Kurt Vile is one of the coolest names in alternative music. His music blends elements of folk, psychedelia, and garage rock that flows beneath one of the most unique voices of recent times. Compared occasionally to Neil Young in tone, but with lyricism that is entirely his own; dry and ironic, whilst being poignant and imagery-rich when he feels like it. In 2017 he joined up with Oz dead-pan alt-rock gun Courtney Barnett for Lotta Sea Lice, and in late 2018 Kurt released his newest album Bottle It In.
The man, the denim jacket, and the hair, are all returning to Australia soon with his touring band The Violators, and I was lucky enough to have a chat with him about all this stuff, and a bit more.
You’re coming back to Australia next month, tell us a little about that and your plans for the tour?
Mm-hmm, can’t wait! It’ll be I think the fifth time I’m there. It’ll be the Bottle It In tour, haven’t been there for that record yet. That’s what we’re there to do, perform our new record and, ah, old classics…
You’re with the Violators this time. How does it compare touring alone to with the whole band?
Alone was really fun, and special because I was also simultaneously finishing up my record with Courtney [Lotta Sea Lice]. I came early, and I think we recorded for maybe four days or something before my tour started. I went on tour and I would come to Melbourne when there were some days off and I’d go back into the studio with her. Courtney would join me on stage a couple of times, so it was like a special, courtship time… Like, new friendship. And the multi-tasking was a new accomplishment… finishing a record, like a solid record, not a half-assed record, while playing shows at night. I think it was pretty cool, it was inspiring. It’s kind of what this last record, Bottle It In, was like as well; just going out there on the road and hit a studio where possible.
I wanted to ask about the record with Courtney. How did the situation come about?
It came about because I wanted to do a song with her, like a duet… We definitely were mutual fans of each-other, so it wasn’t that far-fetched to do a song, but she was into it, and she thought ‘okay I’ll write a song too,’ and she brought a song, and then it just evolved from there. It just turned into more, it turned into a whole album organically, it was beautiful.
On the new album Bottle It In, you’ve got some pretty experimental moments on it, and you seemed to push your production style as well. What was your vision going into it and what were you trying to achieve on it that you hadn’t done on older albums?
I think I’m always trying to expand in some way. I’m either trying to make things epic or I’m trying to get them back to an organic purity, folk kind of thing, I would say, but often there’s a combination of both for a record. This one has got a lot of epic moments, but it’s still sort of stripped down, you know?
There’s experimental stuff in my earlier recordings, and I moved into a new home [while recording Bottle It In], with room, I feel like all my instruments were in storage, like all my weird keyboards and stuff, but then all of a sudden they’ve been in my house. So, when I’m home from tour I can experiment with weird keyboards or pianos etc., in a homespun kind of way that I haven’t really captured since I was recording myself solely at home like on my earliest records.
I would bring elements of that to the studio… I’ve made enough records that I have all these professional engineers I can work with, so it’s like a combination of the two worlds, colliding really.
You were just saying a lot of your earlier stuff had quite experimental stuff, but after Smoke Ring For My Halo came out, you really sort of hit another level in notoriety, and then another step after that again with B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down… do you think as you get bigger and bigger it frees you up to experiment more?
Yeah, I would say so. Childish Prodigy, a record which I’m proud of was the first Matador record, and the follow up was Smoke Ring For My Halo, so I had a couple of home-recorded records, then I had the mid-fi studio-slash-home-recorded record which was Childish Prodigy, and then I remember one of the heads of Matador, Chris Lombardi, told me ‘If you want to say something, make a statement, this would be the record to say it.’ Because that’s just the reality, really. You can put out records anyway you want, you can put them out yourself, but I guess ultimately a lot of people, and me included, want to make a record – make a statement – that connects with people. So, luckily in my own sort of humble way… I accomplished that with Smoke Ring, and I did go up a little more [with each album since] every time.
