Kurt Vile: Guitar Hero

Philly’s "Childish Prodigy" brings his woozy constant hitmaking to the masses.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Sep. 29, 2009

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Photo by Michael Persico

Kurt Samuel Vile grew up with his nine siblings in Lansdowne just outside Philly—“Go through West Philly, and you’re there,” says the artist. His father, a train engineer for Septa, raised the family in a three- or four-bedroom house. Sets of bunk beds lined each of the rooms.

“It was definitely close quarters,” says Vile. “You had to work hard at getting into your own private space.”

At the age of 14, Vile’s father, an avid fan of bluegrass, put a banjo in his son’s hand. Vile remembers wanting a guitar instead, but his father worried it would be too loud. Soon afterward, Vile began taking banjo lessons and learned to pluck it properly. But mostly he opted to strum it, and play it like a guitar.

Of Vile’s nine siblings, close to half play instruments or are artistically inclined. His brother Sam plays guitar in a Radiohead influenced band called VILEBRED. Brother Paul—a “hard partying, buff bricklayer dude”—plays the guitar and mandolin. Another brother, Luke, plays drums. Sister Dorothy (“Dot”) attends The University of the Arts.

As the oldest brother, Vile had played trumpet since fourth grade, and was the natural choice for the banjo. At 17 he began playing in bands, some with his cousin who lived up the street.

After Vile graduated from high school he moved from Lansdowne into the city for a spell, but soon packed his bags and followed his then-girlfriend/now-wife Suzanne Lang to Boston. (She didn’t take his name—“woman of the times,” says Vile, adding, “plus, she’s not vile.”) While Lang attended grad school, Vile took a job operating his first forklift at “some shithole.” It was a trade he would later apply at Philadelphia Brewing Company until being let go earlier this year when his budding success as a musician kept interfering. It was with his new blue-collar gig in Boston that he began earning the first decent wage of his life. 

“I spent it all on gear. A digital 8-track, guitars, pedals,” he says smiling. 

This is 2003, and every waking hour Vile wasn’t manning his forklift he’s in a makeshift studio in his tiny Beantown apartment, logging hours and becoming a master home recording savant, committing countless songs to CD-Rs that he’d later sell to friends and coworkers who were the first to be introduced to the lush, layered and wholly unique music Vile was composing.

“He’s awfully good at using the tape recorder as an instrument,” says Matador label boss Gerard Cosloy. “Not in a This Heat way or Bob Pollard way, but in his own style. He’s a great songwriter, obviously, but there’s all sorts of weird textures to his recordings, to the point where repeated listening reveals things you didn’t hear the first or second time.”

At 29, Vile doesn’t look a day over 16, helped by permanent grin and hearty fits of uncontrollable laughter that seem to shield him, Dick Clark-style, from aging. If he told you he decided to never cut his hair again the day he got said banjo, you might believe him—his thick brown hair cascades around his shoulders in a way that almost informs what his music sounds like before you’ve heard a note. “It’s getting out of control,” Vile laughs, shaking out his impressive mop, and throwing it in his face for his best Cousin Itt impression. 

After two years in Boston, Vile and Lang headed back to Philly where he met Adam Granduciel, now a guitarist in the Violators and his own band, the War on Drugs, in which Vile also did a stint. The two have remained good friends and musical collaborators. People started talking about Vile’s CD-Rs. He began playing live sets on Drexel’s WKDU, and establishing a devoted fanbase.

One of those fans, Bob Richert, put out a collection of Vile’s songs, Constant Hitmaker , on his tiny imprint, Gulcher, in February of last year. From there, things grew. Vile got spins regularly on WFMU, and those taking notes on the underground started seeing his name quite a bit. 

In March at South by Southwest—America’s largest music conference held in Austin, Texas—it seemed as though everyone in the industry had Vile on the brain and on the tips of their tongues. 

VILLLLLLLE from Yours Truly on Vimeo.

It was in Austin that Vile began to feel something, and when his bedroom recordings went from being the secret of hundreds of record-collecting geeks and into the ears of larger and larger audiences. 

“It was extremely positive,” says Vile, looking back. “It’s the best time I’ve ever had in my music. It felt like things were coming together.” 

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Comments 1 - 2 of 2
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1. boog said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 12:10AM

“if you like kurt (like i do), how about you check me out. i'm nineteen, have four less tracks on my tape recorder, and seem to get overlooked by everybody in this city. i've been playing with hezekiah jones, the sweetheart parade, and all the other philly folk acts since i was a sophomore in high school.
i'm boog, with a lowercase 'b.'
look me up on facebook and myspace

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2. Shaily said... on Oct 6, 2009 at 12:50AM

“Kurt is so incredibly talented... this was long due...”


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