s something flying in the sky in the weirdest way possible,” he tells me at one point, when describing himself and his creative output. “You’re like, what the fuck is that thing trying to go forward and backward at the same time? Shoot it!” Then he laughs.
As time went on, I realized that our conversations had started reflecting that circular quality, with Vile riffing on the same reference points and subjects when talking about Bottle It In: Neil Young, the importance of experience, evolving while holding onto your roots, the weight of existence. Still, each time, it felt like he was expanding on the different ideas and thoughts that make us human. At one point, he would talk about a small mental breakdown he had while trying to pull together the album, but then would slip back into his cool, witty self—a conversational style that’s not too dissimilar from how he approaches songwriting. And even as we finished our final conversation, there was still a part of him that felt like he was just getting warmed up.
“I was a little foggy to explain what the hell was going on,” he tells me, referring to the first day we met up in Philadelphia. “But now I’m all greased up!” Then, of course, he laughs.
Noisey: Is Bottle It In the best record you’ve made?
Kurt Vile: I always say that. The record before this was pretty stripped back, I guess. But this one is pretty filled up. You gotta combine everything and live it. If you know too much of what’s gonna happen—if you’re too prepared, it becomes contrived. Sit around and rehearse with a band before you go in—that’s ridiculous. That’s not real life.
I find your music to be pretty psychedelic. I love your rendition of “Outta the Woodwork” from the collaborative album with Courtney Barnett.
I’m dabbling back into getting into weed again. I was so anti, but now there are these vapes and these edibles, and you’re like, hey, that was cool, that wasn’t so bad. [ Laughs.] That was my first song that drew me to Courtney. She loved “Peeping Tomboy.” I actually laughed when I first heard her version, because it was so good. I didn’t know “Outta the Woodwork” was going to come off so Alice Cooper, but it did in the moment. That was something else with this new album: When I went to sing, I always at least had a guitar, just in case. That’s what I mean by living it. You can’t just say, “Let’s get a bunch of vocals.” You’ve gotta bounce off everything for it to be real.
You keep saying how you’ve gotta live it.
I’ve always had that sort of approach. But it took me awhile—maybe my 20s—to find it. But there’s also this thing in your 20s, [where] there’s so much inspiration that you don’t even have time to analyze it. As you get older, you’ll be influenced by someone like Neil Young—or someone real raw. You’ll always find that the rawest people, the most soulful people; everything they record is pretty much live, because that’s where it all happens.
You just opened for Neil Young. What was that like?
Amazing. In Quebec. It was in front of like 80,000 people. I know all those guys he plays with and I’ve met Neil Young a handful of times. I always get, like, one or two words in, but then people sort of protect him from me, you know? [ Laughs.] It was a good show, but I opened with that song “Wheelhouse” from the last record—and sometimes I forget I get nervous. I flubbed one note in the beginning intro, and it twisted me and I flipped out. I just didn’t move. I was about to be funny and be all over the place, but then I kind of shut down.
Is that the most people you’ve played for?
That was the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for. I just wanted to do right by Neil. I knew he wouldn’t be watching, but his crew would be. It’s whatever.
Did you talk to him at all up there?
Nah. I’ve only talked to him just a little bit in my life, and it’s hard to not start geeking out. I can’t hide it. The first time I saw him [on tour] with Promise of the Real was in Nashville a couple years ago. It was an awesome show. I got backstage and they played “Down by the River”—it was like a half-hour. And I saw him and I was like, “Ah man, Neil, I’ve seen you ten times and we’ve met a couple times, and this was the best I’ve seen you by far.” Because it was. And then I was like, “It was like you were underground and in outer space at the same time.” And he looked at me right in the eyes and was like [adopts Neil Young accent], “We can go to outer space whenever we want.”
"And I saw him and I was like, 'Ah man, Neil, I’ve seen you ten times and we’ve met a couple times, and this was the best I’ve seen you by far.' Because it was. And then I was like, 'It was like you were underground and in outer space at the same time.' And he looked at me right in the eyes and was like [adopts Neil Young accent], 'We can go to outer space whenever we want.'"
How has the political climate over the past couple years impacted you as an artist and musician? You have some “Vile ‘18” signs going around as part of album promotion.
That’s just a funny sign, and it shouldn’t take anything away [from the real issues]. Just vote. Vote against Trump. You can’t ignore what’s going on. It’s impossible.
Does it change the way you think about your music?
It usually inspires that stuff. It’s in all my songs. Ultimately, if you’re gonna keep making a certain kind of music, what’s going on is going to be in your songs—or else you’re just making pop music. And I like pop music. I make pop music. But it’s a mish-mash.
Following the success of your release with Courtney Barnett and your previous solo record, do you have expectations for this record?
On the last record, I got superfans. Even a song like “Pretty Pimpin”—that was my first hit single. I got followers, and we also had to learn how to play professionally. I can finally just do what I want. I know, no matter what, it’s going to be good, because I know the record is good. I don’t know how every single magazine will review it, but if they’re smart, they’ll give it a good review. But I don’t care. I’m happy with it. It’s super musical, pretty epic, a lot more guitar solos, pretty psychedelic—and everything combined. It’s what I do.
