Here and Gone: Kurt Vile Sings of 21st-Century Anxieties
Kurt Vile has tapped into something. The Philadelphia-based singer, songwriter and guitarist makes music that is psychedelic and trippy, with rippling echoes, clouds of reverb, almost hidden pads of organ, phantom backing vocals, hard-to-place buzzes and layers of added percussion from tambourine. But Vile is also a talented fingerpicker — one of his first instruments was a banjo — and he can set up careful rhythmic patterns that draw on old time and bluegrass technique. He leads a rock group that might sound like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one minute and Neil Young and Crazy Horse the next. His skillful picking can evoke Bert Jansch or Annie Briggs. Vile’s vocal phrasing and snarl can bring to mind a more sedate Iggy Pop doing spoken word. His songs are a mix of sleepy off-the-cuff goofiness and modern anxiety though.
There are peculiar incongruities to Vile’s music. His sound is deeply chill, and that, along with his hair-in-his-face image, can convey a weed-haze mellowness. But there’s a feeling of uneasiness and distance — distance from himself and distance from the world — in Vile’s songs. “I woke up this morning, didn’t recognize the man in the mirror,” goes a line from “Pretty Pimpin’,” the first song off of b’lieve i’m goin down, Vile’s 2015 full-length record. And later, on “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say),” he sings, “Ain’t it oh exciting the way one can fake their way through life.” And on “Dust Bunnies,” from the same record, he sings “It’s hard to think with a squashed brain,” and “What’s there to feel but totally whacked.” If the songs weren’t so chill, you might think Vile was having a paranoid breakdown.
Vile and the Violators play the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on Friday, Jan. 27.
I spoke with Vile recently by phone from his home in Philadelphia. We talked about his work on his latest material, about recording in Nashville, about keeping busy versus taking time to unwind. I mentioned to Vile that many of his songs seemed to be about a sense of alienation, a feeling of being dislocated from the world which then had the effect of making one feel disconnected from oneself. Making a big leap to politics, to the pervading sense of shock many have about Trump, I said that feeling divorced from the world isn’t unusual these days.
“The way my music is political, is that it’s the result of all kinds of insanity going on in the world,” says Vile.
Vile started getting a lot of national attention back in 2009, with the release of his Childish Prodigy LP, his first on Matador Records. The album opened with one of Vile’s strangely comical absurd declarations: “I got a hunchback, big as a humpback whale.” Vile sometimes boasts with a hip-hop swagger, but the subjects of his bragging — like having a hunchback or being a “puppet to the man” — often undermine his attitude. Since then he’s released a stream of EPs and records at a healthy pace that sets a contrast to his unhurried appearance. After years of cranking out new records, releasing older projects, preparing new projects and working to push albums out against a tight schedule, Vile says he’s trying to sit back a little more, to let things gestate and see how his perspective shifts.
“I like the idea of taking it slow,” he says.
Vile also played in the band The War On Drugs (whose frontman Adam Granduciel also played in Vile’s backing band, the Violators), and he had guitarist Steve Gunn, a longtime friend a who grew up in the same part of town as Vile, playing in the Violators for a time as well.
Some of Vile’s songs seem to be about the feeling of hiding out in plain sight, getting lost in a crowd, tuning out the world while floating through it. It’s not quite that he sings about getting away from it all, but more that he chronicles the experience of not feeling present even when one is right in the middle of things. “I could be 1000 miles away, but still me,” he sings on “Pretty Pimpin’.” And the song “Wheelhouse” contains this line: “Sometimes you gotta be alone just to figure things out.” On “Jesus Fever” he sings, “I packed my suitcase with myself, but I’m already gone.”
He was raised with nine other siblings, so maybe Vile’s sense of being at home in a swirl of confusion goes back to his childhood. Despite his claim to taking it easy recently, Vile’s creative energy, his musical work, seems to be the thing that keeps him calm. He says he has a couple different EPs and a full-length record he’s slowly moving toward completion at the moment.
“It’s always a balance of the psyche,” says Vile about his work rhythms. “You can sit down and relax too long and it actually makes you feel more crazy than just being busy.”
That idea is central to some of Vile’s music. The piano-based light-pop Randy Newman-ish lilt of “Lost My Head There,” from his most recent record, is about taking frustration or anxiety and turning it into a song. “Did you ever bang on a xylophone that took you everywhere?” he sings on “Too Hard” from 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze. If the theme of music-as-therapy and mental-transport has shown up a few times, one recent change in Vile’s material is that he’s been writing more on piano. Several songs on b’lieve i’m goin down were built around his piano playing, which is skeletal and cyclical, like his guitar-playing, and he says he’s using the instrument as the starting point for songs as well as a way of thinking through ideas for arrangements now.
“I’m sort of composing on it,” says Vile. “I’ve got some real pretty trippy melodic orchestral ideas, and it works better on piano. Since I’ve been playing more — piano’s a good tool because it’s all laid out in front of you. It’s almost like an analog computer.”
He’s hoping to eventually make an upright piano part of his touring arsenal, but the weight makes it impractical at the moment. None of that means that Vile’s live show will be less of a full-bore situation. With drummer Kyle Spence — from the great pounding glacially slow Athens, Georgia band Harvey Milk — supplying Bonhamistic beats for the Violators, and with several other talented multi-instrumentalists behind him, Vile’s backing band can turn those acoustic songs into monolithic walls of sonic haze.
“We can have a punk-rock edge at the drop of a hat,” says Vile of the band. “We can be slick, but never too slick. It can fall apart at any moment, in the right kind of way, or the wrong kind of way.”
Wanna go? Kurt Vile and the Violators play the Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw, Friday, Jan. 27, 8 p.m., with Luke Roberts. $25, hawriverballroom.com.