The first rule of day drinking is that once you start, you don’t stop or else you’ll crash. Kurt Vile and I are about to violate this rule.
It’s late June in Philadelphia, and an aimless afternoon has absent-mindedly wandered into early evening at Johnny Brenda’s, a restaurant and indie-rock club in the city’s Fishtown district. Vile is something of a celebrity in these parts — a few years ago Philly declared August 28 Kurt Vile Day, in conjunction with the release of the singer-songwriter’s breakthrough 2013 LP, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. For a growing audience outside of Philadelphia, however, Vile represents the latest iteration on an otherwise moribund continuum: the artful yet unpretentious working-class rock star. Hanging out with him is like grabbing a beer with a western lowland gorilla or some other endangered species.
Vile laughs when I ask if he’s ever recognized. Not a self-deprecating laugh, but an actual laugh, which for Vile entails lots of shoulder convulsions and rapid inhaling of oxygen, like he’s watching Richard Pryor kill it after hours at the Comedy Store in 1973. But Vile is recognizable — he’s wearing cutoff jean shorts, blue and gray Adidas, and a blue T-shirt that says “Whats Up Kooks” in white block letters.1 Even with a trucker hat hung low atop tangles of long brown hair, Vile in real life looks like he does on his album covers. In 2010’s Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Alex Lifeson says the only band member who ever gets noticed in public is Geddy Lee, because only Geddy Lee looks like Geddy Lee. The 35-year-old Vile actually resembles Lee during Rush’s Moving Pictures period, and yet we’re left undisturbed in our corner booth.2
“You’ll have to tell me how that is,” Vile says, wincing, as the waitress hands me a pint of Kenzinger. For six years, from 2003 until ’09, Vile worked for Yards Brewing Company and Philadelphia Brewing Company — he bottled beer, made boxes, drove the forklift. It was Vile’s last day job before he signed to Matador, which released his third album, 2009’s Childish Prodigy. Toward the end of his employment, in full-on “screw it” mode, Vile popped open a beer on the loading docks. Since then, he’s avoided PBC brands. Vile prefers a can of Modelo Especial to the craft-oriented “nerd beer” on the menu. After meeting up for lunch down the street from the house that Vile shares with his wife, Suzanne, and two young daughters in Philadelphia’s hip Northern Liberties enclave, we switched from coffee to Mexican beer at the Redroom, Vile’s rehearsal space housed in a warehouse on the neighborhood’s outer edge. Named after the garish, burnt-orange tint of the walls — “the color of insanity,” Vile says — the Redroom is among the places where Vile made his forthcoming album, B’lieve I’m Goin Down… Vile spent about a year recording B’lieve, the longest he’s ever worked on an album. He says it took that long to chase down the unvarnished folk-rock sound in his head — a journey that took him from Philly to Athens, Georgia, to the Southern California desert to Brooklyn and back home again.
Movement stimulates his creativity — while driving to the Redroom in a roomy Dodge van he uses for touring, Vile talked about writing the verses to Wakin’s saddest and most evocative number, “Girl Called Alex,” while on tour in South America and Spain. Like B’lieve, Wakin was recorded, nomadic-style, in several studios on both coasts.
Motion is a vital part of Vile’s songs, too — his best tunes simulate the feeling of movement at different speeds, whether it’s the runaway barreling of “Freak Train,” the cruise control of “Jesus Fever,” or the tired drag of “Gold Tone.” Vile meanwhile affects stillness amid the bustling, his laconic voice perpetually alienated from its surroundings. On B’lieve, Vile emphasizes this sensation more than ever — he states it plainly in “I’m an Outlaw,” a song in which he describes being “on the brink of self-implosion, alone in a crowd, on the corner, goin’ nowhere slow.”
What Vile sought on B’lieve was mid-’70s Neil Young — a loose, bleary-eyed, late-night vibe that feels like heavy exhaustion propped up with bottles of tequila. Vile began without a producer, a timetable, or anything else that would’ve imposed structure. He was determined to capture more than just his songs. This required both openness to moments of serendipity and ruthless perfectionism — a kind of free-spirited thoughtfulness.
