Photo: Adam Wallacavage
Kurt Vile and the Violators will perform Oct. 16 at Cincinnati's Andrew J Brady Music Center.
Kurt Vile can be hard to pin down — a long-haired, skinny-jeaned 42-year-old with melodies for miles and a mind that moves in unexpected directions. The Philadelphia-bred singer, songwriter and ace guitarist is a self-described musical obsessive, the kind of guy who immerses himself in every aspect of his chosen endeavor.
Speaking to CityBeat
via a fuzzy cell phone connection from a recent tour stop in Germany, Vile is an easygoing but engaging conversationalist. Within a matter of minutes, he floats from one topic to the next in a way that feels almost like free association, touching on everything from the early-aughts production techniques of Jim O’Rourke to unorthodox song ideas likely to appear on future Vile records to the merits of regional figures like Cincinnati’s own Brian Olive (whom he calls an “amazing musician and artist”).
Vile’s songs spring forth in a similarly organic manner. His ninth album, (watch my moves)
, dropped in April and is another expansive exploration, 15 deceptively personal songs over more than 70 minutes. It’s an evolution of the approach he’s employed since at least 2015’s B’lieve I’m Going Down
— spacey, folk-fortified jams powered less by soaring guitar leads than by hypnotic, often meditative vibrations.
Take “Like Exploding Stones,” which sounds like late-era, narcotically dosed Sonic Youth by way of Stereolab, its circular guitar and rhythmic patterns transporting listeners to an alternate universe punctuated by a sweet sax solo from James Stewart of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Then there’s Vile’s distinctive drawl and evocative lyrics, which he enunciates like Stephen Malkmus doing a John Prine impression.
Work on (watch my moves)
began in 2019 at veteran producer Rob Schnapf’s studio in Los Angeles where Vile made his last two records. But the COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas, halting production and forcing Vile to hunker down with his wife and two young daughters at his home in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy neighborhood. The unexpected turn of events had an upside — it allowed him to complete a recording studio in the basement of his home.
“Rob is a friend,” Vile says when asked why he continues to collaborate with Schnapf. “He’s fun to hang around. He’s also passionate. He’s also into gear, like the rest of us. He’s all about staying out of the way and having a good time until it’s time to go in there and tweak it.
“He’s been making records with people like Elliott Smith and Beck since the 1990s,” Vile continues. “He came to my home studio in Philly. He said, ‘I’m going to come to you.’ Believe it or not, no producer actually said that to me, so that kind of sealed the deal.”
Recording in his hometown for the first time in more than a decade also couldn’t help but affect the result. Vile woke up each day with a short walk from his bed to the studio, which he calls the “KV Zone.” Friends, family and local flavors invariably made their way into the record and its resulting videos, all of which he shot near his house in Mt. Airy.
“I was obsessively thinking about the record anyway before the shutdown,” Vile says of the pandemic curveball. “I wasn’t just working from my home — I had to think about getting the studio finished and obsessively thinking about how I’m going to make this record stand out compared to the others, which I always do. Because I’m obsessive, whatever my latest influences are, combined with whatever epiphanies I have about my own music, I want to get them into the record. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Vile says the solitude of his studio speaks to him.
“I like when I go down in the studio when nobody’s around and I don’t turn anything on. It’s like my temple. That was what was missing in Philly, and that’s what I have now,” he says.
Another change, Vile says, was switching record labels from his longtime home at indie staple Matador to Verve, founded in 1956 and known as a backer of Bill Evans, Billie Holiday, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and more.
“I did it because the opportunity arose. Verve was interested, and I was flattered. My contract was up with Matador, and I was intrigued by the fact that a non-indie rock, somewhat major label with a cool history and connected with Universal Records was interested. I wanted to see what happened,” Vile says. “It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I’m grateful to Matador; they’re my family. They were very supportive and we’re still friends, but I’m 42 years old now, and all the signs were pointing to, ‘Try this new opportunity out.’”
Likewise, there’s a curiously opportunistic vibe to (watch my moves)
that belies the cultural darkness of recent years. It’s as if Vile’s Philly cocoon shields him from outside turbulence, which is akin to the way he approaches music — he creates the universe he wants to inhabit.
“I like the idea of music that puts you in a positive zone and just makes you want to dance,” Vile says. “Ideally, it could be like two minutes and feel like an eternity in a good way. Or it could go on forever and you’re going to keep dancing and in that positive zone until you either get distracted and lose interest or the song ends.”
Vile says that “Wakin on a Pretty Day” from the 2013 album Wakin on a Pretty Daze
used a similar concept.
“Well, I like the kind of songs that are two minutes, a blissful pop song that you want to play over and over again, except with ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day’ you don’t have to hit play as much,” he says. “You have to wait 10 minutes before you start it over again instead of two.”
And, of course, Vile is grateful to be playing live shows again.
“It’s awesome,” Vile says. “I connect to the fans. I feel like even on the last record I was connecting more with the audience, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect on things, you don’t take anything for granted. If people are coming out to see me, chances are they’re like me, which is obsessed with music. And now I’m not shy to look out at the audience and know that everybody’s into it.”
Kurt Vile and the Violators will perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Andrew J Brady Music Center. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Julia Shapiro of Chastity Belt will open the show. Info: bradymusiccenter.com
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