Kurt Vile on “(watch my moves),” Changing Labels, John Prine, and a Lifetime of Influences | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Kurt Vile on “(watch my moves),” Changing Labels, John Prine, and a Lifetime of Influences

Another Long Song

Apr 14, 2022 Web Exclusive
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On the eve of releasing his eighth solo studio album, (watch my moves), Kurt Vile has certainly established himself as a solo artist of renown. Following a short stint with The War on Drugs and a handful of early albums, Vile released five solo albums and a collaboration with Courtney Barnett (Lotta Sea Lice) on venerable indie label Matador. As he shares below, Vile jumped to Verve recently due to the label’s iconic reputation and the lure of a legendary list of artists that preceded him there. Clearly, creating room for Vile to release his longest album to date evidenced the label’s comfort in bringing him on board.

Speaking via Zoom from his home in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, Vile had a full day of press ahead of him, but couldn’t have been more relaxed and excited to talk about his upcoming release. Vile’s signature long locks were covered up by a Meow Wolf logo beanie, but all topics from the earliest days of the pandemic, to an ever growing list of musical heroes and collaborators, and how (watch my moves) came to be, were open for exploration. At one point in our discussion, Vile describes (watch my moves) as being a deep record, and that’s as much for what he reveals along the way in terms of what and who motivates him as it is for the content there is to explore. And Vile was more than willing to help decipher a few clues along the way.

Mark Moody (Under the Radar): Hey, Kurt. How’s it going?

Kurt Vile: Good. How are you doing?

I’m good. I’ve been a fan for a long time, seen your live show many times. So it’s good to have a chance to talk to you. You’re in Philly today?

I’m in Philly, yep. I’m at home.

I’ve been listening to the new album [(watch my moves)] for a couple of weeks, so really enjoying that. Maybe if we could talk about your past two years during the pandemic and shut down how that’s been for you?

For me, aside from all the obvious anxieties and tragedies that happened because of it, it was good. I wasn’t moving around so much. I have daughters at home and they’re homeschooled, and I was working toward being functional on my own again by building a studio and things like that. So for me, it was pretty good in those positive ways. I hear a lot of people say the same thing. I think you just realize who you are as a person and what’s good and what is important to you. I feel like people are more aware of things. Never a dull moment, let’s put it that way.

It’s definitely been an interesting couple of years outside of the pandemic itself. And it’s interesting to see the albums that are starting to come out from this time period. I was expecting there to be some anxiety and frustrations and things coming out, but listening to your album and also Courtney Barnett’s last one [Things Take Time, Take Time], they are very reflective and more gentle. But just curious getting your thoughts on that.

Yeah, no, it’s true. It’s funny because Courtney is obviously a friend of mine, and we did a record together, and I loved her first single off the new album, “Rae Street.” I remember when I saw the teaser for it and the intro just sounded so good. Yeah, I was excited. It was teased, but it was also mission accomplished. And on “Rae Street” it’s kind of funny because she’s talking about the street she lived on. And then my latest single, “Mount Airy Hill,” is totally my neighborhood. One, it’s a coincidence that we both have a song like that. But two, no coincidence at all, really, because that’s what’s around us. Even before the pandemic, I would come home and have snapshot moments of sitting at my piano or looking outside. We’ve lived here in Mount Airy since 2016, and that really changed my life.

So you’re in more of a natural setting or relaxed environment where you are? I saw the “Crazy As a Loon” video you did for the John Prine tribute, so was that in your backyard?

Yeah, it’s still the city, and it’s not far from the center, but it’s just got a lot more trees and hills and mountainous trails.

So moving towards the new album, you have your daughters on the cover with you. How did you come to that decision? I know some artists are very protective of their kids and others are more inclined to get them involved with their music and what they’re doing. I also saw the video with your daughters for the Joe Biden thing you guys did and that was great.

Oh, thank you. We are protective of them too, but I’m still proud to show them when I can, when they give approval. They just animate my world, really. I don’t know how many album covers are just some dude on the front with a guitar and long hair. So it gets boring after a while. But also, the cover was due and I was looking at the woods behind me and it was Halloween. And it was two Halloweens in a row that I was home, since most Halloweens I’d be on the road. So it hit me because my daughter was pushing me to pick what I wanted to be for Halloween, and she’s like, “How about an alligator?” She picked out the mask for me. I said, “Maybe we can pick out a mask tomorrow or something,” but she’s the one who pushes it. She’s like my manager at home. She said, “Come on, let’s get your mask. Let’s get your mask,” and she picked it out.

