Kurt Vile: The extended interview

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Photo by Shawn Brackbill
BY IAN POWER

In the print edition of this week's City Pages, we have an interview with Matador signee and Philadelphia indie rocker Kurt Vile, who is coming to the Varsity Theater next Monday with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. What follows is the extended transcript of Ian Power's interview with Vile; you can read the version of this article from this week's paper here.

Being a child of the '90s, is this tour with Thurston Moore kind of a dream come true?

KV: Oh totally man, I'm stoked for sure. Childhood dream.

Is there some pressure, though?

KV: I've gotten to know them a lot more, so I'm not exactly shaking in my boots. We opened for Dinosaur Jr. when Childish Prodigy came out and that was before I knew any of them, I mean they live close and they're all tight or whatever, J's family and Sonic Youth, so I remember that when I was touring with Dinosaur Jr. That was how I met them. I showed up at the first gig and saw him sleeping in the corner and was real nervous, and then finally I had to meet him that way. So I met J and then since then, we've played a couple of shows with Sonic Youth at festivals and we just kept crossing paths and had mutual friends so now it's like I know him and he's a cool person. It's super great, just super great.

Are you and Thurston collaborating or playing anything together?

No the only time I ever played with Thurston was when I had these three in-store shows when Halo came out and they asked Thurston if he would play, so we did a cover of "Urge For Going." Except I didn't rehearse it very well, we just rehearsed right before. We talked about it but then we just practiced in the back so it was a little rushed. It was great to play with him, but you know, I'd love to play with him sometime where we can really do something. No, we haven't written any tunes together (laughing) or anything like that...I would in a second.

Are The Violators your permanent band now?

KV: The Violators isn't just the name of a backing band, it's actual people: Jesse (Trbovich) Adam (Granduciel) and Mike (Zanghi). We've been playing together now for a while, even Mike Zanghi, the drummer who was the last member to join, I've been playing with him four years. I've been playing with Adam since 2003, Jesse since 2006 and so we've developed a style together. Adam's on every single one of my releases, you know, even the early stuff, even if it's just once or twice, and Jesse and Mike are on everything starting with Childish Prodigy. They're all over Smoke Ring For My Halo, even though it's a solo record. Adam is the front man for The War On Drugs and Mike, I mean he's not in The War On Drugs right now but Mike was my drummer first and then when The War On Drugs' first record came out I thought I was lending Mike to Adam for the European tour but then he just played with them all the time so I kind of had to like, while they were touring a lot, figure out my own thing. I have a replacement when Adam's not around, my buddy Rob Laakso, but you know, when I can, I have Adam.

So Is The War On Drugs your band too? Or just Adam's band? Are you singing sometimes in The War On Drugs?

KV: That's the whole problem with the blog world. No, I'm not the front man of The War On Drugs, I would play guitar in The War On Drugs, I was pretty involved with that record but Adam is equally involved in my music. I'm not the front man of the War On Drugs that's Adam. It's Adam.

I think maybe the confusion might arise because you can hear these similarities in the guitar and the vocals, you guys sometimes kind of sing the same way.

KV: Well I mean we kind of developed a style together, you know? But I mean his new records almost out and I'm really excited about it. I played on two songs, I'm not really in the band anymore, but he's been my secret weapon in my music, you know my secret weapon that's not really a secret. he's kind of a naturally playing genius.

So then are you going to play with The War On Drugs when they come here later this summer?

KV: No, but Adam will be with me. I think this is the last tour Adam will be doing with me and then when he gets back his record comes out, so he's gonna be busy for a while, Although he is coming to Australia with us after Thanksgiving. I'm grateful for that you know? Because his personality and everything really does help the band dynamic in a million ways.

I saw you on VBS' QTV from a few years ago, and you agree to demonstrate how to play your song "He's Alright" but with a disclaimer, like " I'll show you how to play it, but you better watch it!" or something like that.

KV: (Laughing) I've always been secretive about that kind of thing, but it's funny. Even that, that was like the earliest thing where they were like, "well, we want you to teach one of your songs," and I'm like looking over at my bandmate at the time Rob Laakso and laughing like, "OK, but you'd better watch yourself!" But now people, I mean I guess I'm impressed, they find these tunings I made up and they figured them out, and they post them on YouTube and show how to play them.

Do you use a lot of alternate tunings to throw them off the trail?

KV: No, not to throw them off the trail it's just like these things that I've figured out myself. I've never been a conscious rip-off artist but tons of subconscious influence and like even conscious influence so maybe subconscious rip offs. But then there's these other people who just watch, they might be good at playing but they just watch what you do and just run away with it. At first it bummed me out, but I guess now I'm over it. there's nothing you can do.

But in that VBS video you mention that the rhythm pattern of your strumming is taken from Bob Dylan's playing of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," in the film Don't Look Back, right?

KV: The strumming pattern is for sure, yeah...

So nothing's really original then?

KV: Yeah exactly, totally, it's all the same. It's all the same (laughing).

Jesus creeps in to make an appearance in quite a few of your songs. Is he just acting as a character within the narrative? Or is there more to it than that?

KV: I think that the two main reasons, are one, the blues gospel tradition, you know like growing up listening to old time music and the people who nodded to that stuff, Spaceman 3 or Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt you know whoever. So it's a blues gospel tradition but I was also brought up exposed to religion and Christianity. My parents are religious most of my family is religious, so it's kind of in my DNA i guess. but uh, I don't particularly, I'm not particularly practicing.

So more spiritual than actually religious?

KV: Yeah, spiritual.

A lot of your songwriting seems to exist within this nostalgic pastoral Americana space in the vein of people like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. Would you say that it's a conscious choice you're making musically? Or is that just the way things end up going?

KV: I'd say it's intentional not in the way that its a super calculated thing, but it's an influence for sure, it's a feeling. There's a definite American feeling. I used to be like, "Yeah American music is where it's at." You know, Bob Dylan's "Bring It All Back Home," that's what he was saying, you know, kind of against the Beatles who took rock and roll and did their thing. Bob Dylan kind of brought it all back home and so I would think about American music you know Creedence or whatever and Tom Petty, Springsteen, all these different American Musicians. But then there's all these bands like the Stones who were totally American influenced...I was always thinking about Americana.

Do you think that Smoke Ring For My Halo is a big step forward for you musically?

KV: Yeah for sure, there's a few reasons. One, I've improved, but also, it's the first record I did with a real record producer. I already did a record with Matador but most of that I recorded on my own and then sent it out to Matador specifically so I mean it's the first professional one and I have a lot more touring under my belt, lots more confidence.

John Agnello produced Halo. He's done the last two Sonic Youth records, he's done a bunch of Dinosaur Jr. records, he's done a lot of stuff, he's awesome. He worked on Born in the USA.

You've been touring a lot?

KV: Yeah, it's been crazy but I have a daughter, I have a wife so that's really hard. I have to do this right now though, I have to push the record, I love to play music I love to put stuff out, so it is a crazy time.

Do they come visit you on tour?

KV: They've visited the west coast, they're going to come down again in the future. My daughter is one, so she's changing every day. If one day it takes off super huge then they can come in a bus or something but for now they visit and you just gotta kinda push through you know?

No bus yet?

KV: (Laughing) No, we don't have a bus! We have a van. It's a nice van, no bus.

KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS perform with Thurston Moore on MONDAY, JULY 18, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222.

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