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Speaking Of Banjos: Kurt Vile Explains the Universe

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Interview by Chris Ruen

Photography by Dorothy Hong

Though the spot in the venn diagram where “lo-fi,” “psych,” and “bedroom” meet up has been effectively mobbed over the past couple of years, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has been graced with a talent for differentiation. While many artists shyly hide their disaffected voices below layers of reverb, Vile proudly hollers through the aural decay. Where others mask their casually strummed guitars and chord changes under oceans of delay pedal, Vile uses delay to turn his exact finger picking from folk traditionalism into chiming transcendence. His amalgamation of folk, blues, rock, shoegaze, noise, psych and pop caught fire in 2008 with the release of Constant Hitmaker (Woodsist) and its exuberant lead-off track, “Freeway.” The track suggested a throwback to classic rock and Vile’s confident, assured, drawled vocals drew surprisingly appropriate comparisons to Tom Petty. The success of Constant Hitmaker culminated in Vile signing with the Indie Rock icon, Matador Records. His Major-Indie debut, Childish Prodigy, was released in 2009. While easily one of the most solid rock albums of the year, critical reaction was uneven. Some loved it, others seemed to articulate the burnout and backlash which so often accompanies hype.

I met up with Mr. Vile along the Brooklyn waterfront in Williamsburg at East River State Park, stuck between rising residential towers to the south and industry to the north. We sat by the river’s edge, looking out to Manhattan. As water lapped up on piles of driftwood and gusty winds blew north from New York harbor, we discussed Vile’s history, new album and tour. The night before, Vile  headlined at Europa, a Polish night club, and after the interview he was heading to the Brooklyn Masonic Temple to sound check for a dream show - filling an opening slot for the legendary Big Star.

How was Europa?

Europa was cool. One of the Violators, Jesse Turbo, wasn’t around. And me and Adam Granduciel (War on Drugs) have been playing together forever, so we just dug up all these songs from our past. And Mike Zeng, our drummer—

Great drummer.

Yeah, he’s awesome. So we were like, “Mike, we’re just going to flow with it.” And he just went along. It was great.

You excited for the Big Star show tonight?

Oh, I’m excited.

Were you a Big Star fan growing up?

I love them now. But I didn’t listen to them when I was a kid, really. I got into them over the past couple of years.

I read that your dad played a lot of blues records when you were growing up.

Yeah, mainly bluegrass and old-timey records. One record I always talk about is a Cajun record by Rusty and Doug Kershaw. It’s like an old Louisiana band. And actually Rusty Kershaw, the guitar player, ended up playing with Neil Young on On The Beach - which is crazy. But mainly, my dad would play Flatt Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley...stuff like that. Later on he played Charlie Patton and that stuff grabbed me the most.

I’m curious if being exposed to that music influenced your style of finger picking. How did that develop?

The first instrument my dad bought me was a banjo, which I treated like a guitar at first because I was young and into rock and indie rock. I did have some lessons, so I learned some picking patterns, but it wasn’t until later that I got into finger picking, John Fahey-type stuff. A friend of mine, John Newman, was always into old blues and bluegrass. For three years he taught me basic finger picking. You start with the thumb, then add a finger, then add another one. So it was just listening to John Fahey and Charlie Patton, and because all that stuff was kind of in my DNA growing up, I can kind of tap into that now.

Actually my next record will have a couple banjo songs, at least. The banjo has all these overtones. It’s this really beautiful instrument and I feel like you could really psych it out in a different way, more so than a guitar.

Almost more like a sitar.

Yeah, I really get zoned out when I pick up my banjo and write a few songs on it.

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Speaking of banjos, do you listen to the Monks at all?

I’ve listened to the Monks a little bit. I have their one CD. Friends of mine like them a lot. They use a banjo with a fuzz petal, but what I’m thinking uses open picking. It’s more ethereal...or something. I don’t know.

In interviews you’ve talked a lot about Pavement and other Matador bands that you listened to growing up. What bands connected with you and stuck with you the most?

Definitely, Pavement was one of my favorite bands. Before that I liked Smashing Pumpkins like anybody else, but then I got into Pavement, early Beck, and Sonic Youth, a lot of that Indie, Drag City stuff. But I think Pavement was, in some ways, my gateway drug for Indie Rock. Also Beck. He was mainstream, but still very weird. I mean, Mellow Gold, I don’t know if you’d call it overrated or underrated, but it has some of my favorite songs. That song “Black Hole,” you know? A lot of those bands put out B-sides and stuff, which was exciting for me because I was a fanatic. Silver Jews, I love. That’s what I mean when I say Pavement was the gateway. I got the Hey Drag City compilation and I was like, “there’s all these bands I never heard of.” I’d have to order them, and then you get into Palace or Silver Jews or Smog. All those people put out a ton of records, and it was accessible to someone who made music. It wasn’t like they could all play really great necessarily. Some could play better than others, like Beck or Sonic Youth or Pavement, but those other people were making weird songs and kids could do it, too.

Your early albums—God Is Saying This To You, Hunchback EP, Constant Hitmaker—when did you write that material originally? Was it years ago?