Vile is often described as a high-functioning stoner; Pitchfork even likened him to Otto the bus driver from The Simpsons. (The allusion isn’t totally unwarranted — the day after my Philly visit, he emailed me to make sure I had a good time, and signed off with “take er ez.”) But after talking with Vile several times over the course of seven months and listening to him vent at length about making B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, I learned that he is in fact reflexively cautious, frequently doubling back on sentences to fine-tune the phrasing.
“I feel like if you sit down and have an assistant engineer and a producer in a top-notch studio and everyone sets up all the mikes perfect, all of a sudden it’s really hard to live that melancholy song. It’s hard to really live it in the moment,” Vile explained in late January, when I first phoned to check in on his progress.
At the time, Vile seemed lost, like a guy who ventures boldly into a forest without a compass and is now watching helplessly as the last rays of light disappear through the trees. He suggested he was making “classical psychedelic music” and envisioned the record as “a perfect square,” because “you got the folk songs and you got the rock songs, then you got the ethereal banjo-type of songs and piano songs.” But the pieces weren’t fitting together.
“Psychologically, you’ve got to stay up all night and capture it,” he insisted. “Maybe you keep procrastinating and you’re out on the porch for a while — you have a sip of tequila, and all of a sudden, somewhere in there, you get behind the mic again and it’s there. You could be cynical and be like, I just wasted all this money. But in reality you’re just waiting for the vibe to hit.”
Once Vile had the vibe, he needed coherence, which he had found by the time I phoned again in April, when Vile was in Connecticut mixing the record. Noted alt-rock producer Rob Schnapf — his name is on classic albums by everyone from Beck to Elliott Smith to Guided by Voices — had inquired about working on Vile’s latest LP just when Vile felt he could use a sounding board.
Schnapf subsequently recorded B’lieve’s bookending numbers, the hooky single “Pretty Pimpin” and a dusky strummer called “Wild Imagination,” and helped to clarify the remaining tracks that Vile had collected throughout much of 2014 and early ’15.
The dearth of guitar solos on B’lieve is the most obvious departure from Wakin — in its place are desolate banjo plunks and rambling piano licks, a nod to the blues and bluegrass influences that trace back to Vile’s father, Charlie, who introduced Vile to Doc Watson, Charley Patton, and other music “so real that it’s unreal” when he was a child growing up with four brothers and five sisters in a three-bedroom house in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.
Vile is an indie-rock guitar hero, the rarest of modern phenomena, though he says keeping solos off of B’lieve wasn’t deliberate contrarianism.
“I probably added solos and stuff like that, and then we listened back and we just took them away,” he says noncommittally.
Now that the album is finished, Vile seems relieved and more than a little worn-out. He recently took his family on an overdue vacation up the shore to Ocean City, New Jersey, but as vacations often do, the sojourn left Vile feeling even more spent. Now, the combination of prerelease anxiety and those early-afternoon cans of Modelo had left him with something of a hangover.
“I’m just tired or something,” he says as we nurse our half-empty beers. “I didn’t take any drugs or anything.”
Earlier in the afternoon, over coffee at a café near his house, Vile confessed he was feeling down for another reason: A family friend had killed herself a few weeks earlier. It happened when Vile was in L.A. to participate in an upcoming animated series for HBO called Animals.
“I play myself, but as an animal,” he said, facing down at his coffee cup, the brim of his hat obscuring his face. “I got to improvise and just bullshit. It was a lot of fun. I want really badly to just be funny in a movie, but be close to myself. I definitely have a connection to L.A. and my friends, and I just got in the car and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m back.’ Driving to Burbank on show business’s dime, and then I got to the hotel and I found out the news.
