Interview: Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile - December 29, 2009 at the Howlers Coyote Café

Psych/folk singer-guitarist Kurt Vile (yes, that’s his real name) has been enjoying some serious buzz since the October release of Childish Prodigy on Matador Records. We recently had the chance to sit down over a cold beer with Mr. Vile before a packed show in Pittsburgh, the first on a two-month U.S. tour. Here is how the conversation went.

Owl&Bear: Congratulations on being signed to Matador.

Kurt Vile: Thanks.

Owl&Bear: You were signed on as a solo artist?

Kurt Vile: Well, I signed the contract, but I can do whatever I want, which is exciting. I definitely have tons of people in my circle. I have The Violators, my buddy Jeff who recorded Childish Prodigy—he is on tour with us now doing the sound—and plenty of other friends, too. Like my friend Mike: he played in a band called Birds of MaYeah. He’s playing with us tonight, and he plays saxophone as well as this thing called Purling Hiss.

Owl&Bear: I like the name.

Kurt Vile: Yeah, it’s awesome.

Kurt Vile - December 29, 2009 at the Howlers Coyote Café

Owl&Bear: What are your plans for 2010? More tours, festivals, et cetera?

Kurt Vile: I’m just going to keep doing it. Doing it because I love it. It’s nice to make a living and finally be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do. I have a new album coming soon; it will probably come out around the fall. That’s what we are shooting for.

Owl&Bear: How much material do you have?

Kurt Vile: I have plenty. Even with Childish Prodigy, I had been sitting on that and holding out for the right label. Some of the songs go back two or even three years. I shopped it around slowly, hyped it up, and got to put out Constant Hitmaker, which caused a little buzz. I got other small offers and started giving out more of my home recordings. I had so much backlog that I’d either released myself on CD-R or already had in the vault. So I just gave those labels that older stuff. I was actually just thinking today my song “My Sympathy”—that’s on my Mexican Summer record from 2003—it’ll soon be seven years old. People love that Kurt Vile. It’s not that I can’t play it now, but that was my 23-year-old voice and now I’m pushing thirty; I will actually turn thirty on the last show on this tour.

Owl&Bear: Let’s talk about your songwriting process. You have a interesting approach and delivery. Is it a spur-of-the-moment type of thing?

Kurt Vile: Not spur-of-the-moment so much. Once in a while, there is a tune like “Red Apples”, which is also on the Mexican Summer record, where I just had a few lines in my head and I was finger-picking this tune I happened to be in; I hit record and that was spur-of-the-moment. I just figure out chords and progression and slowly add to it, every once in a while a couple of lyrics pop up, maybe the punch line of the song. I start in the middle and work around it, and over time I fine-tune it.

Owl&Bear: Your song “Heart Attack” is a favorite of mine from Childish Prodigy. Is there a story behind it?

Kurt Vile: It’s pretty loose, but not like stream of consciousness. There is a rhyme scheme for sure. That song is an example of where I just came up with a heart attack line and worked around it. It has a kind of emotional feeling to it. It’s about love and anxiety, and about being human, just sitting there thinking, “What is going on here?” (laughs). I don’t think too hard about the song being about a certain person. I like the idea of it being open to interpretation so that anyone can relate.

Owl&Bear: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Kurt Vile: There are so many. Townes Van Zandt. I love Joni Mitchell; I’m obsessed with her right now. I love Suicide. I also love all the greats: Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, and The Fall. I got way into Ariel Pink in 2005, as well. He really inspired me for a long time. He is just so off-the-wall, but has these obviously catchy pop tunes. He just goes for it.

Kurt Vile - December 29, 2009 at the Howlers Coyote Café

Owl&Bear: You’re currently performing live with The Violators. How did your relationship with them come to be?

Kurt Vile: Well, I used the The Violators name starting in 2003. At the time, it was my cousin on drums and another kid, Jay, on bass. That was when I had just moved back from Boston, where I’d lived for 2 years. I moved back to Philly and met Adam first: he’s the frontman for The War on Drugs. He also played in my band, and then after a while, I jammed in his band. For a while, we were just a duo. Then, my buddy Michael Johnson joined on drums, and we named it “The Violators”. Then, Jesse joined as we were recording Childish Prodigy. I liked the way he played guitar, and he is good on saxophone. And finally Mike Zeng joined.

Owl&Bear: What are you listening to right now, new or old?

Kurt Vile: Joni Mitchell: Blue; Swell Maps: Trip to Marineville; Eat Skull: Wild and Inside; Suicide: The Second Album, and Blonde on Blonde. But definitely Joni Mitchell would be number one right now.

Owl&Bear: Finally, and perhaps the most important question you will ever be asked: if your music could be any animal, mythical or real, what animal would your music be?

Kurt Vile (laughing): A FUCKING COUGAR, DUDE!

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