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Interviews

questions of doom with kurt vile

Kurt Vile has demanded the impossible with his debut album ‘Childish Prodigy’. His sound encapsulates a diverse musical spectrum including the FM heartland rock territory of Bob Dylan; the spacey kraut rock of Can; the psychedelic rock of The Stones and the American primitive tradition of John Fahey. Remarkably, the end result still resoundingly sounds like Kurt Vile. Check out this week's Questions of Doom with Kurt Vile as we discuss his career and being under the influence.

Hey Kurt, how are you?

Feelin good right now, thanks. Chilling in the living room of my new pad with sweet autumn breeze coming thru the window. Feels like morning but i guess it’s 2:30 pm, heh. But i am drinking coffee. Listening to the Television Personalities. I won’t play cool like I’ve been a fan from way back. But I just recently bought the reissue of And the Kids Just Love It on lp. “Diary of a Young Man” is so beautiful and makes me wanna cry every time. But i won’t!

Who is Kurt Vile?

Umm… Me? It’s my real name. “The handle my mother gave me.” Now it happens to be my stage name and the one on my records. I’m a songwriter, rock and roller, and a regular dude from Philly all in one. But i guess i can be known to act sort of wild at times, too. So maybe i’m not entirely regular. Kurt Vile: goofball with ludicrous laugh… from Philly.

Childish Prodigy is an excellent album, and knowing your extensive use of CDR culture, do you feel it allowed you to develop your particular songwriting craft?

Thanks, man! I guess I never looked at it as “cdr culture.” Or “lo fi” for that matter. But i was psyched to see that article on the Guardian cdr culture. It made me feel like I had been doing something cool, without even knowing it at the time. To me, early on at least, they were just homemade instant demos. Luckily I took a bunch of art classes in high school and knew how to make the package relatively pleasing to look at, and developed a kind of aesthetic with the artwork, till it became “my thing” and it got my name around a little bit. They were super cheap to manufacture, so I would sell them for 5 bucks at shows, or just give them away. It wasn’t till later that I kind of caught onto the subculture. But I’ve been making music: writing and recording songs since i was 14. On tapes, cdrs, whatever. and I’m 29 now. pushing 30, even… Writing, jamming, practicing, recording and performing in general help you develop your songwriting craft. And doing them as much as possible. So, yes, the cdrs played a part in this. In general, I’d say being obsessive is key, more or less, depending on how ambitious you want to be. But obsessive doesn’t have to mean Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

I keep on picking up on FM Radio rock influences.  Is that correct?  And if so, how did you reconcile and be influenced by FM radio rock without it being a homage?

There are definite fm rock influences. Fleetwood Mac. Bruce Springsteen. A couple Bob Seger tunes. These are just some examples. A few Tom Petty tunes here and there. Although he isn’t nearly as big an influence as a lot of writers and bloggers like to say, but i guess i see where they’re coming from. The American songwriter feeling. And it truly is an FM rock thing with Petty. Something about that solid classic rock hit. It gives you this crazy euphoric feeling, if it’s the right tune at the right time. Classic rock radio is cool. But that’s just one of a million influences i have… How do i do it without homage? I guess just because I happen to have the ability to write music, take in my influences, and make it my own. Music is all i ever really wanted to do. How do the 70s fm rockers make their music not sound like homage to earlier rock n roll, and so forth? Some do and some don’t, i guess… I should note that my #1 fave classic rock hit is “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Rafferty.

I know you are a big John Fahey fan, yet, I don’t hear carbon copies of his sound within your songwriting.  Were you inspired by the sound of his records, or his attitude in not wanting to carbon copy past sounds, but keep all songwriting material fresh and eclectic?