Did you think you’d be at this point over ten years in?
Well, I’ve always been doing it. I come from this blue collar place and blue collar upbringing. I’m from Philly. I’m a little bit of a paranoid person. This is my quality of music. So back then, did I know if I would still be doing it now? Back then, I was hoping someone would just fucking put my shit out already. If nobody put out my records ten years ago, I’d probably be dead or something. [Laughs.] I’d probably be a really dark person.
Do you feel lucky?
I know I’m lucky. But I equally did my part. But still—I’m lucky. I’m in a world where I can rewrite history. Not that I would, but you can forget—be like, “Fuck, I don’t want to do this.” But that’s not even the point I’m trying to make. It’s more that I don’t have to hustle as much because I hustled back then. Now I can just do the press.
Where do you feel like you fit in the history of music?
I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of. I sat in with John Prine recently, and it was incredible. He’s the greatest living American songwriter. I was shitting myself, but only a little. [ Laughs.] That makes me feel good, but it’s sort of on the wave we’re talking about. I’m stoked about it, but I’ve been doing this long enough that it feels normal.
Are you an anxious person?
I certainly can be. I’m not anxious right now, but I was anxious maybe last week, because I wanted to chill out. It’s the world we live in, too. I’m more of an analog person, but it’s demanded that I’m not. In a cynical moment, I get angry because I gotta be on the computer. Like, part of being a rock star of my caliber is being good at data entry? Turn on the fucking laptop again? It’s depressing. But it’s not. But it is.
It is. I always joke about how we’ll all never reach the end of the feed.
I think that honestly, by the next record, I’ll know what makes me stressed, and it’s usually computer-related. Phones, too. That’s what the world is stressed about too: Static. Insane electricity everywhere. Everybody is wanting everything from everyone fast. Nobody’s even looking at each other anymore. It’s the root of my anxiety. Thank god my wife helps me sometimes before I freak out, but I just can’t look at a screen after awhile, you know? That’s a big part: Just don’t look at a fucking computer screen. Call somebody up.
"That’s what the world is stressed about too: Static. Insane electricity everywhere. Everybody is wanting everything from everyone fast. Nobody’s even looking at each other anymore. It’s the root of my anxiety."
I remember life before the internet. You remember before the internet.
That’s part of why I’m more bitter than ever. I remember. I was way less stressed back then.
How are you feeling about life?
I’m happy. I’m happy with my family. The world is terrifying and brutal, though. Nobody could imagine things would turn like this. Trump—clearly something he likes about Putin is that he’s clearly fucking with both sides. And Trump is clearly influenced by that. Turning people against each other.
I’ll never forget Chappelle’s monologue right after Trump got elected, where he was like, “Well, we elected an internet troll.”
That’s it. It’s the internet again. It’s the computer again that’s making everybody miserable.
Fucking computer, man.
I’m a victim. I have people that I watch—I’ll never say who they are—and I’m like, “Man, you’re so full of it.” The screen in general makes it so you can’t turn away. It’s like Trump: Bad press is good press. He’s got the best press in the world.
I wanna believe and be hopeful in the future.
Me too. It’s really bad, though. It’s beyond.
I saw you perform at BAM with John Cale at the 50th Anniversary Velvet Underground shows at the end of last year. It kicked ass.
I loved that show. It was right at the end of the Courtney Barnett tour. I went straight there. I was still flying high from touring and in that mindset. The very last thing I did on the Courtney show—there was a soundcheck—and I made this guitar loop. So backstage, in between playing with John Cale, I wrote all these lyrics, and it turned into that “Skinny Mini” song on the record. A couple days later I went to LA and I recorded it.
Did you know John Cale before the show?
No. I take those things head-on. He invited me, and then I was slow to respond. Sometimes I feel sort of guilty [about touring]—even though I brought my family with me. But while I was away, I didn’t know if I should do it. I get a bit homesick on the road and then I’m not thinking. But apparently he was like, “What do we gotta do to get Kurt to come? We need Kurt!” [Laughs.] He’s a badass.
If you had a chance to travel back in time, what would you tell your 19-year-old self?
I don’t know man. I was so dumb. I had never been anywhere. I think about Neil Young. He played “Rockin’ in the Free World” when we opened recently. And in the middle of it, he was like, “FUCK YOU TRUMP.” So if Neil said it, I can just agree with Neil. We all agree with Neil. Or at least most of us.
Do you want to follow in Neil’s footsteps?
I’m always gonna do my own version of that. I’m a little more introverted than Neil. Also, Neil came from the hippy era to the post-hippy era. He was even into Reagan for a minute. He’s gone through all kinds of things. He’s a legend though. I can’t do what Neil did.
No, but I also can. In my own way, in my own era. I can do it.
That’s how I describe you. “He might be our generation’s Neil Young.”
That’s cool. I can tap into that anytime. I can go to outer space whenever I want. [Laughs.]
Are there any ways in which you feel misunderstood?
