Kurt Vile is a virtuoso of self-pity. As a songwriter, he paints more shades in this particular spectrum–industrial silver, steel-blue, watery gray–than just about anyone. His newest record, Smoke Ring For My Halo, is a small masterpiece of this small subset of emotion, nailing the center of the same peculiarly Middle American loneliness–squat strip malls, brown open fields, fleeting sugar highs–that Modest Mouse explored on The Lonesome Crowded West. Vile’s songs don’t rely on much: just his sardonic voice, a shimmering, cavernous sense of open space, and his blinding John Fahey-style acoustic finger-picking (a skill, one notes, acquired only through repetitive hours spent hunched over a guitar, alone). And yet Kurt Vile in person is no mumbling sad-sack. “Some of those songs piled up on this record, and people could misread it as totally dark,” he says. “But it’s never total gloom; it’s just like a human feeling.” Relaxed, friendly, and chatty, Vile talked to us about obsessive bits-and-scraps approach to his songs, why certain thoughts and phrases never seem to disappear from his music, the Neil Young guitar note that changed his life, and his first-ever song (about Lex Luthor’s hair).
I’ve noticed that you have lines that pop up in several songs–“A pack of red apples for the ride home,” or “Slither like a snake up a spiral staircase.” There are two versions of “Freeway” on Constant Hitmaker. As a musician, do you keep this stuff around– songs, riffs, phrases?
“Red Apples” was written when I only had a couple of lines I thought were good– my brother and I kind of jammed that song out together, to be honest. It was a sketch, but it just had a lot of vibe to it. This was before I had anything out yet, so it didn’t matter what was where. I would switch lines out to see where they worked. I loved that stuff in The Fall; Mark E. Smith had all these recurring characters, like the Hip Priest, in his lyrics. He would come up different narrative concepts and recurring themes. You definitely hear bootlegs of Bob Dylan or Springsteen where, you know, you hear a variation of a lyric that ended up in another song.
I was definitely self-conscious about it when I started–because, like I say, nothing was put out yet, I was working on different variations. And at first I was like, “Are they gonna think I can’t think of another lyric, that I’m just recycling?” That’s why “Beach On the Moon” intentionally uses lyrics from a bunch of my songs, which is why it’s also called “(Recycled Lyrics).” But anyway, yeah, once I let go of it, and once I put out more and more material, it becomes its own thing. And once “Runner Ups” [which uses the “red apples” line] came out, I wasn’t self-conscious at all to have that lyric in there. It’s something to be known for, I guess.
I think also, having The Hunchback EP and “The Hunchback” in two different versions–the one on the EP is a jammier version, and it’s more what ended up being the live version–it all shows that music is ever-changing. It’s only a snapshot, you know what I mean? People might think that there’s only one version in the world, but really it’s always changing over time, and that’s the best part about it.
Personally, I love the poetry of “pack of red apples for the ride home”–it evokes a wagon ride, or something old happening in the country. What draws you to phrases in your lyrics?
Well, “red apples” are actually cigarettes — they’re Marlboro Reds. Somebody said “red apples” to me once and I thought it was good, I thought it was a good thing to call them. It stuck and I knew I had to use it. Certain lines, like the “slither like a snake up a spiral staircase”–I was proud of that line, which is definitely why I put it on not two, but three songs [laughs].
How many of those lyrics find themselves on paper? I’ve read that you keep recordings of previous jam sessions on stash for inspiration, but do you have notebooks with words in them too?
I definitely have books of lyrics that I’ve kept, over the years. I used to be more organized, but my mind has kinda changed, songwriting-wise. I’ll definitely write it all down once I fine-tune everything, but sometimes certain lines pop into my head and then I work around them. Once I know a song’s good, I do get nervous, and I’ll tend to write some of the important lines off the top of my head and then once you jot down some of the best parts, that’s when you relax and start writing around those lines. You know, filling the gaps around the song. For some reason, when I write the good line, I always imagine it being, like, the middle of the song. I’m always imagining myself starting at the beginning of the third verse, or something. Because I always have something that doesn’t feel like it should open the song, you know, but something that is just continuing.
In conversation, you strike me as such a laid-back, quintessentially happy-seeming dude, and yet the music you write is relentlessly lonely, so many references to friends leaving you, best friends passing you by — just profound aloneness. How do you end up in that songwriting groove so frequently?
