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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And how. The Woodist label rereleased Hitmaker on vinyl, and another label, Mexican Summer, put out a limited vinyl release of some of his early work, God is Saying This to You ?. Soon, Pitchfork took notice, rating both albums highly, and placing a track off Hitmaker , “Freeway” (recorded with Granduciel), among the sites’ “best new music.”

Matador was one of Vile’s favorite labels growing up. “Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Mission of Burma, Cat Power.” He can click off a dozen bands on the label he loves. They had representatives at each one of his SXSW showcases. They even flew the Violators drummer, Mike Zeng, in from Europe where he’d been on tour with Granduciel’s the War on Drugs.

Matador’s Chief Ear Cosloy was handed a copy of Hitmaker by Violators guitarist Jesse Turbo, and started listening to and loving it almost instantly. “Unbeknownst to me,” he says, “several other people in our office had already been playing it.”

The subtle textures Cosloy loves about Vile’s music are in full bloom on Prodigy . “It’s my masterpiece thus far. It’s my statement,” Vile says of the record he did with Philly engineer Jeff Zeigler. 

He’s right. The album, from the title down, is stellar: a woozy, dreamy, echo-drenched kaleidoscope that’s a marked progression for an already remarkable songwriter, glossier in production, but still retaining the lo-fi sensibilities Vile’s fans have come to know. 

The album begins by kicking in the door with the deep blues groove of “Hunchback,” and never looks back, but does look sideways from time to time with a Dim Stars (Richard Hell and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore’s brief ‘90s collab) cover of “Monkey” and the harmonica driven stomp of “Inside Lookin’ Out.” 

It delves inward as well, with somber, heartstring tuggers that sound like they were recorded in Sponge Bob’s pineapple deep within the sea: “Heart Attack,” “Dead Alive,” “Overnite Religion,” “Blackberry Song,” and the laid back, sun-soaked revelry of “Amplifier.” 

When Vile packaged the songs for Prodigy (he came up with the album’s title years ago, but wanted to save it for his “big release”), and shopped it around, several labels showed interest. One of them was Sub Pop’s sister label Hardly Art.

“He’s an American original,” says Hardly Art’s Ruben Mendez. “He has a gigantic gift for melody and is a top-notch guitar player. His songs touch a part of my brain that brings great joy and hope for the future. Childish Prodigy , to me, will go down as a classic right up there with Velvet Undergrounds’ first record, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation , Suicide’s first record. It will be the kind of record all great records will be compared to in the future, a national treasure. He’s a guitar god in waiting.”

That’s from a guy not even in charge of selling the album. The guy who is, Cosloy, had this to say in his announcement that Matador signed Kurt Vile: “Philadelphia guitarist/vocalist Kurt Vile [is] one of the more important figures in American music circa 2009.”

Vile laughs when asked about that proclamation. He wouldn’t go that far, but he didn’t call his first two records Constant Hitmaker and Childish Prodigy for nothing. 

The first thing you notice when entering Vile’s house is a record player. There’s one right by the front door in the modest Fishtown rowhome he just bought with his wife in part with the advance he received for his three-record deal with Matador.

The front room houses two bookshelves filled by the great thinkers and poets Lang (an English prof at Philadelphia Community College) studied while in grad school. Next to those are dog-eared rock biographies Vile has meticulously pored over. VHS tapes of Donnie Darko , A Fish Called Wanda and several others are neatly lined up under a TV. 

In another room, there’s a second record player and a rack of hundreds of CDs and a hearty collection of vinyl—multiple albums by several different artists: Dylan, Springsteen, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt. 

Beneath a gigantic painting Vile did in high school—“It’s angsty,” he laughs—sits an amp he just purchased for tour, a Roland 404 sampler and a bag full of wires and assorted effects pedals with names like “Electric Mistress” and settings called “Synth-o-matic.” 

Vile puts on a new-to-him record by Yoko Ono, Fly , as his soundtrack for washing the dishes. “There’s a song on this album, “Mind Train,” that is just one serious groove,” he says excitedly, dropping the needle. 

Vile frequently becomes obsessed with one artist or genre at a time. Currently he’s jonesing hard on all things postpunk, having just burned through the Fall, and moved on to Swell Maps and lesser knowns like Television Personalities. Simon Reynolds’ seminal book about the genre, Rip It Up & Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 , sits on a table by a couch next to a bottle of Ibuprofen, which is there, presumably, because of Ono, who’s lyrics to “Mind Train” consist of her repeating the word “dub” over and over in rapid succession. She sounds like a dolphin in heat.

“It’s so good!” Vile howls.

In the past he’s had a huge Dylan phase, a big-time affair with Neil Young and a dangerous addiction to Bruce Springsteen (frequently relapsing with them all). Often, he’ll devour an artist’s music catalogue while reading books about them at the same time, gobbling up tons of influences and shitting them out in bits of his own creativity, weaving his own quilt with swatches of myriad other artists. 

Vile’s mapped out his own career by studying the masters, often starting sentences “When Dylan came out with … ” or “When Suicide got together … ” or “When Springsteen first toured … ” Most artists do this to some degree, but for Vile it’s so naturally occurring it’s like a verbal tick.

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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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