“I dunno. I’m not good at explaining cities to people.”
When I get Kurt Vile on the phone for our interview, he’s just arrived in Paris, France. Having never been there myself -- or even outside of the country, if we’re being honest (I know, I know) -- I ask him if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.
“I mean, Paris…has got such a romantic thing about it. If you’ve never been there, you can only imagine it’s like paradise or something. Which, in a way, it is.” [laughs]
Even though Vile -- a Philadelphia-based, almost-monotone-voiced, acoustic guitar-strummin’ troubadour that toes the line between the early introspective folk of Bob Dylan, the freeform psych blues/Americana of the Grateful Dead and the indie-rock quirkiness of Pavement -- has had more than a modicum of success at this point, he seems genuinely surprised when he ends up overseas and is mobbed (well, maybe not mobbed) by overzealous fans.
“Audiences are different all over,” Vile explains to me when I ask him about his reception outside of the states. “For instance, I was in Italy yesterday. Fans are intense when they see you on the street. They all want photos with you. They kind of act like that you imagined your sister acted when she was running toward the New Kids on the Block back in the day. In some ways, it’s a little more subtle. But it’s a little intense like that. It’s just kind of funny. I’m like, ‘You realize that I’m not that big of a rock star, right?’”
Oh, but he is. Kurt Vile, who, along with his band the Violators, are in the midst of a tour that’ll bring them to San Diego’s House of Blues on Tuesday, Aug. 9, is the new kind of rock star. He’s, dare I say, a brilliant singer-songwriter who seems almost too awkward in his own skin offstage but is tailor-made for a generation too ironic for its own good -- a population of youth that laughs at leathery-faced frontmen in equally leathery pants with tired, look-at-me-now bravado. Instead, they're endeared to musicians that really have no interest in the limelight. For all of his alternately beautiful and dour music, Vile looks like a rock star’s uncomfortable hippie roadie -- not the main attraction. If people freak out over him, well, that’s their problem.
“Some people are nonchalant about being fans. And other times they’ll trigger that kind of [makes a kind of rawwwwr sound] electricity in the air, it triggers all my awkwardness. I have tons of awkwardness in me. I can either be natural or really awkward. But, you know, I’ve for sure done the same thing when I was a kid.”
It’s fascinating to hear Vile talk about his past efforts versus his latest album, 2015’s Matador Records release “b’lieve I’m goin down.” He comes across like he’s talking about two entirely different people. He refers to his early records as written by a “kid.” But it wasn’t all that long ago that he released his first albums (2008’s “Constant Hitmaker” and 2009's "Childish Prodigy") with the help of the War on Drugs’ frontman Adam Granduciel (who played in the Violators for a while before, you know, going on to other things). They, and the next couple of records that followed them, were atmospheric, forlorn, mostly-acoustic gems of stoned contemplation. Nowadays, his style has evolved into a fuller sound with the help of his band, and according to Vile, his whole process has changed too -- especially when it comes to lyricism.
“It can get a little psychedelic,” he says. “But I kind of pride myself that these days, I’ve been writing my lyrics a little more concise all the time. So I won’t have some psychedelic imagery one day where I decide lay it down now and figure out what it means later … I think these days it comes out more plain. Sort of an inner monologue.”
Does he ever play or hear songs now that he wrote years ago, and ascertain some kind of meaning from them that he couldn’t then?
“There’s some mysticism in that,” Vile said. “You can make anything mean anything. The first truth is your subconscious, it’s almost like analyzing your dreams or something. Especially if it comes fast. Like ‘Freeway’ [the first song off his debut album] -- it used to be called ‘Freeway in Mind’ back in 2004. Before it was a poppy version, the song came out really fast and you know, it’s a stream of consciousness and it came really quick and all made sense to me. Sometimes things just come really fast. I feel like when I was younger, I was like ‘What does it mean?’ … I think Bob Dylan or whoever, say sometimes things just come so fast and you can’t possibly know what it means at the time. Then you look back and it makes perfect sense.”
Maybe in 10 years from now, he’ll say the same thing about “b’lieve I’m goin down,” but for now, he’s confident and satisfied with the direction his music has taken over the past few years, and he’s surprisingly self-aware of what it’s supposed to sound like.
“I think now more than ever, I sort of have that uncertainty and this sort of American-roots kind of ghostly/psychedelic/sad thing. I think, when I’m one with my guitar, I feel it. It’s always a trial to see how it’ll come out in the recordings. I can say I’m sure my next record will be an extension of this record. But there’s a lot of different things -- there’s not as many guitar solos. I’m not sure why that is really, but I think there’ll be more letting loose. I don’t know how, but I think it’ll be really musical and kind of ghostly and kind of, sort of, an American dark crunch record. Not really a crunch twang.”
"American dark crunch record." I’d never thought of describing Vile’s music against a textural backdrop, but when it’s coming from the horse’s mouth, you gotta take it. And it fits in a strange way. With “b’lieve I’m goin down” serving as maybe the closest version of Kurt Vile & the Violators that he hears in his own head (to-date anyway), he glows like a father raving about their kid’s student of the month award when he speaks about it.
“I’m still really proud of this one,” he said. “I think it sounds good through my phone, even blasted through Spotify, since I’m going deaf, and it’s maxed and distorted. I’m proud of this one -- especially toward the end. I started with songs like ‘Kidding Around,’ and then at a certain point I thought it’d be a misstep because it was a little too raw, and then I’d go back and I realized no -- that’s the way the record sounded before there was a ‘Life Like This’ and the more poppier jams. It was all … a little unhinged but not overplayed. I guess minimal, no overdubs, kinda live.”
While he doesn’t say when the next record’s coming, it sounds like he’s either already made it or in the process of making it. In the past, Vile’s records were almost cathartic exercises in melancholy, exhibiting both despair and hope at getting more out of life than he had. Now, his lyrics come from a different place (“There’s different problems. Life problems,” he says), and his band may blow his mind on a constant basis (“I play with them because they all add such unique things that I could never add. And they’re always things that are added in the moment”), but every now and then, he still reminisces about simpler times. Because after all, he’s still the same Kurt Vile that recorded those spacious lo-fi acoustic masterpieces all of those years ago.
“I am a little nostalgic about the past, about making a sad record while I was still working a job. There’s a certain sense of urgency there. I like the idea of all the old records and the idea of not knowing what’s going to happen next,” he tells me.
After a short pause, he adds, “And I still don’t know what’s going to happen next. Now, I just have a record deal and a little success.”
And with that, he chuckles -- and makes his way into Paris.
Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow; plays in Diamond Lakes and Boy King; and runs the music-equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.