The thing is, I was putting out CD-Rs as I went along and I wouldn’t always be recording. Just because I was putting out these CD-Rs didn’t mean it was all my new material. I’d just go through my best stuff. I feel like I’ve always done it where one song could be from 2 years ago, one is from right now, one is from 5 years ago, and I compile them in that way. Like a mixtape or something. I was always serious about it. It’s not much different now except that by the time of Constant Hitmaker—I found somebody to put that out—I just had all these recordings. And I had that studio recording of “Freeway.”

Was that your first studio recording?

Yeah, “Freeway” was basically my first real studio recording. So that was the beginning. And then that album became like a best-of, sort of, but leaning toward the psychedelic pop stuff, kind of my later material. More realised and more psychedelic-influenced. But when Constant Hit Maker got—some people liked it and got excited about it—I got asked about the Mexican Summer thing (God is Saying This to You). I put on really early songs, like from my first CD-R. I put them on there along with songs I had just recorded. So it always varies.

So they’re a mish-mash, these releases?

Yeah, they’re all mish-mashes. The only one that’s not is the Hunchback EP. Most of that was recorded around the same time, sort of like the new record, Childish Prodigy. Most of that is (with Producer) Jeff Zeigler and then there were two home recordings, “Blackberry Song” and “Overnight Religion.” they’re from back in the day with Adam. So it’s kind of always been the same thing. I’ll probably dip into a few recordings I had that didn’t make the cut, or that I just didn’t fully flesh out.

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When you started recording with Jeff Zeigler, did you know you were making an entire album or were you just casually recording a couple songs here and there?

No, I knew I was going to do some kind of bigger psychedelic studio album. It was just the next step. I recorded with Brian McTear, and he’s a good engineer,  but is pretty straight hi-fi, pop. Our live shows were getting more electric, more rocking. So naturally we had to capture a more electric thing. And also around that time Jeff was available.  We’d try a new song out live or play a string of shows and go into the studio. It was really fun that way.

What’s been the most surprising thing since you signed to Matador?

I guess the main surprise is that I’ve landed this record deal with Matador at all—cause they really were the coolest label I could think of. There was other interest from labels, but I didn’t necessarily like playing that game. It was cool that people were interested, but I didn’t feel like I fit into some of these other labels that were interested. And then finally I was just fed up. I knew we were sending Childish Prodigy to them. I knew they had seen us play, and we knew that some people were fans of Constant Hitmaker. Finally we saw all the Matador people at a New York show when another label was there to see me. And I was like, “Fuck all this industry bullshit. I just want to know if Matador is interested or not, and if not I’ll go somewhere else.” And once we approached them directly—my friend, my manager really did it—they were like, “Definitely.” Everything happened pretty fast right after that.

Have you been paying attention to press or reviews?

Yeah. (laughing) But I’m at a good stage now. At first, a good review would give me a boost, and then there’d be a shitty one and it’d get me real low. Then there was anticipation and anxiety towards something like a Pitchfork review.

I thought their review was off the mark, by the way.

Yeah, it’s cool. I feel like, not to even cry about it, but I think that certain people listen to different kinds of music and they just don’t know where someone’s coming from. But that’s all right. It’s no big deal. At first you think, “I want to get to this stage,” and then when you do, you freak out. Now I know there’s no BS on any level. I don’t feel any pressure. Nobody’s saying I’m better than I am, and if anybody says I’m not good I know there’s a lot of people who think otherwise. I feel confident. I can just keep doing what I want to do.

One funny thing I noticed looking at reviews was that some people would write, “I wish this were more lo-fi and rough around the edges like the home recordings,” and other people would say, “This is too unfocused and underproduced.“ You realize people just have different tastes.

Yeah. Well, I will say that it wasn’t unfocused at all.

But, if a critic is expecting some slick rock album…

Well, also I had to hype it up. I was like, “It’s my Loveless!” What else was I supposed to do? That was another stage. But it is what it is. People hear “Freeway” and they think it’s this tight pop record, but in reality we’re recording rock songs in between working full-time.

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Something bothered me when I attended the Childish Prodigy album release show at Mercury Lounge. After you played “Freeway,” 15 or 20 people immediately walked out. What’s your relationship with the song at this point?

I still like it. I like that people get excited when it starts up. Sometimes we play it with a backing track. We can play it different ways. The original version is the acoustic one at the end of Constant Hitmaker.

I love that acoustic version.

Cool, thank you. I don’t get tired of it necessarily, but I will be like, “I’m not playing that tonight.” We don’t feel like we have to play it. We didn’t play it last night.

How has the tour been?

Really good and fun, first time the full band could come along. We had kind of a shitty rental van and it was the first time we were all together for that long. At points it was like Lord of the Flies, everyone ready to eat each other up, and then we’re suddenly like best friends again. And we still are best friends. It was mainly 200-plus venues. Not super huge. For the most part the tour was a big success. We did the whole thing ourselves. No tour manager, no sound guy. So there was a lot of work involved, but it was fun. Great times. Our next step will be getting a sound guy. Then we can be totally professional. That’ll be great.

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Speaking Of Banjos: Kurt Vile Explains the Universe