I think it’s because, first of all, I just kind of tap into that vibe naturally when I’m writing. If you’re in a funk or something, that’s when the music comes out. I never wrote something that wasn’t sincere, like, “I’m going to pretend I’m feeling this way, but I’m not.” But I guess everybody’s got some random thing, once in awhile, that makes them feel a certain way. For whatever reason, that’s the way the songs come out, the hole the songs dig for me.
It’s not just the lyrics, though, it’s the sound. Every interviewer asks you about your time working at the forklift, but that’s because the song you wrote about it, “Space Forklift,” is so evocative — it sort of sounds like being stoned in the sun and working really hard. The ambience on that song is so thick. Where did you first learn to make songs sound like that?
I moved away from Philadelphia to Boston for two years after high school — that’s where I first started driving the forklift. I left all my friends. And I remember coming out of that, and coming back to my friends, and having been really involved in music the whole time I was gone and showing everyone what I’ve learned — I was excited to be home, excited to not be working a shitty job. It was like a weird little exile. That’s where all of those finger-picking songs came from. And those are the first songs that I wrote that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if anybody heard. I think that sort of lonely vibe came around from when I moved back into Philly, around 2003.
You’ve been writing and recording songs since you were in junior high — what was the first song you ever recall writing and recording?
The first song I wrote was, like, a joke song. It was a good instrumental; I knew all these chords, but then I was quoting a cartoon as the lyrics on top of it. I had seen this cartoon about Superman and Lex Luthor; it was like the back history of why Lex Luthor hated Superman. They used to be friends, and then some giant stone of kryptonite fell and it made Lex Luthor’s hair fall out, and he was like, “You made all my hair fall out!” It was a really stupid cartoon, but that was my song, “You Made All My Hair Fall Out.”
The things I wrote after that — I don’t even want to tell you the names of the songs, because then somebody might try to — I have close friends, with my stuff, and it’s a good memory, but I don’t really want anybody to dig out my old songs, you know? I am proud of a lot of them. But they’re all written on banjo.
Is that the first instrument you learned?
Yeah, my dad got me one. He’s like a bluegrass freak.
You don’t play that anymore on your records, do you?
I did one of my recent banjo songs recently live on WFMU — it’s called “Nicotine Blues.” And there is some banjo in the background of “Heart Attack,” on Childish Prodigy. But I did have these kind of trance-like, Appalachian folk style songs, and I tried them for Smoke Ring For My Halo, and at the time it was too rushed, and I still hadn’t nailed it. I attempted to get these tunes down, but they aren’t ready yet.
You’ve talked about your love of Pavement and Guided By Voices and other 90’s indie rock but you also have talked about loving some Bob Seger songs. Which songs, and what draws you to them?
I always liked heartland type of music. You know, Tom Petty, certain songs of his I love — “Learning to Fly” is one. I think in about 2003 and 2004, I was going to play some gig with buddies. This was when we were just trying to make it, just doing our music without really understanding a lot — we had a long way to go. And we were playing some gig in Jersey City and I heard “Runnin’ Against The Wind,” and I realized, “Hey, this song is amazing.” And once I got hip to Bob Seger, I inherited his real early, Nuggets-type recordings, and they’re really awesome: more aggro, more garage-y. Just like Detroit rock; real raw. My buddy Lenny, he has an early Seger thing that’s fucking mindblowing. With him, though, it’s just a couple songs; I’m sure there are other songs that I might like. But it’s really “Runnin’ Against the Wind” and “Down On Main Street,” both of which, if I put on a mixtape, I would fade them out at the end, because it just gets cheesed-out. [Laughs.] Songs like “Night Moves,” they’re just so good, but he always blows’em out at the end. I understand why he does that, but my preference would be to fade that out, you know?
Neil Young is someone who seems like he hovers over your music spiritually. Do you have a favorite Neil Young song?
My favorite Neil Young song is “Ambulance Blues.”
You know, it’s funny you say that, because my guess was going to be “On the Beach,” and it’s off that same record.
Oh, yeah, “On the Beach,” too! They’re sort of equals in my mind, it’s just that “Ambulance Blues” is the acoustic version. But yeah, “On the Beach” actually has a note — there’s this really sad guitar solo in the middle, surrounded by this really lonely imagery, like “I went to the radio interview, I ended up alone at the microphone”– I can’t say I wasn’t influenced by that, because it would be a total lie. But there’s this guitar solo, and at the very end he bends a high note, and plays the same note on the neighboring string — that sustained note changed my life.
Kurt Vile plays the Mercury Lounge on Thursday and the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday.