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Summer Stars: Kurt Vile

by John Adamian on July 25, 2014

By most measures, Kurt Vile is in the midst of a hectic few months. Before fall kicks in, he’ll clock in headlining dates in Europe and North America, festival appearances on both sides of the Atlantic and an isolated show in Iceland. Plus, he plans to enter the studio to record a new album in between. But Vile, 34, remains supremely mellow, unstressed by the rush of activity.

“I’m psyched,” he says. “There are more holes in there than there have been at other times.” And the near-constant activity will get Vile’s band, the Violators, in shape. “I assume we’ll be oiled-up in some form.” And plus, they’ll get to hang out in Iceland for a bit.

The Philly-based singer and songwriter has just come off a frantic stretch. He had been recording with friends in Venice Beach, Calif., and then flew to Athens, Ga. to record a new “heavy and dark” tune with engineer/drummer Kyle Spence. A recent addition to the Violators, Spence has provided the battering-ram drumming for notably combustive acts like Harvey Milk and Dinosaur Jr. So Spence’s contributions to the Violators might up the pounding-rock factor.

“I’ve recorded three dark songs in the last week and a half,” says Vile.

Vile also completed more than two weeks of European solo dates this past spring—just his voice, guitar, banjo and some effects pedals. He cemented some older songs on stage—and in hotel rooms—and he worked out germinal bits, scraps of lyrics and the DNA of new riffs.

“You can slip into autopilot so easily, especially touring with a band,” says Vile. “The solo tour took me out of the element. It came at the right time. It also just forced me to be alone with my guitar again, so I got to fine-tune all these songs and write a bunch of songs.”

Some artists can’t write songs while traveling—the motion, the new places and the disrupted routine just stifle creativity. Vile is the opposite.

“If I stay in one spot for too long, I think too much and things become contrived,” he says. “I think I [write more on the road] than even at home.”

Vile grew up as one of 10 kids in Philadelphia. Now, he’s married and is the father of two girls, ages one and four, and his life off the road might be as hectic as life on tour. His family could affect his next record, which is planned for a 2015 release. While he was making his previous two full-lengths— 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo and 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze—Vile’s wife was expecting one of their daughters. The impending family additions increased the pressure during the recording process.

“The last two records, I had a kid on the way; maybe that’s why I don’t feel so under the gun this time,” says Vile.

Productivity is his mode. Last year, he not only released Wakin on a Pretty Daze, but also two EPs—It’s a Big World Out There (And I am Scared) and Jamaica Plain, an archival release of a collaboration with the band Sore Eros, recorded more than 10 years ago. The challenge, for Vile, is maintaining the right mix of downtime, touring, writing time and studio time. “It’s been nonstop, and once in a while, I freak out but it’s more chill now,” he says. “It’s all needed, though. I can’t stop for too long because I won’t have full perspective to go back and keep working on my music.”

As he sings on “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” off of the last full-length, “When I’m away out there, I wanna go home/ When I am home, my head stays out there.”

Without immediately pointing to clear antecedents, Vile has taken elements of classic rock and subverted them—stripping away some of the bombast while injecting vulnerability and ambiguity. His music gestures in all kinds of directions, deceptively covering its tracks. It’s simple and yet thick with layers. There’s often a hypnotic swirl of delay, concealing or obscuring the careful fingerpicking. Sometimes Vile sounds like Tom Petty jamming with My Bloody Valentine. His lyrics do double duty, conveying dislocation and anxiety but with a drawn-out, enigmatic comic edge; his singing seems off-the-cuff until you catch his elaborate melisma—listen to him stretch seven syllables out of the word “shame” on the same song.

Lately, Vile says that he and his new-ish drummer have “bonded together over
this unhealthy Steely Dan obsession—not that our record is going to sound like Steely Dan.” For that next record, Vile expects to work at a bunch of different studios without a set producer, returning to his early, prolific DIY approach. “I’m just wanting to get back to my roots for a little while,” he says. “I feel like at this point in my life, I’m just kind of taking control of the situation.”

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