He makes music like the love child of Bob Dylan and Neil Young with lyrics reminiscent of Plato, Sartre and Springsteen, but Kurt Vile is the biggest name you might not have yet heard. That's because, despite producing six albums and frequently touring with his band the Violators, Vile's singular, eclectic sound has remained mainly off airwaves since his studio debut in 2008. That's likely about to change, and now's the time to catch the "constant hitmaker" as the momentum swells.
Vile will play twice next week in Dallas, first by himself at Good Records in honor of Record Store Day on Saturday, April 16, and then later that evening with his full band at the Granada. The Good Records set starts at 2:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Updated: If you missed KV back in April, check out this show on Dec. 13 at Trees.
Rolling off his first Billboard No. 1 — the infectious, lyrically decadent "Pretty Pimpin" from his latest album b'lieve I'm goin down... topped the Adult Alternative chart in March — Vile's poised to hit great heights. If you're in need of a primer, we caught up with the Philadelphia-based artist over the phone recently for a few key things to know. Start by listening to "Pretty Pimpin." Warning, it will be hard not to give it a solid 10-12 spins, whether you've got the time to spare or not.
Who exactly is Kurt Vile?
Well, who exactly is anyone? Identity, detachment and disassociation are predominant themes in b'lieve I'm goin down... and throughout Vile's catalog, but those heavy topics are dealt with a heady, if understated, sense of humor. The title of his first studio album, Constant Hitmaker, (Gulcher Records), offers early insight into Vile's appreciation for irony.
"I think I've always sort of had catchy pop songs, so I'm kind of glad," he says of his recent success of the airwaves. "I was probably a little jaded, or maybe not. I don't know that it bothered me that much, but for whatever reason, I didn't think I'd get a radio hit."
Speaking of record labels, Vile signed with Matador in 2009, but he started making his own lo-fi recordings as a teenager. He told About Entertainment in 2009 that his father, a "bluegrass aficionado," bought the younger Vile a banjo when he was 14, but he "kind of wished [it] was a guitar" and "kind of played it like a guitar anyway."
He produced home-recorded cassettes and continued doing so while working during the day as a forklift driver for Philadelphia Brewing Company in the early 2000s. While he's grateful for the success he's found with Matador, Vile says he maintains that self-starter spirit. Portions of b'lieve I'm goin down... were recorded in his friend's home studio in Brooklyn, as well as the Rancho de la Luna, the famed home recording studio at Joshua Tree in the California desert.
About his newest and future projects:
"It wouldn't be too low-fidelity at this point because two of my band-mates are great engineers, but I have the DIY mindset going in," he says. "I feel like I'm thinking in that way in general, and I definitely plan to record in my house one day and keep getting back into that self-production form."
Oh, and for what it's worth, he's a little more into the banjo these days. It makes several notable appearances on b'lieve I'm goin down...
Obsessions drive his deft lyrical maneuvers
In a good way. Vile writes complex songs that are as musically interesting as they are intellectually challenging. At times, he's tossing out ideas you might have visited in an upper-level philosophy class ... or during a very late night on the sofa with friends.
"I'm a big reader at times, I'm kind of an obsessive binge reader," he says. "Writing these songs [for b'live I'm goin down...] I was reading fiction of varying weight — Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy — but, I've always liked rock bios and stuff."
"I think a lot of it is just inner monologue," he adds.
If that's true, the monologue feels as universal as it is private. "[The lyrics] are not too specific, and I assume other people feel the same way at times," he says. "If [a songwriter] is too confident or too dark without serious reasons, it's hard to relate to that person."
He's often associated with the War on Drugs
But, it wasn't his "first band," and he wasn't exactly a founding member, though that's a common misconception. Vile and vocalist/guitarist Adam Granduciel began working together in the mid-aughts; they wrote, recorded and performed together, each lending a hand and playing live in the other's band. Vile would often open for the War on Drugs as a solo artist and then join them onstage for another set. He played guitar on their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, the same year he released Constant Hitmaker, and then decided to rededicate his focus on his solo work.
"Basically, me and Adam became fast friends; he moved to Philly and we just hit it off over an obsession with Dylan," Vile says. "I was a little more of a hustler, at first, booking gigs, and soon after, he was too. But, I've always had CD-R albums under my name before I was involved with another band."
Live shows have had a few "charming train wrecks"
But, not often. At least not anymore.
"When we first started touring and recording and were getting our feet off the ground, we were trying to figure out how to get inside the songs," he says. "There were growing pains on our first couple of tours, but now it feels good."
B'lieve I'm goin down... departs in a sense from Vile's earlier work in that many of the tracks, and the overall tone, seems less urgent or, at times, more understated than much of his earlier work. That doesn't mean the songs are any less engaging than the rockers, especially when it comes to playing them live.
"They're fun, it doesn't feel like I'm visiting some demons or anything like that," he says. "And we're professional performers at this point. Maybe some shows have some charming train wrecks or anything in between."
Right now, he's "obsessed" with classic country and rockabilly
"These days, I'm on a country kick, so I'm obsessed with George Jones, and I'm really into the idea of '50s roots music. I respect Elvis and everything he did, but I'm listening more to things like Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Feathers. I'm going through the whole Patsy Cline box set right now...
"I just like to consume the whole thing when I get into something."
If he were an animal, he would be a squirrel
That is, according to HBO's Animals. He lent his voice to an anthropomorphic rodent version of himself during a March episode of the new series by Mark and Jay Duplass.
Follow Brentney Hamilton on Twitter: @brentneyh