Getting Back To Your Roots: In Conversation With Kurt Vile

2015 saw the release of some truly astounding albums, but one of my absolute favourites came from Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile. His sixth album, b’lieve i’m goin down…, saw Vile return to his folky, relaxed roots, and work through quite a bit of inner turmoil. Documenting existential crises, isolation and alienation with his typically hilarious lyricism, he delivered one of the best records of the year with this album.

Since then, he has slowly started to pick up speed with a gradually growing world tour, and now his sights are set firmly on Down Under as he prepares to make his way to Falls Festival and Southbound Festival over the New Year’s Eve period. The once War on Drugs member hasn’t played on Australian soil since last year’s Laneway festival, but his absence has definitely been noted by his loyal fans.

Ahead of his Australian appearances, we had the honour to have a chat with him during a brief break from Christmas preparations for his family to talk about getting back to his roots, dressing up for a country club Santa photo and how he is turning into his father. You can check all tour dates for Kurt Vile and his band The Violators below.

What’s going on, Kurt?

Not much, just sitting on my stoop in Philly. I’m sluggishly getting ready for Christmas.

You have young daughters, so are you doing a big Christmas?

I feel like it’s a big Christmas for them. They definitely get spoiled with plenty of presents but being that they’re little and our family is little, it’s also a little Christmas at the same time.

Do you play Santa for them?

No *laughs* It’s funny, I just visited my family with my siblings for Christmas and -it wasn’t my idea but I still ran with it- we all got pictures taken with Santa Claus. We got all the brothers around Santa Claus and it was really funny because we had to get dressed up because it was at a country club or something fucking lame like that. It was at my sister’s country club and she was stressing because we had to dress a certain way, which we did but it’s really funny on us and we’re all around Santa. I put it up on my Instagram and now it looks like it was my idea!

A very merry Vile brother Christmas

A photo posted by Kurt Vile (@kurtvile) on

Well I wanted to say, congratulations on the album! It’s one of my favourites for the whole year.

Oh thank you so much! I really appreciate it.

How are you feeling about everything with it? Are you kind of used to this now with so many albums already? Does it get any easier?

I was excited. This record didn’t do as good as I thought.  I know it did really well, but I think it’s a really deep and musical record and I feel like a lot of music that people listen to now is not necessarily either one of those anymore. It’s just a different kind of thing and I think the record is dark and deep enough that it alienates some people. But at the same time, some people love it and I’m grateful. Ultimately I’m happy. I’m always happy with the way it turns out. I’m still into the record and I’m excited to play it on tour, but I’m already thinking about the next one. It takes a while for a record to come out so between then and now I’ve already been thinking about new music.

It’s interesting that you say that because I think this record in particular is much more enjoyable as a whole. You can listen to the songs individually, of course, but to listen to the entire record as a whole is how it’s kind of intended, right? That’s not really how albums are made anymore.

Right! That’s how I always make a record. A lot of friends of mine do the same thing too. My friend Adam [Granduciel] from The War On Drugs always makes his albums that way. I feel like, some people still build an album up and have limited tracks for it, whereas I record lots and lots of songs and then I figure out what songs fit where. I’m glad to hear you point that out that it is made to be listened to as a whole. Even myself recently, we all have to use the internet and I do, but I feel like everything I did when it came to lyrics and notes and stuff was put into virtual notes and calendars looked up online on top of everything else- it hurt my brain after a while. I just like writing notes in a notepad, you know? Things that you don’t do anymore. It’s much better. It makes your brain feel better.

Absolutely. The actual physical act of writing something down helps you so much. Do you think it’s good for creativity as well?

Totally. Whether it’s your computer or your phone, you go and try to put a note in there but you have all these dumb alerts and you forget what you’re fucking doing. Everything you’re trying to do is in this little stupid square. It’s the worst.

Well you said this time around you wanted to do a lot of the stuff yourself, instead of going into a studio and having everyone setting everything up for you and do everything for you. This time around you did it differently, is this kind of like that? To get the “real” song?

