“I’m Still Out There Raising Hell”: Kurt Vile Isn’t Going Anywhere Just Yet
The calmest man in music on his new album, fatherhood, and why YouTube annoys him.
If Kurt Vile were any more laid back, he’d be horizontal.
Normally around interview time with an international artist, there’s a certain tension in the air – their PR people linger in the background, ensuring all the right questions are asked and all the selling points are plugged away at.
With Vile, it just feels like you’re catching up with someone you haven’t seen in awhile — laughing, sharing stories, occasionally getting into deep and meaningful territory. It’s just the way Vile operates.
Whether he’s strumming away at an acoustic or shredding on his Jazzmaster, Vile has always had a calming and pensive vibe to what he does. It’s what has brought him widespread appeal over the last 15 years, never quite reaching household-name status but still holding enough commercial and critical clout to be able to tour the world over to theatres full of adoring listeners.
Last October, Vile dropped his seventh solo album, Bottle It In — eighth if you include Lotta Sea Lice, his 2017 collaboration with our very own Courtney Barnett.
In April, Vile will return to Australia for a headlining tour around his appearance at the 30th annual Bluesfest in Byron Bay. In the meantime, he’s chatting with us about fatherhood, country music, high school and finding the musical connections that last.
Bottle It In is a really simple but really effective title. In the title track, you deal with suppressing feelings and how it’s something we all do in one way or another. Do you feel as though songwriting has assisted in you dealing with how to process emotions and thoughts?
Yeah, I guess it has always done that for me in a way. When I’m writing an album, the melancholy songs always end up being my favourites in one way or another. Weirdly, when I come to think about it, “Bottle It In” is probably the only song on the entire album that I’d truly describe as melancholy.
Maybe that’s why it’s my favourite song on it; why I named the record after it. I also think that song is a centrepiece of the album, so I didn’t want it to be overlooked. It’s this minimalist, orchestral 10-minute song – I feel like it deserved more significance.
Instead of bunkering down in one studio, you made Bottle It In over the course of several months over a stretch of different studios and locations. How did that influence the creative direction of the record?
That’s how I’ve been doing things for the last three albums of mine. I’ve always been used to working out of at least a couple of different studios. I’ve accumulated multiple people I like to work with, and I didn’t want to just go home after three years on the road and make a record from scratch. I feel like the band [The Violators] has really come into its own over the last couple of years. Performing in front of an audience, in general, is the most pure and organic way to inform going into the studio to record.
Ultimately, I want my albums to be an extension of what we do when we’re playing live — so that’s what we’d do. We’d go out out and do a run of shows, and then we’d hit the studio for a couple of days. I’d do this whenever I could. Sometimes, we’d stay longer – two weeks, tops. I think two weeks is about the time where it gets too long. I feel like you’d get just as much done in five days.
Take a song like ‘One Trick Ponies.’ We recorded that in one day, and I only revisited it once a couple of months later just to patch things up. It’s healthier to just go in, play some music and then get the fuck out of there. You can always come back to it. The way I see it, if you’ve been afforded the time to make a record then you should make the most of that time.
Collaboration seems to be a big part of what you do. Obviously, it was the central theme of Lotta Sea Lice, but it’s also a big part of your solo records as well. People like Kim Gordon and Cass McCombs were a part of this record, alongside your usual team of The Violators. What, in your view, makes a good collaboration work?
I think, generally, the main thing has to be that I’m a little bit star-struck by their presence and their personality in one way or another. You gotta bounce off one another before any instruments are involved. That’s ultimately what collaborating is. Sure, there has to be something about their craft that I’m intrigued by; and I like working with multi-instrumentalists too.
Ideally, though, it’s about having chemistry with someone. That’s what I like, at least. I definitely bounce off people in real life, and music is an extension of that. Having that is really inspiring.
At what point in the writing of this album did you feel like you were onto something in terms of what the rest of it was going to sound like? Every album — not just yours — always seems to have some sort of lynch-pin that is a standard-bearer of sorts.
Definitely. I had songs that I liked, but none that I didn’t go back into later and add to. I went into the studio after I visited my friends The Sadies in the desert. I love them — they’re just great instrumentalists. They have a song on their last record that I wrote the lyrics for, and I sang on it too.
“I want my albums to be an extension of what we do when we’re playing live.”
They played this festival out in the desert outside of L.A., which is like the Coachella of country music. I forget what it’s called… [pause] Stagecoach! That’s it. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis play, and Willie Nelson — it turned out to be his birthday, and they surprised him with a cake halfway through the set. Later on, Neil Young turned up with Daryl Hannah — he got up and played harmonica with Willie. It was a wild time.