I basically can do whatever I want in my own way now. So, maybe I wasn’t thinking too much when I had a few ten-minute songs you know? I didn’t care quite as much. I mean I care about the music I’m real proud of it, but I’ve made a lot of records so this record has got a bit of both; it’s a little fragmented, a little shattered for these shattered times.
You have a really unique lyrical style that people seem to love and connect to, what inspires you to write lyrically, and did it take you a while to sort of find that voice?
I think my lyrics have always been important to me, even in my earliest records, but maybe you can’t hear the lyrics as well on the early records ’cause there’s like an echo on them (or whatever you do to make shitty recordings sound cooler). I’m always sort of evolving. I definitely stepped up my lyrics in a sort of literary kind of way. On B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, I was intentionally reading a lot, and even the way I wrote the lyrics, it looks like poetry, and I kept it as short and sweet as possible. Whereas this record is less of a poetry record and it’s almost like prose or something. Not like stream of consciousness; this record is more like talking, speaking your thoughts.
What sort of things inspire you to write the lyrics to start with?
I don’t force it at all anymore, I used to wonder, ‘Why am I not writing a lot of songs?’ I find I take it slower now, and I’m pretty relaxed. I get inspired by other music a lot, you know, sometimes I definitely reference other music in deliveries, and the rest I just wait until the lyrics come to me, or sometimes I’ll just have a joke with the band even, and it becomes a lyric. It really depends, I never know when it’s going to come. I don’t even think about it anymore
What goals do you have left in music, any boxes you want to tick?
I mean I’m always going to be making records. I’m really inspired, but I have a goal to stay home for a little bit longer when possible, and comfortably make music at home with it still sounding good. I definitely want to make another beautiful, kind of pure record in some form next. I have a lot of things in the vault so to do some sort of a KV fan club thing where I’m putting up all kinds of random things. I am going to keep doing more of the same but right now we’re in the thick of it so we’re going to be touring for the better part of another whole year. I’m living my life, I got my family, and my music, just got to keep doing it, keep sustaining it, but also in some way I want to try and relax, that’s a goal.
You mentioned your family, you’re bringing them out this time aren’t you?
Yeah, I brought them out last time, well not the solo time, the time before. They met me in New Zealand and we drove all over the south island, and then we came back to the Australia and I played one festival and then [we were] chillin’ in Melbourne, and that was great, and we drove around Australia and Tasmania. They’re going meet me, my daughter, the oldest, she’s going to turn nine out there in Australia. It’s going to be awesome, they’re coming in the middle this time, and I’m going to stick around again, and hang out.
And after the Australian tour, what’re your plans for the rest of the year?
After Australia, and a little holiday with the family there we’re going to tour Europe again, and then, we got random stuff in the states throughout the fall, those are the plans for the foreseeable future with the Violators. Then eventually I’ll just be getting back into the studio again in some form or another. More of the same, but always trying to evolve in my own way, while still sticking with my roots in some other way.
What do you think you’d be up to if you never made it in music?
Oh man, I’d probably be pretty depressed, unless I found a way to take control of my life. I had like a blue-collar upbringing. I was blue collar until I wasn’t. I never went to college, I don’t know what I would do. I’d probably be working somehow in music… or I’d just be fuckin’ miserable. Luckily, I figured it out.
And my last question, what’re three music acts you think everyone needs to be checking out at the moment?
Well, there’s plenty more than that, but the newest band I love is Big Thief, I know they have a new one comin’ out, they’re kind of a formidable band, I think they’re amazing. All of them are amazing musicians and, I forget her name, but she’s got such a great voice. I’m going to see them somewhere in Europe. And definitely the king of the festival circuit/now playing arenas, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds… unbelievable. And then, of course, you can catch Neil Young, with Promise of the real, which I saw they’re playing Europe and they’ll probably get to Australia, they still slay hard. Those are the three people that come to the top of my head when asked that question right now.
See the man and his denim jacket at Bendigo Autumn Music Festival takes place Thursday 25 April – Sunday 28 April 2019.
Written by Liam McNally
Photo by Jo McCaughey