And then that night on Halloween, I said we should all be in the picture because they looked so cool. They didn’t end up even wearing what they wore on Halloween, but they just dressed up as something else. But either way, the mask juxtaposed with the autumnal trees, the contrast. And I had my friends come and videotape us going out into the woods trying to do an album cover. I was like, “It’s either going to be entertaining trying to get an album cover, funny footage of that, or we’ll actually get the album cover.” So we got both. [Laughs]

Cool. That’s great. So your oldest looks just a little bit—I’m trying to figure out the expression on her face. She’s definitely not impressed.

Yeah. That just happens to be very early in the shoot, and she was definitely having fun but yeah, she comedically looked unimpressed [laughs] but she was having a great time.

Okay. So maybe talk about the move from Matador to Verve.

Yeah. Well, Matador is my family and my friends. I love them. And it was a dream of my life when I signed to Matador, home of Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, so many people I grew up listening to, Jon Spencer, all of them. That was a dream label. And my contract just happened to be up, and Verve approached us. It wasn’t like we were shopping ourselves around. I met the people there, and it was just an opportunity. I met the head of Verve, Jamie [Krenz]. He’s just a really great guy and also a musician. And maybe just even the fact that it’s a classic label, not an indie rock label, and they were interested in me. I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground. I don’t know. It just was an opportunity. It just made sense. It was just one of those things.

Gotcha. Okay. So did you have the album together when you were talking to them? Or it was based more on your reputation.

Luckily, before the pandemic hit, we had a couple of sessions done and three songs made this record from there. I was working on those anyway at the time, and so I had some stuff in the can. But I definitely remember it was pretty surreal and sci-fi. I signed the contract the day me and my manager Rennie [Jaffe] met at Johnny Brenda’s, the local club in Philly. We knew shit was about to go down [with the pandemic]. So I got home, and then everything was shut down.

So I very much started building the studio and writing lots of music. And I’m always thinking about how am I going to make every record different, but I knew there were a lot of different things going on in the world. And this was just my statement, 100%. All records are my personality. But this is me with my guard down, with nobody breathing down my neck, really, except who I want to be breathing down my neck, like my old buddy Rob Schnapf. He helped produce this record, and I saw him when I could. He came over here to the house, and no producer has ever come to my house to record before.

So speaking of doing things different, on “Mount Airy Hill,” is it fair to say you’re yodeling in that song?

Yeah, I guess. I mean, close to it. I’m doing a Hank Williams or more so Terry Allen or something. But, yeah, I’ve been pretty obsessed with older country music for over five years now.

You reference Hank Williams on “Cool Water” and I think maybe Marty Robbins in there. I knew you had a lot of admiration for some of the folk singers, but I guess I wasn’t aware of the older country music.

Yeah. I grew up on the staples through my dad. My dad listened to lots of bluegrass and old-time music, but also your Johnny Cash and your Hank Williams when I was a teen. As I got older, I started getting into Townes Van Zandt and all those gateway drugs, and definitely the Smithsonian American Folk Anthology and Delta Blues content. But then I think it was 2015, I read George Jones’ autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. He’s a maniac. He’s one of my early obsessions. Once you discover all the Waylon’s and the Willie’s, I mean, it just makes sense.

They’re legends, right?

They’re legends. They could sing and play circles around most rock and rollers. It makes a lot of the rock biographies obsolete. Makes those guys seem like posers. Terry Allen is my favorite now, I’m going to play a show with him in his hometown Santa Fe soon. We’ve hung out a couple of times. He is my modern outside country hero that is still kicking.

He’s got some reissues coming out I saw. So switching gears, the Bruce Springsteen cover that you do, “Wages of Sin,” I wasn’t familiar with the song. Probably a lot of people aren’t, I heard he played it live only one time.

Yeah, I liked Springsteen as a kid. I loved “Born in the USA” on the radio and things. I knew I liked him. But in my 20s, he hit me really hard. And now he’s like a member of the family. Sometimes we hang out, sometimes we don’t. But I love him. He’s The Boss. But certain songs especially will destroy you, like “Atlantic City” or “The River,” “Independence Day.” But I attempted a version of “Wages of Sin” back in 2007.

So how did you become aware of it?

In my 20s, on his compilation Tracks. I actually think Adam [Granduciel] from The War on Drugs had a copy. I borrowed his first. But songs like “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart,” “Restless Nights,” and “Wages of Sin,” these more minor songs really hit me. And I always just knew that was a deep cut and it really transcended some kind of thing. But anyway, I turned my bandmate, Kyle [Spence], my latest drummer, onto it during the Bottle It In tour and I said, I’ve been trying to find this old recording we did this before so we can do our own version. And at the time too, Springsteen had a new album that I was listening to on that tour a lot, Western Stars, which is my favorite record of his in a long time.