Anyway, at that point all I had was the guitar for ‘Bottle It In’ and ‘Cold Was the Wind’ pre-recorded onto this loop machine. My plan was to go out and record those songs with Rob Schnapf — this was a stopover on the way to do that. I didn’t know what was happening with these songs. I had asked my friend Stella [Moszgawa] to play on these songs — funnily enough, she’d just gotten back from Australia that day. She was all jetlagged and crazed, but she still wanted to do it.
We knocked most of the parts for both of those songs out within a day. When I heard those back, I think I knew there was something special going on. It would take another year or so to figure out what the hell the record was going to be, but little excursions like that made me really get an idea of what it was all about.
Do you tend to play new songs live before you’ve recorded them?
I would like to. I might try and do that on this tour we’re about to do, because we’re gonna be out there for awhile. [laughs] The thing about my songs is that they’re almost always written solo and then they get adapted to the band. I don’t know… we’re bringing more stuff on this tour. More keyboards and stuff like that. Maybe that will help. We can at least try some thing in soundcheck. I don’t know about doing them in the show.
I know I shouldn’t care, but the YouTube thing is annoying. I mean, it’s cool to have that access — but, like, as soon as you play anything it’s kept up online forever. If you do a new one, someone might start blogging about that particular version of a song — and you might not even really care about it.
I’ve done it a couple of times in the past, that being said. I remember when we went out on the road for Childish Prodigy, the first song that I played was ‘Peeping Tomboy.’ That wouldn’t come out until the next record [2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo]. I guess it just depends on the song, y’know?
Another interesting thing about this record is the fact it’s the first solo album of yours to feature a cover since Childish Prodigy back in 2009. You went with ‘Rollin’ with the Flow’ by Charlie Rich – what made you pick it?
I was getting pretty deep into country around the time we were making the record. I was getting into all these obscure artists and into the musical history, that sort of thing. It was actually J Mascis who told me to check out Charlie Rich, and I was hooked right away. I was listening to his early stuff on Sun Records — it was really tight and soulful. A little smoother than the other stuff on Sun at the time, but it made sense — it’s a young man’s game, after all.
Later on in life, he started doing this kind of music they called “countrypolitan.” It’s basically pop country music with big string arrangements. He’d have tracks like ‘A Very Special Love Song’ that were big hits.
I found that on vinyl, and later on I found some more Charlie records in a heap of second-hand CDs. I was really drawn to his greatest-hits CD, and ‘Rollin’ with the Flow’ really caught my ear when I was listening to it. I think that it was weird enough to work, but it also had this cool swagger to it. I brought it in to try with the band, and the rest is history.
Was country music a big part of your childhood at all? Did your parents have it on around the house?
Not like Charlie’s. It was in a different way. I grew up with more roots-style, bluegrass, that sort of thing. My dad was really into Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. We had a bunch of records, man — we had Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt, Earl Scrubbs.
We had all the classic rock stuff, too. I latched onto that, so I didn’t get back into country until later on in life.
There are a couple of lines on that song that are quite funny when you figure out you didn’t write them.
Yeah [laughs] It’s true!
“While guys my age are raising kids/I’m raising hell just like I did.” Of course, you’ve got two kids – are they big Kurt Vile fans at all?
“If you’ve been afforded the time to make a record then you should make the most of that time.”
Thankfully, they’re into my music. They’re obsessed with music in general. My elder daughter loves sitting down and listening really close to lyrics. My younger daughter responds to music a little more instinctually — she’ll wander over to the piano, play some notes, try and make up her own song to sing.
They get a kick out of my music, which is great. They’re very open-minded — I don’t think they’re gonna listen to me singing that song and be like, “Hey! You do raise kids!” [laughs]
I like that line because it still rings true in its own way. All my friends are raising kids — including me — but at the same time, I’m still out there raising hell. [laughs] It’s not a lie, even if I didn’t write it!
“Once was a thought inside my head/’Fore I’d reach 30, I’d be dead.” You’re 37 now?
The lyric obviously predates it, but you would have grown up with the mythology of the ’27 Club’ and a lot of famous rockstars dying young. How old were you when Kurt Cobain died?
I was still a teenager. I was a little too young to really understand the gravity of it. I had some friends at school that were really upset by it. I don’t know if this is a universal thing for teenagers, but it was certainly a part of my childhood — this idea of having to mask your feelings and coming off as being pretty cold about things.
Maybe it’s just a part of going through high school.
That’s when you start bottling it in.
That’s it. [laughs]
David James Young is a writer and podcaster who aspires to keep his hair as long, rich and curly as Kurt Vile’s. He tweets at @DJYwrites.