Nelsonville Music Festival preview: Kurt Vile grows up with Wakin on a Pretty Daze

  • Shawn Brackbill photo
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From the May 29, 2014 edition

On record, Kurt Vile sounds eternally laid-back, delivering his words in a stoner’s drawl amid hazy, hypnotic guitars that circle and envelop the Philadelphia-based musician like thick smoke rings.

In conversation, however, words tend to flow from Vile in rapid-fire bursts, and he punctuates any comic aside with an unexpected laugh that hangs around a beat longer than anticipated. Twice during our mid-May interview, the guitarist even threatened to break into song, and once he actually followed through, singing a few bars of Sun Kil Moon’s “Truck Driver” (“My uncle died in a fire on his birthday…”).

“The best record out right now for sure is that Sun Kil Moon record Benji,” he said after cutting himself off (“I don’t want to start just singing karaoke to you”). “[Mark Kozelek] is 47 years old and you can just tell he’s come into his own … with his honesty and his stream of consciousness [approach]. It’s real and beautiful at the same time. That’s the stuff I appreciate: the realest shit possible. I’m not saying I do that, but I strive to.”

It could safely be said Vile started to come more fully into his own on last year’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, a more confident, externally driven record that married the guitarist’s exploratory approach to his instrument (Vile’s elliptical riffs tend to move outward in slow circles, like a search party on the lookout for a missing hiker) with the concrete realities that come with being both a husband and father.

“There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s gotta take hold of the hand that ain’t his,” he sings on the daydreamy “Too Hard.” “But it is.”

“That’s the hand of my daughter. It’s not my hand, but it is,” said Vile, 34, who grew up in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania as the first-born son in a family with 10 children. “I definitely had a full-circle perspective. Not that everybody should have kids, but that’s how people exist, and that’s how the world goes around. I was definitely excited and then scared, and then it happens and that is all completely washed away … and you have this thing to live for in a completely different way.

“When I had my first daughter I wrote ‘In My Times,’ which is definitely a dad-type of song. Then I’d go on tour later and be like ‘What am I doing?’ and write songs like ‘Too Hard,’ which is another dad-type song. I don’t only write dad songs though [laughs]!”

For a time after the birth of his second daughter, in fact, Vile didn’t do much writing at all, and he’s only recently started returning to the studio to hash out ideas for a new album. Prior to the kickoff of this current tour, the musician planned to decamp to a New York studio with his band to record a Grateful Dead cover for a tribute compilation being assembled by members of The National. And in recent weeks he’s spent time jamming in studios from Venice Beach to Athens, Georgia — “[Drummer] Kyle [Spence] is building a home studio there, and we started this total rocker that has mad potential,” he said — with an eye on starting a new album sometime before the end of the year.

“I’m definitely in studio mode again, but I’m not stressing it as much as I did with the last record,” he said. “It could take a long time or it could take a short time. I’ve been rushing my whole life, and … I’m not trying to give myself a heart attack. It’ll be good eventually.”