The Roots Report: An Interview with Kurt Vile

Credit: Erik Kabik Photography

Okee dokee folks… A few months back my bandmate Dan Lilley came to rehearsal with a CD in his hand and said, “This guy is on Neil Young’s website as a recommended listen.” A few weeks later we were playing at City Winery in Boston and I went into the bathroom, well, you know what for. Music was playing on speakers in the bathroom; I personally find that odd, but, anyway, I really liked what I was hearing. I went back to the green room and mentioned it to Dan. He told me that was the CD that he had brought to rehearsal.  That artist was Kurt Vile. This was the song, “Pretty Pimpin”-check it out on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=y26OdHnif7U).

Vile is known for his solo work and has recorded eight studio albums, but was also a member of the band The War On Drugs (from ’05-’09). Vile’s music is guitar-driven rock and has a bit of a Tom Petty/Lou Reed feel to it. Have a listen to the song “Loading Zone” from his latest CD, Bottle It In (youtube.com/watch?v=7mbh43HgT4U). I had a chance to speak with Kurt by phone the other day in advance of his upcoming show at the Columbus Theatre in Providence on July 27.

John Fuzek (Motif): Hi Kurt, where are you calling from?
Kurt Vile: I am in Philadelphia, that’s where I live.
JF: You have pretty much always lived there, except for Boston for a bit, correct?
KV: Yeah, long time ago, like 2001-2
JF: You started out doing “Lo-Fi” recordings about 20 years ago, what were you doing these on?
KV: Um, well, honestly, since my teens I was just recording in my bedroom or people were recording me at their house. In my bedroom in my teens I was just using a tape recorder, but you know, I guess, anything that I released from my early 20s on was recorded on a Roland digital eight track … it took Zip discs…
JF: So you were doing multi-track recording by then, I thought you might have had an old Fostex cassette four track or something similar.
KV: That would be cool, I never had the cassette four track, I’m into cassettes and reel-to-reel, I have some various reel-to-reel recorders in my basement; it’s nice on the brain to not be looking at a computer screen when I record, I was never good at computers…I like the simplicity of tape, I’ve tried to get into the computer recording at home but there’s always just something popping up, some message, some error, you know? There’s always some kind of upgrade, all these things, your computer is connected to, social media, you can’t focus, that’s why I like reel-to-reels, I’m trying to get back to a place where I’m making really great reel-to-reel recordings in my basement, that’s where I’m at now, that’s my goal the next year or two to have a fully functioning studio down there
JF: I wish I still had my reel-to-reel eight track, I went from a cassette four track to that and then to digital stuff
KV: Yeah, the problem with the digital stuff is that it becomes obsolete, right, they upgrade and then, I’m in the same boat, I really got to, I like like the idea of getting an archive together, not unlike Neil Young’s archive, except just not make it available to the public, I’ve got to unload that digital eight track, I’ve got to unload those Zip discs before it’s too late, I have an Otari half inch eight track and I do love to turn that thing on…I also have various quarter inch machines and stuff, it’s funny, too…I use computers, especially when someone knows what they’re doing, I know that’s the highest fidelity that you can get with Pro Tools, it’s hard to tell the difference, still, when I’m working with tape in my basement there’s no denying you can just saturate the tape, make sure the input is up, even if it clips it will most likely sound cool anyway, it’s pretty pure sound just going onto that tape, keep things simple for a while until you can clear your head, it’s just some form of getting away from the real world anyway, really…
JF: So, is it an actual studio down there or just a basement with a lot of gear?
KV: It’s in the works, I would say that the control room, if you can call it that, is coming together for sure, but like the room where I can crank some amps and stuff, that side needs some work, it’s definitely a “vibey” work space for sure, I can definitely record in there, yeah
JF: You mentioned Neil Young and his archives, the reason I became aware of you was in a roundabout way through the recommendation on his website. 
KV: Well, I think it was the people that work his archive were just being nice, that would be amazing if Neil himself wanted you to but that’s the beauty of Neil, he really doesn’t listen to anybody until you can’t ignore them, you’re name just has to get thrown around there a lot, but the people at the archive knew I was a big Neil fan and I have opened for him, I am buddies with (his current backing band) Promise of the Real, but Neil himself, no…
JF: You have actually opened for him
KV: Once, but I also played with Promise of the Real at Willie’s (Nelson-father of Lukas & Micah Nelson of Promise of the Real) ranch, they played with me on “Pretty Pimpin” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Roll On John” at the ranch, that was magic, too, those are sort of my connections with the Neil Young world
JF: That’s cool, I play in a Neil Young tribute band and, don’t laugh, but the first time I actually heard your music was when we were at a gig at City Winery in Boston and was in the bathroom and the music was being played over a speaker in there, I told the guy in my band about it and he told me that it was your CD that was playing in there…
KV: Ha! Cool!
JF: I was getting into it, I like guitar driven music, I’m a guitar player, I like guitar driven, it’s very organic music, you get into the groove and play, it flows
KV: Thanks, man!
JF: When I was listening to your stuff I sensed a Lou Reed and Tom Petty influence there
KV: I would say that Lou Reed is my earliest of the classic rock, he influenced me in my teens, yeah, Tom Petty, I always loved him, too, kind of interesting, I re-watched his Running Down A Dream Documentary and they asked him what are your influences and he said, “uh, the radio”, what I was going to say was that there are certain Tom Petty songs that I loved as a kid, there was this diner jukebox at your table and I would always play “Learning To Fly”, I still that’s one of the greatest Tom Petty, classic songs in general, so yes, they were various dimensions from my high school upbringing or whatever, influences
JF: I saw that you were a fork lift operator, did that life influence your music?
KV: That was definitely where I embraced Classic Rock Radio, you know doing repetitive tasks at the brewery, working in the box room, once in a while there would be a college radio show that played more obscure stuff but the best thing on the radio that you would settle for would be Classic Rock, and yes, it does have a blue collar sense to it
JF: Who else would you say influenced you?
KV: So many, do you mean Classic Rock? Since we are talking about Classic Rock Radio, Springsteen, Stones, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, but then my dad, I grew up with my dad playing Bluegrass music and old time stuff
JF: Is that why he gave you a banjo when you were young?
KV: He got me a banjo because he probably wished that I’d become a bluegrass musician, his favorite song to this day of mine, which is on the banjo is “I’m an Outlaw” from the I B’lieve I’m Going Down album. When I play my banjo it has an ethereal, hypnotic quality that you can’t quite get out of the guitar because of the high drone string…almost like a sitar, or Appalachian folk
JF: You have kids so is being on the road tough for you?
KV: Definitely at first, it was intense for a while but the the tours are winding down and getting a little shorter, the previous tour of Europe was 6 weeks and some lengthy States tours…and Australia…they visited me when I was on tour in Australia, and Norway in the middle of the last tour…but when I am home I am around 24/7
JF: That is cool that you have toured the world, how is your fan base in other countries?
KV: It varies but I would say that Australia is one of my favorites and we always do well there, I would say that it’s going good everywhere! We’ve been trucking along for ten years professionally…it gets a little better very record…this one we’re selling out venues…
JF: Do you want to add anything about what to expect from the show?
KV: Man, I am excited just to come back there, it’s definitely an epic Rock and Roll show, it will definitely be better than last time we were there…and I hope that you can make it out ’cause if you are in a Neil Young Tribute band we have to stick together!  

Kurt Vile and his band the Violators will be at the Columbus Theatre on Saturday, July 27. For more about Vile and the show take the “Freak Train” over to: ColumbusTheatre.com or KurtVile.com   That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. www.JohnFuzek.com

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