Kurt Vile is a guitarist and songwriter from Philadelphia who makes music steeped in folk, psychedelia, Americana, and classic rock. Vile first gained notice in 2008, with the release of the underground Constant Hitmaker, and through his guitar-playing in the band The War on Drugs. In 2009, he signed with Matador Records, who released his second album, Childish Prodigy.
Interview: 29 September 2009
Is it true you're one of ten children?
Was it a musical family?
“My dad was always playing records. He was a bluegrass aficionado, so it was a lot of country music. When I was 14, he bought me a banjo, which I kind of wished was a guitar. So I’d kind of just play it like a guitar anyway. I was really into writing pretty primitive tunes, and really into recording. I pretty much knew I was going to do music [with my life] then.”
What kind of tunes were you writing? Similar to what you do now?
“They were kind of quirky, weird; a little more juvenile than they are now. I was really into Beck and Pavement, as well as classic things like Credence Clearwater Revival. But still pretty similar to what I’m doing. I just always, I guess, was able to tap into writing these songs that people liked. In my circle of friends who liked music, I could write the songs that people would love. I could always make myself the star of the coffee house.”
Were you trading lo-fi tapes for years before people started to know who you were?
“Yeah, I was 17 I made my first tape that I mass-produced, that I sent out. At the time I was into all those Drag City bands —the Silver Jews and Smog— and I really thought I could be on Drag City. I really wanted that. I heard these people that made good music but it was still pretty raw, and had this real cult quality. I was attracted to that. I mean, at the time I really loved Pavement, but I couldn’t imagine myself being on Matador.”
Does it feel strange that now you are on Matador?
“It doesn’t feel strange, it feels awesome! I had been working at something like this for so long, waiting for it to happen. Once I was shopping around Childish Prodigy in particular, something really felt imminent. I think it’s crazy, but, if you’re obsessive enough, you can follow as your hero’s footsteps.”
Has your career thus far been a lot of unnoticed hard work?
“It still is hard work! It’s a joy to be able to make a living from music; that part is really rewarding. The recording process or playing live isn’t hard, either, but there’s all this other stuff outside of that. Business. Tons of business. You’ve just gotta keep working hard. Booking shows, making album art, mastering, shopping it around, anything. And everything.”
Do you have to work harder, in this current musical climate of millions upon millions of bands, to be heard? Or has the independence of the internet and the directness of digital distribution made things easier?
“I think it’s a give and take. Yes, there are a million bands, so maybe there is great music out there that someone is making and they just can’t figure out how they’ll ever get heard. Because of that, you have to bust your ass, play live all the time, just keep trying to meet people. I definitely feel like it’s different getting signed in this day and age.”
Does it mean less being signed at this point in time?
“I’d say yes, for obvious reasons. With the internet people can obviously steal your music, and so you don’t sell as many records because of that. Back in the day, that was the only way you could get it, so artists made bank pretty fast. Now, you could have a huge hit record, but it may not ever be a gold record. I don’t think that getting signed means less in terms of the music itself. I think people who’re true music aficionados still appreciate a record label, and what that may mean.”
So does being signed to Matador, then, not mean as much as it once may have?
“To me, and to people I know in my hometown, I think it means a lot. People are psyched everywhere I go. I feel like it’s just as good now as now as it ever has been. It’s Matador!”
Does it more open doors for you in terms of playing live?
“My future is going to be on the road, yeah. Once you have a record label and a booking agent, you can just play all over the place. Which is just what I plan on doing. It’s really exciting. I’ll definitely be seeing a ton more places this year.”
Do you ever tour just by yourself? One man and his guitar?
“I went solo on this West Coast tour I just did, because I knew it was the only way I was going to make any money. But now that the record is out, I’m going to be bringing the band with me. I prefer having the band; not because I want to rock out, there’s just more you can do with a band.”
How does The War On Drugs relate to your solo music, and vice-versa?
“The War On Drugs is Adam [Granduciel]’s band, who’s also in my band. We’re essentially best friends. He was backing me up in my band when he started working on his own music, so I thought I’d return the favor. The War On Drugs got put out on a bigger label [Secretly Canadian] first, so, in the blogosphere, some claim that The War on Drugs was my first main band. But that’s just the way it looks. I’ve made more music than Adam has, and have been doing my Kurt Vile thing for a little bit longer. And Constant Hitmaker came out around that same time. Right when that [War on Drugs] record came out, I went to Europe with them, and also opened as Kurt Vile. That was right when I decided I wanted to concentrate on doing my own thing.”
You've billed yourself as both Hitmaker and Prodigy, so you clearly don't lack confidence. Are you curious as to how the world-at-large will perceive your music?
“I know that [Childish Prodigy] is really good. I'm real proud of it. I know not everyone can like something, but I'm sure some people will definitely be excited about it. I know that in the blog world people will put down something, talk s**t about something. I’m not too into the idea that people will maybe look at a Youtube thing, some home video of a show that wasn’t probably your best performance. But, I’m just excited about this record, about being on Matador, about being able to play so many shows. I don’t see how, from my end, this won’t all be convincing. I hope a ton of people just love it.”