No, because I’m just kinda past wanting to prove. I just don’t think as much about that stuff anymore. That’s always kind of a trick question. I even feel like we talked about it last time, when I was like, “People better fuckin’ like the record!” And now I’m like, yeah, sure, they better. But if they don’t, they’re just dumb. [Laughs.] If right after this I read a bunch of reviews—they’re either gonna get it or not.
That makes sense. We place expectations on ourselves.
Definitely. I expect to be understood, and I’ll let you know if not. [ Laughs.] In Long Strange Trip, that doc about The Grateful Dead, they track down the lyricist Robert Hunter, and they ask him to interpret the lyrics. He spews the lyrics out, super psychedelic stuff, and he’s like, “What part of that is not self-explanatory?” It’s pretty badass.
How do you feel about getting older?
Thirties are cool, but you still have a lot of the naivety of your 20s in there. So a lot of the wisdom comes in the 30s—from my experience—and you get a lot of perspective. Of course, you’re a little more tired. There’s this movie Neil Young made called Muddy Track in like 1987, and he had just put out Life in 1987, and he was in his 40s. In some ways, he’s out of touch with something, but in others, he’s more in touch than ever. Because he lived it. That song “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” is really mellow and dark and beautiful. You couldn’t deliver something that fucked up and beautiful without a certain perspective of getting older. There’s humor in that movie—it’s hilarious—and you wouldn’t be acting quite like that if you weren’t older and experienced. That’s one of my top inspirations for my 40s.
Does 40 feel like a big number to you?
Well, my wife just turned 40, and I’m 38—39 in January. I would’ve thought I’d be more afraid of being 40, but this has honestly been [...] Look, I like this time. I like this perspective. I like what’s going on in my life. Musically, I feel in control of something. I still might have a shitty show, but even it’s shitty—in the old days, I felt like if it was shitty, it’d be shitty. Now, I feel like if it’s shitty, it still might be good, you know? That’s where I’m at. Honestly, I like things to be a little bit shitty and fucked up.
This record flows back into some of your earlier, weirder, drone-y shit. Was that a purposeful decision?
I’m always trying to get back to my roots in a weird way, while also going forward, you know? Knowing where you come from—it’s always fun to come back, but I always want to fine tune and go ahead at the same time.
That’s on your way to space.
This is definitely a deep record. I’m always wanting to put my heart on there, but this one, for once in my life, I even had a slight, you know, mental breakdown or exhaustion or whatever. I was gonna put out this record a little sooner, but this was the first time I’d really chilled out. It was really convenient to able to do the record with Courtney, and I’m so glad I did it; I learned so much being able to do that. But on top of it, I was going to try to get my record out sooner. But then I was like, “Fuck this.” And I lived in it more. I was in and out of the studio the whole time since my last solo record—in and out of the studio for three years. Nonstop. Living it that way. I’m always wanting to do my best record, but I knew I really wanted to lay it on here. The only way I restrain myself is that it’s gotta be able to fit on one CD.
"Some people just stay themselves."
Tell me about that mental breakdown.
I was just trying to do too many things and had too many things on the plate. I had the Courtney record, which was going great, and I was working on a film score. I was pretty exhausted in general. I think I was pretty down in the psyche. Drinking plenty to numb and calm me down—the things that we all do once we get older. I think things catch up to us. I was also trying to turn in my record at the same time and I was like, “Fuck this.” Again, I like to have a lot of different things going on—I learn plenty from them—but I just had to postpone the record.
In the early days, I’m glad I didn’t; you have to keep moving. But it feels really good to think on it more. In the meantime, you just start recording all the stuff you didn’t think you were going to record anyway. Ultimately stuff gets a little better all the time anyways. Just keep doing what you’re doing, just don’t fuckin’ rush to the pressing plant if you can get away with it.
Do you feel a desire to stay “cool” or “hip” or whatever, and do you think about the way you and your music are perceived?
I do think about that. And I feel more inspired than ever. My style of music, even from the first record—I’m always trying to make it hypnotic and catchy in its own weird way, even if it’s long. Even if it’s fucked up. I’ve read the arc of many a rock bio—it’s in my brains, you know?—so I think about that concept often: When people fall off or whatever. Sometimes they don’t fall off; sometimes they do and make a comeback. But I feel like that’s my style of music—to always bring me in and bring others in as well. Who’s to say that once I’m 50, I won’t fall out of touch for a second? I don’t know. I think about someone like John Prine, [who’s] always been a sincere songwriter. Some people just stay themselves.
It’s gotta feel good to be at a point in your career where you are afforded the luxury of time.
Totally. But I still love the Neil Young thing—putting tons of things out. That’s another way I feel like I’ve gone back to my roots. With Constant Hitmaker [in 2008], I had so many home recordings and I could put all the best ones on there. And I’m sort of in that place with all my new material. I could start putting out multiple EPs while I’m sitting back. I like the idea of waiting, but I also like the idea that all the sudden there’s gonna be a shitload of KV EPs coming out. We’ll see. [Laughs.]
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.