“It's this pretty gritty tale of, like, this guy – I don't know if she picks up a male gigolo or there's, like, sex going on,” Kurt Vile begins, explaining the title track from Lou Reed’s 1978 album Street Hassle. “And then she ODs and then they just lay her out on the street.”
We were spinning Sonic Youth’s SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century on Vile’s record player in his Northern Liberties workspace. But after I complimented Vile’s Lou Reed T-shirt and confided in him that I hadn’t explored much of Reed’s solo stuff despite being a big Velvet Underground fan, he insists I take a listen to Street Hassle.
“It’s long urban poetry about just dumping somebody on the street when they OD,” he told me, explaining the album’s title track. “You have to listen to it again later.”
After interviews with the Inquirer and Playboy earlier in the afternoon, Philly Weekly is Vile’s last press meeting of the day, but he’s not tired of talking yet. His latest album, Bottle it In, is slated to come out Oct. 12 on Matador Records and the excitement is apparent.
“One of my goals was to make it as live as possible in the studio so organic moments are captured with whoever I'm playing with,” Vile said while staring at the ground, appearing to chase an invisible mouse around the floor with his eyes. “I'm always reaching for that, but the band got tighter and it was more like we'd be able to capture true moments with the whole band. In the past I've always noticed that those are the best [moments].”
When you step in the front door of the workspace, which used to be the Vile family’s main living quarters until he bought another spot in Mount Airy, it quickly becomes clear that it’s a musician’s dream environment. Two Fender guitars lie in a choreographed manner on the couch, similar to the way a young boy would show off his toy trucks. Two amplifiers are tucked next to the wall just below two-thirds of a triptych collage Vile made himself in high school.
In the next room of the old trinity house, his extensive record collection takes up an entire ketchup-colored wall, plus a book and CD collection that takes up the adjacent wall. An old upright piano sits on the side of the room opposite of the CD collection, and above it all is an ornate octopus chandelier made by local artist Adam Wallacavage.
“I'm a patron of the arts,” Vile says, “but I'm deeper into music and stuff of course.”
On Bottle it In, Vile demonstrates his ability to make long songs sound short. Three of the album’s tracks, “Bottle it In,” “Skinny Mini” and the most recent single “Backasswards,” hover around the 10-minute range, which you won’t notice unless you glance at the liner notes.
The songs are flowing, driving and Vile’s mid-song quips provide smirk-worthy moments of comic relief in an otherwise serene indie-folk record. You’ll find yourself perpetually bobbing your head. When I listen to it, I imagine myself sitting in the window seat on an early morning fall train ride through suburban Pennsylvania, gazing at the leafless trees surrounding the railroad tracks – probably not unlike a scene you’d find in Vile’s nearby Delco hometown of Lansdowne where he was one of 10 children growing up.
“For me, Lansdowne was just a lot of playing banjo, recording on my tape recorder upstairs, lots of skateboarding,” he says, reminiscing. “There was a cool record store called CR CDs, which I would go to all the time. I'd cut class and go there and get stuff until [the school] caught onto it.”
He’s less reminiscent about playing Little League baseball, which his parents would regularly sign him up for despite his lack of interest. He could never quite wield a baseball bat the way he could a guitar.
“I would come home on the weekend after school stoked to do whatever,” he explains, “and they'd be like 'you got a game' and I was like 'fuuuuuck.'”
Vile doesn’t come off as terribly competitive so it’s easy to understand his disinterest in sports. In fact, the tranquil nature of Bottle it In very much matches Vile’s personality. It reflects a country-influenced side of him that he’s been exploring lately. Lots of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Billie Joe Shaver have graced Vile’s turntable, and it shows in his music. The album even contains a cover of Charlie Rich’s “Rollin’ With the Flow.” Nobody saw that coming. He’s also been rediscovering some of the music he listened to in his teens, like ‘90s indie rock band the Silver Jews, and also enjoying new stuff. He singles out Big Thief’s most recent album, Capacity, as one he’s particularly enjoyed.
“Female energy,” he says has also inspired Bottle it In. His last major project was an album he made and toured with Courtney Barnett, whom he developed a keen friendship and working relationship with based on a mutual admiration for each other's work.
“We just bounced off each other,” he says. “The music and the artform combined with our friendship, they all just kind of grew at the same time. It was really cool.”
In addition to playing with Barnett, Vile also played with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa on the new album. Her drumming can be heard on three new tracks: “One Trick Ponies,” “Bottle it In” and “Cold Was the Wind.”
“It was such a positive experience,” he says. “People are negative on purpose when they're dudes. That's kind of what we do. It's different when you're outnumbered with chicks. … If there's too many dudes it gets pretty [stupid] pretty quick.”
If you look up just about any interview Vile has ever done, he makes a point to mention two of his biggest idols, Neil Young and John Prine. At exactly 28 minutes and 36 seconds into the recording of our interview, he mentions them both, unprompted, during a tangent about WTF with Marc Maron, a podcast Prine, Young and Vile have all been guests on. He speaks highly of Prine and Young, calling them “American heroes.”
Yes, Neil Young is Canadian.
But he lives in America.
For this reason, according to Vile, he still qualifies.
“Neil Young – you go and see him live and you fucking blow your head off,” Vile says of the superstar folk artist, who, by the way, has two upcoming solo shows at the Tower Theater. Vile will miss both courtesy of a press thing Matador’s making him go to in L.A; and yes, he’s pretty bummed about it.
Speaking of amazing concerts, Vile is set to kick off his world tour in Hamburg, Germany, on Oct. 12. After he makes his way through Europe, he’ll tour the states, which will include a stop at The Met in Philly on Dec. 29.
“I'm excited for the band to unleash this,” he says, pushing his luscious brown hair out of his face even though it always returns right back to how it was. “It has the potential to rock even harder live.”
Although he’s excited, he says he also has to “pace himself.” He’s trying to live a healthier lifestyle. His wife Suzanne has gotten him into yoga and he’s making a point adjust to a normal sleeping schedule. In the past, he routinely worked nocturnally when working on albums, often not falling asleep until the sun came up. Why? Because there’s more “cosmic energy,” he explains, (probably) jokingly.
“There's more cosmic energy floating around that's all for you because everybody else is asleep not taking it in,” he muses, “but that's just [me] making up a spiel.”
With the political environment the way it is and the 21st century distractions that come with it, Vile’s music and whimsical nature is maybe a little bit of what we all need out of life. If the world’s got you down, just remember to have no fear. Kurt Vile is here. And he appreciates you to the utmost degree.