When I went to see Kurt Vile & the Violators in June of 2014, it was on the recommendation of a friend – a fellow new dad who was treating himself to a rare escape from the immersive world of pureed pears and kids music.
All I knew about Kurt was what my friend had told me - he was a Philadelphia native and had been writing and recording songs since he was in in his early teens. Kurt was young, and he was prolific and had left “The War on Drugs,” a band he cofounded, to follow his own creative muse.
Walking into the show, I’d listened to “Wakin on a Pretty Daze,” the album he was touring behind, probably three or four times, but he was delivering the songs at ten times the volume I’d expected. Admittedly, I was put off at first. But once my sensitive ears adjusted, the experience settled into the best live show I’d seen in years (intensely loud at times, interspersed with a few emotional solo pieces), and over the months that followed, a slight Kurt Vile obsession ensued.
When I found out he was my contemporary (only six months apart in age), with two little girls nearly exactly the same ages as my own, Kurt’s music began to mean even more. I heard the nuance in his lyrics and melodies as reflections of my experience (I’d also grown up in southern Pennsylvania in the 90’s).
Kurt’s latest album, “b’lieve i’m goin down,” (out September 25) provided the perfect excuse to have a chat with this indie rock dad and guitar hero. Like his music, Kurt is driven yet humble, rambling but eloquent, with an occasional dash of levity and self-deprecating humor. His new album reflects all of those elements, with a refreshing realness that defies concise description.
You need to take a listen to Pitchfork’s “best new music” to understand.
When I reached him in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Kurt was with his family, practicing with his band, while awaiting the release of the new album and getting his head right for his upcoming North American and European tour.
Congrats on the new album, Kurt. The reason I wanted to interview you is because I saw you in Burlington, Vermont last year. I said, “who is this young kid on the stage – this total rocker?” I loved your music and the show so much that I looked you up and found out that you’re a dad.
I’m not as young as you thought, huh? You have kids?
I do. Almost three, and just about five months. How about you? How old are yours these days?
Five and almost three.
So you’ve been exactly where I am, and you made it through. That’s good! I wanted to ask – do
they like the movie “Frozen?” Or have you somehow avoided its addictive clutches.
Of course! We were just watching it the other day. You know there are those certain movies, especially the new ones that kids go crazy for, and they’ll make it so you can’t stream it, and you have to buy it? You ever notice this? You can’t stream it on Amazon, or it doesn’t exist on Netflix?
They’ve seen “Frozen” just enough times, but not like over and over again. But I feel like we never let them watch a certain movie over and over again. After a while, it gets annoying. In general, the music in the new movies and the way they talk like in some of the “tween” stuff, has definitely gotten way more annoying. But having said that, that movie “Brave” is actually really good. Have you seen that one? That slays.
I have. It’s good. As a songwriter, how do you feel about Disney or Pixar’s ability to make a song so catchy that it can stay in your head for months?
I appreciate that. It’s funny too, because I like Randy Newman, who is underappreciated in certain circles. But if I mention his name among a certain demographic, they’re like “Oh, you mean the guy who does all the Pixar soundtracks?” I guess he does all the Toy Story soundtracks. That’s not what I’m talking about at all, but even so, I’m glad he does that.
By the way, did you see the newest Pixar movie, “Inside Out?” I’m always pretty low serotonin after any trip, and I did a European press tour that was just a little over two weeks, and the number of interviews I did was nuts. But anyway, somebody recommended that I see that movie to see if my kids would like it or whatever, and I was flying home and watched it on the plane. And yeah, I was tearing up for like no reason basically (laughs).
That’s awesome. Yeah, those movies'll get you. I wanted to also ask you about your songwriting process, which sounds a little different from the cartoons. The recent Grantland piece painted you as this stay-up-all-night, tequila-swilling guy. That’s how you created a lot of the songs on your upcoming album, at least. What would you say are the keys to your creative process?
Yeah, it’s funny about that feature and the whole alcohol thing, cause there’s numerous concoctions or zero concoctions at any time. It’s not just alcohol or about abusing yourself or not abusing yourself or staying up. But it reached a peak for whatever reason where I was staying up really late.
There’s something you can capture when you keep staying up and make your band stay up, you know? There’s a certain type of music that comes out after a while.
I feel like I’m sort of getting out of it now. I like the idea of doing stuff during the day, or maybe not taking a drop of anything. It just depends. A lot of it has to do with, by the time we get together , they’re all waiting on me, and by the time I actually getting around to delivering anything, time goes by really fast, so before you know it, it’s really late. But we gotta get something, so we’re like “let’s keep going!”
How do you balance those late nights with being a dad?
I think it’s just because of my unique, I guess you’d call it my job, which is pretty much to be creative and write music and get it down. It would be different if I was always in the studio that late for the better part of a year, but I had a new record in the pipeline, so I was going for it. And then all of a sudden you go on tour. Yeah, I think that, ultimately, the nightlife, with all of its fuels and tools, that all helps you out for a while. You get a lot of stuff done, but then you have to clean up and get straight.
