Kurt Vile: reluctant indie icon
The Philadelphia-based songwriter talks about influences, songwriting and why it's worth having a sense of humor.
On the backdrop of today's synth-heavy indie scene, Kurt Vile is a bit like that '72 Chevelle in his video for "Pretty Pimpin." Sure, there's no GPS, but where else do you get a wood-paneled 8-track player?
Amid the 80s nostalgia of bands such as M83 and Grimes, his warm, guitar-driven production could be mistaken for something from the 70s or the 90s— but the songs themselves couldn't be mistaken for anyone other than Kurt Vile.
Vile's guitar playing is pretty much a stand-in for his whole persona: at first it may sound effortless, even sloppy, but in fact it's careful and complex. His most recent album, 2015's "b'lieve i'm goin down..." expands that sound with banjo, piano and keys.
With a Saturday, Aug. 27 show set for Lancaster's Chameleon Club, Vile took a break from touring with his backing band, The Violators, to talk songwriting, influences and why it's worth having a sense of humor. The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Sometimes your songs sound effortless, almost like they were written on the fly. But I suspect a lot of hard work may be hidden behind that sound. Is that effortless sound something you strive for?
A: Ultimately I want it to sound casual and real— organic, basically. Sometime it takes a lot of work to not be tripped out or uptight. I’d definitely say my recording process is not laid back though.
Q: There's also, in my opinion, a subtle humor to your songwriting. What role does humor play in your music, and why?
A: Well that’s just part of who I am and who I want to hang out with: sort of funny and on the side of stupid humor. A little dumb. I just think it’s important. The world is so messed up in so many ways, but it’s also funny and beautiful. Some people get hung up on one side. It’s easy to get too sad, and it makes sense to be. There’s all kinds of things you can reach for. I just try to make people feel – sure, in some ways, I want them to feel happy. I want people to feel a lot of things at once.”
Q: Can you name a song by another artist that makes you feel that way?
A: "Sam Stone" by John Prine, all the way flash-forward to "Long Monday" (also by Prine). They're both beautiful songs with sad melodies. All kinds of heavy stories, but makes me just melt with every emotion.
Q: Are there things you like about playing a smaller venue like the Chameleon Club?
A: I used to go there all the time. It’s gonna be nostalgic for me. I saw Soul Coughing there— that was hilarious. In my head when I saw Chameleon Club, it was pretty big. It reminded me of the Trocadero. I would say it’s a medium-sized venue in my mind, and I just played Hollywood Bowl the other day, and that seats 15,000 people.
Q: I know you've said J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. has been one of your music idols. Who might be some artists you've learned from or who have shaped your sound?
A: I tour with J, and he’s amazing. He’s a rock and indie rock legend. My drummer, Kyle Spence, has played with him. We have a lot of parallels. I learned a lot from him and from Kim Gordon (from Sonic Youth), who is also my friend. I love John Prine as well. All these people are heroes. I’ve always been kind of a fanboy in that way. I definitely – we toured when J's solo album came out – and I was in J’s song, “Alone,” a really awesome three-chord-type jam. Through osmosis, I was writing a lot of songs on "Wakin on a Pretty Daze" that has lots of J-isms.
Q: And yet, in some ways, at 36-years-old, you could already be seen as an indie rock icon for the next generation.
A: I actually feel — I know I’m on an indie label and stuff, but I don’t feel that way. I was that kid. I was trying to get a CD to Thurston Moore (from Sonic Youth) when I was a kid. But I don’t feel like I’m an indie rocker. I strive to just be almost like a modern classic rock. I think it’s a little different.
Q: You're a guitar player, but your most recent album has a greater variety of instruments on it. What role will guitar play in your next wave of songs?
A: Guitar has always been a big part of who I am, but now I’ve always had chops and soloed. During "Wakin on a Pretty Daze" I was really into guitar playing. I’ve been shredding a lot more, so I think this new record is going to be more of a guitar record.
Q: Should we expect a new album soon?
A: I have more than enough material for a new album. We’re going in after this tour, in September. This time I’m planning on staying close to home, the northern East Coast. I like the idea of being closer. I feel like I just took that to the limit, going to California to record. I like the idea of being close to my roots.
Q: I read some random thing online, said you worked for two years as a forklift driver before you got noticed as an artist, and those were some tough times. What advice might you have for young artists who are working on their music but just feel like nobody is paying attention?
A: I think you just gotta do it. Put out physical copies of it. Make artwork pretty. Because everything right now is virtual. Just pretend that somebody is actually putting your stuff out, and people aren’t going to be able to ignore that you’re doing something great, if you are doing something great. Don’t wait around for someone to pay attention to you.
If you go
What: Kurt Vile and The Violators
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27
Where: Chameleon Club, 223 N. Water St., Lancaster
More info: chameleonclub.net