March 16th, 2009 | Interviews

sarah mckay

Download: Kurt Vile “Freeway”


(from Constant Hitmaker on Gulcher)

Philadelphia guitarist/songwriter Kurt Vile put out a record called Constant Hitmaker (on the Gizmos’ Gulcher label, one of the oldest DIY/independents in America) that was one of the best releases of last year. Sometimes he sounds like Leonard Cohen and Psychic TV and sometimes like Animal Collective and Tom Petty. He will play his first-ever Los Angeles show at Echo Curio tonight. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

You’ve got a lot of experience operating a forklift.
I actually do. It’s funny that I do. When I was in Boston—20 or 21—I’d moved with my girlfriend because she was going to grad school there, so I had to get a real job. And she had a friend whose husband worked for this company. So it was basically my reality check. I worked an insanely busy kind of shitty job but I learned how to drive a forklift. And now at my other job, I’m a master. It’s easy. It’s like a treat.
You’ve mastered the art of forklifting?
I guess so.
Did you ever make any rookie forklifting mistakes?
I definitely ruined some freight. I never got hurt.
Have you ever operated heavy machinery under the influence of medicine specifically forbidding the operation of heavy machinery?
Isn’t that a lot of medicine? I work at a brewery now and they let you drink beer within reason. I’ve definitely driven a forklift on our own beer.
What does it mean in the song ‘Space Forklift’ to be a ‘human tractor trailer’? What are the most admirable traits of a tractor trailer?
It’s all open to interpretation. I thought it sounded good. Maybe like—wandering?
Where did you see the ‘foreign girls colonizing college benches’ with their Russian boyfriends?
I wrote that song when I went to college for one semester. Philadelphia Community. That’s why I never went to college—I cannot pay attention. I’m into whatever I’m into. I couldn’t imagine being a full-time student. Like it’s your job. But I took an English class there and I really liked the professor, and because I was writing papers, I started to write more. And I wrote that in the courtyard. I was inspired or something.
You’ve you tend to go through periods of intense obsession—what’s been your most difficult obsession to satisfy?
Right now I’m actually at Amoeba. I’m obsessed with trying to find Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. It came out right after Harvest. A live album. It’s so hard to find. They didn’t like how the album came out, but now it’s a total cult classic. Sometimes my friends say they saw it, but they should know—and they do know!—it’s the only record I’m looking for! Well, two records I want now—one is that and one is the Seeds’ Web Of Sound.
What was your most rewarding obsession?
There’s so many. I fell in love with John Fahey. I just got Mission of Burma’s Signals, Calls and Marches. I’m super into that. And I love the Fall. He makes me laugh so hard.
How do you feel about never having lived in a world without the Fall?
He was doing it before I was born. I’d never wanna meet him, though! I think he’s really cool but—well, maybe I wouldn’t care. ‘He was such an asshole to me! Yes!’
You said your dad played you records that blew your mind at age two—like what? What can you remember from being that young?
I remember in particular—I liked John Denver, and he used to play that Rusty and Doug Kershaw record Louisiana Man. Those are the two I think of. Certain John Denver—nit that my music comes off John Denver-y at all! I recently tried to find one song because of a nostalgic thing—I only like the chorus. The rest is real sappy. ‘Calypso.’ It’s about some marine biologist TV show guy. The chorus is real powerful—all these people singing.
Was there ever a Vile family band? Like the Stoneman family?
I’ve played with most of my brothers at one point—all the ones that play music. My youngest brother doesn’t play anything—others play guitar, etcetera. My one brother plays the banjo, the guitar and mandolin—but he’s not a hick. He’s like a weird muscular bricklayer. And kind of a player.
What’s your favorite biography of a musician?
Not definitely but probably—Shakey. And I read this bio on Hank Williams which was super-great. Lost Highway. All these books on Dylan. Bob Dylan was the first guy whose bio I read in like 2003 and I read tons of bios of Bob Dylan after that. I couldn’t get enough!
What’s your favorite part of the biographic arc? The struggle, the stardom or the come-down?
Once it starts getting traction and they’re into their prime—you just can’t put it down! And then you get slightly depressed when they start sucking. But I find that stuff interesting, too. Like the weird albums—like Dylan’s Street Legal, right before his Christian phase. I know it’s pretty bad. But it’s a different kind of intriguing. Some people are kind of record snobs. They’ll just like the stuff that’s generally good or that would cause a stir. Like Neil Young Trans. I’ve talked about that before. I really love that album. And Bob Dylan.
You saved up to record ‘Freeway’ specially—why?
