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Posted March 21, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Capturing Honest Moments with Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile photo by Marina Chavez
Kurt Vile photo by Marina Chavez

With his sixth album, b’lieve i’m goin down…, singer-songwriter Kurt Vile explores a range of instrumentation. The album includes piano, banjo and lap steel as Vile dabbles in folk, rock and country. The vulnerable nature of the tunes holds the songs together, making the album a cohesive work and Vile’s most assured recording to date. Pitchfork, NPR, Rolling Stone, Vogue, American Songwriter, Paste, Spin and many other publications rightly proclaimed it to be one of the best records of the year. Vile recently spoke to us via phone from a tour stop in the UK.

I like the bio that Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon wrote for your new album. Was that your idea?
It was actually not my idea. People at the label suggested it knowing that we have mutual respect for one another. She had just come out with a book. She would have only done it if she wanted to. We sent her the record to see if she liked it and she did. The bio is awesome. It exceeded all of my expectations. It’s not too forced and it’s understated and poetic and all those things. It’s pretty awesome.

You’ve said you wanted the songs on your latest album to sound “unguarded and vulnerable.” Talk about why you decided to take that approach.
I think I do that all the time, but it was always working to get that way. A perfect example that’s so easy to go to is the Neil Young album On the Beach. I’m specifically thinking of “Ambulance Blues.” It’s about capturing something that was in the room – the raw emotion—without too much of a technical process to take away from that. Just do what you can to fake yourself out and make yourself feel comfortable and go over the song when you just wrote it on your couch and you’re really feeling it. You can do that in a hi-fi studio too but with my headspace now [that’s hard] if you’re trying to do it with all these assistants in a massive studio with a big setup.

You recorded and mixed the album in a number of locations, including Los Angeles and Joshua Tree. Talk about what the recording experience was like.
It was awesome. So many different people helped out so much. Early on, we kept it insular with my drummer Kyle Spence, recording at his home studio. My other bandmate, Rob Laakso, recorded with me in California and New York. We had the Violators involved. Eventually, we worked with Rob Schnapf and he recorded “Pretty Pimpin’” and “Wild Imagination.” We thought he was going to mix it but we ran out of time and Peter Katis came in at the end. He’s in Connecticut and had worked with the National and others but nobody like me. He came into the picture in an emergency situation. He saved the record. Everybody played a part. That’s the beauty of jumping around and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. You make these connections that you wouldn’t otherwise make. It’s an honest moment captured. I’ve always been a last-minute guy.

There’s banjo on “I’m an Outlaw” and piano and lap steel on “Life Like This.” There’s also farfisa, resonator, horns and synthesizers. What prompted the decision to use such a range of instrumentation?
I’ve always been interested in multi-instrumental types of things. Everyone in the band has to be able to play multiple instruments. Not like in a session-y way, per se. They have to be able to pick up something they don’t know that well. You can make music with a couple of notes. It’s just an extension of that, I guess. I was thinking more about piano. I’ve used plenty of pianos and synthesizers in my recordings, but they were mostly accompaniment. They were never quite driving the songs. The banjo I grew up playing, so I just picked that back up. I was thinking about banjo and acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I thought it would make it not sound too same-y.

The album is all over the place. What do you think makes it cohesive?
I just think because they’re all songs that are up to date. Stylistically and lyrically, they’re all from the last couple of years of my life and they represent whatever was going through my head at the time. It would be different if we worked on it for five years or something. Who knows how cohesive that would be? Probably not very.

You first learned to play the banjo. How do you think that influenced the types of songs you wound up writing when you first began writing tunes?
Well, it’s an open G. So when I picked up a guitar, I didn’t know how to tune it or if I would tune it as a banjo. It made me realize there’s not just one tuning in the world. The plucking and finger picking, which I did a little bit on the banjo, contributed to a different start.

Do you think your working class background has shaped the songs?
I don’t know. It’s been so long since I worked a blue collar job. I guess it’s not that long, but I remember I got fired in 2009. The joke was on him because I got a record deal that same year and I was in every paper in Philadelphia. You couldn’t escape me. I’m not blue collar anymore.

What do you think you learned from your time in the War on Drugs?
That’s not really relevant. We were just best friends with each other. They were equal things. It wasn’t like I took anything from that. I did, but it has nothing to do with being involved in another band or something.   

Have you started to think about the next record yet?
Yep. It’s all generally the same but my recent obsessions will trickle into there.  

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Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.