Kurt Vile: From Box Room King to Billboard Hit | Q&A

[The following Q&A previews the Kurt Vile and the Violators show Saturday, April 9 at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St. Purling Hiss opens. It is sold out. RSVP here.]

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Many working-class people can probably relate to Kurt Vile. He’s huge on the indie-rock scene now, but until seven years ago, when he was 29, he worked multiple blue-collar jobs before he signed with Matador Records.

“I feel like I had to learn how to grow up and start from the bottom and work my way up,” Vile says through hotel-room phone, in a recent interview with Hear Nebraska.

With no. 1 single, “Pretty Pimpin” on the Billboard charts and a tour that takes Vile across the U.S. and Europe, Vile’s music career is ever-expanding. Eleven years ago, he helped co-found The War on Drugs with his friend, Adam Granduciel, before leaving in 2008 to focus on his solo career. 

b’lieve i’m goin down is his sixth release in eight years. Spin, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and many other music publications have given it rave reviews. The compilation of psychedelic folk-rock songs shows Vile’s incredibly laid-back demeanor through his lyrics about life’s ups and downs.

It’s a bit darker than his last album, Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze. Vile, 36, created an album that shows a knack for writing folk music with both an alt-rock edge (“Dust Bunnies” and “Life Like This”) and a poppy side (“Pretty Pimpin’”). He even has an upbeat banjo song called “I’m an Outlaw.”

Vile spoke to Hear Nebraska earlier this week, shortly after his bus broke down in Milwaukee. Unfazed by the ordeal, he chatted about what it means for him to have his first mainstream hit song, his thoughts on playing big festivals like Bonnaroo this summer and driving brewery forklifts before becoming a full-time musician.

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Hear Nebraska: Your single, “Pretty Pimpin’,” landed at the no. 1 spot on the Adult Alternative Songs Billboard chart in March. It’s also Matador Records’ first No. 1 airplay song in its 26-year history. What’s that mean to you? And what’s this song about?

Kurt Vile: It’s pretty obvious what it’s about. It’s about a person in the mirror. And them being kind of burned out. It’s pretty open, too. But by the end, he kind of embraces it and he’s looking pretty great in his attire (laughs). I have always liked the idea of a hit song. I write songs, and I try to make hits in a weird way. I didn’t think it’d be such a big hit. I’m stoked on the adult-alternative chart standing. People who I assume would not know my music, like middle-age stewardesses or something (laughs), they drop the “Pretty Pimpin’” bomb on me. But what I was going to say is I’m stoked, and I would like to have an even bigger hit on the commercial charts. That’s where I’m aimin’ next (laughs). You gotta start somewhere.

HN: Philly is a great music town, and a lot of good stuff has come out of there like Ween, Dr. Dog, The Roots. How did growing up in the Philly suburb, Lansdowne, shape and influence your musical career?

KV: I think your surroundings always shape your view of the world in its own way. I still think Lansdowne is a really cool suburb. It’s not a cookie-cutter, strip-mall suburb where you don’t recognize anything. And same as once I got into the city walking around run-down buildings and finding beauty in it, like in a warehouse district, etcetera. I think all those types of things shaped my music in a way. If you look at the cover of my first album, Constant Hitmaker, you see that wall that’s totally obliterated, but it looks like a Rothenberg painting. But it’s just a run-down wall. And they’ve since fixed the wall, which I know you gotta do that, and I captured when it was all fucked up and looked way cooler. That’s an example of how my surroundings influenced my music.

HN: There’s definitely a Neil Young-influenced sound in your music. How’d you discover him? What about his music draws you in?

KV: He’s massive. I probably heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio when I was a kid. And listened to my parents vinyl albums. He grows, too. When I was younger, I loved him, but I loved him with all the other classics I loved. He stands the test of time, and that’s why he’s such a unique individual. All people can respect Neil Young. The punks. The grunge people who still like country and Nashville and whoever else. He’s just a god, you know.

HN: You’ve released six solo albums since 2008. That seems like quite a bit of work. How do you approach your songwriting, and how have you been able to record at such a prolific clip?

KV: I don’t know. Obsessiveness? Always thinking about music. I feel like I’ve slowed down a little bit. I was all gung-ho to go in and record between breaks, as opposed to building it all up in my head, like “it’s time to start a new record from scratch after this tour cycle,” which seemed very stressful the idea to me, but now all of the sudden I’m sort of feeling not at a major loss, and I’m like, “Maybe that’s a little crazy to be recording and recording during every break. Maybe I should just wait a second.” So I think there’s somewhere in between a happy medium of what I just said, so I feel like I am going to get on the new record relatively soon, but maybe not quite as soon as I thought.

HN: So we might see something in 2017 or 2018?

KV: What year is it now? 2016? I mean, it’s probable that there will be something in 2017.

HN: You recorded your latest album, b’lieve i’m goin down in a few different places: Athens, Ga., Brooklyn, and Joshua Tree (National Park, Calif.) That last place, Rancho de la Luna, is a special studio. A lot of notables like Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age and PJ Harvey have recorded there. What is it about the desert that inspires you?

KV: Joshua Tree is sort of known to be a magical place. Sometimes, it’s like black magic. Like a good kind of magic. It’s famous and infamous for … Gram Parsons wanted his ashes spread there. So people in the ’70s wanted to come out there from L.A. I went there on road trip when I was young. And I came back for one show at Pappy & Harriet’s solo two years ago, and it was totally magical again. I just like the idea of going out there.