“I go through ups and downs in the psyche all the time, and then once you start moving again, it’s amazing how you can always bounce back,” Vile said, looking up now, his face brightening. “You get like in a low rut and you think ‘This is it, my life is a train wreck.’ And then you bounce back again.” I share this story not only to contextualize Vile’s mood during our interview, but to also illuminate the emotional core of B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, which is simultaneously the gloomiest and funniest record Vile has made.
Vile frequently invokes Neil Young in conversation, as both a talisman and a role model. But the most authentic link between Vile and Young is the way in which they freely commingle pathos and goofiness in their songs, resulting in a tonal messiness that feels like real life.3
The centerpiece of B’lieve is a stark dirge called “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say),” in which Vile ruminates fatalistically about how the arc of existence is long but bends toward disintegration. “Hate to point the painfully obvious,” is Vile’s sly, song-closing rejoinder, but the biggest twist is when the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man suddenly appears. (He “was on top of the world, then he fell all the way back down,” Vile sings.)
Then there’s “Pretty Pimpin,” a straightforward narrative about profound psychological displacement. In the first verse, Vile describes looking at yourself in the mirror and not recognizing the person looking back at you. But Vile thinks “Pretty Pimpin” is hilarious, from that doofy title on down. “There’s always a punch line,” he says. “Some people are so sad that, at times, that’s what gets on my nerves — if they just hammer the doom, with no comic relief whatsoever. But I’m a master of the turnaround: ‘But he was sporting all my clothes / I gotta say pretty pimpin.’ You’re looking good, man.”
Before Dave Hartley knew Kurt Vile, he was enraptured by the sounds he made. Hartley first heard them about 10 years ago while visiting Adam Granduciel, a coworker at Philadelphia’s University City Housing, “the fulcrum of the music scene in Philly at the time, because all these musicians were working there — leasing apartments, cleaning out apartments and getting paid shitty money,” Hartley recalls.
Granduciel lived in a big house with a rotating cast of roommates, the latest of whom was a pot dealer. One night when Hartley stopped over to buy a bag of weed, he overheard Granduciel jamming with Vile.
“It was so emotional sounding, for lack of a better term,” says Hartley, currently the bassist in Granduciel’s band, the War on Drugs, which originally featured Vile on guitar. In the mid-’00s, Vile and Granduciel were “in this sort of brain trust of extremely close friends who were obviously stewing something.”
Back then, Vile was known as “the CD-R guy,” a prolific songwriter who recorded his latest compositions and distributed them by hand at local shows. Over time, “he really built up this mythology around himself by just being this long-haired, really funny, strange guy hanging around with these little CD-Rs,” Hartley says.
Vile and Granduciel were obsessed with the first Suicide record and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and their subsequent output can be slotted in the Venn diagram overlap between those two albums.
“They are really different musicians, Adam and Kurt. Especially now, their careers, you can really see the way they’re diverging in their styles,” Hartley says. “But you can’t really overstate the intertwinedness of the early stuff, because of how much they crafted the music in a bubble together. I think they both just really were tweaking these little things, taking a fucking drum machine and some delay pedals and a guitar and a couple other elements, and just tweaking them endlessly until their hearts felt the same thing that they felt when they listened to fucking ‘My Hometown’ or something.”
Reynold Jaffe felt that way when he heard 2008’s Constant Hitmaker, a virtual greatest hits collection compiling the best tracks from Vile’s CD-Rs. Jaffe’s wife owned a local record store, and Vile brought in a stack of discs to sell. For Jaffe, who managed local acts, Vile instantly stood out in a scene that “had been in a 10-plus-year dry spell of anything,” he says. Jaffe reached out to Vile soon after, and after helping Vile land the Matador deal, “we’ve been together ever since,” he says.
“For the past 10 to 15 years, indie rock has been an expression of college kids, and that’s not what Kurt is. Kurt always had to work,” Jaffe says. “Even if that’s not necessarily the lyrical content, I think that there is this trueness, and that is what connects him to those working-class classic rock heroes of Springsteen and Tom Petty and Neil Young. It’s this real authenticity that I don’t think is necessarily there for a lot of ‘indie rock.’”