I think you also make another Springsteen reference to his song “Candy’s Room” on “Stuffed Leopard.” And there’s also a reference to someone ripping off a song about your father?

There’s a lot of references. It’s funny that it makes sense that they would be back to back but it all just happened that way. Those are the songs that made the record. There’s lots of cross-referencing in this record or maybe in the style of music that I’m doing lately. I also love the way Dylan is sort of doing that. He’s always done that but he’s doing that in a cool way lately too with his last couple of albums of original material. All these cross-references in a sort of surreal way. Like on “I Contain Multitudes.”

The reference to ripping off a song about your father is about the jazz song “Song For My Father” by Horace Silver. If you listen to the intro of Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” they stole it from “Song For My Father.”

Okay. Very interesting. I wasn’t sure what you were talking about there but I know that album. I wanted to ask you about how you met Cate Le Bon that you do the “Jesus on a Wire” song with. I was at Pitchfork Festival a few years ago and know your set got rained out and she was playing there too that day.

I was really sad. That was the second Pitchfork in a row that I got rained out. I remember getting over my sadness and the sun came back out and I was watching Stereolab from the side of the stage and then the Isley Brothers, so that was exciting.

That was the start of the tour with Cate and it wasn’t long after that we did the session together. But we met up there and I was really excited to play with her. I know her through Stella Mozgawa and they’re really close. I liked her music and when the song “Home to You” came out, that melody gets stuck in your head. I didn’t realize she produced records too. She did the last Deerhunter and I was like, “Wow.” So after I played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco we drove up to Stinson Beach and recorded at Panoramic for a few days.

Gotcha. One last song. On “Fo Sho,” you sing about, “It’s going to be another long song.” And I know that’s kind of a trademark of yours, but I was wondering, in terms of having so many albums now, when you tour, how do you decide how to put a setlist together of reasonable length with all these long songs in there?

Yeah, I mean, especially this record. We finally have enough records, and we’re going to have to mix it up, which will be cool in theory, but we also need to get comfortable playing the songs that feel good. But it’s yet to be seen, to be honest. [Laughs] But I think a cool idea will be to try and mix it up for once.

So you’re not going to do like Bruce and go for the three-hour sets?

Yeah, better not. [Laughs] Not until we can pull it off. [Laughs

I wanted to ask you about being a musician now in your early 40s. Was there a point you felt you had made it, or if you feel a greater level of comfort in what you’re doing today?

Yeah. Oh, well, there’s different stages. I feel like only now having lots of different experiences, especially being able to collaborate with John Prine. He was such a great songwriter. He’s a timeless songwriter and he’ll be known forever. But there’s stages, because you think, “Is this a young man’s game where I’ll just get less and less fans?” And maybe it’s true, maybe my shows will get smaller, whatever, but I still am always going to make a living at it. But this record is just a statement on its own. It’s not about being hip or young. It’s just a deep record.

You think about somebody like Nick Cave, and I know I’m not there yet, but I think it’s amazing he’s such a crazy performer, but I don’t think he’s been playing arenas until the last couple of years. I’ll play whatever kind of gigs come to me, but who knows? One day maybe I would be able to fill a bigger arena of sorts.

I’m happy with where I am, but I am competitive. I do go through moments where I turn into Gollum [laughs] and say it’s not fair, but ultimately, that’s bullshit because I’m still here for whatever I have going on.

Gotcha. Okay. I think I covered most of everything I wanted to do. And meant to ask you this earlier Kurt, and I hate to close with this, but you mentioned John Prine a couple of times. I’m a big fan as well. And I know you’ve been a huge fan. I just think back at the beginning of the pandemic, when he was gone and Adam Schlesinger as well. None of us even really even knew what was going on. Just your thoughts on how quickly that happened with John before we realized what a serious situation we were all in.

Yeah. I mean it’s devastating, and that was the ultimate, right. We couldn’t believe when the news hit that he had it [COVID], right. And I saw first through his wife, Fiona, through her social media, and then I saw a news story about it. And then for a minute, it seemed like he pulled through and then sure enough, he’s gone. That’s the worst thing you could imagine. Yeah. It’s a crazy way for him to go.

But I feel blessed that we recorded the duet together [“How Lucky,” from Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely EP]. That was on New Year’s of 2020 or a day or so before it. And I was able to take solace in putting out that recording. I mean my friend Eileen works for his label [Oh Boy!] and Pat McLaughlin, he plays all over that EP. He’s an old buddy of John, so just to be connected at all is special.

Well, you’ve been an ambassador for him and I think that’s great. I appreciate your time very much. It was great talking to you.

Yeah, so awesome to talk to you as well. Thank you so much.

www.kurtvile.com

Read our interview with Vile on Bottle It In.

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