I’ve been waking up really early lately, actually. It’s really convenient, cause I came from Europe, so I am waking up at 7 a.m., but it’s really like 1 o’clock in Europe, so I just decided to stay on a more normal thing and get up with my family and stuff. I brought them up to New York, and now I’m practicing with the band, and in the morning, we’ll get up and do stuff together, and then I’ll go and jam with the band again in the early evening.
So you wrote most of the new songs in the studio, as opposed to at home on the couch alone? Is that normal for you?
If I have deadlines pending or sessions coming, I will stay up. I’ll definitely stay up at home writing, or preparing, at certain times. Once I’m out of the studio, my family’s not around anyway, cause I’m usually elsewhere. But even if I’m in Philly, they understand. Once I’m working, I get really into it. I feel like I’m always going to stay up relatively late if I’m creating or recording, but I like the idea of entertaining the more morning creativity. Either way, I think I just reached an extreme with it on this record.
You can’t really set up any rules, cause you’ll figure out the methods – what works and what’s working. It’s all a pretty maddening but really fun art form and career that way, I guess.
You let the creativity flow and let it do what it wants to do. How does that manifest when you’re with your family?
I’ll just zone out. I mean, I’ll write stuff throughout the day all the time. I’ll go to the piano or the guitar or the banjo – I’ve been doing it a lot lately, that’s why I’m thinking of it. I’ll just be messing around with a few bars and just zone out. I feel like I bounce around a lot more than I used to, at least during the day. I’ll just be writing a few different things throughout the day most days if I’m in a good headspace.
With my family, it’s almost like all of a sudden I’m just playing music. There’s lots of music in the house. They don’t object or anything. I think we’re all kind of space cadets in our own way, so it’s like, if I space out in my own world for a second, I think that people understand that or whatever.
In what ways is your wife involved with managing your tour and career?
She doesn’t really manage me. She sort of helps – I mean she helps with a million things. After a certain point, I just said she needs to sorta watch - I mean, if she’s interested in what sort of money I’m making, then she needs to look, cause I’m really bad at that. I can’t do what I’m doing and also count the money and understand where it’s coming from and how much there is. It’s like the opposite of my brain. To try to tally everything up on top of writing music and performing and recording is crazy. I like the idea of it, but when it gets really specific, someone else has to figure it out.
You’ve been successful for a while now, but you’ve clearly put in your time. How does it feel to know you’re able to make enough money from music and enjoy some degree of security?
It does feel good. I guess at the same time, we’re by no means rich. I make a funny joke about that. Like, if all of a sudden, you have a song in a commercial or a big movie, or out of nowhere your record sold like crazy and you got like a freak situation where you got a lot of money and basically became rich overnight, right?
I like the idea – it’s sort of a joke – say you have a ranch or something like Neil Young. Like I don’t know anything about cars, but I buy a car and ask my friends like, “Hey, you like my new car?” and they say, “Yeah, what kind is it?” and I say “Um, it’s a sports car.” (laughs) “Yeah, but what brand is that?” “Uh, it’s a sports car.” With my style of music, it’s a little bit different, but I’m still having a good time.
How is touring for you? Is it hard being away from your family?
I mean, I’m working nights. It’s not like anything ever gets so out of hand, you know? I mean, we’re all adults here. I work a different schedule. When the family’s away, I’m away. I guess if it was a Guns ‘N Roses scenario, that would be different, but it’s all pretty civilized. It’s pretty normal.
When I go away, I always miss my family, but it goes by faster for me now. And I am grateful that I have both really, because I love to play music. It’s not like I’m waiting for the tour to be over, per se, when I’m in the thick of it. I worked up to this situation, and it’s my chance to try to own it with every record. You can’t take that stuff for granted really. Sometimes you get used to it, and you could for a second. But how many times really are you gonna have yourself poised to, like, make a statement or something?
I feel like I’ll be able to put out a lot of records, but still, the process seems to be a little bit more exhausting all the time. I’m going to still do it, and I assume they’re always going to be a little better, but at the same time, how do I know that for sure? This is the time where I’m supposed to really go for it. My record’s about to come out, so I really gotta go out and make a splash, you know?
Okay. Last question. Parent.co recently had a popular story about alternative ways to ask your kid how their day was other than, "How was your day?" So you can ask your kid, "Who picked their nose today? Who would you most want to blow up with a laser? Who would you like to see teach the class instead of the teacher?" just random stuff to get kids talking. When you're on tour, what question would get you talking, rather than "How was your day?"
Who didn't vomit this morning? Hopefully everyone will raise their hand, including me. (laughs)
What about for your kids? What's a creative way you get them to talk if they aren’t in the mood?
Just honestly incorporate anything about Greek mythology for my oldest. She's obsessed. Then, I don't know. The other one you could just ... If you think of anything goofy, she'll break out.
Awesome. Thanks, Kurt. Huge congratulations on your new record. Enjoy the tour and good luck.
Thanks a lot.