In an interview with a fashion reporter in April this year, Sonic youth bassist and singer Kim Gordon nominated Kurt Vile’s record Childish Prodigy as her greatest guilty pleasure. “Guilty because I listen to it too much,” she said.
It’s a sentiment that sums up the reaction to the Philadelphian indie rocker perfectly. Since the release of his latest record, Smoke Ring for My Halo, music critics worldwide have been soiling themselves with joy. Folksy, embittered occasionally sneering Americana, his music fills the heart in the way that Bright Eyes’ Conner Oberst’s does, but without the emo-ish stigma attached to listening to it. Where Oberst’s penchant for confessional lyrics could stray into onanistic territory, Vile is far more accessible.
In that way, he’s like a super-chilled out Bruce Springsteen, an indie middle-American with a knack for finding the grandeur in U.S. life in a way that resonates worldwide. Less than two years ago he was driving a fork-lift for a living, and his music has a distinctly down-to-earth vibe about it. In his music, as in person, he’s extremely relaxed, in the first flush of what looks to be a very exciting career. When I speak to him over the phone he’s in Portland Oregon, on the eve of this first show with the Flaming Lips. Even after two and a half months of exhaustive touring in America and Europe, he’s clearly excited to play with The Flaming Lips.
“I can’t wait to meet them, to finally open for them,” he says. “They’re definitely one of the top five bands for me, and just a little while ago I couldn’t imagine doing it. I remember when Ariel Pink’s new record, Before Today came out I saw that he was opening up for the Flaming Lips and I thought about how much I would love to have been invited to do that. Then it happens.”
It’s not surprising to hear Vile measure his trajectory against Ariel Pink’s. As often as critics compare his vocals to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or Tom Petty, they compare his intricate, delicately tooled instrumentals to fellow bedroom recorder Ariel Pink.
While his super-wry lyrical observation takes himself to task as much as the world around him, delivering sentiments that are by turn sweet, bitter and thought provoking, all wrapped in perfectly constructed layers of lo-fi looped instruments. Listening to his album is like eating a lasagne, comfortingly familiar and exciting at once. You know what you’ll find between the layers, but it’s so much fun to experience it again.
Now, Australian audiences are going to be able to experience it live for the first time, with Vile set to tour the county with his band Kurt Vile & The Violators. He’s set to play the Meredith Music Festival plus national headline dates with a show at The Corner.
Fans would do well to get excited. Since forming the Violaters, Vile has attracted the kind of universally breathless, hyperbolic reviews for his live show that only come along once every couple of years. It’s only a matter of time until he puts a restraining order out on Pitchfork and their unwavering adulation. For his part, Vile puts it down to having the opportunity to work full time music for the first time in his life which has taken him out of the bedroom and into the limelight.
“It’s great, since summer 2009 you could say I’ve been self employed with my music. You know it gives me more time to work and keep thinking ahead; to work on getting better all the time, make the right decisions.”
Given the tender, elusive and evocative nature of Some Ring For My Halo, Vile says that touring the record with a band adds a little more muscle to the music, fleshing out the sound for a bigger, meatier rock and roll show for the audience.
“It’s not quite as gentle. We try to be sensitive to the arrangements, but 90% of the time it’s going to be a little more energetic. That’s the essence of playing live music. It’s about getting off on a crowed that’s stoked, the adrenaline, the natural reaction of playing through an amplifier.”
Vile thinks that some bands get trapped in trying too hard to stay true to the product on the record, something that gets harder and harder as production becomes more sophisticated. “Some people think too much about the recording, and trying to recreate that. There was a time when songs were played totally differently to the record.”
“Think about the Rolling Stones. If you see them live it’s a totally different experience to listening to their records. The music changes and evolves. For a lot of those old bands the record was just the starting point. It was so much more raw then. I try to emulate that when we play life. The mellowest I come across is when I’m playing solo, but with the band we get our energy up. It makes for a better show.”
Kurt Vile & The Violators play the sold out Meredith Music Festival taking place December 9 – 11. They are also playing a sold out gig at The Corner on Sunday December 4 and an extra show due to popular demand at the Northcote social Club on Monday December 5. Smoke Ring For My Halo is out now on Matador/Remote Control.