Ahead of his appearance at this year’s 30th annual Bluesfest, Kurt Vile talks coveting the couch and why you never want to be without your guitar. Words By Emily Swanson.
Had Kurt Vile been given a Fender in 1994, his life might have panned out differently. But as it happens, his father gave him a banjo at the age of 14 and he embraced the open tuning, playing it like the guitar he lowkey wished he’d been given.
“The banjo is a beautiful instrument in general,” Vile says. “It just drones, whether you know you’re droning or not – it puts you in a trance.”
Listening to the wry, stream of consciousness lyrics and floating acoustic melody of “Bassackwards” – the lengthy second single from Vile’s eighth and most recent studio album, Bottle It In – you could say the same about him.
When he stepped away from The War On Drugs, the indie rock band he founded with Adam Granduciel in 2005, the fingerpicker from Philly made the shift to a solo career look seamless. After all, he’d already been reared on Pavement and Beck, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
“There was something about their tone of voice,” he says. “They were making weird stuff, but it was kind of beautiful and arty, and it seemed reachable.”
Penning ambling, dream-like psychedelic folk songs that approach double-digit runtimes without overstaying their welcome proved a natural fit. Vile, with his mop of curly brown hair that’s as distinctive as his Philly drawl, became a master of the kind of blissed-out jams that make young indie fans nostalgic for an era they never actually witnessed.
If you had to name his musical counterpart – if someone straight up forced you to do such a thing – you’d likely find your way to Melbourne’s own queen of observational wit, Courtney Barnett. Such is precisely why the two teamed up for a full-length with 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice.
In-between a steady, if not extensive touring schedule following his breakout album, 2015’s b’lieve I’m goin down, and time spent with his wife and two young daughters road-tripping across America, Bottle It In was pieced together over the course of several years in studios across the US. The impromptu nature of the recording sessions fed into the album, allowing Vile to let loose in the form of “more epic guitar solos”.
“It wasn’t my plan,” he says. “I’ve been on the road a lot, and it just came out that way because I think I was probably natural enough in the studio to capture live moments. Because ultimately, that’s what you’re looking for – you’re trying to capture organic moments. The more live, the better.”
Coming in at almost 80 minutes, Vile’s not wrong when he refers to the release as the big statement he’s made to date.
“There’s plenty of songs that didn’t make the record that I liked, but my only rule was it had to fit on one CD – even though nobody listens to CDs anymore. If they make the CD, you don’t want it to be on two discs. That was my only rule.”
The guitarist humbly admits he’s “a little stupid with gear”, but he’s built up a sizeable collection, to the point where he can strap on a different axe for every song when he’s out on tour.
“They’ve gotta speak to you just by looking at ‘em,” he says. “My bandmate Rob [Laakso] turned me onto the pre-CBS Fender Jaguars – I have two ’64 Fender Jaguars, and I also have this Gibson ES‑355 that I play on ‘Loading Zones’ which just sounds really good.”
Vile recalls a time he forgot to bring his guitar on a flight (an activity he’s not fond of at the best of times), and how he lamented not having it with him that night in his hotel room.
“It’s a pain to fly with, but it’s gotta be available for when inspiration strikes. If you’re in a hotel for the night, you wanna be able to pick up the guitar and start strumming… You can get completely lost in just a couple of chords.”
Even if you’re renowned for being laid-back to the point where you’re horizontal, burnout can creep up on the best of us. Between the back‑to‑back shows, time on the road with his family, his LP with Barnett and the potential for a stint at film school, Vile reached a point where something had to give.
“I think I was taking on too much,” he admits. “I didn’t end up in the hospital, but I was trying to do all these things and I was exhausted,”
In a bid to welcome some stability back into his life, he delayed the release of Bottle It In. “That’s how I dealt with it, I pushed things back. I eventually quit drinking as well, which helped there for a while. But I’m getting a little older and a little more tired. I need more sleep.”
At 39, Vile has reached that point in his life that we all inevitably hurtle towards: a love-hate relationship with his couch.
“Couches are the worst, and I covet the couch,” says the man who’s arguably done some of his best work from the confines of one. “I, like, dream of the couch. But now it’s a little bittersweet, because I also know that I can’t really sit on the couch the way I used to because my back starts hurting!”
Time really does come for us all.
Monday April 15th – Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Tuesday April 16th – UniBar, Wollongong NSW
Wednesday April 17th – ANU, Canberra ACT
Thursday April 18th – Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Saturday April 20th – Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Monday April 22nd – Forum Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Saturday April 27th – The Gov, Adelaide SA
Sunday April 28th – Rosemount, Perth WA