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Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 30th September, 2013 10:12AM

It was recently announced that Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Kurt Vile will play Laneway Festival in Auckland at the end of next January. Vile followed up that news by sharing a mix tape of songs that influenced him during the writing process for Waking on a Pretty Daze, his latest and critically acclaimed album. In his own words he "worked hard on it like a total dork, hah… I didn’t just throw it together", and chatting to him down the line from his sound check in Cincinnati his fastidious, obsessive knowledge of and dedication to all things music is pretty clear. He's surprisingly self-deprecating, with a charming, sarcastic sense of humour employed mainly avoid probing questions about himself as both a musician and person. Ask him anything about music more generally - like including Gary Numan on his mix tape, for example - and his tone and pace change into this kind of chilled-out giddiness, which considering his sonic output makes perfect sense.

Hey Kurt, how are you?

I’m good thanks, how you doing?

I’m good thanks. What are you up to at the moment?

We just finished sound checking in Cincinnati – we’re doing a mini run of shows. We just played Pittsburg and we’re about to play a festival in Cincinnati, and then tomorrow night we’re heading to Illinois.

How’s the tour going?

It’s going really fine.

I wanted to start by discussing the pretty interesting news that, a few months ago, you were giving the keys to the city of Philadelphia and thrown a parade?

Yeah it was nice, it was an honour. It was a little unexpected and I just took it – what am I going to say, no haha?

Haha, of course not. What was their incentive for giving you keys to the city?

I don’t really know...but basically they wanted me to play in City Hall and they just decided to recognise my work I guess. I think a lot of people move to New York or L.A, and they just wanted to show some appreciation or recognition for the fact that I hadn’t done that. Basically it was just the ultimate publicity stunt...haha, no I’m just kidding.

You have chosen to stay in Philadelphia and you’ve lived there for a really long time. How has that city influenced your songwriting and work?

It just does. It’s my history and my roots and I’ve grown as a person and and artist here. You can’t not be at least subliminally and oftentimes not so subliminally influenced by your surroundings. There’s so much history in Philly and that combines with my own history, too. I have so many memories just by looking around and that’s inspiring.

Is there a music community or music scene to speak of in Philadelphia at the moment?

Yeah there definitely is. There are friends that I’ve made along the way who are really important to me musically. There’s a strong underground scene around Siltbreeze Records, and there are really important musicians here. There was this guitarist called Jack Rose who unfortunately passed away recently, but he is a super example of a Philly guy who is an incredible guitar player. There are a bunch of bands that are phenomenal here too like Purling Hiss or something like that.

You have a family in Philadelphia and you describe yourself as a homebody in interviews. Do you find it hard to balance the demands of your career with having a family?

You constantly have to figure it out, and it's never easy. But I think if you’re pushing the envelope or you don’t want to do the same thing every day, then you’re always going to have to try and find a balance. Ultimately it’s really rewarding because music is what I do naturally and it’s what I love, and I’m so lucky to have a family, too, and that’s a real kind of deep love – having kids that I took part in making, and getting to watch them grow up. But it's a pretty good lifestyle: you’re really busy for a while and all of a sudden you’re chilling out for months, as opposed to working 9-5 with two weeks of vacation. I definitely prefer this.

You mentioned your family, and that getting to watch your kids grow up is an amazing thing. Those experiences must have had a profound impact on both your world outlook and your creative output right?

Sure, having kids changes your perspective. I’m not saying everybody should have kids but speaking for myself and my wife, I think I have a lot more meaning to my life than I did when I didn’t have kids.

I’ve been reading interviews with you in which you talk about what success as a musician means to you, and also how success in the music industry has changed over the years? What does achieving success in your career mean to you?

I mean I want to be more successful all the time, commercially-speaking, but I also want to be able to do the music I’m making and not think too much about selling out or anything like that. It just works itself out; to begin with I was kind of coasting and now I think I’m on the right track and I’m happy about that. Ultimately success is making a living and supporting my family and I’m good.

A few days ago you released a mix tape of songs that were influential to you when wrote your latest album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. A lot of the songs that were on the mix tape seemed like natural inclusions, but there were a few surprises, particularly Gary Numan’s ‘Our Friends Electric’ and a Depeche Mode single. What drew you to those single?

I definitely really dig synth music and they're both examples of really beautiful, melodic synth music with lush tones. It’s super poppy and driving and because of that, hypnotic. It’s like a jam you discover and you play it over and over again – such hypnotic, trance-y pop. Like ‘Our Friends Electric’ is like seven minutes long but it’s just so addictive. I’m a sucker for eighties stuff like that and those two are just exceptionally beautiful songs to me.

You are about to release a deluxe edition of Wakin on a Pretty Daze and an EP It’s a Big World Out There (and I’m Scared). You wrote the songs that appear on this EP while you were writing Wakin on a Pretty Daze, yeah?

I mean more or less – that’s what the press release says anyway. Songs like 'NRA Reprise', I really like because it's raw but with very meticulous finger-picking, and it’s deep and dark. We tried to add all these other instruments to it but at the end of the day I just kept it with guitar and bass and this drum machine because it's so raw, in that kind of Bob Dylan way where you don’t need all this other stuff to make it meaningful. And then there’s this other song, 'The Ghost of Freddie Roach' that was actually recorded back before all the heavy recording for Wakin happened, but you’ve gotta say something in the press haha. There’s a single version of 'Never Run Away' with a really cool synth part that hasn’t been released for real yet, and there’s also early version instrumental stuff that’s pretty psychedelic.

Is there anything that binds the EP together? A sound or an emotion that made you compile these particular songs together?

Yeah I always think about that. There were other songs that didn’t make it onto the EP, just like these songs didn’t quite make it onto the record, you know, and that’s the beauty of sitting on material that you know is really good. I feel like when you’re younger you’re so antsy to get it all out, but as you get older you’re happy to wait and know that it will eventually come out in the right way. You just need to wait until you have the right songs that work together, and that’s quite a fun process. If it needs something you fill in the blanks with an experiment in the moment, stuff like that.

And what made you decide to call It's A Big World (And I’m Scared)?

Oh yeah that’s right I forgot about that…on Wakin all of the songs are pretty long. The song ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’ was a song I wasn’t going to put on the record because I felt there were just too many long songs, so there’s actually just a bunch more verses to that song that are on the extended version which is on the EP. 'A Big World (And I’m Scared)’ is one of the lines in the extended version of ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’ that verse that you have not yet heard.

Why did you pull it out and pick it as the title for the title?

Again, I didn’t know I was going to do that and I just realised it worked. It worked to have those three verses in the record and then it just came to me – I knew I was supposed to put out an EP and I put things in, took them out and that just popped into my head one day and I had to listen to it again and include it. It works as a line and all the lyrics are slightly ominous, a little darker, a little more depressing.



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