Vile’s favorite band in high school was Pavement, which influenced his approach to rock history, equal parts reverent and deconstructionist. If Vile was a mere revivalist, a song like “Dead Alive” would slot more comfortably next to the polished warhorses on Full Moon Fever. But Vile’s song sounds ravaged and fuzzy next to Petty’s brickhouse-sturdy anthems, like it’s beaming in from a pirate radio station. It’s rock music as it could only exist in 2015.
Stella Mozgawa never had a recording experience like the sessions for B’lieve I’m Goin Down… Mozgawa recorded with Vile at Rancho de la Luna, a famed studio in Joshua Tree, California, where he ventured in search of some deep desert vibrations.4 The drummer for the L.A. band Warpaint who has contributed to Vile’s past two albums, Mozgawa was used to a daytime recording schedule for Wakin on a Pretty Daze. But “on this one it was just abandoned,” she said.
Huddled with a small corps of musicians that also included pedal steel guitarist “Farmer” Dave Scher and Vile’s “right-hand man” Rob Laakso, a multi-instrumentalist/engineer who accompanied Vile throughout B’lieve’s prolonged gestation, Vile would hang out drinking booze and smoking cigarettes until three or four in the morning before he officially started working.
“He’s never, that I’ve ever seen, told anyone what to play,” Laakso said. “I wouldn’t say it’s spur of the moment, but I guess it’s as it happens. He likes to be excited by the things other people throw his way.”
“Kurt is the antithesis of a person who discusses their methods — you either jump on the train or you don’t,” Mozgawa concurred. “It’s one of those things where you don’t know what the method is in the madness, but it eventually starts to make a little more sense.”
The best example of the madness paying off is “Wheelhouse,” a luminous, zoned-out guitar jam inspired by Vile’s sessions at Rancho de la Luna with the excellent Tuareg rock band Tinariwen, his favorite live act. Not all of B’lieve I’m Goin Down… was recorded in the desert — about half the LP was tracked in Georgia with Kyle Spence from Vile’s onstage backing band, the Violators, among other assorted locales — but it nonetheless feels like Vile’s California record. More than any other song, “Wheelhouse” captures this feeling, the gentle sway evoking tumbleweeds and pre-dawn sleepiness.
“You’ve got to step out of yourself,” Vile told me over enfrijoladas at Honey’s Sit N’ Eat back in Northern Liberties. I had just asked whether he ever tried honey slides, a toxic combination of honey and marijuana used and abused by Neil Young during the On the Beach sessions.5
“It’s just like eating weed,” Vile said with a dismissive nod. “I mean, I couldn’t move after that.”
While Vile mostly avoids pot these days — “I’ll smoke once in a while but usually I’ll regret it,” he says — alcohol was a fixture in the studio, as a lubricant and mood-setter.
“I think our drummer who did the first half of the Wakin touring, Vince Nudo, he turned me onto tequila, because you realize it is the only upper alcohol. So it’s a different drunk — a crazy drunk, you know,” he says. “Some of my bandmates drink way more than me, and it finally rubbed off. This record was definitely like, every day buy a Hornitos Silver bottle of tequila and Modelo Especial cans, very specific. And then you just put so many back and don’t think about it. Towards the end I was like, My body is a sewer.”
Back in January, Vile worried he had “over-fucked” the album — voluminous overdubs were added to the basic tracks in a paradoxical effort to preserve whatever magic they had.
“One of the things he was doing was not fully committing, and leaving options open till the very last minute,” Schnapf said. “The sooner you commit, the less you have to drag all that shit around with you.”
Anything that felt superfluous eventually was pushed aside when Vile mixed the record with Peter Katis, another indie-rock veteran most celebrated for his work with the National. Vile still wasn’t sure how or if B’lieve would coalesce when he showed up at Katis’s studio in Connecticut, but mixing the record proved to be the easiest part of the process, with Katis tearing through two songs per day, an unusually swift pace.