Yeah I think so. I think you can definitely still create just as great and candid performances under all those circumstances, but I just felt like I got used to sitting around and people setting things up perfectly. You can’t just turn on the inspiration. It was better for me to, in some ways, get back to my roots but in a more hi-fi version of just feeling like you’re in somebody’s house recording. Eventually I had to go to the studio but after a while, but I think ultimately it started without anybody not in the band involved. It keeps it more insular and more natural.

Do you feel like you’ve come full circle going back to your roots in this more polished way?

I think I’ve gone back to my roots. I feel it all the time. Sort of like when I was telling you that I record a lot of songs, I have a crazy memory where I remember all these songs I wrote on a 12-string guitar because I just recently got one, but I used to play it all the time. All these riffs are coming out in songs that I would always play but never did anything with. I feel like I can tap into my roots all the time now. Every time I think about recording, I’m not imagining a perfectly set up studio, I’m imagining starting from the ground up, even if that only ends up being demos. It’s moving from the ground up, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “This is all great!” I know this like the back of my hand, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t have to be emotionally executed. You can just go to the hi-fi studio afterwards and really polish it off. Recently, I feel like I’m in a good place.

Totally! Like with I’m An Outlaw which you wrote on the banjo, which you don’t often do but you used to all the time when you were a child – is it a cathartic thing to be revisiting all of that now?

I think I’ve always done it in a way, but it is cathartic. I think I refined it. I always talk about the music my dad played when we were growing up, like bluegrass and old-time, and now I’m starting to feel like i’m just like my dad but an even more obsessive version, like just listening to so much country music. I’ve always been really obsessive. That early American music I listened to growing up is in my DNA, but now I just keep consuming it. That’s where music came from basically. It’s the roots of rock’n’roll. Even just with myself, musically, no one is ever going to be able to quite touch it. A lot of people just stop at rock’n’roll. People say guitar music is dead or that people hardly play it anymore, but I don’t even notice that. There is always going to be guitar music. I do think sometimes that even though there is guitar music, it still comes from a pretty modern place, or at least a “rock” place. But in certain ways you can go deeper and deeper into the roots, and people aren’t going to know why but at least I’ll know it’s untouchable, and I hope a lot of other people will too. Probably a lot of dads! *laughs* A lot of 60 year old grandparents.

They’re the ones who are still buying the records! It really is quite a melancholy record though – were you feeling all this despair at the time of making it?

I think I was definitely feeling despair at the time, but why not? Ultimately it was pretty good to bring me out on the other side. I feel better now than when I was making the record, for sure. I feel like there are a lot of things to be freaked out about and a lot of things to be happy about like a billion times a day. It’s like a rollercoaster!

Do you ever feel uneasy thinking about the vulnerability on this record and knowing all these people are listening to that?

No, because it’s heartwarming and/or a compliment when someone really gets it so I know it’s valid. But then, a different type will mock it, so it’s always well-balanced.

How have the live shows been with the new material? I’ve noticed your most recent setlists don’t actually feature the new stuff that much? 

I think the only songs we haven’t played so much, because there are a couple of songs in particular that Stella [Mozgawa of Warpaint] played on and she is just such a natural that I know we could get it without her but it just won’t be quite the same, like Lost My Head There and Life Like This. We’re definitely going to mix it up when we come down to Australia and New Zealand.

Awesome! I am so excited see you play again, it’s been a while!

Yeah I’m so excited to come back as well. We’re having a family vacation after the tour, they’re meeting me in Dunedin and then we’re going to come back to Melbourne. Between New Zealand and Australia, I’m chilling out there for another 3 weeks with my family. I’m just so excited.

Kurt Vile tour dates:

Falls and Southbound festivals:

Jan 8-10, 2016
Busselton, WA
Details here

Falls Festival:
Lorne (Relocated to Mount Duneed Estate), VIC
Dec 28, 2015-Jan 01, 2016

Marion Bay, TAS
Dec 29, 2015- Jan 01, 2016

Byron Bay, NSW
Dec 31, 2015 – Jan 03, 2016

Details here

Sideshows with Twerps:
Sunday 3 January – The Forum, Melbourne
Thursday 7 January – Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Details here