There aren’t many artists, age 38, making new music that I like, and that’s because there aren’t many artists age 38 making new music at all. That’s getting to the age where only the true legends push through — your Joanna Newsoms, your Gucci Manes, your Beyoncés. Your Kurt Viles! By this point, an artist’s body of work has gone through movements, inventions, re-inventions, etc. etc., with stories and subplots contained within and across, all the more rewarding for fans.
Kurt Vile’s new album, Bottle It In, is his seventh, and you could say it’s funnier and sharper played and more instrumentally expansive than any of his previous work — or, you could say it’s in keeping exactly with the hard-to-pin-down musician we’ve come to know over the years, going back to his first home-recorded CDr’s.
When we had the chance to talk recently, I picked up on a few threads that have come to matter most to me about his work: his enduring connections with lesser known Philly artists, his sense of humor, the “pop” elements of his music, and his family.
I just have to say, I can’t stop singing “One Trick Ponies.”
That's definitely the pop song.
It has so many of your signatures throughout it. It opens with the "Whoop!"
It's got a "Aw shit."
I don’t think anyone else in rock ad-libs like you do.
Thank you. I like to come in there, in the moment, when I'm stepping up to the mic, and ideally, if you're feeling it, you turn into a persona, an extension of yourself. A larger version of yourself. You gotta differentiate. I got the lyrics, but there's all kinds of things you could say in between. I'm all about that.
Your persona is crystal clear on this record, down to the sly smile on the cover.
I did a whole photo shoot for the record and none of them felt like the cover, then we did a last-minute photo shoot with this girl who was an intern at Rob Schnapf’s studio, and she caught that quintessential snarl. The snarl and all those things. Then we surrounded it with the rainbow box, made it hazy, wore it in a little bit, and it worked out.
There’s so much humor in this album. Do you take yourself less seriously in songwriting now than you used to?
I take myself plenty seriously, but I'm proud of the jokes and stuff. The style of writing where lyrics trail off into another line, things get psychedelic of funny, or you almost say, 'My left nut," but you say, "My left nevermind." But it's never a goof like I don't care. It's being psychedelic and/or funny, and serious combined, 'cause that's basically what the world is. When people are overly dramatic, it's my pet peeve. Sometimes people are just only dramatic and never funny at all. They take themselves so seriously. I'm not a fan of that kind of music. But that's me being a snob, too, because not everybody can be funny. So I’m proud of it.
“Well, I can fingerpick better than Neil Young.”
This feeling of pop is elsewhere on the album, too, like on the simple harmonics melody on “Hysteria.”
I like pop music, my own version of it. I like the idea of having a song or more that becomes like a pop hit. It wouldn't be pop like, drum machine modern pop, but I could still make a pop song. Like Tom Petty, somewhere between “Learning to Fly” and “Heart of Gold.” Some kind of hit like that. One day I will.
Clearly, you're a man who loves Neil Young. He had clearer country influences in his music than you do, though.
Well, I can fingerpick better than Neil Young. I'm just kidding, no, I love Neil Young. We have a different style of fingerpicking. I don't even know if he really finger picks, but he does like a strum with his hand. Anyway, I have a style of fingerpicking that could be interpreted as a country roots kinda thing, but it's more folk. Yeah, I'm influenced by country music, but I never made a straight up country recording or anything. That'd be weird.
Honestly, my music is more and more in the roots all the time. But those kinda things usually only I notice, and it definitely comes off still rock & roll. It's just music nerd and subliminal thing.
On the flip side, you’re playing European dates with the great folk musician Meg Baird.
You know her?
I don't know her personally, but she has always been one of my favorite artists.
How about Jack Rose?
Of course. I love that you used to work together, and basically came out at the same time.
I literally think Meg Baird solo — I mean her band Espers is great and all, but Meg Baird in the purest sense, solo, in that first solo record and her other ones as well… Meg and Jack Rose are like the two purest folk artists, in the forms of modern folk. R.I.P. to Jack Rose. She sings backup on my song “Baby's Arm” too, in the end that's Meg. I love Meg so much.
In your career, you kind of “played the game” more than she did.
Well, no, not just that. It's not just that, but, well, I put out a lot of records. My first album, honestly, was called Constant Hitmaker, I was trying to make the idea of hit songs. I knew they wouldn't be hits in the charts, but you got “Freeway,” you got “Breathin' Out,” you got “Don't Get Cute,” all those songs are pop songs.
And “Pretty Pimpin'” is a pop song. I just mean, since the beginning, I've thought about how to get a song — I know the charts are different now because of the internet and et cetera, so I don't really know how it all works, but if you just think about the music itself. I like the idea of writing a pop hit.
But pop for me is a loose term. But like a hit song, you know? Catchy fucking, super catchy. A little more than folk, but folk-tinged. It's always gonna be folk-tinged. I'm getting better at electric guitar and solos these days, but I still think of an acoustic guitar. If I had to have one instrument, I'd have my little Martin acoustic guitar and I'd sit on my couch, and that's how I really get lost and write songs. That's always where it starts kinda.
The phrase “constant hitmaker,” — I know you’re a fan of Tom Scharpling’s radio show The Best Show, and you even sing about it on the album. There's a great overlap between calling yourself the best even though right now you’re the underdog.
Oh, that's true. That's why we get along so well. Me and Tom are very similar in that way, where we want to wipe the floor with everybody. You get in the zone. One of his headlines is “Steamrollin' Chumps.” Just steamrollin' chumps. Steamrollin' chumps.
“Just steamrollin’ chumps.”
As someone’s who has followed your career for years, I love the moments on the album when you talk about your daughters, like you’re being scared on a plane and comforted when you hear them. You’re secretly a very heartwarming artist.
Thanks. I feel that though. I feel those lines a lot. I really would get chills listening back to “Cold Was The Wind,” when that part happened 'cause it's very real, you know? My being terrified in the air, and having to go away, and then while I'm on the plane writing that, and then I say the line about my daughter, you know? Spin her around, blah blah blah, and then I listen back with the harmonies and stuff, and I'm like, "Fuck." Basically that song, “Cold Was The Wind,” and “Bottle It In,” I got the gist of both of those songs at the same time. When I heard them back, they were so different and special.
Do you feel like you're in a good zone trying to balance work and family?
Things are about to crazy, which is always tough at first. I'm gonna be gone for a while at the start of this tour, but we actually did just go on a family vacation. We went to Aruba, which I haven't been there since literally my honeymoon. This time we brought back two kids, you know? We stayed in the same hotel and it was two weeks just chillin' on the beach, minimal movement, and it was so needed. And so, I do feel in a good place. They’re definitely gonna meet me out in Australia when I'm there in April again. It's gonna be my daughter Willa's birthday. There's always things to do, and we'll work out what to do in between. I mean, honestly, it was crazier before. I'm still taking a lot of gigs, but I remember Smoke Ring was literally like, “Take every gig that you possibly can 'cause you just gotta be out there,” and it's almost sort of the same, but you can control it a little more now. Control the breaks.
I got sensitive for a minute about doing press just 'cause I was just on the road for so long then they're like, "Oh, well, we want you to go do all this press.” I like doing it now at this point, but you get overwhelmed for a minute. You play all the gigs while you really physically can, even if it's freaking you out, 'cause maybe if it's freaking you out now, it'll really freak you out later, so you better grease the wheel now. So you can hide later if you have to.