I recorded it with Brian McTear. We were doing ‘Freeway’ live—me and my buddy Adam at the time—and the live show was going good, and on that version we’d play along to the drum machine and blast guitars. I had other weirder songs at the time that didn’t work out. So we ended up recording kind of poppy tunes. One is on the ‘Freeway’ 7” and the other I’m probably not doing anything with. It’s real sweet.
Why aren’t you doing anything with it?
I was still trying to find my sound, you know? I’d done home recordings a lot and I was like, ‘I need to go in the studio.’ But it was kinda sweet—it wouldn’t really make sense. You find a lot of people have songs that don’t fit once you realize what kind of vibe you’re going for. People might like it, but it’s a little too wussy for me. I’ve been working on my music for so long—you just gotta be introspective about it. And then you gig it out. I’m always thinking and working. It just evolved—it’s like getting older, you know? You start to learn more about yourself.
Are these songs recorded alone in your bedroom late at night while cars hiss by outside?
It’s cool that people would think that! Sometimes it’s weird circumstances. ‘Don’t Get Cute’ I recorded when my wife was away. I was hanging with my friends and we stayed up all night to get it done, and then drove to see a show in New York the next night with no sleep. And ‘Slow Talkers’—I was definitely kind of out of my mind.
How out of your mind?
It was a holiday weekend. It’s different for me now. I hardly ever—I won’t even—I can’t even really smoke pot.
Is that why that one article called you an ‘ex-stoner’?
Probably because I told them—‘I used to party!’ I used to smoke a lot of weed. I think everybody did at one point.
Even the president.
And a lot of people keep smoking it. I did smoke it last night—this girl had really good stuff she just got in NorCal.
Welcome to the west coast.
Totally. We stopped at this rest-stop store—a little country store with whatever you need. Soda and cereal. And then tons of glass pipes and bongs.
So should people bring you weed and Seeds records tomorrow?
No, don’t bring me weed! If they brought me Neil Young Time Fades Away, I’d be very appreciative. Funny—I hardly ever smoke weed. We were excited to go to Amsterdam but we got in late and missed the gig—I left my bag on a train in Belgium and had to wait five hours. We stayed in a real hostel—a happy party there! The music cranking anf everyone happy. They were all real nice. And we had that bag story to tell. And we did eat a space cake. Half of one. But I have to wait til I have the right opportunity these days to smoke. Which is pretty much never.
What’s happening with the new Childish Prodigy record and what can we expect?
We basically have a record deal. I got the contract but I can’t say who it is. But if it goes the way it looks like it’s going—it’s the best possible record label we’re ever gonna get. I’m ready to start the next record.
How did you end up on Gulcher? That’s a historic American label.
I’m glad he did it—he really got the record out there. I didn’t know what labels to send stuff to. I’d meet bands I liked and give it to them. Like Ariel Pink. And bands would like it but I could never get someone to put it out. So my friend Richie who drums in ClockcleanER hooked me up.
Have you ever met him?
No—he only exists in cyberspace. He doesn’t even talk on the phone. I was paranoid about the recordings because I’d had them so long. I’d fixate on one detail. Like maybe a bad note—‘Oh, that’s too messy.’ But it’s gotten way more buzz than I could ever expect. It’s all a learning process. I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I’m happy it’s finally happening. You don’t have to blow off your friends, but you just gotta keep doing it. You gotta work so hard. There’s so many levels—meeting people and you gotta be constantly learning. Go to the record store and see what people are putting out. You gotta know the whole thing. Now I’m here—every step is kind of exciting. You just keep thinking forward all the time.
What do you think of being linked to these landmark figures in American songwriting? Like John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lee Hazlewood—
I think that’s cool. I got obsessed with Springsteen. I love a lot of classic Tom Petty songs. I love Creedence. I love American music. Blues. The Anthology of American Folk Music.
And you have the best name since Dick Justice.
I’m lucky! That’s my real name! I’m definitely respecting all the real shit. I think it’s cool that lo-fi stuff is way more accessible. People are into that shit now. That’s cool—and convenient. I’m not like ‘I’m gonna be the next Bob Dylan!’ or something. But if you work hard, you can make a living. Somebody said I was the next Bob Pollard. I was like, ‘Who’s Bob Pollard?’ And now I know.
Why do people call you ‘Cougar’? Did you fight one?
That’s a joke with my friend Sharkey from ClockcleanER. When we were young, we saw a newsflash that said THE COUGAR IS LOOSE! And my sisters came home from school—‘We saw the cougar!’ ‘No you didn’t!’ So I asked Sharkey—‘Wasn’t the cougar ALWAYS loose?’ ‘The cougar was always loose.’ So they all started calling me ‘the cougar.’ But only maybe three or four of my friends.
Until now.
That’s fine.