Interview: Kurt Vile

(Originally written for Reverb1)

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After his break-through album, “Smoke Ring for my Halo,” Kurt Vile returned this year with the poppy, shimmering “Wakin on a Pretty Daze.” Reverb talked to Vile about the differences between the albums, the musical nods in his songs and possibly picking up the banjo on his next album.

Catch Kurt Vile & the Violators when they swing through Denver’s Bluebird Theater on Thursday.

How has the tour differed from that of “Smoke Ring for my Halo”?

There’s a lot of differences. The songs are more expansive and evolve every night. With “Smoke Ring,” I saw more people coming out. It was an anticipated record. “Childish Prodigy” definitely got a bunch of new fans, and this was the same thing: an anticipated record.

Maybe it’s not exactly what people were expecting. It’s a little more epic, not a pop record exactly, but I see the difference in the crowds, selling out bigger and bigger venues. There’s a steady difference every record, I would say.

Why did “Smoke Ring For My Halo” blow up so much?

The music that I was making was a psychedelic lo-fi thing that people really like, and I’m nostalgic for that. It’s not like I don’t plan on going back to my roots in one way or another. I’ve been thinking about that lately. “Childish Prodigy” was like a step up from that — raw, psychedelic at times, kinda trippy but with an edge to it.

And then [“Smoke Ring”], I don’t know. There’s a pretty side to my music and I think going in with a producer and trying to make a concise, mature record, that’s just what came out. A lot of it was just the songs, I think, like “Baby’s Arms” and “Jesus Fever.” It’s not a step-up, I don’t think, like you can’t say that record’s better than “Childish Prodigy.” I know for a fact there’s people that like the early stuff better, and I understand that. Some people like an edgy thing. [“Smoke Ring”] wasn’t me going like, ‘This is my new sound.’ It just captured moments of really pretty folk tunes with rock undertones and pop sensibility and stuff.

It was the first record I made start to finish with a label. So there was a certain mental space. And the lyrics all have this sort of cohesion. Whenever I was writing about them, maybe it was relatable, or something about it. Some people say the lyrics are dark, but those kind of people don’t understand black humor so much.

The main difference for me is the sound — the new album sounds so much brighter and conducive to rock shows and festivals.

I can definitely see that. And the vibe of the new record, it rubs off on the rest of the stuff. So “Jesus Fever,” “Ghost Town,” “Freight Train” and “Hunchback,” we expand upon them every night almost. I shouldn’t say every night, you know. Once and a while you hit a wall after you play 12 shows in a row. You gotta mix it up every once in a while or else you’re…I don’t wanna say phoning it in, cause it’s not quite that, but you play the same setlist sequence for so long, it gets tight but it passes its peak. You gotta change it up. Ideally, it’s evolving nightly.

You have two children now. Does that make you think twice about what you say, in your songs and to the media?

To a degree, yeah, sure. But I don’t think it’s very much different from what I would want to say to the press and in songs anyway. One time recently, somebody was like, ‘I know you don’t really party anymore so you say, but can you tell me your craziest drug experience in your life.’ That’s an example of something I would not want to say, thinking of my kids. (laughs)

I don’t censor myself in my lyrics. Maybe one day my daughter will wonder what something’s about a little bit, but I think it’s coded in enough of a psychedelic haze that you could say it means anything.

Who do you take cues from in your songwriting?

Right now, I’m really into Nick Cave. One of my favorite songs right now is “Stranger Than Kindness” off of “Your Funeral…My Trial.” It’s so pretty and dark and it’s like, pre-shoegaze. It has a little bit of a shoegaze thing. You know those [shoegaze] dudes were like listening to and looking to Nick Cave. The lyrics are so beautiful and dark. It’s the kind of song that makes you close your eyes and bob your head.

I think about that song and I think about how I’m going to record again. And it’s not like I’m going to rip something off, but it’s through osmosis of being influenced and just really affected by a song that doesn’t really leave you. Just in understanding the approach or something, it will sink it. Definitely not intentionally, like a blueprint for a song or anything. Not that I haven’t done that thing too, in the past.

Could you listen to your albums and remember what you were listening to at the time based off of what you heard?

Well, my song “My Best Friends Don’t Even Pass This Way,” there’s totally a “Will To Love” vibe, by Neil Young. Sometimes I’ll make a lyrical reference to a song. Like in that same song, I say, ‘You were never the right pretender,’ and that’s a line that Stevie Nicks says in “Angel” on [Fleetwood Mac’s] “Tusk.” I definitely do the nods, but again, like, I didn’t map the song “My Best Friends Don’t Pass This Way” off of “Will To Love.” You just sort of realize afterwards that it’s got that vibe.

Do you think you’ll still be touring when your 60, 70 years old, a la Bob Dylan?

I don’t see why I wouldn’t unless I became, like, deaf. I’m at that age now where I have to wear earplugs on stage. But it sounds weird when you wear them, so you take them out, and you’re like ‘Ah shit I can never not take them out again!’ That’s the one scare for a musician that plays semi-loud music.

Before you picked up the guitar, you strummed on a banjo. Do you have any interest in bluegrass or incorporating the banjo into your music again?

I totally do. Bluegrass and old-time music, I’m totally nostalgic [for] and it’s totally in my DNA and stuff. I still pick up the banjo and when I do it feels good. I don’t do it that often, but when I do I just tap right back into it.

I have a couple of banjo songs that I haven’t recorded that I plan to revisit. I tried to record ‘em for “Smoke Ring,” but it was just too early. I didn’t know John [Agnello, producer for “Smoke Ring”] enough and I was nervous. But now, I’m a new man. Nobody can scare me now.

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