John Fahey was obviously a super gifted and skilled guitar player. And also a delta blues fanatic. A fanatic of tons of old music, as many know. Enough so that he went out and rediscovered musicians from the past, and sought out old 78s and all that, like Alan Lomax did, and Harry Smith. Not to give a boring history lesson, of course. But my point is John Fahey went beyond with his lust for music. That’s why he was so good, apart from just being gifted in general, he surrounded himself with it and it absorbed him. Which is totally inspiring. And yes, he was one of the firsts to start his own label and all that. the DIY thing… But his influence on me first came from his guitar playing, his music in general. And the fact that he was influenced by Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, people that i loved. Music I got into sort of from my dad. But it should be noted that the sound effect of listening to Fahey on vinyl is really something. He got experimental alot with the recording process. Pretty minimal, but slightly tripped out at times, and just his feel and choice of notes and chords, just the right amount of each to take you far out there… I do fingerpick, and it is Fahey inspired, as well as inspired by other fingerpickers and folkies. It’s not exactly about keeping it totally “fresh and eclectic”, but about making it your own thing, not ripping shit off entirely, but definitely nodding to the past where it’s due. it’s impossible not to…

Are the Violators your own version of the Band?

I like to say the Violators are my own version of Crazyhorse! But there is more punk/noise at times, and a slightly different energy. But Crazyhorse were all about “feeling it” and gelling together as a unit by sensing each other’s (mainly Neil’s) moods, and the mood of the song, the direction it’s going, and GOING with it. Violators are the same way when we are at our best. Maybe it’s a combination. I love The Band with Dylan (the early stuff, i mean.) Love all of the Basement Tapes. The music and the whole idea. But that’s more “the old, weird america.” Which, sure, we are all influenced by. Much like the Fahey thing, and American folk, and the blues thing. You also can’t deny the exciting mythology behind the ‘66 tours. And the film Eat The Document. Those heart-wrenching acoustic tunes they wrote together all strung out in hotel rooms that they never did anything with… But The Band were also “hired guns” on the Dylan payroll. Super awesome band. But probably in it for different reasons, to a degree.

We are all best friends, really, and obsessed in our own way, the masters of our respective rolls in the band, and have been playing with each other, and in the Philly scene, for a long time. But maybe I’m digging too deep now, because we are talking about BOB DYLAN here after all, ha…

The Violators actually have more chops than Crazyhorse in some ways. Well, not exactly. Mike Zanghi is most definitely a better drummer though. Or maybe it’s more that i allow them to “go nuts” musically more, and they know how to do it i should say (Neil Young didn’t let his band mates go super wild too, too often.) But in other ways, definitely not. Don’t know if we could ever sit down together and write something like “i don’t wanna talk about it.” Which is such a beautiful Crazyhorse song. Crazyhorse without Neil Young. And it would probably take us 20 years to pull a Ragged Glory.
You never know, though…

You’ve recently got fired from your job as a fork lift operator, do you ever .... your songwriting aesthetic seems to come from the working man’s view point of life.  Do you feel it will be harder to hit that particular aesthetic as you become more widely known?

Yeah, I wasn’t only a forklift operator. I did other things at that job. This will probably be the last time I talk about this because it’s getting a little boring and novelty-like. The forklift thing, ha… Not that it wasn’t interesting when interviewers first asked about it, and I didn’t mind talking about it, and not that I mind you asking now either.

I’m so stoked that I got fired. They just beat me to the punch. I knew my tour schedule was gonna fill up eventually, and that I’d have to quit. Sure, it was a shock for a second. But I was getting so busy with finishing up the record, and also getting a lot of show offers while still trying to hold down the day job, because the day job thing is all I ever knew. I was fucking exhausted all the time. Probably looked like shit a lot. Staying up late working on music, rolling outta bed, putting on shitty clothes, and running to work, always a little late, ha ha…

But i got canned like a week before the artwork was due for Childish Prodigy, so i just banged the rest out, and got back to all these people who offered gigs, threw together some makeshift tours. All these things were necessary to get ready, get in the mode for what’s to come. I plan to make this my career. Maybe for a split second I thought I wouldn’t have the same struggle, thus the same inspiration, since I’m not working some blue collar job. But that’s the craziest thing I can imagine now. Who wants to work a day job? I never did. Other people like it just fine, and that’s totally cool. Maybe I can’t write songs about trying to get out of the 9 to 5 life anymore. But I think I probably have written a few of those already, anyhow. Some of them abstract or subconscious, but that’s the general vibe I get from some tunes when looking back. To be honest, this is hard work too. The music thing. I am feeling totally inspired. I’ve been strumming acoustics everyday, between music-biz obligations, etc. Getting things done that I never had time for. And jamming with the Violators. Everyone sounds better than ever. I really don’t think it will change my aesthetic much. It will most likely evolve like it always has. But i can tap into styles, old and new, pretty easily. I’m not worried…

You’ve described Childish Prodigy as your own spiritual version of Loveless, why do you feel that way?