“Going in, I knew he didn’t want some sort of bullshit, slick-sounding rock record. He wanted something cool and rich and organic-sounding,” Katis said.
In spite of the record’s unruly birth, B’lieve is concise and clean-sounding, particularly after the 70-minute sprawl of Wakin. “Pretty Pimpin” is the poppiest song Vile has ever committed to tape, and “Dust Bunnies” is the closest Vile has yet come to prime-era Petty.
But overall, B’lieve is not the crossover record some might’ve expected. It’s more in line with 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo or even his pre-Matador CD-Rs, which are loaded with heavyhearted, finger-picked folk ballads like “Song for John in D.”
On the drive to the Redroom, Vile expressed ambivalence about “going pro.” On one hand, he knows he needs to tighten up his live show if he wants to graduate to playing theaters like Radio City Music Hall, as his friends in the War on Drugs have done in the wake of 2014’s Lost in the Dream. (“I don’t know what the capacity is there, but I’m sure it’s a lot,” he said with a touch of awe.) In the past few years, the War on Drugs has evolved into a polished live band that can capably replicate the lushness of its albums. Vile is a less consistent performer, in part because he exercises less control. He admits this has been an issue as far back as the tour cycle for Smoke Ring, when the new-artist buzz from Constant Hitmaker and Childish Prodigy had worn off and Vile sensed he could no longer get by on “punk-rock vulnerability.” “You have to think, How am I going to do this? Am I going to have some sweet synth backing tracks? Am I going to have a bigger band and a chick singing perfect harmonies with me?” Vile says between puffs of his cigarette. “I think that one day I’ll just have the whole thing — I mean, I’m not saying I don’t have something now — but maybe one day I’ll put out this perfect record that gets a Grammy or something.”
But there’s a wanderlust inherent to Vile that makes such a scenario unlikely.
“There’s never going to be a night where it’s the same set list,” Jaffe said. “For better or for worse, the songs are always evolving.”
On the walls of the Redroom there are photographs of Klaus Kinski and “born-again” era Bob Dylan. All that’s missing is a picture of Vincent van Gogh to complete the self-destructive artistic impulsiveness hat trick. But that’s not Vile’s way. While he made B’lieve I’m Goin Down… exactly the way he wanted, he’s not looking to repeat the process.
Moving forward, Vile wants to go back — as he did with the CD-Rs, he’ll record songs as he writes them. “To work on the record from the ground up, I don’t think I have it in me. I have to do it more in real time,” Vile says over the din of Jerry Lee Lewis, another creature of instinct and Vile’s recent obsession. He got into Lewis after Granduciel gave him a copy of Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff — the Lewis chapter is “the shortest in the book, but it was the most badass.”6 That led to Nick Tosches’s definitive biography Hellfire, which Vile implored me to read.7 Between Jerry Lee trivia, Vile fields a call regarding a broken-down Wurlitzer organ he hopes to repair for the B’lieve tour, so he can play the album’s piano songs.
After the call — the prospects for the Wurlitzer aren’t promising — Vile gets up and replaces Jerry Lee with a disc from the Nuggets boxed set, cueing up “Jack of Diamonds” by the Daily Flash. After 25 seconds of feedback and drone, a lurching rhythm plays off a wailing harmonica. The vocal snarl is Garage Rock 101 — you can hear traces in Vile’s own delivery.
Vile seems happiest here in his sanctuary, playing records, discussing rock biographies, dissecting his influences, and hatching his own songs over ice-cold Modelos.
But the road awaits. A few weeks after the Philadelphia visit, I called Vile again. His set at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago was reduced to just three songs after a rainout, but Vile was determined not to hammer the doom.
“If we had bombed, I would’ve been bummed,” he said, “but it was good vibes, for sure.” After the festival, Vile hopped a plane to London for another gig — again in motion, a marshmallow man in search of better vibes.
This article has been updated to reflect that Kurt Vile worked for Yards Brewing Company and Philadelphia Brewing Company.