2011 has been a great year for Kurt Vile. In March, Matador released his fourth album, Smoke Ring For My Halo — probably the most cohesive expression of his ability to skirt the boundaries that separate ambient music, freak-folk, and accessible 70s-style AM pop. The album has received almost universal acclaim, and Vile has wisely toured the hell out of it in the ensuing months.
Prefix caught up with Vile after a great set on a brutally hot and humid afternoon, where — it must be said — his hair still looked impressive.
How do you think your set went today?
I think it went pretty good. Summer festivals are rough, playing outside and stuff. It was a little noisy onstage but I heard it sounded great out there.
Yeah, I thought it sounded great. Especially considering you were playing at prime heatstroke time.
Yeah, totally. It’s not the most natural time for us to really get into the zone of playing. We’re more night people.
Smoke Ring for My Halo seems a little more accessible than your previous albums in that it’s less ambient and the songs have a little more of a pop structure. What was your mindset when you wrote the songs on Smoke Ring? Did you set out to make a different kind of album?
Same mindset I always had. When I write songs, I write them at home, almost 90% of the time at home with an acoustic so they usually come off kind of pretty. And even [Childish Prodigy track] “Hunchback”, that’s a song we recorded pretty heavy. But when I’m at home, it’s acoustic and kind of prettied up. I bought a new Martin guitar at the time and I was using at home to get ready to record and it came out real acoustic — which is fine. It’s just me. It’s a tighter record; we all play better now.
I hear a lot of bizarre ways to describe your music, like “like if weed picked up a guitar and started playing.” Do you have a particularly favorite way you’ve heard your music described?
I’m stoked when they say I sound like people I love, like Neil Young, or the Rolling Stones, or John Fahey, or Dinosaur Jr, or something.
I feel like that’s kind of a natural tendency when you’re talking about younger artists, to make reference to older artists. But it seems to be an almost knee-jerk reaction when people are talking about your music.
I’m a real obsessive dude. I consume like a sponge. I mean, I put my own spin on it, but I can definitely pick things up. There’s all kinds of subconscious referencing going on. I mean, there might be a line or something that’s influenced by another song, or a riff. I think it’s that way with all music — nothing’s from outer space. It all gets passed down generation to generation.
It seems as though people are starting to look to Philadelphia more as an artistic hub than they used to, and not just like, “oh yeah, the Roots are from there.” What’s your take on Philly’s music scene? Do you feel like it’s a supportive place, good for young artists?
Definitely a supportive place for sure. It’s small, but there’s great bands there and we all kind of know each other. I’m sure there’s different scenes. There’s my buddies…well, Jack Rose, who unfortunately passed away, was a great guitar player. Greg Weeks from Espers, Pissed Jeans. There’s all kinds of great record stores. Some buddies of mine put on shows…my buddy Richie put out one of my records. He used to play in a band called Clock Cleaner. Even Blues Control lived there for a little while. My bandmate Adam’s band, The War On Drugs. Plenty of great music.
Do you plan to start working with The War On Drugs again?
I played on two songs on [The War On Drugs’] new record. I was stoked to play on those songs, but I was more involved in the early days. Obviously the first record I was very involved in, but our relationship started before then. Even before Adam and I were figuring out a style, I would play in his band and he would play in my band. We were playing shows all the time and really developing a craft, and then he found a record deal first. I’ve always been really obsessed about my own thing. Once he got signed, I started reading blogs that were like, “Oh, Kurt Vile from The War On Drugs has a solo side project” and I got so pissed off! Now it’s two different things.
You know, I got a wife and a one-year old daughter. I’ve got so much on my plate; if I’m going to succeed I’ve gotta just focus on my own thing. But I’ve been lucky to have Adam play with us as much as he does. The next few tours he’s not going to play with us because his record’s out. He comes back when he can and I’m super grateful for that.
Has driving a forklift made you the world’s best parallel parker?
No, it’s opposite! You know, the wheels are in the back of a forklift. So maybe [laughs].
So what’s on deck for the rest of the summer? Are you going back into the studio to start working on new songs?
I think I’m going to start my record in the spring. I think I’m going to start recording it leisurely because I’ve been moving at a fast pace, which I felt like I needed to do. I feel like I’ve paid my dues, in a sense, because all summer…I’m touring throughout the summer into the fall, like, a lot. After that, I’ll do a couple random gigs, and then after Thanksgiving we’ll go to Australia, and then it’s gonna be Christmas. I would like to maybe just not do anything all winter and work on songs at home and then maybe go in the studio in the spring. We’ll see.
I know I’m going to do the record with [Smoke Ring For My Halo producer] John Agnello again. I have an idea of where I want to record it. But yeah, I just really want to take it slow for once. It’s a crazy business anyway, where you’ve got to move fast. I mean, you have two choices: you can do it, or not do it. The record gets good reviews…you can tour the hell out of it, and that would be the time to do it, or you can say, oh, I’m not going to do it. You most likely won’t be as successful if you don’t go for it. I figure if I bust my ass now, I’ll have earned not having to do something for a while down the road. That’ll be nice.