A conversation on A Pretty Daze with Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile (headlining Union Transfer tomorrow)

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Photo by John Bartol
Photo by John Bartol

Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, the latest from Philadelphia psych-songwriter Kurt Vile, has generated international acclaim since its March release on Matador Records. And rightfully so; it’s an ambitious double album exploring a plethora of ideas, and doing them all masterfully. It’s expressive and expansive, but also tight and poppy. It’s deeply personal – “Too Hard,” Vile’s reaction to experiencing fatherhood, has him promising to “do my duty for god and my country,” a vow Boy Scouts know well – but elsewhere, you’ll find clever wordplay equating codeine with Springsteen in a manner both playful and universal. His backing band the Violators – guitarist Jesse Trbovich, bassist Rob Laakso and drummer Vince Nudo – craft layers of gripping instrumental interplay, stretching near ten minutes on the title track (and over on closer “Goldtone”); but the record also makes use of haunting minimal space and experimental textures. In short, it’s Vile’s strongest work to date, and tomorrow night he headlines a sold-out hometown show at Union Transfer with Angel Olsen and Steve Gunn opening after a lengthy spring tour. I got a chance to sit down with Vile before tour kicked off, and we discussed the record, its monumental artwork, and making music of epic proportions.

The Key: Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze sounds great, there’s so much going on. But song that really jumped out at me from the get-go was “Too Hard,” the one where you incorporate the Scouts Promise into the lyrics. Were you a Boy Scout when you were growing up?

Kurt Vile: Yeah. I mean, barely. My dad bribed me. I said I wasn’t gonna go into Boy Scouts and he said -like later that night, real smooth – he said if I joined Boy Scouts, he’ll get me a Swiss army knife. [laughs] So I don’t know, I was at the impressionable age. But yeah,that’s sort of just like a childhood reference. It’s such a dorky reference in a way too.

TK: Well the way it plays out in the lyrics, it kinda feels like you’re an adult looking back on this thing that you had to recite as a child in Boy Scouts, and seeing how it plays out in adult life.

KV: Yeah totally, that’s basically what it is. And then you basically just brush it off. I’m the king of brushing off exactly what I just said. [ laughs] You say you’re just human, so basically you’re just making an excuse for why you’re gonna screw up.

TK: It’s a great song. I love how expansive it is, and how expansive a lot of the record is.

KV: Yeah it’s definitely expansive.

TK: How did you come to like delve into that side of your songwriting again this time?

KV: I guess just cause that’s a natural thing to do, to just get lost in what you’re playing. Obviously there’s set verses and set, you know, sections, there’s all kinds of meticulous…it’s not jammy but if you can just let something go, the chords are simple enough to have that controlled improv in there. Not improv like jam band music, you know. More like jamming in the Velvet Underground sense.

TK: So with a song like “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day,” or “Goldtone,” the ones that are the longest, did you write them with the other players in the band?

KV: That’s the whole thing. I always need a right hand man and a left hand man. I always say Jesse’s the left hand man – he just does his own sort of, uh, hippie punk thing. Which, you can’t like put him on the spot too much cause he gets nervous. I guess if someone put me on the spot, I might get nervous. But the point is I need another guy like Rob who, like, he’s more like a brainiac. Jesse is too in, like a musical way, but Rob he’s got these different kinds of schooled chops and also knowledge of equipment.

But anyway, so I would like work on [a song], I’d have all the parts and he’d be like programming the drum machine to like speed up and slow down and stuff like that. “And then it goes like this and then it goes like this,” [laughs] We all bounce off of each other. But this album in particular, at first I was like “yeah we’re gonna rehearse a lot!” And Jesse would have appreciated that, and so would have Rob, but at the end of the day, it’s like so many ideas in my head, first of all I can’t always explain them. And then, it’s gotta be fresh for me and I can’t really like sit around and teach every single part, because when it comes down to it, it happens really on tape, you know? It’s like there are parts written but then there’s magic that happens like on the spot and you just happen to be recording. It’s not not all planned, you know.

TK: It’s not just the big instrumental stuff either. There are also songs like “KV Crimes” – that’s a freakin’ rocker, it’s a tight like three-and-a-half-minute rocker. So there’s a lot of variety on the album.

