Published Apr 09, 2013Kurt Vile's songs sound like ones you might hear while flipping between classic rock radio stations on a long drive through Middle America. His drawling vocals and chiming mix of electric and acoustic guitars bear strong traces of forbears like Tom Petty and Bob Seger, while the cocoon of reverb adds to the sense of half-remembered nostalgia. The twist is that, unlike most of his influences, Vile favours bleary psychedelia over concise hooks and sprawling mega-jams over blue collar anthems. Wakin on a Pretty Daze will sound best out on the open highway, so long as the narcotic atmosphere doesn't put you to sleep at the wheel.
You've always written some fairly long songs, but the ones on this album are particularly long. What took you in that direction?
Like you said, I've always had that side of me. I guess I'm touring a lot and those epic songs accumulated. It's all pretty straightforward music, but I just developed this pacing thing. Not so much happens in the amount of time — it's slow enough, and there are enough changes in there that they're all catchy, but it doesn't get old. Or that was the theory, anyway. Also, I just left room to jam and I assumed, maybe, that I would edit it out, but it all felt really good. It was just the next logical step from making succinct pop songs. What do you do after that? You make pop songs that are longer and more epic, that push the envelope. Imagine your favourite song, or something that you play over and over in the car, except that you don't have to start it over as much.
Were the extended jams inspired by a live environment, when those moments are a big payoff?
In theory, you could write a song so you can jam it live. But, I think from just jamming the songs I already have written live, night after night, touring so much, you just develop so much as a guitar player, and you just find these modes where it feels good to keep going. That all blows over into your new songs. It's one continuum, really.
On your song "Was All Talk," you features the lyric "making music is easy." Is it really how you feel?
Yeah, totally. Now. I always felt that way. I wrote that line into another potential song, but it flipped right in there [into "Was All Talk"] really nicely. It's the epic type of song that feels good to play, and with the other words, I think I was just ready to say that. It's charmingly cocky, but [I'm] also feeling it.
It could come across as cocky, but your songs have such an easygoing nature that it's hard to imagine them being too laboured over.
Yeah, but they are. I mean, "laboured over" in a way where I keep working at them. It's not a slacker indie rock kind of thing. It's this style I've tapped into that ideally comes off laid back.
To what extent do the Violators or other musicians play a role in your albums?
The Violators play a big role, always, even if it's just for moral support. But this record in particular, the full-time Violators are Rob Laakso and Jesse Trbovich. They both played on the record a lot. [Laakso] is the newest multi-instrumentalist. He's really good with synthesizers and engineering in general. Both Jesse and Rob are brainiacs in their own way, but Rob, this was his first record really working with me full-time, so he was definitely a go-getter about it. Both Rob and Jesse were there the whole time, like a family. At the end of the day, I'm the one finalizing things, but they're definitely members of the band. It's a real band.
A couple of the songs sound like they were made with sampled beats rather than drums, so I wasn't sure if it was recorded live or pieced together.
It depends. Which songs do you think have beats?
"Was All Talk" is one.
Yeah, that totally has a beat and a sequencer. That was Rob's sequencer. My songs obviously have a lot going on, so I was going to rehearse it with a band, but I had so many ideas in my head that it would have killed a lot of momentum and energy and vibe if I had to sit around and teach it to them. A lot of times I would have Rob program the drum machine, even in songs like "Wakin on a Pretty Day," where things speed up and slow down, I told Rob where to speed it up and slow it down. I played to a drum machine just so, that way, at the very least, my parts would be down and solid to a drum machine so that that's not useless. I could add drums later, which we did do. When I went to L.A. and Stella [Mozgawa], my friend from Warpaint, played on the record, one song — "Girl Called Alex" — she played on right at the end of the night. We thought it was just a demo or scratch. I was really exhausted. But then we listened back. The difference of playing live with a drummer versus the other way around is night and day for vibe reasons. That was so musical. It made me sad we didn't do more live together, so I did fly her to New York later and she played live to "Shame Chamber" and also "Never Run Away." So there's both ways.
Having had that experience, is fully live-off-the-floor recording something you're going to pursue in the future?
I like to do them both, but yeah, ideally, next time I want a full band in there the whole time. Or a lot more. Lay it down with the real, live energy and then overdub. This was a very experimental record and I was also between drummers. I had a lot of guests. There was a growing, sea change kind of thing going on.
In what ways was this an experimental record?
They always are, but sometimes more than others. Smoke Ring for My Halo was my least experimental record because it was so song-y. This one, the songs are there, but then we'd be in there trying different electric guitars and synthesizers, whatever it called for. With "Was All Talk," with the sequencer and then triggering an ARP 2600 that Rob did with popping synthesizer bongos. There's so many things. Noise, whatever.
The album cover is a big wall mural. How did that come together?
It came together beautifully, serendipitously with this guy Steve Powers who's from Philadelphia, where I'm from as well. He contacted me, actually, by chance, about something else. We had mutual friends and it quickly dawned on me who he was. My manager was a big help in that too. It all fell into place. We needed an album cover and he was stoked to do it. He was a fan and I became a fan really quickly. We just went for it and I was stoked to use modern art — also through a mutual friend, keeping it in the family. I like that that exists. On a smaller scale, I found a really cool kid from Philadelphia who helped lay everything out. I always look forward to that day that I can have art connections that are close to home. That took me a while, for whatever reason, to have those connections. Artwork is always sort of a bitch, you know? Unless it's really DIY. It worked out. He's an amazing artist.
Did you have to get permission to use the building?
Steve Powers has a whole art installation called Love Letter where he has all these amazing paintings with message all along the Frankford "L," which is an L-Train in Philly. All along the subway, the elevated train, you see them on buildings. They're nice messages and beautiful paintings. He just has all these connections. There's actually a guy he knew and my bandmates know that bought a building, and he just let us do it. So it's, like, there, this mural. Everybody who rides the "L" sees it. It's so colourful. It's so cool to have my own mural, let alone [one] by a great artist.
So it still exists, it wasn't white-washed as soon as the photo was taken?
No, it's a legit mural.
You used to play in the War on Drugs with Adam Granduciel, who also has played in the Violators. Do you still have a collaborative creative relationship?
He's one of my best friends of all time. We don't see each other as much anymore. I just saw him for the first time in forever. He's recording my friend's band, who was visiting, so I was hanging over there and checking his studio and I played on my friend's recording. We'll definitely play together again. He didn't play on this record. We both have our careers and our bands right now. We're not in a rhythm of seeing each other as much. We're adults and it's a bummer I don't get to see him as much, so that's why I'm always stoked to see him. We're not in the same rhythm, and I knew that I had my own band and my own vision, and for this record I just did that. He's got such a unique style that he's been a part of everyone one of my records. I just went with my own thing since I haven't seen him in a while and he's working on his own record. But we'll definitely work together again. It will be sweet.