It is a very loose comparison, I will say that. I said it because it is the album I’ve been saving for a bigger label. The album that I have put a ton of time into. Studio-time, listening-time, just being kind of religious about it being “the one.” I mean, I was on and off with it, I should confirm, taking breaks to compile releases for smaller labels and such, but it was always in the back of my mind at the very least. Shopping it around took it’s time too… But the production’s way better than any of the other records I’ve done. Which is pretty obvious since most of the others are my home recordings (except most of The Hunchback EP which Adam recorded on his Tascam 16 track reel to reel, which sounds killer too, and some other stuff recorded by friends here and there.)

Childish Prodigy was mostly recorded by our local recording-genius friend, Jeff Zeigler. At his studio Uniform Recording. He’s a MBV fan for sure. Maybe there is even the tiniest hint of “shoe-gaze” in the record for a split second. But again, I am using the terminology quite loosely. Effects were used. Analog recording. Whatever needed to be done to make it sound the best to our satisfaction, pretty and lush, or distorted and evil… whatever the song called for. We also tried certain songs a million different ways over time: not different takes- but the same cut with lots of breaking down and rebuilding. One song in particular came out so drastically altered from the original. Way different and way better than we’d ever expect. Other times we kept it raw, recorded fast, and live, first take usually being the take we used. The one with the most feeling. Then maybe overdub fast. Mix fast. There were a fair amount of methods for sure, but it came out pretty solid after all that time.

I’m actually really looking forward to going back in and starting the next one. Take it out further. Or bring it back. We’ll see what happens…

You evoke a lot of childhood memories in your lyrics. Do you find references to childhood in music redemptive?

I’m sure i find it a little redemptive at times. I tend to write some of my best shit when I am feeling kind of sensitive or bummed. But not always bummed… I might start reflecting on something out of nowhere, maybe in the middle of the night, when the house is quiet, I will kind of tap into this feeling that is introspective. There is definite nostalgia in my music when the content involves my family and friends, and I suppose that includes my childhood sometimes. It might come off more abstract sometimes, and other times more literal. But it’s funny, I find that I am able to analyze the song later, after it’s all down on paper. But you can make most things mean whatever you want, really. Sorry, I think I got a little sidetracked with this one, oh dag… 

I recently was blown away by your contribution to Blues Control’s new album, how did that connection come about?

Blues Control rule! Russ and Lea are my great friends. Great friends with a lots of us in the Philly circle in fact, and the Violators and stuff. They were also one of the first bands outside of Philly who had crazy records out that took me seriously, when I first met them. They are really attentive about that stuff. They know and are friends with a ton of bands, and often give newcomers a chance if they are into their music. Even if it’s totally weird and obscure or unpopular. Before the “buzz” a musician might get later, which is totally sincere. They gave us our first legit show in New York, promoted the hell out of it, and it was packed, and an awesome night! We’ve been fans and friends with them for a couple years now and they’ve always been super helpful with music advice, booking, bands, etc… When Russ invited me and J Turbo to play on the record we were just like “Hell, yes!” Killer also that it is on Siltbreeze. That was a super fun time up there in upstate NY where they recorded it. Glad you dig our contribution. The record slays for sure. Russ also kept playing this Lime tape on his boombox that was like “ooooh, babe, we’re gonna love tonite!!!”

What music should be checking out?

I’m pretty much obsessed with all the Swell Maps records right now. WAY obsessed. A little late, once again, but oh well, lucky for me cuz it’s fresh and inspiring now instead of then… Friends like Eat Skull. Birds of Maya. Shit, just check my “top dudes” on my space…Oh, and Lime: “oooh, babe, we’re gonna love tonite!!!”