KV: Yeah that was an early one, we recorded that one pretty early on. [laughs]

TK: I guess the question there being, was there anything that you kind of looked at as a model for this series of songs? Or was it just like you wanted to have variety.

KV: I feel like I always go for like variety. And this one…I mean, I had been touring for two years and definitely playing better electric guitar. I got like this Jaguar dream electric guitar early on in the Smoke Ring tour, and I was playing guitar non-stop, so I knew it was gonna be more skilled guitar, whether that’s acoustic or electric. And I knew I was gonna combine the two. Acoustic was always a big part of my sound and I never, I guess, really had “that folk record.” And this is definitely not a rock record, even though that’s what I said at first, but there is a lot of electricity and there are synthesizers. It’s going for more for epic proportions you know, which is kinda the natural progression I feel like from the last record.

TK: I remember reading this great interview you did with Pat Rapa from City Paper after Smoke Ring came out, and you kind of talked about how you wanted that record to highlight your songwriting. How you wanted to be like “yo, look, I can write really good songs too.”

KV: Yeah, yeah.

TK: I feel like this record, it seems like the pressure’s off. Musically it sounds like you’re very at ease and your just like “I’m making a freaking record,” you’re not trying to prove yourself. Compared to the past, where it seemed like you were showcasing this side of yourself, or you showcased that side of yourself.

KV: I just went with it. Like I said, I didn’t know exactly what was going to come out on the other side, but I knew that I was really getting deep into writing the songs on guitar, like more deep than before because I’d be on the road and working on this one song. Before, I feel like I’ve always done this thing where I’d meticulously work on a song, but I have been playing long enough and forced to be on the road and playing that I could go back to whichever song I wanted, and like keep adding stuff to them. I don’t know. But I’m always trying to prove something, you know. I can’t always give it a name, this time I just want to make it as best and as out-there as it can, but not be so out-there that it’s not, you know, listenable. I want it to be just engaging, but also try push the boundaries of that.

TK: Can I ask you about the mural?

KV: Sure

TK: How did that come to be, first of all?

KV: Well, I have a really good manager, Renny, and so [the artist] Steve Powers – I did know who he was but didn’t connect the name yet, I didn’t know him that well – he contacted me and then it just worked out. Cause the last album, that cover was cool, but it wasn’t like…there was a lot of drama and growing pains with making that album cover. So we wanted to go, you know, go for broke and go for art and modern art vibes and we just teamed up in this convenient way. He contacted me when he was working on something down the road and, you know, it just totally worked out. Those kind of things that happen like [snaps], they just fall into your lap and then they happen really fast, are the best, best kind of things.

TK: I’ve started to hear among the Philly scene and Philly fans about people wanting to make pilgrimages up to Master street to see the Kurt Vile mural. Is that like kind of a far-out idea for you?

KV: [laughs] That’s funny. I mean, one day I was like listening to my headphones and there was this kid in the neighborhood, and he was like “yo, It’s really weird to see you here, I’m going to see your mural.” And that was nice, but sometimes I get, uh… when I don’t know someone, I get shy once in a while, and, uh, it was like at the wrong time, it was at the wrong time. [laughs] So I hope he didn’t think I was rude [laughs], but it is just funny, yeah cause like John [Agnello], who did my record, his daughter was just like “I’m in Philly we’re gonna go see the mural!” It’s funny, it is pretty cool.

TK: There’s another track on the record where I love the song, I love the beat that you have on it, but the thing I wonder most about it is the name, “Air Bud.” That’s a Disney movie, right?

KV: [laughs] Is it Disney, yeah. It is loosely…it’s an inside joke with the band loosely associated with that movie. [laughs] We’re gonna leave at that forever and it’s gonna drive people crazy.

TK: You’re playing with Steve Gunn at the Union Transfer show you have coming up. Tell me about that.

KV: Steve has got a new record coming out, and it’s mind-blowing. It’s so good. We grew up in the same town, we both grew up in Lansdowne. We’ve always been acquaintances but Renny turned me on to the newest Steve Gunn record…and I love all his other records, but this tour he’s gonna play in the band, in the Violators. He’s going to be an opener and a Violator. I’d like him to tour with us as much as possible.

Kurt Vile plays Union Transfer this Saturday, May 18th, with Steve Gunn and Angel Olsen.

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