When you’re born with a name like Kurt Vile, there are few professions beyond rock star that are likely to stick. So it’s no surprise that at an early age, at the bequest of his father, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania native Kurt Vile took up the banjo. Tired of the traditional intricacy of his paternal influence, though, he quickly moved onto rockier pastures, devouring the indie slackers, the bohemian crooners and many a lost psych record in between. It wasn’t before he started writing songs on his own, recording and releasing his home recorded gems, that he dug deep into the past, learning the methods of Delta bluesmen and Appalachian folk singers, Fahey and Bull, eventually weaving those lessons into his distinctive guitar playing and into the workmanlike sound he’d created from scratch.
Once word had spread about the wonderboy’s basement tapes, Vile found himself scraping together just enough money to record some of his favorites in a studio setting, compiling the results on his critically lauded 2008 release Constant Hitmaker. Already a road warrior by himself and with his raging sidemen, the Violators, Vile caught the ear of Matador, who ended up the victor in a bidding war, even though the label was Vile’s first choice anyway. This week, the respected imprint will release Childish Prodigy, a giant step up for Vile. Though the finger-picked beauty of Vile’s dream-induced folk songs fades in and out on the record, it’s the weight of his gnarly band on monsters like “Hunchback” and “Freak Train” that truly shows the promise of Vile’s future. With his gift of crafting catchy, classic jams inspired by “the greats” (Dylan, Springsteen, Young), along with the heady, fuzz-drenched, atmosphere that seemingly engulfs the entire record, it’s hard not to take the titles of his records at face value. I recently spoke to Vile while he was in between an endless number of radio appearances and right before the start of a nationwide trek with the Violators in tow.
I’ve read that your father was a big influence on your playing. Did you have ambitions of playing bluegrass or more traditional folk music before venturing into rock and psych?
Kurt Vile: No, my dad plays fiddle now and back then he would play all that stuff, like Doc Watson, for me, and I would pretend not to like it. He bought me a banjo when I was young, but I only wanted to play rock instruments. I took lessons, but eventually I was just strumming it. In those days, I liked Beck and Pavement and some classic rock. As I grew up, the Folk Anthology, Charlie Patton, the Delta blues, the stuff my dad was playing—I had learned to love. Now it’s my favorite stuff because that’s where it all started. That’s the real shit.
I’m sure the titles of your records, Constant Hitmaker and Childish Prodigy are tongue and cheek to a degree, so I’m interested in how you view yourself as a songwriter.
KV: It is a little tongue and cheek, but in my mind I was trying to write “hits,” songs that were really catchy and immediate. But of course they weren’t on the charts, so that’s where the humor comes in. And the title for Childish Prodigy, it came quickly after Constant Hitmaker and had the same ring to it and the same humor. I decided to make it seem like I was coming out swinging and daring people to a challenge. Obviously, I’m serious about the songwriting, to make the songs as good as possible, with lots of influences, but make it my own. Even with the humor involved, I want my songs to be the best that they can be.
Is it true that you have albums of material already recorded or at least written? Does your prolific output surprise you or is it pretty natural for you?
KV: It doesn’t surprise me anymore because it’s really all I ever wanted to do. Music has been very important to me all of my life. I’ve been doing it for so long, putting out tapes and CDRs on my own. I’m grateful that this is what I’m doing.
But Childish Prodigy is made up of a handful of older songs, right? Why was it important to re-record “Hunchback” and “Freak Train” to be included on this album?
KV: Well, when I was compiling Constant Hitmaker, it was similar to the way I put together this one. There were two songs I recorded a while ago that I held back and didn’t want to go to the smaller labels. I knew I was going into the studio and was making this big record that had evolved over time, but I had to include these songs. I had spent a lot of money on it, so I wanted to make it special. I wanted it to go to the best label possible.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, you’ve been associated with the “lo-fi” spectrum of indie rock these days, but to me, it sounds like your stuff is sonically ambitious, especially on Childish Prodigy. Surely you create a lot of your recordings on four-track, but is it your goal to make your music as big as possible using the studio?
KV: This record does have a lot of big songs. It’s not like I always want it to sound big, but I also don’t purposefully want it to sound lo-fi. Before I was even hip to any lo-fi scene, I did those recordings at home because I had to get them out. I didn’t have money for a studio. Songs like “Breathing Out” didn’t come out until later because I didn’t think it sounded right. I’m grateful that at the time that the lo-fi stuff was accepted, but then I would go into a studio and record “Freeway” because I wanted it to sound good. I’m sure I’ll go back to home recording, but for now I’m too A.D.D. to figure it all out technically. I don’t have the super engineering chops. I just take it as it comes.
I’ve also been reading some Springsteen comparisons, and I’ve always thought of those to be poison to indie rockers. So I’m interested to know how you feel about that connection.
KV: Personally I don’t care. I used to obsess on Springsteen and I always go back. Obviously he had some cheesy songs over the years, but it’s the same with some of the later Dylan records. Say like his record Street Legal, it’s a weird record, with really bad horns, but it’s infectious. There’s just something about the lyrics that I love. I did have a heavy Springsteen influence, so if people see that, that’s cool. “Freak Train” is super fuzzed-out and loud, but there’s some Springsteen in there. I don’t mind if its poison and I don’t care if it’s not cool to like him. I’ve been influenced by all the greats to some degree. I go through periods. I’ve definitely gone through intense periods with Springsteen.
There’s a definite difference between what you do live as a solo player and in a band with the Violators. Do you have a preference?
KV: I don’t mind playing solo shows, especially after we’ve been out as the band for a while, but I just did a decent length solo on the West coast. It was cool at first, but eventually the idea of getting ambitious with samplers and stuff gets really boring, and you’re just by yourself and all you have is your acoustic guitar. All of a sudden you’re a folk singer when you don’t particularly want to be. I do play some solo songs in between with the band and I like that shift in dynamics.
Are you trying to make the Violators a permanent fixture or will it always be players in and out?
KV: The Violators are basically just trying to work around day jobs, so one dynamic we have is to just blast off early on a tour and that’s fun. But I like changing the dynamics. For the most part, I want to have a band of some sort and the Violators are much preferred because they’re all crazy in their own way and that’s something too.
I’m sure you have the next record already mapped out. Can you give some insight as to what you want it to sound like and where you want your songwriting and your music to go?
KV: I don’t know what it will sound like, but I know I have a lot of acoustic songs, and I’ll be out with the band a lot, so it will be a mesh of that. I’m not sure if it will be big and loud and fuzzy and psyched-out or if we’ll take it back a notch. I want it to be some combination of a hit record and a psych record.