The beach was almost empty by the time Kurt Vile ambled up to the lone chair in the sand. The closer of a daylong bootleg festival at Ft. Tilden’s seaside state park, he mumbled through a few songs, barely audible over the soft thrum of the ocean. The small remainders of the early New York summer crowd scooted close, staring at the top of his shaggy head as he sang gently toward his feet. But catch the Philly-based rocker at a sweaty basement show and he’ll look you right in the eye and crack a brief joke before launching into a pack of gloriously sloppy, psychedelic anthems. He’ll mutter his lyrics through gritted teeth and then let them out in a burst, not in anger so much as it just being the perfect place to yell. Other times, his voice drawls out a drunken creep or pushes past ragged vocal chords in a madman’s howl, as if he’s been warped by endless nights kept company only by thousands of records, a box of joints and his thoughts.
Since 2008, Vile has made music compulsively. He’s recorded with psych-dub outfit Blues Control, played guitar in War on Drugs, and simultaneously cut his first solo record Constant Hitmaker while releasing a throng of solo 7-inches and 12-inch mini-albums. His latest full-length, Childish Prodigy, his first for Matador, mixes the quiet, folky moments of the beach show with the barreling mess of The Violators, his scruffy band of weirdoes who seem to exist just to back him up. “I wouldn’t call it Kurt Vile and The Violators unless it’s those four dudes,” Vile says, before comparing them to Neil Young’s infamous backing band. “Crazy Horse is a feeling, and that’s how The Violators are. They’re all freaks and music fanatics. Masters of their domain.”
Despite his expansive jams, Vile has been somewhat mistakenly lumped in with the crew of lo-fi bands currently dominating much of indie rock, likely because he released an album on lo-fi leaning label Woodsist. “I feel like my music has always been its own thing,” he says. “I guess it could be coined lo-fi—which is kind of hip—but I never really realized it was lo-fi. They’re home recordings.” Nevertheless, Vile has amassed a dedicated following, even though he is only vaguely aware that people care about his music. He’s a polite enigma who doesn’t make a point of being hard to place, but seems that way regardless. “With Constant Hitmaker, I was like, This [sounds] so old but I don’t care because there’s a place for all of it,” he says. “It’s not like it sounds dated, it doesn’t really matter when you hear it.” Nowhere is this more true than on Prodigy standout “Freak Train,” a seven-minute chugging rocker that ends in an explosive saxophone scrawl, with Vile yelping Riding on a freak train/TRAIN TRAIN TRAIN over and over until time stops just long enough for his next song to begin.
Stream: Kurt Vile, Childish Prodigy