UPDATE: Kurt Vile's February 1 show has been moved from the Ritz to the Orpheum. All tickets will be honored.
We can finally stop talking about Kurt Vile’s hair.
“My whole family has thick hair, wavy or whatever,” Vile, 37, tells CL. The secret, according to the Philadelphia songwriter, is to do nothing. “I mean, it took a while to find a good hairdresser, you know, but I don’t do a lot. It’s about not combing it, stuff like that.” So who is this magician behind the mane?
“He knows who he is,” Vile said, chuckling. A conversation with the former War on Drugs guitarist is easygoing, and Vile — one of modern rock & roll’s most promising, fast-rising voices — laughs a lot. While a phoner doesn’t lend itself to witnessing it, you can feel his shoulders convulsing over the line. As his band, The Violators, prepares for a February 1 show at The
Ritz Orpheum in Ybor City, Vile checks in from his new home in the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. It’s just a half-hour trip down Interstate 76 from his old place in Northern Liberties, but in many ways the move symbolizes another step in Vile’s already storied career.
Born in Lansdowne, also 30 minutes from his new home, Vile grew up one of ten children. His dad brought records by delta bluesman Charley Patton and roots icon Doc Watson into the house and gave Vile a banjo at the age of 14. Kurt played trumpet in elementary school, self-released his first cassette three years later and eventually befriended Adam Granduciel, with whom he founded War on Drugs. Vile was apparently known locally as “the CD-R guy” because he’d always have new music to hand out at shows. As he grew up, his sound did too — molting from Drag City-ready lo-fi garage-pop to lush, quintessentially American rock & roll rife with expansive instrumental passages in which the sounds of banjo, piano and sparse, colorful electric guitar escape speakers like a of ghost from Neil Young’s On the Beach days.
All the while, Vile spent his days in what he calls “super low-end jobs” as the obsession with music consumed his brain.
“I was always thinking ahead, like, ‘How the fuck am I going to make it, how am I gonna do this?’” Vile says about the days at his last job bottling beer. “I’m just always thinking about the next thing.” Right now, the next thing is creating space at the new house to keep woodshedding ideas for a follow-up to 2015’s b’lieve i’m goin down...
“Compared to my old house it might as well be a mansion, but right now I’m actually staring at a really, really messed-up place that’s supposed to be my music room,” Vile says laughing. He’s not putting the old place on the market yet, because a lot of work still gets done on all of the equipment he amassed recording b’lieve. Vile says he listens to a lot of roots country and rock & roll these days, but won’t commit to saying the new, still-untitled album leans toward one particular sound.
“I have so many influences at this point, I am just trying to follow them,” he says. What Vile won’t really do either is mine through old, unreleased material to find inspiration. He does, however, think all of it will see the light of day eventually. There are different recorded projects from over the years, and they don’t belong on the same record, according to Vile, who says he’ll be able to approach them once he gets the mess of it organized and archived.
“I have backlogs, and I have frontlogs,” he jokes, adding that he’s probably sitting on 50 songs that all need some level of attention. “Maybe I’ll put out a five-disc LP, call it Fifty Songs and They All Need Work.” Getting the work done won’t be hard for Vile, who’s been a part of over a dozen LPs or EPs since his 2008 debut Constant Hitmaker. Extra motivation is always waiting at home, too, thanks to his two daughters, who listen to Vile’s music when dad is on the road.
“I’ve been doing this since they were alive, so they just know,” Vile says. “And it’s exciting to come back; they’re excited to see you, and you’re excited to see them.” It’s the one time in our short chat where a tangible, no-nonsense warmth comes through the line. Vile says he was definitely a little scared before his first kid, who’s now headed to first grade, arrived. “Every once in awhile you’re like ‘oh shit,’ but then once a kid actually comes out it’s a completely new dimension,” he says. He knows they aren’t for everyone, and totally gets that starting a family isn’t a reality for every single person who wants to. Still, he knows what it’s done for him.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing. I feel like if you’re supposed to turn 360 degrees in your life, then people who don’t have kids have only turned halfway around,” he says. “They haven’t seen, their perspective is blocked — you have to go full circle, you know.” And still, despite a 20-year career, it looks like Vile isn’t anywhere near coming full circle as far as his output goes. He’s got an insatiable appetite for sound that only keeps growing, and has recently recorded with Tuareg collective Tinariwen plus Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. He won’t share all the details of the record — or even the name of the studio he’s building to help him explore it — but you can bet that he isn’t sitting back letting his seemingly endless well of ideas get away.
“I’m a hard worker, but I’m always trying to better the systems, better the music and all those kinds of things,” he said, “It’s a constant battle, but you just always gotta be thinking ahead — always."
Kurt Vile plays The Orphueum in Ybor City, Florida on February 1. Doors are at 8 p.m. Luke Roberts opens the show at tickets are $20-$35. More information is available via local.cltampa.com.