It’s really hot during the day, and once the sun starts going down, it’s beautiful. And you can see for miles, the desert mountains, Joshua trees, cacti, and the temperature drops, too, so there’s that mystical hour. And then the sun goes down and the house, David Catching’s house, Rancho de la Luna, it’s a really vibey house and has all types of crazy lights. And next thing you know, it’s really vibey house with recording equipment. Once you go through that transformation, it’s time to make music. It’s pretty psychedelic. It’s pretty amazing, you know?

HN: You have a really tight group of musicians in the Violators. What makes this group tick, and how does the band manage keep the good vibes flowing while on tour?

KV: You know, we’re pretty good these days. I think part of it is having a fully positive inertia working crew working around us as well. It’s just about being comfortable. There’s lots of joking. Lots of being obsessive about music. Everybody has their own version of a music nerd. It’s kind of funny. It’s pretty extreme in my band. Everyone has their own definite personality. They all have this music nerdism, too.

HN: In your music, you successfully sum up how life has its ups and downs. We’re rarely in one constant state. Sometimes, life is great. Sometimes not.  You point that out in “That’s Life, Tho” on b’lieve. What’s your approach to rolling with the punches?

KV: It’s a figure of speech, but that’s what you’re trying to do to. Sometimes, you gotta lay there and take one and be unconscious before you can get up and try to keep moving forward again. (laughs.)


HN: From what I’ve read in interviews with you, it sounds like you know how to drive a forklift from jobs you had before you became a full-time musician. And you worked at Yards Brewing Co. and Philadelphia Brewing Co. What were some of the positives and negatives of those gigs?

KV: The most positive part was I was being king of the box room. My buddy Richie (Charles, of Richie Records) who worked there gave me that title. He would say, “I know you think you’re king of the box room. But out here we play by Richie’s rules,” (laughs). Basically, I could just zone out and listen to music and do repetitive things like make boxes or bottle beer. Or if I was driving the forklift, I was clearly the best one, and that was easy to do and it’s fun.

And obviously maybe some of the same things could be a drag like doing repetitive tests and sweating and doing sort of manual labor and more or less being stuck in this warehouse when I could be sleeping in, which is all I ever wanted to do is sleep in till forever and then get up and play music. So I guess that’s kinda what I do now.

HN: Do you ever think about those jobs you had while you are on stage performing in front of a big crowd?

KV: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it while I was in front of a big crowd, but I do think about it. I look back on it all pretty fondly though. Even the really shitty job I had in Boston working at this air-freight company. I still look back fondly on parts of it. Like unloading a tractor trailer.

I feel like I did a lot of things that nobody … Some people just get pampered their whole lives. Which is fine, too, I’m not against that, that sounds nice. But they never really had to get their fucking hands dirty at all. I feel like I had to learn how to grow up and start from the bottom and work my way up.

HN: And look at you now, you’re playing some of the biggest festivals in the world this summer. Such as Glastonbury in England, Bonnaroo in Tennessee. What do you like about playing big festivals like that?

KV: It’s an impressive bill, for sure. I’m excited for Bonnaroo because Ween is reuniting, and I’m gonna see Ween and that is incredible. I better not be playing at the same time, or I’ll shit a brick.

I was laughing in particular at the Glastonbury bill recently because it’s like everyone from Adele and Beck and Cyndi Lauper to us and Savages and Mercury Rev and like indie and weird to commercial and constant spectacles everywhere you go.

Even if you don’t like the music — and most of those I mentioned, I guess I like all their music in different ways — you gotta catch the spectacle. And it’s fun to actually play, too (laughs.) It’s fun to be one of the spectacles. And ideally do a good job. In the past, it’s pretty much guaranteed I surrendered internally. I thought, “this show isn’t gonna be that great.” But I think we’re pretty oiled up these days, so I think we’re actually gonna be good.

photo by Marina Chavez

HN: So you’re gonna share a stage with Beck. He’s one of your big influences, right?

KV: I love especially early Beck. I don’t know all his new stuff. And I do respect him. I religiously love his early records. I love his first album, Mellow Gold. Still one of my favorite records. I followed him like he was my rockstar through and through. I like others, too, like Pavement and indie-rock stuff. Some alternative stuff. But if I had to pick someone who was like a rockstar and really exciting to watch and was transformative, it was Beck. He got more serious. What’s that album? Modern Guilt? Or the folk records? I appreciate it. I guess I just had a feeling in my gut since I grew up on the early stuff maybe.

HN: Cool. So where are you at now, Kurt?

KV: I’m in Milwaukee. We have a day off. We’re playing a show here tomorrow.

HN: How do you usually spend your days off?

KV: Well, actually our bus broke down. But luckily, it’s a weird story. My bandmate, Rob Laasko, he took some work today doing some engineering for some kid. The kid picked him up and they managed to squeeze me in, and my band mate Jesse and Kyle in the car. So now I’m in my hotel. I just got room service, and I’m listening to country box sets and planning to not do anything whatsoever. I like to watch TV shows, too. I used to not be into TV shows, but now I’m really into TV shows (laughs).


Mark Hayden is a Hear Nebraska contributor. This is his first feature story for the site. Reach him through HN’s managing editor at andrews@hearnebraska.org